An interview with Jeff O’Neil
It is not very often that new businesses have the opportunity to surround themselves with a historic presence as soon as they are ready to open. For the owner of the Industrial Arts Brewing Company, Jeff O’Neil, this became a very happy reality when he chose the Garnerville Arts & Industrial Center as the base to operate the new brewery. The Center was declared a Historic Site by the New York State Preservation League in 2012 because some of the buildings in the industrial complex predate the Civil War. O’Neil and his team have worked tirelessly to combine its old-fashioned exterior with modern technological brewing equipment in a fascinating way.
A year after its inception, the brewery is making waves in New York’s craft beer community by flooding the city and surrounding areas with exceptional beers. Recently, they’ve expanded their distribution to New Jersey and Connecticut, covering much more area than most breweries can normally accommodate in just one year. Being a big fan of beers and the people who run it, I decided to delve deeper into the mind of its founder, to learn more about how far the brewery has come and what O’Neil has. discovered during the process.
What brought you to craft beer? What was the beer that started the journey?
I started brewing a bit one summer in college in the early 90s. It was actually with a guy who’s one of our investors now. We made a (barely) passable dark beer and that was it, I was convinced this was something I had an affinity for. There were very few American beers available back then, we were mostly drinking imports … but even then the Sierra Nevada Pale Ale was a great thing – if and when you could get it.
Tell us a bit about your journey in the beer world, before you get into the Industrial Arts.
I moved west in 1995 and ended up working in the kitchen at 20 Tank Brewery in San Francisco. This place was truly one of the very first California style breweries, clean hoppy beer and solid pizza. While I was working there I also went a bit crazy on the homebrew front. I lived in a house in SF which was perfectly appointed. I grew hops in the yard, brewing 10 gallons every weekend. My then girlfriend (now wife) really pushed me to find a full time job in the brewery and the rest is history. I worked at 3 other breweries in the bay area then we moved to Ithaca for her to attend Cornell Senior School. Ithaca Beer Co. was very small back then, and for almost 10 years there I was able to play a pretty big role. From there I went to the Peekskill Brewery, where we built a really cool facility and their brand was established in the New York market.
What made you want to get into the Industrial Arts?
In the last move, we made it home to the Hudson Valley and we love it here. I was born in Poughkeepsie and I really feel connected to this region. It was always the thing – that I knew I would open a brewery, which is such a big step forward in part because committing to a place is so permanent. Once it was clear that we had found our home, it spread from there.
Where does the inspiration for your design elements and the name of your brewery come from?
Well our site is so unique. The brewery is located at the Garner Arts & Industrial Center and I took the name from it. This is an almost 200 year old brickyard complex in Rockland County. The design elements were born from the renovation of this historic site combined with our process, which is quite technological for a small brewery. The contrast and tension between these two factors is pretty cool, you probably have to see it in person to know what I mean.
Make way for beer! Is there a particular beer that you have made that you are particularly proud of? Something you would consider your baby?
Oh, I’m super proud of Tools of the Trade. It’s our extra pale ale, and it sings. It’s simple and focused, the ingredients really shine and I think that’s what we’re good at. I’m drinking one at the moment.
You’ve done a lot of amazing collaborations over the past year with big brewers like Other Half, Burial, and Interboro. Is there a brewery you would like to collaborate with in the future? What type of beer would you ideally like to make with them?
Phil Markowski from 2 Routes! He’s an easy guy to admire. He recently came to visit us to check on something we are doing that they are thinking about and we started talking about doing one. Then I ran into a guy who works for them who begged, “Oh please my God don’t do a Season. Everyone always wants to do a Season.” Well, that’s because Phil wrote the Seasons book. But I hope to convince him to make a botanical IPA. In fact two botanical IPAs. A home and a home. Phil, are you reading this?
Is there a style of beer that you think is under-represented in the industry today? What are your favorite beers in this style?
There is still not enough easy-drinking lager beer! The funeral has great news this summer, Innertube. Jack’s Abby’s House Lager is pretty good too.
Who would you mark among the people / breweries who have inspired or mentored you in the beer business?
I mentioned Phil. Vinnie from Russian River is another no-brainer for me; it just seems like he doesn’t make any mistakes. Of course, that’s not true, but he never compromises with his product and that’s a big difference. My old friend Bert Boyce who runs Santa Fe Brewing Co. is awesome. I learned a lot from him just by osmosis. He probably taught me what osmosis means.
Now that you’ve completed a full year in Industrial Arts, is there anything you wish you knew when you started? Or what advice would you give to novice brewers?
Oh yeah, I realized that I just never accepted the idea that we would continue to lose money for a while once we opened. In retrospect, it was both a strength and a weakness. Like, I couldn’t believe we weren’t profitable right away, so I was still trying to figure out why, so we would kill him next month. Then I would be shocked two months later as we were still bleeding. Plan to burn some money.
Is there a message you would like to send to the people who buy your beer?
For sure. Our beer is and always will be an expression of our people and our place. We have the most amazing team. So far I have been successful in recruiting talented and dedicated people that I want to work with every day and have already mentioned how special our position is. Everything you taste comes from here, from us.
Bonus question. What is your desert island beer?
Orval, because Orval is life and I would like to live.