New York's Brewers on the State of New York Beer

J. R. Shirt, February 24, 2015

This week marks the 7th annual New York City Beer Week. The Opening Bash, held this past Saturday at the Altman Building, featured nearly 50 breweries -- all from the state of New York. Unfamiliar with a majority of the breweries that were in attendance, I spent nearly a week getting ready by researching and forming a plan. As my brother T-Bone and I left the event, our bellies full of some truly wonderful beer, I felt good about the execution of said plan.

While we were inside for hours drinking delicious beers from New York, a state that generally is under appreciated in the national beer consciousness, winter had gotten to more wintering and a good inch or two of snow covered most things. We were headed toward the subway, treading carefully on the slick sidewalks, when T-Bone slipped and went down.

He went down hard and crushed the NYC Beer Week souvenir glass between the sidewalk and his hand. He was up quickly but there were already drips of red in the snow around us. It wasn't as bad as it first appeared. Nothing a few tissues and and some good ol' fashioned keeping it elevated couldn't handle. Perhaps T-bone did it on purpose, some type of performance art. A falling down metaphor for the very event from which we were walking away.

T-Bone was the event. The glass represented success. In falling down, T-Bone was smashing the glass. In falling down, T-Bone was making a statement:

The event was a smashing success.

Honestly, painful metaphors aside, the Opening Bash was one of the better events I've attended. The main room was spacious and offered plenty of space for the crowd. With almost 50 breweries in attendance, as well as other vendors, there was plenty to get to and not once did I have to wait more than a few moments for a beer. There was a raw bar with oysters and the other food that I tried was delicious. There was a man with a beard wearing a vest making beer cocktails.

And the beer itself, or at least the beer I tried, was fantastic.

The best beer of the night may have been Gun Hill's Void of Light, a Foreign Style Stout that had already won a gold medal at the GABF, among other awards. Gun Hill, the first brewery to open in the Bronx in 50 years, is barely a year old and is already getting national attention – Men's Journal recently listed Void of Light among the top 20 stouts in the world. It's easy to see why. The beer has a bold roasted character on the front end with a quick, dry finish that makes it extremely enjoyable and drinkable.

But beyond the excellent beer at this event, there was also an excitement in the air. There was a sense that something special is happening in New York, both in the city and the state. The beer scene in New York had been slowly growing over the past few years, but the vibe in the room was that things were ready to explode. You could see it on the brewers faces and the fans. You could hear it in the conversations people were having. And you could certainly taste it in the beers.

“It's interesting, I've been in the trade for a long time,” said Chris Sheehan, brewmaster for Gun Hill Brewing Co., “and when I first started working in the city, at Neptune Brewery initially, and later Chelsea, there were nine breweries in Manhattan back then. And they rapidly, within the ensuing three or four years, they all dropped off. To the point before long, we [Chelsea] were the only brewery left in Manhattan. I think real estate played a key role. Another part of it was there was a lot of crappy beer out there.”

“Back in the day,” Chris continued, “there was a bit of a shakeout in the industry. You know, a whole lot of breweries opened in the late 90's and then a whole lot of them closed. It was a setback for the industry as a whole. Since then, it's been building and building again.”

For city the size of New York, and a state that lies between Philadelphia and New England, that growth had been slow, or at least seemed slower than most places. So the obvious question is "why?" What are those challenges? And at the same time, what advantages does New York, the city and the state, offer?

“I see more pros than cons.” Sheehan said. “It's such a fertile market in New York City. Hundreds, if not thousands, of bars within easy distance. We're in an area where rent is very manageable. The neighborhood we're in has embraced us very well. We've made many friends in our neighborhood, and neighborhoods nearby, and there's nothing like that anywhere around.”

Dan Hitchcock, head brewer of Rushing Duck, located in Orange County, New York, had similar things to say about heading upstate, "The Lower Hudson Valley is great right now because -- and people from the city do this all the time, there's a nice little loop -- you can up and hit Peekskill, Captain Lawrence, Newburgh, us, and Defiant. We're all in this tight little loop so you can go up, around, and come back to the city, all in a couple hours and hit some world class breweries."

It makes so much sense -- great towns and great neighborhoods. But then why hasn't it happened sooner? What had been keeping brewers in New York, with a few obvious exceptions, out of national conversations? And why have so many breweries opened up in the city within the past two years? What was the catalyst?

Matt Murphy addressed many of these questions last week, mentioning the high property costs as a hinderance to brewing in the city along side the increase in demand for craft beer and craft friendly legislation as reasons for the growth throughout the state.

I spoke with Kyle Hurst of Big Alice Brewing Company while sipping on their Rye IPA – great citrus flavor to go with spice of the rye – and then their White Coffee Stout – a pale stout brewed with pilsner malt and coffee from a local coffee roaster in Queens. They are currently running on a five barrel system in Long Island City, but were on a 10 gallon system as recently as October, and he brought up some of that newer legislation that he feels is having a positive impact on growth in the state.

“Andrew Cuomo is looking to do for breweries in New York what his father did for wineries.” Hurst said. “So the Farm Winery is something his father put in. We're actually a Farm Brewery, that's a relatively new act that got put in a couple years ago. All it means is that we're using at least 20% New York state malts and hops in all our beers. We've always sourced as much of our ingredients locally as we could, so it made sense for us to get that license.”

Jeff O'Neil, brewmaster at Peekskill Brewing (at least for a few more days), poured me a Styriana, a lager brewed with Styrian Golding hops and finished with brett, and took a few minutes to speak with me at the event about the growing demand and the trends that are starting to impact beer in New York.

“New York has come leaps and bounds in the last five years as a beer market and people are thirstier for better and better beers.” O'Neil said. “The bar is getting raised.”

O'Neil himself is a big part of that bar being raised, brewing at Peekskill since 2011 and at Ithaca Beer Company before that. Along with Styriana, he brought Shotgun Willie to the event, a rye IPA brewed with Nelson Sauvin hops. Both beers were outstanding and, maybe more importantly, unique.

“We're in the sweet spot of a trend,” O'Neil continued, “of people wanting to know their baker and their butcher and their farmer and it dovetails really nicely with that, like knowing your local brewer and having a place you can go and sit for a couple hours, that sort of familiarity. That doesn't happen overnight and it started much earlier in places like California and Portland, Oregon. And it just took time I think. It's a function of time more than anything else.”

When asked about the state legislation, O'Neil replied, “That's part of it. It's sort of a symptom of it. They're also giving out grants that support small breweries and there's a lot of economic growth now. The state has gotten to be really protective of their breweries. The culture around it has changed. A lot of people are really excited about it and proud of what's going on. It's been a long time coming.”

Timing, or time, seemed to be a common thread in a lot of the conversations I had on Saturday. Whether talking with another drinker in the crowd, a brewer from the city, or a brewer from upstate – it was becoming apparent that the time was now. The barriers, for whatever reason, were coming down. Or in the case of the cost of real estate, which certainly wasn't coming down anytime soon, the barriers were simply being overcome.

“Craft beer in NY is maturing to where there's kind of a demand for more brewers.”

That's Greg Doroski, head brewer for Threes Brewing, a brewpub in Brooklyn just two months old. They had three beers at the opening bash and each one was easily in my top ten for the day: an Imperial Pale Ale, A Baltic Porter, and a Table Beer.

The Imperial Pale Ale, Superf*ckingyawn, is brewed with Mosaic, Simcoe, and Columbus with some Amarillo in the dry hop. It was fruity, think apricot, maybe some orange, but with some serious bitterness, especially for how smooth it went down.

Next, Greg poured us their Table Beer, “It's a saison, wit beer hybrid that we bottle conditioned with brett,” he said. “There's a little bit of tartness, some of that is from the dryness. The beer itself started at 4.2% alcohol and we conditioned it with brett. So there wasn't a ton of sugar for the brett to eat. It's not that funky. It's kind of fruity, a little bit tart, and there is just a suggestion of brett.”

While we sipped on and marveled at the Table Beer, I asked Greg if he really thought the explosion of craft beer in New York City was just the result of demand or if there was more.

“It's also,” Greg paused, “so, like Sam from Other Half, he brewed for a long time at KelSo, and brewed on the west coast before that. I brewed at Greenport before this. So a lot of the people that are opening things up in Brooklyn, New York right now kind of had to go through that maturation process: went somewhere, came back, and said we need to do this in the city.”

“The barrier to entry in the city is much more, rent is much much higher, dealing with the city agencies and inspectors and Con Ed is much much more difficult. But you also have access to 10 million people within 10 miles. We have a 15 barrel brewhouse. We're brewing 500 gallons of beer at a time and we are selling most of it through our own bar.”

What Greg said next is one of the most profound things I heard all day. It built on things I had been hearing from other brewers from the city, about the importance of neighborhoods and community, and from brewers throughout the state, about the importance of keeping the product local and fresh rather than expansion.

Greg, T-Bone, and I had got to talking about the American craft beer market in a larger sense. T-bone brought up some numbers on the growth of American Craft Beer as an export over the past few years, because believe it or not, my brother T-Bone is into that sort of thing. And that led to us toward the topic of Threes Brewing exporting their beer. Not out of the country, but just out of state, or really even just out of the city. With a city as large as New York, and a brewery just two months old, is that sort of expansion even a thought yet?

Pointing to the keg of the Imperial Pale Ale, which he had mentioned earlier was less than two weeks old, Greg said, “That's one of the really exciting things about craft beer: Everyone can make a beer like that and could serve it in their local markets and everyone would be better served.”

And perhaps that is what's happening in New York. Perhaps that is why, among the more obvious obstacles, it has taken New York just a bit longer than everyone else. If you're trying to keep it local and keep it fresh, and I'm paraphrasing that as a sentiment that was conveyed to me by many of the brewers at the Opening Bash, it makes sense that it might take a bit longer for those breweries to make their way into the national conversation.

The guys from Great South Bay Brewing Company may have said it best at the end of the day, when I had probably had too much to drink to be interviewing anyone. I was most likely repeating myself incessantly (not most likely, I definitely was, I have it recorded), but Pete, from Great South Bay, a brewery on Long Island that has been around for about five years, somehow knew what I was asking. Basically, I wanted to know from him, as someone that has been doing this for a bit longer than a decent amount of the brewers at the event, what he saw happening in the New York beer scene.

“New York State beer is a family and great beer makes great beer.” Pete said, rescuing me from my own terrible line of repetitive statements. “Everyone is elevating everybody and we make a lot of good beer here in New York.”

From the recording, it seems that I enjoyed their beers – a Blood Orange Pale Ale and a Dirt Deeds Russian Imperial Stout. Luckily, I should have the opportunity to try them again, as Pete said they should be distributing to Philadelphia within the next year.

He told me that tidbit of information after I told him I was from Pennsylvania, and I may or may not have told him I was from Pennsylvania seven or eight times in a row.

I may have also said, more than once, “You guys seem like good guys.”

Both would be true statements.

Follow J.R. Shirt on Twitter and Untappd @beeronmyshirt. You can listen to the Drinking With Shirt podcast, hosted by J.R. and featuring his brother T-Bone, here at BeerGraphs or on iTunes.

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.