For the Opening Bash of the seventh annual NYC Beer Week, the NYC Brewers Guild and NY State Brewers Association decided that the event would exclusively feature NY state breweries. It was a bold strategy, but it certainly paid off, with over forty brewers from every corner of the state making their way to the Altman Building in Manhattan to show off some of their finest brews. After tasting what they had to offer, their message was clear: for creative, quality beer, New Yorkers need not look outside the borders of their own state.
The event featured a diverse range of beers and breweries. There were established regional breweries like Southern Tier, who produce 100,000 barrels of beer each year, but there were also brewers working out of their 150-square-foot garage. While Matt Brewing Company (producer of the Saranac family of beers) has been around since the 1800s, Cuzett Libations brewed their first beer less than a month ago. With so many different backgrounds and a large number of head brewers and brewery owners present, I set out to learn more about what inspired their decisions about what to brew and how to run their brewery, and how they were navigating the rapidly-changing landscape of craft beer.
One trend that I found across all breweries was the desire to make unique beers that stand out. As the craft beer industry in New York has expanded in recent years, both newcomers and veterans have been constantly pushing the boundaries of established styles. I witnessed this firsthand minutes after arriving, when I found a Habanero IPA being served in-between a Brett Porter and a White Coffee Stout.
I asked Rich Castagna, founder of Bridge and Tunnel Brewery, whether the increase in competition within the state might be driving brewers to try increasingly unique styles. “I don’t really know what other people are doing,” he admitted, stating that he decides what to brew based on what he wants to drink. His Queens-based brewery is essentially a “one-man operation” with the help of his wife, so he doesn’t have time to be concerned with what’s being brewed elsewhere. Whatever the reason, his decision to attempt a Habanero IPA was a good one. The beer had a noticeable kick that is sometimes lacking in pepper-flavored beers, but wasn't excessively spicy.
The trend of so-called nanobrewing extends beyond the confines of the five boroughs. Out in Long Island, Jamie and Rachel Adams are running another one-man and one-woman operation at Saint James, a self-described “farm-to-pint” brewery. When I asked Jamie what is so special about brewing in New York, he spoke passionately about the importance of making beer with local ingredients. He said that they use “nearly 100% NY state ingredients,” and that he visits hop farms and malters throughout the state to try their goods in person and decide what to put in their beers.
The Framboise cask they brought to the event was a perfect illustration of this concept, as the raspberries they used for the beer were bought from a farmer just down the road from the brewery. The beer itself was delicious, with loads of raspberry flavor without being sweet; it was refreshing with a light tartness on the finish that left you wanting more.
I heard more about the focus on local beer and local ingredients when I stopped by to talk to Greg Doroski of Threes Brewing. The Brooklyn-based brewery was pouring their brand-new Imperial Pale Ale, named “Superf*ckingyawn” to poke fun at how overplayed the big, hoppy beer genre has become. Joking aside, they recognize that when it comes to hoppy beers where fresher is better, they have a home field advantage when competing against more recognizable craft brands, many of which are on the West Coast. “We’re going to get fresh ingredients and serve fresh beer to our local customers that other competitors can’t match.”
Hutch Kugeman, head brewer at Crossroads Brewing in Athens, also talked a little bit about competition. When I asked him about the rapid addition of new breweries in the state, he said he was “thankful we started four years ago, not now.” With the number of breweries in the state more than doubling over the past few years, those opening their doors today are confronted with different challenges than Crossroads faced when they poured their first pint in October, 2010.
“I do worry a little bit about getting lost in the shuffle,” Hutch admitted, but also mentioned that the increasing market for craft beer means there is plenty of room for everyone to grow. In fact, a couple years back the brewery had to pull their distribution from NYC in order to meet local demand. And at the end of the day, the brewers are part of a supportive, tight-knit community. “I like to see other breweries doing a good job, because it’s good for the industry as a whole,” he added, mentioning that it forces him to work even harder to make the best beer he can.
When it came to beer styles, however, Hutch said that most of the time, he brews what he likes -- a refrain that was I was getting used to hearing. And what he likes are “big, bold flavors.” The folks at Greenpoint Beer and Ale Company (located on the site of Dirck the Norseman in Brooklyn) also like bold flavors, but ended up with a very different result. Their Kentucky Common aged in Whiskey Barrels clocked in at just 5.5% -- almost unheard of for a barrel-aged beer. The beer managed to capture the flavor of the whiskey and oak without being overpowering.
The brewers at Transmitter Brewing in Queens followed their personal passions when deciding what kind of brewery to open. Luckily for us, their passion is making bottle-conditioned farmhouse ales. The growing craft beer market and strong sense of community has allowed them to operate a Community Supported Brewery Program, where they sell “shares” in advance that entitle the shareholder to bottles of new beer every month. While their brewery is young, the early results are quite promising, as their funky Biere de Garde was one of the standouts of the event.
Joe Grimm of Grimm Artisanal Ales was another head brewer who told me that “we try to make the types of beer we want to drink.” They don’t have any year-round beers, and they rarely make the same brew twice. And while some might see the proliferation of new breweries as added competition, this isn’t the case for Grimm. Joe and his wife are “gypsy brewers,” meaning that they test a recipe at home, then make it on-site at another brewery. “The more breweries, the more capacity, the happier we are,” Joe told me.
This excitement about the growth of beer in NY is one of the feelings that stuck with me throughout and after the event. While these breweries are competing against one another for many of the same customers, they still want to see each other succeed. And as long as people keep lining up to try the latest release, these breweries will continue to thrive and grow and new ones will continue to pop up around the state.
The local support these breweries receive allows them to try new things and focus on brewing what intrigues them, while the spirit of friendly competition among brewers helps to push them to become better versions of themselves.
Perhaps Hutch did the best job of summing up the current state of NY craft beer when he told me that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Indeed it does, Hutch. Indeed it does.
When he's not writing about beer, Matt works at the NYU Medical Center where he does cancer and stem cell biology research. You can find him on Twitter at @murphym45.
This is part an effort by BeerGraphs to team up with the New York State Brewer's Association to give you complete coverage of New York City Beer Week.