Marcus Burnett empties his left pocket. The contents: a MetroCard, a crumpled clump of cash totaling $17.
“This is how we built everything. DIY. We drained our bank accounts,” he says, now pouring me an amber-colored beer. It’s my first visit to Long Island City’s Rockaway Brewing Company, owned by Burnett and Ethan Long. The duo, both natives of California, homebrewed in the backyards of their bungalows in Far Rockaway for nearly four years before opening a two-barrel brewery at the corner of 5th Street and 46th Avenue in 2012.
Queens has developed into a bustling borough of beer-makers, with six breweries currently operating, and Long Island City exists at the core of this explosion, with three—each philosophically distinctive, each producing commendable liquid. Transmitter Brewing, beneath the Pulaski Bridge, dabbles with Belgian and French styles, most of them fermented with Brettanomyces, a wild yeast. Big Alice Brewing, closer to the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, dabbles with everything, concocting wacky recipes with everything from burdock root and mustard greens to porcini mushrooms. Rockaway is the simplest, conceptually, which is not meant to denote inferiority. The model, or beer, is just straightforward.
“We’re not trying to do crazy stuff like triple IPAs or stouts with apricots in wine barrels. Everything we make is easy and drinkable,” Burnett says.
An it’s true. After effortlessly making my way through three pints of 1875 Pale Ale at Rippers (a beachside burger joint from the people behind the Meat Hook and Roberta’s) in July—its citrusiness effectively combated the onslaught of sunshine at Rockaway Beach—I craved more from the small brewery; but I never again encountered 1875, or any other beer, in the next two months. This prompted my pop-in. “Our problem has always been that we just can’t make enough,” Burnett says, clearly frustrated with an average weekly production of 10-12 kegs mostly confined to the brewery for growlers. This limited output is set to improve, though, after a recent expansion into the adjoining building with a new five-barrel brewhouse (the original two-barreler was sold to Strong Rope Brewery in Brooklyn) and two rows of fermenters (totaling 70 barrels). The four-month project will immediately triple production.
Rockaway is also converting the original 700-square-foot brewery, where growlers were once filled from a two-draft kegerator near the entrance, into an eight-draft tasting room with a wraparound bar to serve flights (and hopefully soon, pints). I sampled an impressive squad of beers in the unfinished space open Thursday-Sunday: Beach Beer, a citrusy and yeasty kölsch; the creamy and chocolatey Black Gold Stout, served nitrogenated; and Old School IPA, delicate and malty with faint hoppiness. I also tasted a new Oktoberfest-themed beer poured directly from a fermenter (a version with wet hops from Edgemere Farm and Burnett’s backyard, and with honey from Brooklyn Grange, was made for NYC Honey Week).
This quartet, or any beer from Rockaway, won’t powerbomb your palate with intense flavors or bitterness; rather, each is pleasurably restrained. The focus, Burnett explains, is balance: “How many imperial IPAs can you drink in one night? I’m done after one, and chances are you’re the same. We like to make malty beers you can enjoy one or two of without getting messed up.”
My favorite, and perhaps the strongest example of their objective, was that first amber-colored pour: ESB, the brewery’s flagship. Extra Special Bitters often intimidate with the presumption of nutball bitterness, but the English-rooted style is actually constructed for drinkability. Rockaway’s rendition is toasty, caramely, and fruity.
I really dug it. Burnett and Long really dig the beer, too. They’ll start canning ESB, another first for the brewery, early in 2015. They used Kickstarter to raise $30,555 to purchase a semi-automated canning system in July.
“It’s the freshest way to get our beer out there. Now we can get into places that don’t have drafts, like supermarkets,” Burnett says. “Again, it’s about the push of getting more beer out there.”