Last weekend, hordes of thirsty beer nerds funneled in through the gaping garage door of Crown Heights bottleshop, Covenhoven. They were all there, souvenir cups in hand, to get their fill of some of the city’s latest and greatest draft beers.
But this wasn’t your standard Saturday beer fest shit show. This was the New York Pro-Am Brew P.I.T. (Philosophy. Inspiration. Technique.), a friendly collaboration-cum-competition pairing local homebrewers with some of the five boroughs’ best professional breweries.“The point was to bring brewers and homebrewers into the limelight together, equally,” explained sponsor and event producer John LaPolla, who co-owns nearby homebrew supply shop Bitter & Esters. “All of these breweries were started by homebrewers.” The Pro-Am, in all its sudsy, tipsy glory, marks an unprecedented moment in the NYC brewing scene. Recent legislative changes (see: NY Farm Bill) coupled with a palpable increase in consumer demand, has encouraged homebrewer after starry-eyed homebrewer to take the leap and write that business plan. In the past two years alone, the number of commercial breweries in New York has quadrupled. And this growth shows no sign of slowing, due in large part to the more-the-merrier culture that’s dominated craft beer for decades.
“There’s very little competition in this industry right now,” LaPolla noted, beaming at the drinkers huddling around Finback’s perpetually swamped jockey box. “The bottom line is that professional brewers, they want everyone to drink good beer. Every time a beer is good, it’s good for everyone.”
Several months ago, a handful of lucky homebrewers were selected by raffle to spend the day at an NY-area host brewery, rolling up their sleeves to get a feel for the life of a pro brewer. Participating breweries ranged from world renowned hot-shot Sixpoint to Staten Island’s brand new Flagship Brewing Co. (“Unforgettable beer from the forgotten borough,” according to brewer Patrick Morse). Afterwards, all that professional education and inspiration was channelled into a fresh batch of goodness by the homebrewer, to be poured at the Pro-Am alongside a beer brewed by their professional counterpoints. Pairs spent the afternoon liquoring up ticket-holders who voted on their favorite: a winning recipe to be replicated and served at beloved NYC brewmaster Chris Couzme’s 508 Gastrobrewery.
Unlike many homebrew contests, however, the prize wasn’t the main draw. “The competition part, it was just to add a little fun,” said LaPolla. “It’s really more of a celebration.”
There were no shortage of good beers to celebrate Saturday. Highlights included a Sixpoint-inspired Session IPA by 10-year homebrew veteran and freelance audio engineer Sebastian Schinkel. He had joined the Red Hook-based crew on Righteous Rye brew day, teaming up with brewing manager Heather McReynolds for a shift of boot-clad hard labor. At 4.2%, Schinkel’s “Good Intentions” rode an ideal crushable-yet-nuanced wave. The hop profile layered resiny Apollo with resident citrus bombs Citra and Galaxy, balanced by a Vienna malt for an unexpectedly supple body. “I was going for that signature Sixpoint flavor — like taking a Resin and cutting it down from 103 to 50 IBU,” mused Schinkel.
“Be honest — it was sucky,” McReynolds, the seasoned brewster, jeered. “It was a lot of work.”
“I crushed some grains, drank some beer, stirred the mash tun,” replied Schinkel with a broad smile. “Look, if I’m going to drink your beer, you better believe I’m going to sweat it out, too.”
The sold out shindig attracted everyone from the geekiest of beer geeks — terms like “grain bill” and “inoculation” rose above the din — to newcomers interested in the local scene, many of whom had trouble discerning between the professional and the hobbyist. At one point, an inquisitive blonde leaned over a cluttered booth and asked, “Which one of you is the brewer?” After topping off her tasting glass with his latest summer sipper, the “El Verano” Jalapeno Wit, Finback brewmaster Basil Lee, ever the gentleman, answered that well, they both were.
The line dividing pro from amateur was no more blurred than at Singlecut’s corner table. By 3:30PM, Frank Lockwood was manning both taps himself, taking over for pro brewer Brian Dwyer after he was called away to pour at a Modest Mouse concert (which, by the way, is the most Singlecut reason to bail on an event). The rock-and-roll themed Astoria brewery is known for their inventive lagers — deemed “Lagrrrs” as a tribute to the 1990s Riot Grrrl movement — as well as their signature guitar neck tap handles. Lockwood’s show-stealing Amber, “Link Fuzztone,” was deeply influenced by Singlecut’s musical ethos. “I like to brew beer that’s fueled by a story, which is really similar to Singlecut. It was a natural match. Link Wray was kind of the godfather of grunge. He really pioneered distortion, which is where Fuzztone comes from,” explained Lockwood. “He was from North Carolina, so I based the recipe on North Carolina BBQ — lots of peppercorns, molasses, brown sugar and spice.” Lockwood, a digital strategist who admittedly “prefer(s) brewing beer over building mobile apps for consumer brands,” hit all the right notes with his rich, earthy ale.
After several hours of imbibing and communing around Covenhoven’s dreamy backyard, organizers John LaPolla and Robert Sherrill called everyone to attention to announce the chosen winner: Lockwood’s “Fuzztone” was their favorite brew of the afternoon. “New York is a beer town,” LaPolla proclaimed as Lockwood fielded an onslaught of brotherly handshakes. “And beer builds community.”
All photos by Carla Coria.