Story by Don Cazentre, on Syracuse.com
Ayrloom is the brand name for marijuana-infused beverages, edibles (like gummies), and vape products that will be produced by a company called Gen V Labs in LaFayette.
Never heard of Gen V Labs, either?
It’s a new company that is wholly owned by the family that also operates Beak & Skiff, the largest and best-known apple orchard in Central New York.
Gen V, with its background and resources, is likely to start out of the gate as one of the largest and most recognizable marijuana businesses in Central New York.
Beak & Skiff president Eddie Brennan likes to say “innovation is in our DNA.” The company, which has already moved into alcoholic beverages and hemp-based CBD production, is now poised to go big in the newly legal marijuana industry.
Brennan believes marijuana legalization, and the state’s forthcoming roll-out of legal marijuana sales offers the next big opportunity for growing the family business.
“I think there’s a big potential, especially in beverages,” said Brennan, a member of the fifth generation (Gen V) of Beak and Skiff family descendants. “The current generation is ready for this. What it’s going to take is capital and patience.”
As the owners of a successful business, the Gen V family has some capital to use.
They are, for example, now building a 15,000-square-foot manufacturing and packaging facility for the new Ayrloom products on a part of their sprawling orchard properties at and around the intersection of Routes 20 and 80 in the hills south of Syracuse. That facility is also expected to make marijuana products under contract for other companies.
But patience is needed because, while New York legalized the possession of recreational marijuana in April 2021, the roll-out of the legal industry is taking much longer.
The Gen V owners are among just a handful of entrepreneurs across the state who have already received licenses both to grow marijuana (as Gen V Grow LLC) and process it into usable consumer products (as Gen V Labs LLC).
But the marijuana businesses are waiting for the state to license the first retail outlets, called dispensaries, to sell those products. The first of those may open later this year, but most may not start until some time in 2023.
Gen V does not plan to have its own retail outlet, instead offering products to licensed shops.
‘The only way that cash changes hands is by selling the stuff to the dispensaries,” Brennan said. “To keep delaying the opening of the dispensaries would be a crime.”
Beak & Skiff occupies nearly 1,000 acres of land in the towns of LaFayette and Onondaga. Much of that is devoted to growing 350,000 apple trees.
The business started in 1911 when onion farmer George Skiff and dairy farmer Andrew Beak joined forces. It helped pioneer onsite retail apple sales and u-pick with its original Apple Hill buildings, on Lord’s Hill Road (Route 80), back in 1975. It has since broadened its operations to include a destination visitors center, a line of hard ciders and distilled spirits (1911 Established), and a big-time concert venue.
The orchard has been named America’s best several times in national rankings compiled by readers of USA Today.
Its first venture into cannabis came a few years ago when it formed a division called Beak & Skiff Research and built a facility called the Hemp House at 4473 Route 20. That’s adjacent to its distillery and about a mile from its main “Apple Hill” visitors center on Route 80.
The company then obtained state licenses to grow and process industrial hemp to produce CBD and other extracts that do not contain significant amounts of the psychoactive compound THC found in marijuana. It has since released several CBD-infused beverages, plus tinctures, balms, and other products.
But once New York legalized marijuana, Brennan said, the bottom began to drop out of the CBD business.
“Now we have a pent-up demand for THC products that we want to meet,” he said.
Gen V and Ayrloom (a play on the term “heirloom” used for traditional apple varieties) will take what started with hemp at Beak & Skiff Research and expand it to marijuana, he said.
Earlier this year, Gen V Grow received one of 242 conditional state licenses to cultivate marijuana, and later Gen V Labs got one of just 15 conditional processing licenses. That makes the Gen V operation one of very few businesses in the state with both.
Gen V Grow started planting marijuana in May, on a one-acre, fenced-in plot that has been used in the past for apples, corn and hemp. Led by “master grower” and family co-owner Pete Fleckenstein (Brennan’s cousin), the planting included both a fast-growing variety that is ready for harvest in a matter of weeks, and a second variety that takes most of the growing season.
Gen V Labs, led by general manager Mack Hueber and operations manager Luke Powers, is also buying marijuana from other local and regional licensed cultivators.
At Gen V Labs, they’ll take the harvested and dried plants and process them into what is known as THC “distillate,” a liquid form that is essentially distilled like hard liquor and can then be used in drinks, vapes and other consumer products. For now, Gen V does not plan to sell “flower” forms of marijuana, Brennan said.
Not only does the distillate provide a versatile base for many end products, it is also “shelf stable” for as much as three years, Brennan said. That’s an important consideration given the uncertain timetable for the retail market.
According to Brennan, it takes about 30 to 40 pounds of marijuana plants to produce one liter (or one kilogram) of distillate. That distillate can then serve as the base for about 1,000 vapes or 2,000-to-3,000 beverages with about 5 grams of THC per serving.
The Ayrloom beverages will be slightly sweetened (and non-alcoholic) seltzers and contain 5 milligrams of THC per 12-ounce serving, said Marianne Brennan, Beak & Skiff’s chief marketing officer. (She is married to Eddie Brennan.) The other products will also generally contain about that much THC per serving, she said.
The THC for the drinks and edibles will also be processed to provide a fast-acting effect, Eddie Brennan said.
“Anyone who has used marijuana knows that feeling when it takes about a half-and-hour to 40 minutes to feel it,” he said. “This will be more like five or ten minutes.”
Brennan is a user himself, and he believes marijuana is not just good business, but has been good for him personally.
“I am excited about the future of cannabis as I see the benefits of using the plant in my own life,” he said in an email to syracuse.com following a lengthy interview. “Since introducing marijuana into my daily habits, my drinking has been reduced drastically, I am sleeping better and I do not experience any of the negative ‘hangover side effects.’ ”
It bothers him that the federal government has not yet legalized marijuana, still classifying it as a “schedule 1″ drug. Among other things, that means it can’t be taken across state borders, and it prevents cannabis businesses from being able to get loans through federally supervised banks.
Brennan rejects the idea that marijuana is a “gateway” to drug use, and argues it has none of the bad effects of harder drugs and opioids.
“I hope we can play a small part in building a safe eco-system for cannabis in NY State and help promote a positive message around cannabis,” he wrote of his plans for Gen V.
He also thinks the addition of marijuana to the family business builds on the legacy of his ancestors, including his grandfather, Marshall Skiff.
Skiff, who died in 2018, was known in the family as “the outside guy,” who loved working in the fields, but was also instrumental in modernizing the business. He helped oversee the company as it transitioned to new enterprises like the 1911 hard ciders.
Brennan thought of Skiff last week while showing syracuse.com around the field of ready-to-harvest marijuana plants on the family property.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if my grandfather could see this?” he said, gathering some of the plant stalks in his hands. “I think he’d really embrace it.”
This article was originall published on Syracuse.com