Knucklehead Brewery: Grand Opening and a Behind-the-Scenes Look
by Gino Fanelli | published Feb. 6th, 2015
The growing cultural landscape of the greater Rochester area now boasts a humble new asset: Knucklehead Brewery, located at 426 Ridge Road in Webster. Knucklehead, which held its official ribbon-cutting ceremony on Saturday, Jan. 31, is a family-owned and operated brewery birthed from a friendship between sons of co-owners George Cline and Len Dummer.
"We started brewing in the late '80s, as a hobby," Cline said. "With home-brewing, you have a lot of experimenting and mistakes, and every time one of us would mess up we'd say 'Oh, you knucklehead,' and the name just stuck from there."
The transformation into a functioning craft brewery, especially on the small scale of Knucklehead located at the former-site of Seltz Grocery store, creates a quaint brewing atmosphere akin to a steroid-injected home-brew setup.
"These two here are our mash tuns," Cline said, pointing to two 75-gallon stainless-steel kettles positioned on the opposite ends of a row of four identical kettles. "And then we have our boiling pots here in the center. All of our tanks and kettles come from Psycho Brew, which are all made in America."
The completed wort, or unfermented beer, is pumped from the boiling room via brewer's hoses into a separate room positioned behind the bar. The room is filled with the scent of roasty malts working their way through fermentation and boasts four five-barrel-capacity fermentation vessels, each marked with a badge of a family-member's name; this is the chamber where the wort is turned from simple sugary water into alcohol.
"This is, at its core, a family business, a story of two families coming together. So we went ahead and had each of our tanks named after a member of our family. Here's Kathy, Len's wife, my wife Amy and here's me and Len," Cline said. "And the secondary fermentation tanks are named after our kids."
At the front end of the line of fermenters, a single fermenter sits with vinyl tubing running from the top into a bucket positioned at its front, bubbling to the brim with an off-beige foam and filling the air with the aroma of sweet and chocolate-y malts.
"This right here is our Russian Imperial Stout, which has just been fermenting like crazy," Cline said. "We're expecting that to come out about 9 percent alcohol and are real excited to get that out there."
Aside from a passion for brewing, Cline and the accompanying minds behind Knucklehead also place a strong emphasis on community consciousness and environmental awareness. Behind a small garage door leading away from the fermentation room sits an array of grey-plastic garbage cans.
"We have a farmer out in Mt. Morris that comes out here after each brew and takes away our spent grain," Cline said. "They take it and make animal feed or fertilizer. It's all about helping the community, which has always been supportive of us. This is a way to cut down on our waste just as much as it is a way to pay it forward."
Accompanying the grand opening of Knucklehead were speeches by both owners and local politicians alike, all joyously welcoming Knucklehead into the Webster community.
"When you're making such a great product and sharing it to your own community, to me that's such a great thing, and I'm very, very proud to be here," Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks said. "I've been watching the cars come in all day, and I can walk from my house, which I think is a good thing. Wait for me in the summer, I'll be the one walking across Ridge Road saying 'Hey, everybody.'"
Brooks finished her speech by gifting Cline and Dummer with a framed American flag manufactured by local company Superior Technologies.
Brooks's speech was followed by one from Senator Rich Funke.
"To come to the grand-opening of a craft brewing establishment, ya know, I could do that every Saturday. And the name fits perfectly with Albany," Funke said. "I know you guys [Cline and Dummer] did other things in your lives, and it takes a lot of courage, a lot of determination, a lot of dedication to be able to go into business, and I have so much admiration for you to take that chance and to take that opportunity. 87 percent of the businesses in New York state are small businesses. You're the guys that create the jobs, you're the guys that keep the economy moving, and we want to do everything we can to support you and make sure you're successful here."
But enough of the sappy emotional talk, let's get down to the beer.
"The 105" Beglian-Style IPA:
This beer came with a heavy side order of skepticism, solely from the term "Belgian" placed before the IPA. As has been proven by the efforts of Sierra Nevada's "Belgian Trippel" or Southern Tier's "Tripel Cafe," American breweries have a tendency to muck up the traditional delicate nature of Belgian-style ales with that all-too-American tactic of overdosing hops. However, this is where The 105 differs. This is not a beer attempting to sell itself as a delicate Belgian ale; this is an American IPA through and through supplemented by notes of Belgian yeast on the back end. The nose brings spicy aromas of pine and a hint of tropical fruit, melding with malty notes of cloves and banana. On the tongue, a burst of stone fruits is subdued by a heavy dose of sweet malt, followed by a finish of crisp bitterness and a hint of peach aftertaste. All in all, this is a wonderful Americanization of the Belgian style. Clocking in at 9 percent, The 105 is as dangerously drinkable as it is packed with an ever-evolving spectrum of flavors.
Power Punch Pale Ale:
There's not much to say about Power Punch aside from that it is utterly fantastic—perhaps one of the greatest traditional pale ales I've had the privilege of sampling in the past year. A heavy dose of Amarillo hops provides a strong amount of citrus, both on the tongue and in the nose. Notes of orange, lemon, pine, grapefruit, pineapple and even a hint of melon can be picked apart from the merging of the Amarillos with a sturdy malt backbone, with a finish almost entirely consisting of tropical fruit notes blended with a sharp hop bitterness. If any of Knucklehead's flagship ales are to make a true mark on the upstate New York brew scene, I believe Power Punch, which clocks in at at a meager 5.5 percent, is the beer that will do it.
Kathy's Kreme Ale:
Remember when you were 14 year old and you found out the new kid at school had a swimming pool just as summer was creeping around the corner? Remember the feeling of spending long July days outside, riding bikes and playing games until finally coming home, drenched with sweat and pressing a cold can of soda against your forehead? That's what this beer tastes like. That's a pretty convoluted review, but in reality, Kathy's Kreme Ale is the epitome of the summer session beer. Smooth with malty sweetness, hints of banana and just the tiniest hint of a hop finish, this beer is perfect for even the most timid of craft beer drinkers.
Seitz Scotch Ale:
Clock this somewhere between Founder's "Dirty Bastard" and CB's "Mac Bubba." A modest yet sturdy 7 percent ABV is overshadowed by heavy amounts of chocolaty goodness with just the tiniest touch of roastiness and a moderate hop bitterness on the finish, creating a very solid interpretation of the Scotch, or Wee Heavy, style.
Ehret's Amber Ale:
Ehret's Amber Ale is, much like Power Punch, a darker interpretation of the amber style. In the nose, Ehret's Amber gives off strong, dry malt scents, with notes of bready yeast, caramel and perhaps even a bit of honey. However, in the mouth, the flavor is much more subdued, with elements of honey and caramel malts blended into a gentle, smooth mouth feel moving into a strong, spicy hoppiness. In fact, the hop presence in this amber is a surprising twist, giving it far more bitterness and floral hop notes than one would expect from an amber ale. It is subject to interpretation, but all-around produces a subtle yet complex brew that is very much worthy of a taste.
Every beer at Knucklehead is competently and artfully brewed, and all are worth seeking out. Knockout is no exception to this rule; this is crucial to point out. Despite this, Knockout was a bit of a disappointment. A sweet-style stout, Knockout possesses strong roasty notes, bits of chocolate lingering around and a very pleasant, coffee-bitter finish. That being said, Knockout seemed to me to be a bit watery, in a sense. That is, it was not as robust as is traditionally expected of a stout. While sweet stouts do have a tendency to be a bit skimpy on malt flavor, Knockout seems to be missing some crucial component that could make it an outstanding beer. Perhaps additional milk sugar, to add another layer of sweetness, could improve this beer. Or, and to add excitement for the Russian Imperial Stout currently in fermentation, a stronger malt backbone could create a much more full-bodied beer. Overall, Knockout is a good beer, but could stand some improvements.
The grand opening ceremony marked the birth of a true heart-and-soul Rochester business. Founded by passionate families and fueled by community support, Knucklehead embodies the spirit of New York, and more importantly, gives yet another admirable tweak to the cultural landscape of Rochester.