It’s NYC Beer Week, folks! For the brewers that call our five boroughs home, that means ten days chock full of boozy events designed to showcase their hard work and celebrate their craft. And while many Beer Week events do a fantastic job of honoring these artisans, not all festivals are created equal, and the reality is that many quickly deteriorate from a convivial gathering of like minded enthusiasts to a drunken shit show full of overly sauced frat boys sporting worn Dogfish Head t-shirts and homemade pretzel necklaces. There’s a slim chance that these blurry-eyed beer bash ticket holders could amble up to a brewer’s booth with a marked interest in the actual beer they’re about to pour into their bodies but, more often than not, they merely offer up their embossed tasting glass and demand a fill of “whatever’s the strongest.”
Thankfully, that was decidedly not the atmosphere at last weekend’s Brewnity, a homebrew festival organized in part by beloved Brooklyn brewing team Mary Izett and Chris Cuzme that took over the Bell House in Gowanus. Brewnity brought together the best of the area’s homebrew clubs and stores, lining up booth after booth of enthusiastic amateur brewers pouring generous samples of over fifty beers while dishing about grain bills and talking hops with curious connoisseurs. To sweeten the deal, 100% of ticket sales went to benefit City Harvest, an organization that stands for those same values that NYC Beer Week aims to uphold.
Upon entering into the Bell House’s warm back room that Sunday, the slushy mess that had come to envelope every inch of New York City instantly faded from memory. The cavernous space was decked out with homemade signs marking each club’s table, showing ample representation from Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, Manhattan, Westchester and even New Jersey. The beers offered were as diverse as their makers, and each was listed alongside its maker on a handy smartphone app. A DJ perched atop the Bell House stage, mixing classic rock hooks with synth beats in a way that weirdly seemed to work — the crowd was digging it.
Prospect Heights’ Bitter & Esters were set up at a long narrow table with prime billing — front and center and right near the entrance. “It’s been great so far!,” shouted homebrewer Sheri Jewhurst over the music. She reached for my glass and poured me a sample of A Lady Never Tells, the lingonberry-spiked Belgian Strong Ale she brewed for the event. “Well, it’s more of a Belgian Blonde Ale,” she admitted. “It didn’t come out so strong, but I added a bit of hibiscus at the end for color. I think it worked out.”
Sheri’s beer was effervescent and luminous, with a hint of tartness from the berries. “They were actually really hard to work with,” she said. “They were so tart and waxy! I actually found them frozen in a market in Brighton Beach and hauled them back to my apartment, so it was all pretty legit.”
That experimental drive and adventurous spirit extended to Sheri’s fellow Bitter and Esters brewer, Robby Crafton, who’s been brewing professionally in New York for several years and was one of the original founders of Long Island City’s Big Alice Brewing. Robby’s Ryle Lager, dry-hopped with Chinook, was one of the afternoon’s standout beers. With its strikingly bold, grassy nose and smooth, effortlessly clean body, this beer was fittingly called A Walk in the Park and, true to its name, transported its drinker back to a bright, sunny Spring day with each sip.
“This was the first homebrew I actually brewed at home,” Robby said with a sheepish smile. “My apartment’s so tiny, I had to do a brew-in-a-bag thing. But, I got a pot and a bag and I was like, ‘I’m going to make this!’” As it turned out, Robby’s neighbor had a lagering chamber at his place, and was more than happy to share the space. “He told me that if we brewed a few batches at the same time, we could lager them together, so that’s what we did,” he explained. “We walk our dogs in the park every weekend, so that’s why it’s called A Walk in the Park — that’s kind of what we do together.”
Other highlights included Shannon Bowser and Jon Lutton’s Hivemind, a well crafted Saison seasoned with blood oranges, Flat Boat Brewing’s Saaz Hands, an earthy, surprisingly complex German Pils, and Brewstoria’s Pale Stout, a deceptively roasty ale brewed by Nick Harbour. The Pale Stout, light in color but rich in flavor, was based on an 18th Century recipe, dating back to a time before dark malts were commonly available. Harbour’s Pale Stout had just recently come in second in the Speciality Category at Homebrew Alley and was clearly still going strong weeks later.
At the end of the day, Brewnity served to remind me of what I love most about Beer Week — that it isn’t all about getting tanked (though, of course, that does happen). It’s about breaking down the fourth wall between producer and consumer, putting a real human face to a familiar brand, supporting small business and local food, learning from each other and bringing together the vibrant and diverse craft beer community. And while I realize this all sounds very cumbaya (to be fair, we’re talking about a bunch of people standing around a big room and drinking all day), Brewnity’s homebrewers’ palpable love of beer and dedication to the age old art of brewing mirrored the difference between NCAA basketball and the NBA — sometimes it’s the little guys that play with the most heart.