By Kody Mashtare
Photos by Tim Behuniak
After seven years as a jet engine mechanic, Nathan Drake found himself guiding fishing tours in Alaska. But he grew tired of handling all the mundane tasks that come with the job. He taught people how to cast. He untangled snarled lines. He tied on lures.
“It seemed like a babysitting thing,” he said. “I wasn’t fishing. It’s not like fishing with your buddies.”
Eventually, he and his wife, Jan, crossed the continent back to upstate New York, and Drake worked on the remaining two years of a food and nutrition degree he had started in Alaska. When he wasn’t in school at SUNY Plattsburgh, Drake worked as a surveyor with his father.
As graduation approached, Drake began to think about his next move. “I didn’t want to work in a hospital or nursing home prescribing tube feedings or something,” he said. Drake has done a lot of things, but he has brewed beer since age 18. Back then, he brewed “out of necessity,” he said. “I couldn’t find anyone to buy me beer.” So after his graduation, trying to avoid the hospitals and nursing homes, Drake began writing a business plan for a brewery: “Quite honestly, I got half-lit one night and started figuring out how much it costs to make a batch of beer, how much I would have to make to pay my bills. That was the start of my business plan.”
In August 2016, amid the patchwork of fields and rolling foothills of Franklin County, New York, Drake and Jan officially opened their newly-built Township 7 Brewing Company on the 144-acre plot of land Drake grew up on in Dickinson Center, just 17 miles west of Malone. The brewery’s name came as Drake and Jan sat around after dinner one night with Drake’s father, who suggested Township 7. “It just rings,” Drake said. “It hit me right in the head.”
In 1791, Alexander Macomb purchased most of the land currently in Franklin, St. Lawrence, Jefferson, and Lewis counties. The massive purchase was divided into tracts and townships, and Dickinson Center fell into Township 7.
Drake now finds himself back in the place he first began writing and tweaking beer recipes. But his new brewing equipment, with a total capacity of roughly 220 gallons per batch, is far from the 3-gallon stovetop kettle he started with in the mid-90s. Last year, Township 7 produced roughly 9,703 total gallons of beer, enough to fill about 77,624 pint glasses. That production volume might not have been possible without Drake’s cousin Kyle Henderson, who now brews full time at Township 7 after homebrewing for seven years.
About the time the brewery opened in 2016, when the gleaming new stainless steel equipment was finally in place, Drake and Henderson started a 100-gallon batch of pale ale and began learning how to use the equipment together.
“Homebrewing was the same process, but there’s a learning curve,” Henderson said. “I’m pretty smooth with it now, but I occasionally take a beer shower from time to time when I forget something.”
When Drake started homebrewing 24 years ago, he produced mostly hop-heavy beers, but eventually, he branched out to brew other styles. “I think there’s a natural transgression through wanting to experience what other styles of beer taste like, something like a brown, a stout, porter, or something roasty. It’s almost like coffee or chocolate. It starts to open your brain up a little bit,” he said. Drake has weaved that sense of variety into the philosophy of Township 7.
“Jan and I have been to a lot of breweries where their beer tastes almost muddled, or they’re just brewing IPAs. I didn’t want that.” Drake and Henderson keep eight or nine beers on tap at a time, offering light, easy-drinking brews such as Two Bottom, Drake’s take on a pre-prohibition ale brewed with corn, as well as bold, rich options such as Freight Train, a barrel-aged brown ale.
Both Freight Train and Train Wreck, an aged imperial American stout, spend four months soaking in oak, vanilla, maple and other flavors from charred bourbon barrels, which once stored whiskey at Heaven Hill Distillery in Kentucky. After their time at Heaven Hill, a sugarhouse in Ogdensburg, New York, bought the barrels to age maple syrup, and Drake eventually bought them from the sugarhouse.
“When they pulled their maple syrup out of it, there was obviously a little left in there, and we put our beer right on top of it,” Drake said.
Because none of Township 7’s beer is filtered or pasteurized, it’s a live product: some yeast remains after the brewing process. That leftover yeast ferments the sugars left in the barrel by the maple syrup, spiking the alcohol content of Freight Train to a dizzying 10 percent by volume and Train Wreck to 8.5 percent. Pasteurizing and filtering “strips out a lot of the characteristics from the yeast,” which contribute to the brew’s overall flavor.
Some of his beers, such as Deerfly IPA, have been in the works for years. He and Henderson blend four varieties of hops in Deerfly to mimic the flavor profile created by Simcoe hops, which are hard to get and expensive. After a batch of Deerfly has finished primary fermentation, Drake and Henderson add hops twice more, a technique known as dry hopping. “It really brings out the flavor of the hop rather than it going up in steam,” Drake said.
To fit the flavor profiles Drake strives for, he orders all of Township 7’s hops straight from Washington’s Yakima Valley. “If you have a cabernet from Washington, Oregon, California, New York, France, or Italy, you can have that same strain of grape, and it’s going to taste different based on the soil it’s grown in,” he said. “Hops are no different.” Drake began brewing Raspberry Haze on a homebrew scale as well. This wheat ale is loaded with 50 pounds of raspberry puree per batch, lending a “more subtle, more real” raspberry flavor.
He recently purchased a chardonnay barrel he plans to fill with Raspberry Haze and inoculate with lactobacillus bacteria to sour the beer for a few months. Drake draws ideas for new brews from many different places. “It could be inspired by what I’m eating or the weather,” he said. “It’s a lot like how a chef conceptualizes a new recipe.”
Sandals, a light ale brewed with about 10 pounds of lemon peel per batch, is a relatively new recipe. “I wanted something citrusy and bright,” he said. “The recipe just came to me.” The name just came to him, too: Drake and Jan sat at a nudist resort in Florida as the first batch of what would be Sandals bubbled in the fermenter back in New York. They racked their brains for a name.“We were sitting there butt naked on our patio,” Drake said. “The only thing I had on was sandals, so that’s where that came from.”When it comes to executing those recipes, Drake and Henderson put their own twist on the brewing process.
When mashing — steeping the malted barley in hot water — Drake and Henderson keep the temperature a bit lower than other craft breweries, which leads to “a thinner beer.” The lower temperature results in the production of fewer unfermentable dextrins that give beer a full, creamy body. “I’ve had a lot of beers you can almost chew on.” Drake said. “I don’t like that necessarily.” Township 7’s process produces, in his opinion, a more refreshing and drinkable brew.
As for a non-alcoholic option, Township 7 keeps its house-made ginger ale on tap. Drake and Henderson bring water, ginger, sucrose and a bit of lactic acid to a boil, then kill the heat and let the steaming mixture steep. “It’s almost like making a tea,” Drake said. They pump the finished product into a keg, carbonate it, and connect it to a tap.
Though the ginger ale is available only at the brewery, Township 7’s beers are now distributed to some bars and restaurants in Franklin, Clinton, St. Lawrence and Essex counties. Drake feels as if the brewery is “a boat that’s just come up on plane,” and wants “to ride that for a little bit.” His life has carved a meandering circular path, leading him back to brewing. “The best part of what I do is meeting different people and being able to socialize and open people up a bit,” he said. “That’s as rewarding as someone saying, ‘That Deerfly IPA is the best I’ve ever had.’”