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Peek inside New York's oldest beermaker, the Willy Wonka-like Genesee brewery

WIll Cleveland gets a rare tour of the storied and cloistered home of Genny on St. Paul Street

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Just north of Upper Falls sits a 28-acre parcel that might as well be Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. 

The Genesee Brewery, the state's oldest brewery since 1878, holds the same mystique and encourages the same wonder. Gated off and surrounded by chain-link fences, Genny doesn't boast a welcoming facade. The brewery still doesn't offer public tours.

As a 1980 Times-Union profile of the brewery noted, "Genesee Brewery is probably Rochester's quietest success story. ... Genesee is a quiet story, because John L. 'Jack' Wehle, chairman of the brewery, likes it quiet. Wehle mixes little with the mainstream Rochester business establishment and the business leaders know little about him or his brewery."

Wehle, who started working for the brewery in 1938 and then succeeded his father as chairman in 1964, granted his first interview for that 1980 profile.

Jack Wehle, Chairman of the Board of the Genesee Brewing Company.
Jack Wehle, Chairman of the Board of the Genesee Brewing Company. CRISTINA SALVADOR, 1988 file photo

"All I care about is running a good company and putting out a fine product," he said.

Adding to allure is the constant parade of big trucks arriving to and then leaving the brewery. In any given week, 1,600 trucks visit the campus.

But the brewery almost didn't have a future. Faced with increased competition from Canadian imports and national brands, Genny was losing money in the 1990s.

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Matt James, brewmaster
The brewery isn’t just a job ... it becomes part of your identity

Since the Genesee Brew House opened in 2012, with its unrivaled view of downtown and Upper Falls, also known as High Falls, visitors have flocked to this new gateway into the Genny brand. The Brew House has further ingrained Genny into the community fabric.

When you think of a quintessential Rochester meal, you'll undoubtedly have a Nick Tahou's Garbage Plate with Zweigle's hot dogs and a Genesee beer.

"The generations of people who have worked here and the generations of people who have drank our beers over the years make this place special," said Mary Beth Popp, the brewery's vice president of corporate and brand communications. 

Matt James, who was recently elevated to brewmaster, echoed those sentiments. James, a Wayne County native who has spent the past 25 years at Genny, followed in the footsteps of his father. James is the embodiment of the generational pull of the mysterious campus at the corner of St. Paul Street and Upper Falls Boulevard.

"This place is more than a family. I’ve been surrounded by so many awesome guys and girls," said James, who has worked in just about every area of production. "The brewery isn’t just a job, because it becomes part of your identity. I’ve been able to experience so many cool things here — from traveling to Canada to select malt, visiting China twice, and going to the Pacific Northwest to pick hops."

Inside the Genesee Brewery labyrinth 

Genesee Brewing Co. is recognized beyond its hometown for its line of Genny products.
Genesee Brewing Co. is recognized beyond its hometown for its line of Genny products. Carlos Ortiz/@cfortiz_dandc/2011 staff file photo

The interior of the brewery, while both seeming cloistered and expansive, meanders.

From one room to the next, you could be stepping from the 1960s with the old lauter tun brewing system into an earlier time. Yes, there are retired aging caves carved into the river gorge wall, because the constant temperature down there was perfect before widespread refrigeration.

Round a corner and find yourself in a modern brewhouse, which is part of the brewery's $50 million modernization completed in 2018.

Multiple people have said you never design a modern brewery to be this circuitous, but because Genny has been built up upon itself, it creates a wholly unique footprint.

"... our brewery is built like the inside of a watch," Louis Wehle once told another brewery executive according to that same 1980 Times-Union profile of his son. 

The temperatures fluctuate massively depending on where you find yourself on the campus — from the ice-cold cold block to the sweltering power plant. But no matter where you are, you're sure to cross paths with folks who take great pride in producing products that have been enjoyed by Rochester families for decades.

Join us on a walking tour of the Genesee Brewery
Shawn Dowd, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

James remembers his first job at the brewery at the draft center — where kegs are filled and stacked for delivery — in the northwest corner of the campus, right along the Bausch Memorial Bridge. Surrounded by walls of empty kegs, he recalls placing bungs in old-style kegs.

Now, the draft center is home to two space-age robots installed just before the pandemic that sort, clean, fill and stack kegs (only sixth or half barrels).

"It's had three different keg-filling systems since I started a million years ago," James joked. "We had old Hoff-Stevens keg fillers (the system favored in the 50s and 60s), three lines of those, and those used to run 24 hours, seven days a week. Now, we have what we call Sankey machines. We had an older one, we ripped that out, and now we have two newer ones."

In short, James and the brewery have grown up together 

"It's more than a paycheck," James said while standing in the brewery's sparkling new cold block, which features a maze-like assortment of pipes leading off to seemingly every corner of the campus. 

"This building made it a whole lot easier to do what we were doing before — consistently, high-quality beer. Automation takes the human error out of things," James said.

Contact Will Cleveland at wcleveland@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @willcleveland13Thanks to our subscribers for supporting quality local journalism. If you aren’t a subscriber, please consider a digital subscription.

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