As the New York City craft scene continues to explode before our thirsty eyes, we beer geeks have to face the reality that some of our most precious babies are growing up at an alarming rate. Other Half is garnering national acclaim, Sixpoint has expanded well into the international market and Finback, our special boys from central Queens, reached a significant milestone just last month. In May, Glendale’s brewery darlings recently celebrated the big 0-1, throwing what was perhaps the booziest first birthday party the quiet, residential neighborhood had ever seen (perhaps–I’m not here to judge).
Last year saw no less than ten brewery openings in NYC, including such noteworthy operations as Other Half (technically 2013, but late 2013), the GABF-winning Gun Hill Brewing and LIC’s CSB-touting Transmitter Brewing. Back in December, Brew York’s Chris O’Leary awarded Finback the honor of Best New Brewery of 2014, and while anyone would be hard-pressed to pick a single valedictorian from our city’s illustrious Class of 2014, catching O’Leary’s vote was about as close to donning that gold stole as a local brewery can get.
Finback’s Basil Lee and Kevin Stafford are two men running at lightning speeds. The guys self-distribute all their beer while also maintaining one of the best, most inviting tasting rooms in the city and brewing consistently at a relatively hefty scale. Yesterday, despite their packed schedule, the fellas behind those pretty blue kegs took a few minutes between events to give me the super quick low-down on Finback’s first year of business.
What’s the single most important thing you’ve learned this year?
Stay hydrated. And it takes a long time to hand label bottles.
If you could change anything about the last year, what would it be?
Have a lot more kegs.
What’s been the biggest setback you’ve had so far? The biggest accomplishment?
Setback: Underestimating time and cost to do things. Accomplishment: Hearing a random person order our beer at a bar for the first time.
What’s your favorite beer you’ve brewed so far?
They are all our babies. We get bored easily and we’re a little schizophrenic, so every new beer we brew is a favorite.
What are you most looking forward to in the coming year?
Getting Foudres, getting bigger hop contracts and just sharing more beer with awesome people.
And because any “year in review” post would be remiss without a mention of the beer itself …
My Top 10 Favorite Finback Brews, Listed in No Particular Order
Double Sess(ion), Witbier, 4.5% ABV
This is an OG member of Finback’s fleet — a little citrusy, a little spicy, a little floral and supremely refreshing with a soft, wheaty body and a tingly finish thanks to inventive use of szechuan peppercorns. It’s a classic wit with a modern twist — no orange slice, please.
Bourbon Barrel Aged BQE , Espresso Imperial Stout, 9.2% ABV
It’s big, it’s bad and it’s topped pretty much every local beer list I’ve contributed to in the last calendar year. Brewed with Mast Brothers cocoa nibs and Queens’ own Native Coffee Roasters coffee, this complex, NYC-centric imperial stout was then thrown into bourbon barrels, layering on those distinctively sweet, toasty notes of vanilla, oak and maple syrup. It’s also surprisingly easy-drinking, so consider this your warning.
Le Porter Kaldi, Coffee Porter, 6.8% ABV
This dry, roasty coffee porter keeps it classy with rich, aromatic Stumptown coffee, cold brewed to give the beer a medium, quaffable body and a smooth, slightly nutty finish. It’s the perfect beer to accompany all the shitty Pacific Northwest weather we seem to be enjoying recently.
Archer’s Saison, Farmhouse Ale, 8.5% ABV
My kingdom for a hopped Saison. No, but really — this deceptively light and bubbly farmhouse is everything you want in the style: muted fruity, grassy and citrusy notes mingling with just a little touch of banana-y esters.
Autumnator, Sour Ale, 5.7% ABV
A fall-inspired sour ale, this slightly tart, slightly sweet sipper derives its fresh tang from Soon’s Orchards apple cider in New Hampton, New York. A mix of farmhouse and saison yeasts gives this delicate seasonal the funky complexity it needs to compete with the big kids. I sure hope it makes a comeback next school year.
Lean Back IPA, American IPA, 5.5% ABV
In comparison to Autumnator, this beer’s all summer vacation. Easy-drinking and well balanced with a refreshingly citrusy nose and hint of rich pine, it’s like the friendly ghost version of a much stronger, bolder IPA. If you need me, I’ll be in the hammock with a pint.
En Verano , Witbier, 6.3% ABV
A sleeper hit! Seriously, I’ve been singing En Verano’s charms since the day it came out of the fermenter. It’s brewed with fresh, supremely grassy jalapenos, fiery habaneros, sweet lemon and tart lime, all balanced by a soft wheat backbone. And despite its makeup, it’s not the hot wing-level palate scalder we associate with most pepper-spiked brewing experiments. Somehow, some way, Finback managed to churn out a pepper beer that’s simultaneously exciting and relaxing, like a seaside michelada but tastier. Trust me on this
Buddy System, Imperial IPA, 9.1% ABV
If, like me, you lovingly picture Finback’s Kevin and Basil as the Bert and Ernie of the New York craft beer scene, you can’t help but smile while imagining the two sharing a pour of this juicy, extremely well balanced double IPA. An intense burst of citrus fades into resiny pine and a bit of sweetness to combat the bitter, matched with another deceptively light body. Well done, buddies.
I Pumpkin A, Pumpkin Ale, 7.1% ABV
A creative take on a neo-classic, Finback’s I Pumpkin A is exactly what it sounds like — a spiced IPA infused with all the nutty, aromatic qualities we’ve come to expect in our Fall seasonals. Unlike most pumpkin beers, though, this one drinks like an actual beer and not a cold pumpkin spice latte, with a nice hop profile counteracting any potential slip into cloyingly sweet territory.
Starchild, Wild Ale, 4.6% ABV
This was my go-to session beer last summer. It’s perfectly puckery, the acidic grapefruit peel softened by layers of sweet fruit, a tiny hint of funk and a tidy, dry finish that kept me coming back for more (and more). Finback dedicates this beer “[t]o all you funky citizens of the universe… cruising through intergalactic space with your pucker face.” Much obliged, guys.
Finback Brewery, 7801 77th Avenue; Glendale,* Queens
Correction: This article originally stated that the brewery was located in Ridgewood, Queens. We regret the error.