Note: This profile originally appeared in issue 65 of BeerAdvocate Magazine
Janine Bennet and Ken Landin did not take the direct path to where they are now. Their story is a winding one. It starts in Queens. It ends—who knows where. In the middle is a crossroads: Crossroads Brewing Company.
For now until the foreseeable future (if there is such a thing) the small brewery and pub in Athens, New York is where Bennet and Landin try to carve out a niche amongst an ever-expanding world of small brewers..
A New Home
Landin’s plan to restructure his life never included the renovation of a historic landmark. But not much has gone according to plan. After a career as a drywall contractor steadily drained him of his desire to build for others, Landin decided to make something of his own. Infatuated with the blossoming beer industry, he decided to dive headfirst into a new venture.
Unlike the success stories he read about in magazines, it was not to be a splashless transition into the next phase of his professional career. Bennet and Landin had big plans, but the suddenly sputtering American economy had other ideas. But there was no turning back. They were already in the water; it was time to swim.
“As we were getting down to crunch time we had quite a few deals fall apart,” Landin said. “A lot of the financing that was in place back then we started getting a lot of ‘no’s and ‘no’s as the economy took a dive. Between Janine and I, we were basically consumed with that. We spent every weekend visiting brewpubs and breweries and re-writing our business plan trying to figure out how we were going to put it together with no money.”
Several opportunities opened and closed for the pair before Landin saw something in the corner of a beat up old building: a “For Sale” sign. The structure was once a magnificent opera house and a pivotal element of the small historical village in Athens, but it had fallen into disrepair. Animals nested in the top two floors of the three-story building. The roof, where it still existed, was crumbling and the brick exterior was a shambles.
Forget all the normal hassles of starting a brewery, Landin and Bennet first had to rehab an historical landmark after purchasing the building in 2009.
“When we took it, we worked from top down and we sealed all the leaks, fixed the roof, put in windows on the first floor and completely renovated the first floor,” Landin said.
Slowly, and with lots of help from Bennet’s brother Jimmy, the building morphed from a crumbling eyesore into a community fixture once more. By September 2010, Crossroads was pouring its first beer in the tap room that sufficed until the pub was completely renovated.
Local artists are already a welcome addition and play in a corner on the first floor, but Crossroads is also working on renovating the second level – the former opera house – to its former glory in order to host larger acts. In the meantime, visitors to Crossroads can settle down at the brewery’s impressive bar.
“I guess it’s spectacular in the way that we’ve made it in a way to make it look like it’s been there since 1893,” Janine said. “We took wood that had to be removed for whatever reason and saved it to add to the bar. We took pieces of crumbling cornice work from outside of the bar and incorporated it into the bar…. It has an impact when you walk in.”
Where The Heart Is
Bennet and Landin were virtual outsiders in Athens. Although Landin had a vacation home in the area and Bennet had lived in the Hudson Valley, the small community was essentially strange to them. Fortunately, that didn’t stop the village from embracing the newcomers.
“I don’t think we’d be doing this if it weren’t for the support we’ve gotten from all of them,” Bennet said with audible emotion in her voice. “It’s hard to explain how much we’re a part of the community. It’s pretty much all we live for now is making this place great and trying to get the village up and moving.”
Part of Athens’ embrace must come from the fact that Crossroads put the local community above all else. The opera house was once a source of pride for the town, and the new inhabitants are making that true once again. They celebrate that heritage with photographs from the glory days that line the walls inside.
“We worked very hard to make sure they loved it,” Bennet said. “There’s photos all over the hallways and walls – the people come in from Athens and they’re overwhelmed, kind of like I am right now. They’re very proud of the building. They’re very proud of what we’ve created. It truly helps us keep going. They were incredibly supportive. It’s an incredible village. You have to come and be a part of it.”
That support from the town was necessary. The brewery’s name is not a topographical reference, but a metaphorical one. Both Landin and Bennet were making a change in their life, and chose a path that led them to Crossroads Brewing Company. And like wanderers stranded at a diverging highway, they had nothing left to lose.
“When I closed on this building I had 73 cents to my name,” Landin said. “If I didn’t close that day I was in a lot of trouble. It was a lot of sleepless nights—a lot of stressful nights and a lot of wondering. At least we make great beer now. Our brewer is phenomenal, I really can’t ask for anything better.”
The long and emotional journey wouldn’t mean much if Janine and Ken weren’t able to put out something that people would actually enjoy. Nice stories only sell so much beer. That’s where Hutch Kugeman comes in. Landin met Kugeman when he was still working at the Great Adirondack Brewing Co., but it was several years later when he convinced him to leave his job as a shift brewer at Ithaca Brewing Company to join Crossroads.
“In this case (at Ithaca) we were a really growing production brewery that was bursting at the seams trying to scramble to keep up with demand,” Kugeman said. “That wasn’t for me. I really missed being at a smaller place where I could experiment with different things… The more he talked about what he was doing, the more I thought it sounded like a good idea.”
Shortly after Crossroads started making beer, it started winning awards for it. In 2011, the brewery was named the best in the Hudson Valley at the TAP New York Craft Beer and Food Festival, and its Outrage IPA took third in the same festival.
Kugeman has room to play and experiment with Crossroads’ ten tap lines, but most of them follow a simple rule: “Mostly I make beer that I like,” Kugeman said. “I tend to do a lot of full-flavored, but drinkable beers.”
The list at Crossroads varies from distinctly brash American beers to delicate Belgian-Style ales, but all are tied by a common factor: pride. It is the pride Kugeman feels when he shares a pint with patrons at the pub, and it is the same pride that made Bennet choke up when she reflected on how far the brewery had come. It is the pride that comes from choosing a path and staying on it, no matter how many obstacles suggest that you shouldn’t.
Sean Lewis is a freelance writer and home brewer. He is currently writing his first book for St. Martin’s Press.