Sips of Summer
This story is part of a limited series about small, locally owned breweries across the state of New York.
Heidi Menikheim knew what it was like to be recognized for her beer. She and her brewery, Seneca Street Brew Pub in Manlius, have won five medals from the New York State Brewers Association since the business opened in 2016.
But it wasn’t until this year, after winning the organization’s Women In Beer Scholarship, that she could actually attend the statewide craft beer competition. Winning a sixth medal — this time in-person — was much more exciting than getting another one in the mail.
“I felt so good that people actually saw who we are,” Menikheim said. “We weren’t just the invisible brewery that wins medals. We were there to accept it.”
Seneca Street Brew Pub was one of 90 breweries to win an award from the New York State Brewers Association’s Craft Beer Competition in Albany this March. More than 180 breweries submitted about 1,300 entries into 29 categories for a panel of judges in the annual conference that hosts more than 500 breweries across the state. Eleven of the craft breweries that won medals were from Onondaga and surrounding Central New York counties. Two breweries, Seneca Street Brew Pub and ONCO Fermentations, each took home gold medals and have continued to thrive in a fast-paced and competitive market as women-owned businesses.
Located in Tully, ONCO Fermentations is a craft brewery and taproom that has been owned by Brian and Erin Bullard since 2019. Like many small businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic, founder and taproom manager Erin Bullard said growing while staying competitive is a challenge they’re learning to overcome. To help, they’ve added outdoor seating, entertainment and a kitchen.
“Food was something that we didn’t expect to need to offer,” Bullard said. “Brian and I are there cooking, and it’s helped us rekindle some of our customers, so we’ve always been pivoting. That growth was sooner than intended, but we always wanted to be a community-focused brewery that really ingrained ourselves in the town of Tully.”
The brewery specializes in small-batch beers and handmade Neapolitan-style pizzas. ONCO will soon be canning and selling Hyphen, the New England IPA that won gold this year, and it’s producing two beers in collaboration with Long Island brewery Spider Bite Beer Co., which also won a gold medal with ONCO in the same category at the competition. Bullard acknowledged comradery in the industry is common, especially at large events like the brewers conference.
“There’s a lot of good beer out there, and it’s very competitive, but we all face the same hurdles and pressures, especially after the pandemic,” Bullard said. “The industry is also about learning from and rooting for each other. It’s a very collaborative effort to make sure craft beer doesn’t become irrelevant.”
For Seneca Street, Menikheim said challenges arose when pandemic tensions eased in Manlius. As travel restrictions lifted, fewer people came in, the costs of living increased, and other new breweries popped up in town. Menikheim said expanding hours, introducing live music, adding a food menu and providing rental space for private events has helped her stay relevant and in business.
“People supported us in the pandemic. It’s now that I’m having the hardest time because of inflation,” Menikheim said. “It’s harder to go out and spend money when you don’t have as much of it. So, I feel that, but I’ve definitely had to up my game.”
In another collaborative effort to boost awareness, the brewery is co-hosting the second annual Manlius Pride Festival and the first annual Drag Show next month. The pride festival will feature local artists, food trucks, live performances and other family-friendly activities to promote LGBTQ+ awareness and donate funds to local and national charities like CNY Pride and The Trevor Project.
“It’s very exciting, but our goal, my wife and I, is to provide a safe space for everybody,” Menikheim said. “The LGBTQ+ community isn’t recognized as much here, but I think we’re getting there.”
Menikheim and her business identify as women-owned and LGBTQ+-owned. Menikheim said she has received support and recognition from other local breweries for her business over the years but sometimes feels more on the outside of the community.
“It’s definitely a man’s world,” Menikheim said. “And when I went to that conference, I felt it. Not many people noticed me until I won the award. I know people in the industry who do have respect for us. They’re all very nice to us, but I feel like we get left out of a lot of things.”
Female representation in craft beer remains a minority. Of the 11 breweries from Central New York that were recognized for awards at the New York State Brewers Association competition this year, at least half were partially- or fully-women owned. But on a national scale, 23% of breweries in the U.S. are women-owned, and only 2% of those are fully women-owned as of 2021, according to data collected from the Brewers Association.
Bullard supports other women in the industry as a member of the Central New York chapter of the Pink Boots Society, a national organization that assists and encourages women and non-binary individuals in the fermented and alcoholic beverage industry to advance their careers through education. Both Bullard and Menikheim said community-driven collaborations through their breweries were important goals in their future plans to not only boost business but also reinforce values of inclusion, equality, and a love of beer.
“The only way I’m going to make it is if I work with them and we work together,” Menikheim said. “I think that’s what the people want.”
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