Brooklyn Brewery - Reviving a Rich New York Brewing History


Brooklyn Brewery - Reviving a Rich New York Brewing History

by Alan Talman (Brewing Techniques - Vol. 6, No.2)

Brewing in the high-rent environment of the Big Apple was all but dead when Brooklyn Brewery set up shop. Now this 20,500 bbl/year experiment in historical nostalgia is staging its own East Coast beer renaissance.

Rummage through any history book about New York City and its Brooklyn borough and you will find repeated references to beer, brewing, and the brewers who helped shape the city. Early brewing in New York was controlled by Dutch and British immigrants brewing ales, porters, and small beers. Colonial laws supported brewing, recognizing the potential tax revenue of a thriving and controlled brewing industry. Beer was considered a safe alternative to an unhealthy water supply. Even early calls for temperance decried distilled liquor but embraced beer. In fact, it is well known that George Washington, himself a home brewer, was often spotted sharing an ale with fellow revolutionaries at Fraunces Tavern on the corner of what are now Pearl and Broad Streets. You could say this country came into being over a cold one (of course, it would have been lukewarm back then).

As the young nation grew New York’s immigrant population changed, and so did its brewing scene. In the mid-19th century, European immigrants, many of them skilled lager brewers from Germany unable to find work, began arriving at the Port of New York in large numbers. These stalwart men of 150 years ago took huge risks to leave their native country for the opportunity to brew beer in what was then the world’s largest metropolis. Many of them settled in Brooklyn, where they became part of the city’s brewing history (see “Early Lager Brewing in New York,” opposite, and “A History of Brewing in New York City, page 80). At the peak of its productivity in 1879, Brooklyn boasted at least 43 breweries.

The final chapter for these pioneers is, unfortunately, inglorious. In 1963, Piel’s moved out of New York. In 1973, Schlitz closed its plant. In 1976, Brooklyn’s last two breweries, Rheingold and Schaefer, closed their New York operations forever. Brewing in Brooklyn, the birthplace of some of the county’s largest breweries, disappeared — a humble end to a proud and vigorous beginning.

Then came the modern age of microbreweries. In the early 1980s, small-scale brewing endeavors began springing up all over the United States — yet few businessmen would consider building one in New York City. The same market forces that drove the big brewers out of Brooklyn in the 1970s (sky-high rents, steep labor costs, and astronomical utility fees) kept all but the boldest individuals from starting a new brewing enterprise in New York.

Despite the cosmopolitan environment of the big city, it wasn’t until the 1984 opening of New York’s first brewpub, the Manhattan Brewing Company, that many residents finally became acquainted with the words, “microbrew,” “brewpub,” and “homebrew.” Manhattan found some success through creative strategies, but ultimately the enterprise failed. It took the Brooklyn Brewery to give New Yorkers what they needed: a good swift kick in the palate.

A Small Start in the Big Apple

Steve Hindy and Tom Potter, ignoring all sane advice from friends, conspired to brew a beer New Yorkers could be proud of. In 1987, they quit their day jobs and created the Brooklyn Brewery. Potter came from a career in banking and finance, so he became the CEO of the new operation. Hindy, with his background as a journalist (and home brewer), was a natural to take on the role of beer style and marketing maven.

The first beer they produced was a pre-Prohibition American lager under the guidance of a fourth-generation German-American brewmaster, William M. Moeller. The first bottled batch of Brooklyn Lager was contract-brewed by F.X. Matt, a large-scale brewery located north of New York City in Utica that produces contract beer for a number of small breweries as well as their own labels. This arrangement allowed Hindy and Potter to start brewing and bring their label to market without incurring the huge start-up expenses of manufacturing inside the city limits.

This first batch was low-profile, low-budget, and low-tech; Potter and Hindy even labeled the bottles by hand in their apartment. They then trekked their Brooklyn Lager out to the Big Apple looking for shelf space, like two Santas carrying a sack of not-so-innocent goodies from house to house. At that time, good beer was still a West Coast phenomenon. Most bar and restaurant owners were dubious of the merits of the new beer. New York bar patrons believed that beer should be as cheap, as light, and as cold as possible. Taste was not as important as the calorie content.

Brewers-cum-distributors: Soon after start-up, the owners of Brooklyn Brewery were able to overcome these obstacles in the most unlikely way. Potter and Hindy were pleased with the reception Brooklyn Lager had received from the beer drinking public, but unhappy with the way the existing wholesalers were promoting and handling their product. The two men needed a more aggressive tactic, and in 1990, Potter and Hindy decided to try to distribute Brooklyn Lager themselves. Confident they could generate more sales with their own well-trained salespeople, the two men, along with three new partners, bought two trucks and started their own distribution company. The new approach paid off, and Brooklyn Brewery soon had many more bars and retailers selling their beer. The subsequent success of Brooklyn Lager attracted the attention of other fledgling microbreweries. Recognizing the partners’ business savvy and the success of their distribution efforts, these other micros soon came to the small brewery in Brooklyn for representation.

Brooklyn Brewery’s distribution company, now known as the Craft Brewers Guild, now serves as a kind of Ellis Island of beer imports, bringing U.S. beer lovers a spectacular array of best-selling beers from Germany, Belgium, and Britain in addition to specialty beers brewed in the United States. The Craft Brewers Guild is unlike most other distributors. Most strikingly, its beer selection is limited to high-end and specialty beers, both domestic and imported. Belgian offerings include Boon, Corsendornk, Orval, Saison Dupont, and others. From Germany the Guild imports Ayinger, Paulaner, and Schneider, among others. A number of American microbrews also figure in the Guild’s portfolio, including Geary’s, Pyramid, Rogue, and Sierra Nevada. The company’s distribution ethos is to offer the retailer a complete package of good beer from a single distributor.

The Guild distributes to bars, restaurants, retail beer distributors, grocery stores, and delis. Its sales force is schooled in beer production techniques and can “talk the talk” with the most ardent beer lover. Brooklyn’s own products must, of course, compete with their other wholesale offerings, but the overall success of the distribution network has given Brooklyn the financial stability and flexibility many microbreweries would envy. Today, Potter and Hindy employ about 65 men and women to operate the Craft Brewers Guild and Brooklyn Brewing; thanks to their own distribution efforts, their own beers can now be found throughout the mid-Atlantic region and New England.

The move to on-premise brewing: Anticipation of future expansion prompted Hindy to hire his friend Garrett Oliver, formerly an assistant brewer at Manhattan Brewing Co., as the new brewmaster in 1994. At that time, Brooklyn already had Bill Moeller’s popular lager and brown ale recipes in production. Oliver’s job was to take charge of new recipe development and oversee production of Brooklyn’s contract-brewed beers.

Two years after Oliver was hired, Brooklyn purchased and installed its own Newlands (Sumas, Washington) brewing equipment, designed under Oliver’s direction. As Hindy tells it, “The more I see of microbreweries and the problems they have with their equipment, the more I know Oliver did a brilliant job of building this system.”

The new brewery’s location is in an area of Brooklyn known as Williamsburg. Before Prohibition, this small district was a huge brewing center, housing more than 20 breweries, including a 10-block strip of 11 breweries (a few blocks away from present-day Brooklyn Brewery) known as Brewers’ Row. (The building that now houses the brewery at 79 N. 11th Street had never been a brewery; it last housed a plant that produced Matzoh, an unleavened Jewish ceremonial bread. Yeast is no longer unwelcome here.)

On 28 May 1996, New York City mayor Rudy Guliani presided over the opening ceremony of the first brewery to operate in the borough of Brooklyn in 20 years. The ceremony marked a turning point for Potter and Hindy; their vision of building the brewery within the city was realized. Now it was time to get serious about selling the beer to the community.

Shaping the Community

Potter and Hindy take the responsibility of bringing interesting and exciting beer to New Yorkers personally, with a seriousness that verges on the poetic. Ask Hindy what’s new in his 20,500 bbl/year brewery business, and more than likely he’ll show you a book about brewing history or take you downstairs to see his turn-of-the-century beer bottle collection. Hindy is proud of the individual elements that make up his brewery’s image. As a media expert and journalist, Hindy knows that image counts. Before the partners even brewed their first batch, they made a deal with the famous New York artist Milton Glaser to produce Brooklyn Brewery’s striking logos. Now the Brooklyn logo is nearly as well known in New York as Milton’s most famous piece, the “I Love New York” logo.

The brewery’s identity isn’t merely company narcissism, however. Its operators are conscious of the emerging beer community surrounding them. Every Friday night the brewery holds an open house in the cavernous common room adjacent to the brewhouse. Neighborhood beer lovers congregate within sight of the brand new 25-bbl brewery to sample from the four or five draft offerings. The long wall in the common room is decorated with the best entries from the citywide beer coaster art contest (the winners were chosen from entries submitted on the back side of Brooklyn Brewery beer coasters).

The brewery is also building a name for itself as an informal convention center for local organizations. On a recent rainy Friday evening a skateboard company held a demonstration at the brewery to celebrate the release of its new promotional video. In February, the Malted Barley Appreciation Society, one of New York City’s homebrew clubs, was invited to hold its annual homebrew contest in the brewery. Brooklyn Brewery also sponsors an annual sidewalk event that attracts thousands of New Yorkers from all over the city.

Education is important to both Hindy and Oliver. Both men began as home brewers and recognize the importance of home brewers as loyal, informed customers. They are doing their utmost to bring New York’s brewers up to speed on the craft brewing movement. Oliver regularly hosts tasting events and beer dinners at the best restaurants and beer bars in New York. His mini-seminars at D.B.A., a downtown New York bar famous for its beer selection, are a rite of passage for entering the upper echelons of New York City beer geekdom. Community involvement is especially important for brewers in such large metropolitan areas. New Yorkers now have the choice of literally thousands of labels on store shelves. By constantly being available to his customers, Oliver has helped turn beer buyers from fans into devotees.

Hindy, for his part, feels that he is “making people’s lives better” in a very tangible way. Not because he sells beer, but because he gives something back to the neighborhood. New York Magazine has called the Williamsburg neighborhood “the new SoHo.” SoHo is a former industrial district in lower Manhattan (south of Houston Street) that was transformed in the 1960s and 1970s by working artists into what is now one of the city’s trendiest residential communities. The area surrounding the brewery is now being similarly revitalized by a young new wave of Eastern European immigrants, artists, and business district workers who can’t or won’t live in Manhattan.

It is also evident from the number of new restaurants in the borough successfully selling Brooklyn’s beers that the people of the neighborhood are welcoming the new local beer culture as an integral part of their social lives. Talking with Hindy, one comes away with the feeling that this is what he had in mind all along.

The Brewmaster’s Contribution

All the earnestness in the world won’t help any brewery, however, if it doesn’t brew good beer, and that’s where Oliver shines. It used to be that as a college student, Oliver and his friends drank bland American beer with a little Guinness poured into each glass to give it some flavor and color. Now when Oliver goes to work each day, he is in charge of doing the same thing for others — bringing a little flavor and a little color to the glass of thousands of Brooklyn Brewery customers across the Northeast.

Oliver came to the brewhouse from an eclectic background, as is typical of today’s American brewers. Years ago, while living in New York as a film school graduate and enjoying limited career prospects, Oliver decided to move to England for a chance to “do nothing, somewhere else.” He made a living in England by stage managing a few rock bands and in his free time explored British pubs and their beers. His love for British beer history and culture lies behind the creation of the historically accurate Brooklyn IPA (brewed from a recipe Oliver first developed while at Manhattan Brewing Company). The Brits apparently appreciate the accomplishment — at the invitation of CAMRA’s Roger Protz, Oliver spoke at The British Guild of Beer Writers’ 1994 India Pale Ale conference at Whitbread’s Chiswell Street Brewery.

Now back in New York, Oliver is still a serious student of brewing history and technique. Known on the East Coast as an exciting speaker and beer historian, Oliver is especially proud of having been invited to speak at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. (When the U.S. government rewarded him with an honoraria payment for his appearance, Oliver says, “I almost kept it framed, on a wall — you know, the government paying me to talk about beer!”)

He is also a perfectionist. Those around him lament that he’s a “control freak.” Oliver is proud of the moniker. Sometimes imposing, always smartly dressed, and possessing a booming radio announcer’s voice, Oliver commands his brewhouse with a firm hand. The blackboard on the wall of his brewhouse reads, “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid.”

Hindy and Potter have entrusted Oliver with the creative aspects of recipe formulation and development for the entire line-up of Brooklyn’s beers. About half of the company’s annual production, including bottled ales and all lagers, is produced by contract brewers in upstate New York under his control. Oliver produces all but one of the company’s kegged ales in the seven fermentors at the Brooklyn plant.

The Beers

Brooklyner Weisse: An example of Oliver’s bold style, Brooklyner Weisse was the first beer produced in Brooklyn’s new brewhouse. Though the cloudy beer undoubtedly took his local advocates aback (Oliver’s clearly not afraid to offer up cloudy beers; of his kegged ales, only the brown and the pale are filtered), it earned him a gold medal at the 1997 Great American Beer Festival (GABF) sweeping 83 other entries from America’s best brewers. The German–style wheat beer is a traditional Hefeweizen with an original gravity of 1.053 (13.2 °P). Cloudy, bursting with freshness, and worth traveling for, Brooklyner Weisse was the talk of the GABF.

Blanche de Brooklyn: Oliver’s personal passion for brewing traditional beer styles is equally evident in his bronze medal–winning Blanche de Brooklyn. Once again, New Yorkers were invited to broaden their palates beyond the pale with this Belgian witbier. The witbier also impressed the GABF judges with its orange peel and coriander bite, balanced as it is against the sweet tart flavor of a largely unmalted wheat grain bill. Oliver says he has little difficulty mashing with 50% unmalted wheat, but had never brewed with it before. “I called brewer friends of mine and asked them if they knew how. They all said, no, they wouldn’t touch the stuff,” Oliver says. “I was terrified. The look, the aroma, the viscosity — I had never seen anything like it.”

Black Chocolate Stout: The strength of Brooklyn Brewery’s other offerings is substantial. The brewery introduced its Russian imperial stout in November 1994. Oliver says, “Steve came to me and said he wanted to have a holiday beer that people wouldn’t forget.” He adds, “And that’s why I came to Brooklyn. Instead of someone saying ‘No,’ Steve came to me and said ‘Let’s blow their socks off.” A beer destined to do just that, Black Chocolate Stout is a formidable 8.25% alcohol (v/v) affair that starts at a staggeringly high original gravity of 1.091 (21.7 °P) and finishes at 1.021 (5.4 °P). Sporting a deep fruity body with a warm alcoholic mouthfeel, Black Chocolate Stout, or BCS, is perfectly balanced by a smooth coffee and chocolate aroma. True to style, no hop aroma is evident, and the bittering hops cut through the sweetness exactly as one would hope. Made up of a combination of six malts plus roasted barley, Oliver uses the first runnings from two-and-one-half mashes for each batch.

The stout is available on draft and bottled; bottles are produced in limited runs, but they make a big splash. Supplies sell out quickly each year, and many collectors stockpile these gems for consumption a year or two down the road. More impatient and thirsty New Yorkers notify one another through internet postings whenever a new BCS tap handle appears in the city. Brooklyn Brewery claims BCS is this country’s best selling Russian imperial stout.

Pennant Ale’55: One of Brooklyn’s most outstanding offerings and available only in the New York metro area, Pennant Ale was named as a tribute to the Brooklyn Dodger team that finally bested their Yankee rivals in the 1955 World Series. It is a British-style pale ale brewed from soft Maris Otter malt (Oliver’s trick is to keep the mash under 158 °F (70 °C) to avoid leaching out the excess tannins that are one of the malt’s drawbacks). Darker than many pales, Pennant is amber with a hint of ruby red. The hop aroma is at once intense, soft, and pleasing. The rounded malty mouthfeel and the British bittering hops strike a perfect balance in this excellent session beer. While probably designed to be drunk at cellar temperatures, this full-bodied pale will stand up to the colder temperatures at which it might be served by an average American beer drinker.

The original, Brooklyn Lager: Perhaps what is most notable about this beer is its pedigree. Designed by William Moeller to faithfully recreate the pre-Prohibition style of lager brewing in Brooklyn, the beer has gone on to win one prestigious award after another. Brooklyn Lager has won the top honors in four major professional competitions, including a GABF gold and a World Beer Championship at the awards by the Beverage Testing Institute.

Hoppy, but not sharp, Brooklyn Lager sports malt flavor that is lightly caramel and toasted. The subtle hop aroma and soft orange color are enticing; the long-lasting floral hop flavor is refreshing. Medium-bodied, abour 5% alcohol (v/v), this is the beer with which Steve and Tom built their company.

The rest of the line-up: Brooklyn’s lineup also includes its Dunkle Weisse, a brown ale, a Pilsener, an IPA, a Belgian-style dubbel, and a barleywine. The barleywine, named Monster (an appropriate name for the 11% [v/v] beer), is made in one limited 75-bbl run, and released in February each year. According to Oliver, Monster is very expensive to make and most likely loses money for the brewery. “Monster is our ‘thank you’ to the bars that carry our beers. When we release Monster, a bar owner serving it can fill the bar on a Monday night.” Continuing to push the envelope, Oliver has also just begun a cask-conditioning program.

Here’s to the Future

New York’s beer scene has suffered the meek for so long that a beer that can fill bars is a revolution in itself. Brooklyn Brewery and its diverse distributorship of imported and craft-brewed beers have helped to remind New Yorkers that the craft brewing movement has arrived and is knocking at the door.

The city has shown signs of a beer renaissance in the 1990s. The easy availability of good beer is almost guaranteed these days, and the city now boasts about a dozen brewpubs. It appears that reports of the demise of craft brewing in the Big Apple (as reported by a notorious New York Times article in May of 1997) were greatly exaggerated.

So, if you visit the Big Apple anytime soon, drive down the LIE to the BQE and be sure to pay your last respects to the 10-story Budweiser sign that marks Metropolitan Avenue. It may not be the sign of the times in New York for much longer.

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