“If there’s one thing we’ve learned through all of this, it’s that you have to be ready to adjust at any second,” says Marshall Thompson, settling into a booth at The Rookery in Bushwick. “Plan A or Plan B may change, so you need to be ready to come up with a C, D, E.” He pauses to survey the airy, floral-wallpapered pub on Troutman Street, which has a giant taxidermy peacock mounted on the highest shelf behind its bar. “I’ve loved every minute of this, though. It’s been so much fun.”
Eric Feldman nods while entering the booth next. “It’s been a wild ride. Two years of staring at spreadsheets, rewriting business plans, brewing five-gallon batches over and over again. To see our one of our beers on tap now, it’s a historic moment. I don’t think I’ll ever not say, ‘This is cool as shit!'”
Thompson stands and walks to the horseshoe-shaped bar, but quickly about-faces and returns with nothing. “I actually don’t see it on tap,” he tells us, it being Braven White, the debut beer from Thompson and Feldman’s Braven Brewing Company. Their rollout of kegs started last Sunday with White, a crushable combination of witbier (coriander and bitter orange peel are used for spicing) and American IPA (Columbus, Cascade, and Citra hops), and The Rookery was one of its initial getters—supposedly.
“Let me hit up the distributor,” Thompson says, noticeably nervous. After a brief textchange, he becomes noticeably giddy. “So, the keg is still en route, but they’ve already delivered 16 other kegs today! This’ll be the last stop. We could wait here or…” He suggests walking to The Sampler, the first bar to pour Braven White two days earlier (on Thompson’s 34th birthday), nearby on Starr Street. “This is what we were referring to earlier before about being ready to adjust to anything,” Feldman laughs, reapplying his three layers of outerwear.
We leave Rookery and speedwalk in the piercing cold like a trio of running backs barreling through a fortress of defensemen. “See that building,” Thompson says, pointing with his head to a muraled brick warehouse encompassing nearly the entire block. “That was almost the brewery but it fell through. It’s huge in there. Only being used for motorcycle storage now.”
“How many buildings have you looked at?” I ask.
“A good amount, all around the Jefferson L stop. We’re still waiting for the right one. There’s always seems to be one thing wrong with a space.”
Our conversation shifts to The Knick, which I had binge-watched earlier that day, until we arrive and grab a table at Sampler. While Feldman orders three Braven Whites from the tiny wooden bar, Thompson dives into their history together. “We’ve been friends for about 14 years and started homebrewing around 2009, just fucking around,” he starts. Since the duo were making beer in Feldman’s apartment in Stuyvesant Town, they chose East Village Brewing Company as a name for their kitchen-based operation. They had no intention to pursue brewing outside of that 20-square-foot space—both were comfortably employed full-time—until a homebrewing tour organized by Joshua M. Bernstein changed everything. “Everyone loved the beers, including him. We were pretty shocked, honestly. We realized maybe we could actually do this for real,” Feldman recalls, returning beers-in-hand.
Bernstein, the Brooklyn-based author of Brewed Awakening, regularly hosts intimate tours that pack large groups of inquisitive drinkers into the apartments of New York City homebrewers for tasting and talking. After visiting East Village Brewing, he wrote, “Back in 2010, I crammed 30 strangers into Feldman’s Manhattan apartment to sample the Avenue A-le and Stuy Town Nut Brown. The beers were delightful. The crowd was impressed. Perhaps these guys have a bright future…”
Bernstein’s hunch was certainly correct, but their brightness wouldn’t fully illuminate as East Village. After the tour, Thompson and Feldman continued to refine their recipes in Stuy Town and were asked When are you opening your own brewery? from mostly everyone who sampled their suds. Thompson was now living in Bushwick and, initially unbeknownst to him, the neighborhood was once chockablock with breweries. “I loved Bushwick’s culture, it’s diversity, and I started to do a lot of research,” he says. “I knew Brooklyn had a lot of breweries before, but the more I read, I really didn’t know the extent of it in Bushwick.”
According to a 1994 article from Brewing Techniques, one of Thompson’s sources, “[u]ntil 1976, when the last brewery in Bushwick closed, brewing history in this section of Brooklyn spanned more than 130 years. At one point before Prohibition, 10% of all beer produced in the United States originated in Brooklyn, and the majority of this came from Bushwick.” This dominance eventually atrophied to nothing, though. The author, Ben Jankowski, continues: “The decline of breweries in Bushwick follows a pattern of plant consolidation among large breweries, the emergence of national brands in areas where regional beer once dominated, and the debut of the ‘superbrewery,’ which would brew for an entire section of the country, displacing the smaller regional breweries…Also, New York had its own indigenous problems. Labor, bizarre City of New York taxes (taxing of billboards, brewing machinery, and ingredients), and little room for expansion next to existing plants were all factors that caused Bushwick breweries to relocate or close.”
“The more we read, it became all about returning this rich tradition of brewing to Bushwick. The situation was just too perfect to pass up,” Feldman recalls. While the idea was certainly romantic, its implementation would require serious capital. They decided to use Kickstarter, a popular crowdsourcing platform in the craft-beer industry, and raised over $23,000 in November of 2013 to cover some of the initial branding and legal costs. “It also helped to make ourselves known, to start the buzz and get people behind us,” Feldman explains. “I think it’s worked, too—bar owners have followed our progress and they’re emailing us now for the beer. We’ve been on our phones nonstop the last two days with orders.”
According to BeerMenus, Braven White is now pouring at six places and another 50-ish kegs have been delivered across New York City (including The Rookery). The duo will cement their launch with an event at The Well on Friday. During our chat at The Sampler, Thompson has just invited a couple sitting near us.
“What the hell is a Braven?” the woman asks, after they’ve ordered a pair of Whites.
“It’s basically a raven with buck antlers,” Thompson laughs, showing her the chimera on his hoodie. “My family is really into genealogy and I wanted to get a tattoo of both sides’ coat of arms. One was a raven and one was a buck, so I just put them together. It turned out to be a really cool name for a brewery, too.”
The couple joins our conversation and asks about other beers, and Thompson mentions a follow-up to White, Bushwick Pilsner, is slated for March or April. It’s inspired by the pre-Prohibition pilsners that popularized many of Bushwick’s former breweries. Janowski writes: “Hop usage is what clearly set the Bushwick pilsners apart. Whereas most American pilsners were hopped in the 13-17 IBU range, Bushwick pilsners were usually in the 20-25 IBU range and were as high as 29 IBUs in the late 1950s. Whereas the average American pilsner used 0.25 lb of hops/bbl, the average Bushwick pilsner used 0.40-0.45 lb hops/bbl. The hopping rate was a New York tradition, as the population desired full-bodied, hoppy beers.”
Braven will continue fulfilling New York’s cravings for hops after Bushwick Pilsner with Braven Black, a “really piney and dank black IPA,” according to Thompson, in the fall. This beer, like White and Pilsner, will be made at Olde Saratoga Brewing in Saratoga Springs until Braven can find a home in Bushwick. “We’re hoping to be in a space and brewing by the end of this year,” Feldman tells the couple, now on their second round of Whites. “Big things coming to Bushwick,” Thompson adds. “You’ll have to come visit when we open.”
Photos by Jane Bruce.