Is St. Joseph's Church a brewery in its next life?

st joseph's church interior 2010

The interior of the former St. Joseph's Church during an art exhibition in 2010.

The Historic Albany Foundation has been looking for a use for the former St. Joseph's Church in Albany's Arbor Hill neighborhood since the organization took over the building in 2003.

HAF Executive Director, Susan Holland says they've been pitched everything from a Christian recording company to a goth club -- but, for various reasons, the ideas didn't work out.

Then, not long ago, she heard from a company called Ravens Head Brewing. Its pitch: to turn the old Gothic church into the flagship location for its brewery, and a restaurant/events venue.

Working backwards

Holland says the idea kind of rattled around in her head for a while. It sounded interesting and do-able enough for Historic Albany to present to the neighbors.

At a meeting tonight the community will have a chance to learn more about the proposal and voice its opinions.

"This whole thing is happening backwards from the way a lot of organizations do business," Holland says. "It's all in the very earliest stages. We're taking it to the community to get their input first, rather than waiting until all kinds of plans have been made." Rather than reach out through media, HAF dropped fliers in the immediate vicinity of St. Joseph's. "We're hoping to hear from the people who would be most impacted."

The plan

Ravens Head Brewing owners Brennon Cleary and Brent Decker, both currently living in New Jersey, worked together at Verizon. Cleary still works there, but Decker lost his job during one of the company's most recent cutbacks. Disenchanted with the corporate culture, they set out to do something they love and do it their own way.

Their original plan to start the brewery in the Catskills fell through, and after making a few calls, they found the St. Joseph's location.

"What led us to Albany was the good age demographic. And it's a every educated town. The beer geeks, the hipsters -- it's a good demographic for beer," says Decker. "We also love the location for the history of it because Albany has a very rich brewing tradition. And geographically it grants a lot of access paths -- it's close to Vermont, Massachusetts, New York City.

"And your water is phenomenal. Water is the most important, underrated ingredient of beer."

Cleary adds: "We could strip [water] and run it through all sorts of filtration but we'd lose the minerals that bring out the character for the beer." They also say it's a plus that there's no fracking here. "We don't want to be anywhere near that."

Cleary and Decker say they do have a couple of other Albany locations in mind, but St. Joseph's is at the top of their list. "Look at that building -- how could it not be at the top of our list." They looked at some factory buildings that would offer them the space they needed, but they're pretty set on opening in an old church. "Those locations just didn't pop," says Cleary. "And where else can you dine with angels?"

The plan is to turn the building into a brewery and restaurant, and to hold events -- but the duo says the plan goes a little beyond that. "Say you want to have a wedding there," says Cleary, "but a month or so before, you have a bachelor party or something and we can involve you in the process of making the beer for the wedding."

"We are not proposing to stay open until 4 am," says Cleary. "I don't want to put that much of my life into doing this, I need some sleep. And it shows a sign of respect for the neighborhood -- you want people leaving at a reasonable time so there isn't a negative impact."

Their vision for the business is ambition. They're hoping the project will create 20-45 jobs, half of those at more than $35,000 a year. They're also planning to offer employees benefits and profit sharing. Says Decker, "Good employees who tell people they work in a great place and you should come there -- that's advertising you can't buy."

They say they're expecting to have to put about $1 million into the building, though Historic Albany has already done a lot of the more expensive repairs like the slate roof.

Finding a fit for St. Joe's

Susan Holland says Historic Albany doesn't have an opinion on this particular project either way. "We took it on ourselves to keep the building up, and we want to help find the right use for it, but we're not developers."

Finding the right fit for the old Gothic church has been a challenge. Before 2008, Holland says she got a few calls about the building pretty much every month -- some more promising than others. There was the woman who wanted to use it as a Christian recording studio but couldn't come up with the funding. The interior design museum idea. The guy who wanted to turn it into a Goth club. And the man who told them they should give him the building "because Jesus wants you to."

But since the economic downturn in 2008, there haven't been many offers of any kind. "We've been using it as a sort of seasonal performance space and there's always talk about turning it into some sort of an art gallery -- something community oriented -- but that's very hard to find money for."

Between Cleary, Decker and their third partner, they say they have about a decade of combined brewing experience. But you can't buy Ravens Head yet. "We did take it to a recent festival in Asbury Park [New Jersey]," says Cleary. "We had 15 gallons each of two beers. The first 15 gallons sold in 15 minutes. The second sold in half an hour. We know we've got a good product. We're looking for a home."

The meeting

Holland says she's already heard from members of the community who support the project and members who oppose it. She's expecting a big turnout at tonight's (Tuesday) meeting at at Ten Broeck Mansion at 5:30 pm.

Holland stresses that this is just the first step. There's no timetable. If the community approves, then they'd begin talking about business plans and offers. "There would still be a lot to go thorough. This is just a first step. But, sometimes you've just gotta take a risk and explore something."

+ ACO reports "the City" is skeptical about using St. Joseph's as a brewery.
+ KAB reports from the community meeting that public opinion seemed split -- with worries about logistics.

Earlier on AOA:
+ Albany Distilling Company
+ Albany's water is in the top 5

photo: Sebastien Barre


Hopefully a cross town rivalry makes the Pump Station pick up their game. Currently I think Brown's owns the Albany Market in terms of best brewpub and I would like to see so more competitiveness.

There's a great place in Pittsburgh called the Church Brew Works and it's exactly what the name suggests. It's an awesome place so I think it'd be great if Ravens Head took a similar chance here in Albany.

checks calendar to make sure it isn't April 1st and Susan Holland isn't up to some trickery.

Realizes its June, does a happy dance.

Where do I send my resume?

This idea seems almost too good to be true. I wonder what the Orange Lord thinks about it?

This idea seems almost too good to be true.

@jamband: That was my first thought, too. And maybe it is. It sounds like there's a long way to go before this actually happens. But it's an interesting idea.

I have no objection to a brewery, or even a brewery in a church, but is it the right neighborhood? What about the old St John's Church down in the Pastures- that neighborhood could really use a new business.

I think that's a really cool idea.

In other news, I can't wait to start using "Orange Lord" in casual conversation.

It's more accurate to describe the location of St Joe's as the Ten Broeck Triangle, not "the Arbor Hill neighborhood."

Arbor Hill is a big geographic area. Many of its residents don't live near the church and won't be affected by this proposal. The Ten Broeck Triangle is a distinct sub-neighborhood with a cohesive community and its own set of unique issues, chief among them finding the right re-use for St. Joe's.

what a beautiful site and what a great idea!

similarly, in nyc, a church was turned into a cultural center which hosts all sorts of events, music, art, weddings--it's called the angel orensanz center:

@robton, I doubt that the the Pump Station will step it up. This is most likely why George DiPiro is leaving as head brewer there and is opening up his own brewery in Saratoga.

Second mjc - Ten Broeck Triangle is a quiet, diverse, and really unique neighborhood. Most importantly, it's a very residential neighborhood with one way streets, limited parking, and heavy congestion whenever there are nearby events (i.e. the Palace). The church is amazing and it truly needs and owner, and after the meeting, I am convinced the gentleman looking to open Raven's Head are good, community-minded, committed, hard working individuals who want to contribute to our community. That said, I worry about the inevitable effect on the neighborhood to have a brew-pub smack in the middle of a quiet residential space. I respect these folks for creating a dialogue with the community, and I am open to their proposal, but honestly, I just want to be able to commute to my job, get to sleep at night, and not have anyone peeing on my stoop. If they think they can avoid that sort of disturbance, I will welcome them.

Kinda annoyed about the opposition to this idea. No one is falling over themselves to get to the church, there's no other ideas falling out of the sky on the church's new use, and it won't HURT the neighborhood. Anyone familiar with breweries knows they are under some incredible regulations about serving alcohol, if at all. There is some use of scare tactics about this brewery and they are not a reality in any other brewery situation. I hope they move forward with this idea and show what a good neighbor a brewery like any business, can be.

Not to be contrarian for it's own sake but as someone who actually LIVES in the Ten Broeck Triangle, my gut feeling is not a good one.

Just one example why:
Parking is tight as it is. I've been towed multiple times and I've lived here for years. The neighborhood is already getting parking permits since it's in the Capital area permit radius.
20-40 jobs (and the people parking there for work) plus any patrons would not help the situation.

Also, although I think it's great that these guys are following their dreams and they have some good ideas, their presentation did not fill me with confidence as to their ability to pull it off. Example: they didn't have enough hand-outs and the ones they did weren't even stapled together.

It's one thing to sell out at a beer festival. Its a very different beast to turn such a difficult building in a complicated location into a thriving business.

There's a great deal to be said for growing a business "organically," at a self sustaining pace.

Taking on hundreds of thousands of $ in debt on such an ambitious project, in this economy, in an industry that's locally pretty saturated already (see: Big House, Malt River, Van Dyke woes) just doesn't seem like the most prudent course of action no matter how good your beer is.

I have only lived in Albany since 2005, but have lived in DC and Chapel Hill, NC, and saw first-hand breweries in those locales. In addition, I am the brewer at Cave Mountain Brewing Co., in Windham, NY (approx. 45 miles from Albany). People who usually frequent breweries are similar to those who frequent wineries, for tours and tastings, perhaps a growler fill.

Regardless of whether this location is going to be a brewery or not, I concur with the above comment about how there is not exactly a long line of ideas for the space .That is one thing that frustrates me about Albany, and may be a larger problem in the capital region, perhaps even upstate NY, as a whole. What exactly is the Mayor's/City Council's VISION for Albany? I am tired of hearing about the Convention Center as if it will be the answer to all the problems. I bet if Mayor Jennings had a pal in the brewing industry, and he could get his fingers in the pie, he would love the idea!

There are cities all over the USA with VISIONS and sadly I think Albany is being left behind due to our so-called leadership.

Anything that saves this structure is worth reviewing. But I do dream of an Albany where there is something to do after 5 o'clock that doesn't involve alcohol. When I'm caught with time to kill at the end of the day in Troy, I have a couple of coffee shops or cafes to hang in, or the bookstore, or I can browse through some of the shops. In downtown Albany, there's . . . what? All the coffee shops but Starbucks are closed by late afternoon. You can only look through the socks at Lodge's so many times.

Is their plan to make a Brewery, Brew Pub, or Brewery with an events venue? The last one might be the best solution, and it seems like wedding venues and banquet halls (especially unique venues) are in high demand in this area. If it was an event venue rather than a restaurant, then they could transport people from a central location (like their hotel), and then they would just need parking for the bus. This would also lessen the risk of drunk drivers, and people would buy more beer!!! They could even keep the altar set up, in case people wanted to use the venue for the ceremony as well.

I agree that the parking component is already hard in this neighborhood, and has been when I've attended other events at the church.

I'm so tired of people using parking and potential traffic congestion as an excuse to oppose a project. You live in a city. Deal with the fact that you might not have access to the most ideal parking spaces relative to your home/business. You chose a home without off street parking. Get over it. Progress shouldn't be impeded because YOU feel entitled to convenient parking.

Would you really rather see the church remain vacant and off the tax rolls? Or, be occupied by a business that will pay taxes, create some jobs and (from what it sounds like) will be a respectable addition to the neighborhood. Seriously? Its a no brainer.

I'm obviously biased, but to echo some of the thoughts above.....any city designed prior to the advent of the automobile will inherently have traffic/parking problems.
If this was proposed as a re-purpose for a winery with restaurant, I imagine there would be less push back, even though they're essentially the same.

I think these men really have a passion about what they are doing, and to have such a calling to an extraordinary place, I feel it is meant to become Ravens Head Brewing. I hope the best for all involved and feel it's going to benefit many people in many ways. cheers!

I totally agree with J about the people who are complaining about parking you decided to live in a CITY deal with it. Do you know how hard it is to find a parking spot in NYC. You should embrace it living in a hip neighborhood might actually raise you property value. The people who visit brew pubs aren't your typical college drunk who cause problems. I also echo Jaimie's thought, it's about time Albany wakes up. Why do you think all the 30 sometime people leave Smalbany because it doesn't have a good quality nightlife.

@ John: does "good quality nightlife" automatically have to involve a large bar? The Pearl St. area is full of those.

@eric "good quality nightlife" means going out to eat at a restaurant hanging out after dinner for a local made beer and maybe shotting a game of pool. Have you been to The Albany Pump Station would you classify that as a bar I sure wouldn't. I would classify it as a restaurant first that makes it own beer.

Since many people seem to be interested in the TBT area please visit to learn more about the neighborhood.

The site was just started but you can get a good idea of the community and see what the neighborhood is about.

The brewery might not be the best idea, but any renewed discussion and interest is certainly a good thing for our neighborhood.

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