Editor's Note: The Close of Cowboy Season | June 2021 | Editor's Note | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine

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Editor's Note: The Close of Cowboy Season | June 2021

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Tommy Keegan behind the bar at Keegan Ales.
  • Tommy Keegan behind the bar at Keegan Ales.

Last fall, I heard through the grapevine that Tommy Keegan, the owner of Keegan Ales in Kingston, was in talks to sell his brewery. This was both newsworthy and personally poignant. Tommy was a pioneer of the craft beer movement. When he opened Keegan Ales in 2003, his brewery was the only one between Brooklyn and Albany. That same year Chronogram moved its office to Kingston and Lee Anne and I bought a house here. The Kingston of 2003 was a world away from the Kingston of 2021—this was long before the city had nice things like $12 pints of artisanal ice cream, boutique hotels, roundabouts, and murals all over town. 

Like other cities in the region, Kingston was still in a post-industrial malaise just after the turn of the millennium. IBM had left town in the mid-`90s, Kingston’s Uptown shopping district had been gutted by the ascendance of the mall a few miles outside the city limits. The town was gritty. It felt unsettled in its identity; it had a bit of the Wild West about it. It’s fitting that Tommy referred to his early days as “cowboy season.”

An anecdote to illustrate my point: Before I moved to Kingston, some of my buddies and I used to drink at a dive bar downtown called the Sturgeon. It was one of the few places around that featured a large selection of beers on tap. More importantly, the bar possessed a worn-but-warm spirit that you don’t find much anymore. Cheap and cheerful, the Sturgeon was as cozy as a clubhouse, albeit a club that had been losing members for years and fallen woefully behind on maintaining its infrastructure. 

One night my friends and I were having a couple beers and some laughs at the Sturgeon. At some point, Mark went off to the bathroom to relieve himself. A moment later, from the general direction of the bathroom we heard a groaning noise, like wood under great pressure before it snaps, and then a loud crash. The bartender, who was at the far end of the bar chatting with some regulars, seems not to have heard the catastrophic sound. At that point, our assembled party engaged in a speed round of escalating hyperbole about Mark’s troubled intestines and their devastating impact on bathrooms up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Mark then emerged from the bathroom, looking nonplussed. “The toilet fell through the floor,” he said. While none of us jumped up to see if Mark needed help when we heard the crashing sounds, we all ran to the bathroom now to see the spectacle of failed plumbing. Sure enough, the wood floor had rotted and the toilet had fallen through to the basement where it was lying in pieces. I think someone shut the water valve. We returned to our beers and apprised the bartender of the situation in the bathroom. He seemed in no hurry to go and deal with it. We all had another round and headed home.

This Kingston—shabby sliding into dilapidated—was the place where Tommy opened his brewery. The city has changed quite a bit since then, but all along, Keegan Ales had been a kind of community living room where bikers and lawyers and nurses and musicians and plumbers and even magazine editors rubbed elbows.

As the city got swankier (a brewery opened across town serving oysters and lobster rolls) and the craft beverage industry exploded (there are now almost 500 craft breweries in New York State), Tommy didn’t change his simple formula of craft beer, live music, and inclusive camaraderie—and was frankly unapologetic about it.  “I built a clubhouse that I want to hang out in,” Tommy told me. “And if that’s your gig and you want to hang out, great, come on in. And if that’s not your gig, I’m not going to be offended.”

So when I heard that Keegan Ales was being sold, it seemed important to sit down with Tommy and get his nearly two decades in Kingston on the record. By the time we got together in late October 2020, the deal to sell the brewery had fallen through—for a variety of complex reasons that kill many a business sale—but we spoke for a couple hours about a wide range of topics. We talked about everything from his unorthodox promotional strategy when he first opened1; to the counterintuitive problem the educated beer consumer poses to the small craft brewer2; and the time he got punched in the face as a publicity stunt for the launch of Keegan’s Black Eye IPA at WPDH3. We published a much-shortened version of that interview in the December issue, and the full transcript of our conversation is now available online (“A Long Talk with Craft Beer Pioneer Tommy Keegan (1970-2021)”). 

On April 30, Tommy Keegan died of a heart attack at the age of 50. His death sent shockwaves throughout his adopted city of Kingston and the craft beer industry. Tommy was a community pillar—involved in everything from the arts to local sports to healthcare benefits and social-justice initiatives—and the Kingston Freeman was full of tributes from local leaders when his death was announced. After Tommy’s funeral service, hundreds of mourners followed Tommy’s remains—riding in the sidecar of a motorcycle—the dozen blocks from the church to the brewery. Bagpipers led the way. A Dixieland band brought up the rear. Many toasts were raised in his honor.

Tommy combined his love of beer with savvy entrepreneurship and civic-mindedness to create a business that became an institution. His legacy will long outlast his too-short life. Tommy’s death also feels like the end of era in Kingston, and the greater Hudson Valley as well. The region has been fully and finally discovered, and folks are moving in at a pace that’s dislocating both mentally and physically. Businesses are opening up left and right, from Beacon to Hudson, Newburgh to Catskill, but many of them seem hyper-niche, existing in a tiny echo chamber of a specific taste. Far be it from me to stop a thousand flowers from blooming—small businesses are the backbone of the regional economy—but it’s hard to imagine a place opening now like Keegan Ales, embodying the sincerity and big-heartedness of Tommy’s everyman ethos. 

“You can’t ever be everything to everybody,” Tommy said to me in our last interview. Maybe not, but Tommy came pretty damn close. Rest in peace.

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