All photographs are property of Walt + Whitman
“We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. So medicine, law, business, engineering...these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love...these are what we stay alive for.” — Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
A latter-day Homer, Walt Whitman’s simply phrased but incisive and profound words have been shaping American democracy and culture for more than 150 years. He is best known for his elevation and celebration of the handcrafter; the artist; the poet; even the politician who dares to live their own audacious vision.
The now 23-year-old Will Crager, majoring in political science at Notre Dame and on track to attend law school, was so moved by Whitman’s deep dedication to American culture, he not only decided to change the course of his own life, but also persuaded his family of six to uproot themselves from their home in Philadelphia and join him in Saratoga Springs to dedicate their lives to the celebration of all things craft.
On December 19th, 2019, Will and his mother Kathy, with the support and assistance of his father Bill and three younger sisters, opened Walt + Whitman, a brewpub and coffeehouse dedicated to American culture, and set up to accommodate the go-with-the-flow, work-from-wherever modus operandi in which so many people — especially those in the creative fields Walt + Whitman celebrates — exist.
I swung by on a recent rainy day to get the scoop, and here’s what I found. First of all, the space is unlike what one finds in a typical Upstate brewery, especially downstairs, where the brewpub resides. Think steampunk chic, with an art gallery vibe, and the kind of worldly but cozy living room you’ve seen in catalogs, but can never manage to replicate on your own. Oriental rugs. A pizza oven with a rotating lava stone. A roaring (gas) fire. A glass wall behind which gleaming beer barrels stand like soldiers, ready to serve in the army of deliciousness.
New York Makers: Ok, I have to say that when I walked in here and saw the space, I was shocked. It looks so basic on the outside! I can’t even imagine what you went through to design and decorate this space. Tell me everything, starting with how many square feet you have.
Will Crager: (Laughs) We have 20,000 square feet, though some of that hasn’t quite been developed yet. Right now, we have the coffee upstairs, and the brewpub downstairs; that takes up about 12,000 square feet. We are in the process of developing the space over our 10-barrel brewery, and that will have a beer hall feel, and will be available for rent for private events. Our whole concept for the space, which my family and I have been working on for years, is to honor the art and culture of Americans. We started construction on the building in 2017, and the concept at that point was in place. My father curated the art and the look; we’ve been collecting the art for years. You’ll see everything on the wall from prints featuring Nipsey Hustle, Jimi Hendrix, Elvis, and Jerry Garcia, to quotes from Hunter S. Thompson and Walt Whitman himself.
NYM: So far, the soundtrack has been eclectic too, with the Grateful Dead, country, and Bruce Springsteen.
WC: Absolutely. We play rock n’ roll, old punk, old school hip hop, country. We want to create a welcoming, open experience that allows people to have fun, chill out, work (if they want), and migrate around the building. We have separate spaces and separate menus upstairs and downstairs, but if you grab a coffee upstairs, you are more than welcome to come downstairs, sit on the couch and enjoy your coffee by the fire. And if you want to sit down and grab a meal downstairs and there happens to be a wait — which does occasionally happen — you are more than welcome to grab a beer and bring it upstairs, so your kids can have a hot chocolate while you wait. We are loose here. Kids are welcome everywhere, and there are no hard and fast rules about purchasing a beverage in one space and then being forced to stay there.
NYM: The building itself has significance.
WC: It does. It’s in the old Saratogian newspaper building, which, of course, is a cornerstone of history and culture in town. And we wanted the space in many ways to offer what a newspaper does — a resource, a community, inspiration, nourishment. It is in the heart of downtown and was built in 1902. It has been really fun to have former employees of the paper come in and describe where the printing press was, where their desk was. They’ve all been really supportive, which is heartening.
NYM: What has the reception been thus far overall?
WC: It has been overwhelmingly positive. We ran into huge setbacks during construction, simply because it’s a new building. And we do not have a background in hospitality. My mom was a stay-at-home mother of four and my father founded a financial services company. Without the community and our neighboring businesses here pitching in and helping, and without the amazing team we put together, I don’t know where we’d be. We had the vision and the will, but they’ve helped clear the way for us in a way that is almost impossible to completely explain.
NYM: Tell me about your team.
WC: Like the concept for the space and build out, it was years in making. We visited brewing schools in Canada and California and researched and interviewed people for years before putting everyone in place, because we knew it was the key to our success. There’s Shawna Jenks, our director of operations. She has a vast background in hospitality, most recently as operations manager at Morton’s The Steakhouse, and she has helped guide our vision and is in charge of executing it. Keegan Dombrosky is our director of brewing, and he is focusing on creating a variety of styles, from lagers to stouts to sours, that will introduce people who are less familiar with craft brews to these styles, and also offer something for people who already love craft beer. He won several awards for his work at Back East Brewery, including a gold at the Great American Beer Festival. Our chef Brandon Schatko hails from Detroit and worked in Lake Placid and in Troy, most recently as executive chef at Plumb Oyster Bar. He’s creating Detroit-style pizzas and fantastic street food-style fare inspired from all over the world, that will pair with Keegan’s 10 or so beers on tap. Our coffee is sourced from Ceremony Coffee Roasters in Maryland. All of the ingredients and vendors we bring in are sustainably minded, and a lot of the dairy and ingredients are local.
NYM: Your menu is as eclectic as the space.
WC: Yes, we wanted food that was laid-back and approachable, but not typically what you’d find in other places in Saratoga. The Detroit-style pizzas with funky toppings -- like Cacio E Pepe pizza or the Not-So-Hawaiian with speck (a type of salt-cured pork that can be smoked or pickled), griddle pineapple, jalapeno, and blue cheese the homemade pop tarts in the café upstairs, our taco and beer pairings, we wanted it all to be delicious but different.
NYM: Let’s talk basics. How many people can you accommodate, what are the hours, and what should people expect in terms of separation of space?
WC: We are open from 8 am to 10 pm during the week, 11 pm on weekends. Our café serves food 8 am-4 pm, and our brewpub serves beer and food from 11 am onward. We have a lot of curious people swinging in for a coffee or a beer at this point, but we are also starting to see a fairly consistent pattern of customers. A lot of families, and also a lot of people who are bringing their laptops and hanging out and working. People also love to have meetings over a beer on our couches by the fire. We have been slammed, which is incredible. We’ve only been open a few weeks, but, so far, the reception we’ve gotten and the stream of customers has exceeded our expectations.
Coffeehouse + brewpub = a new kind of space celebrating and serving artisanal, handmade local everything...We will drink and dine to that any day (or night) of the week.