Update (11/04/15): Bridge and Tunnel’s new site is legal to open and operate, according to announcements both on Facebook and Beer Sessions Radio yesterday. Its tasting room is tentatively set to open on Saturday, November 14.
The first day of November arrived promptly and unapologetically yesterday, as calendars worldwide successfully united to forcibly discard the previous month, October, which is now dead until next year.
It’s no secret to me: I love November. I was born in November of 1984 and I’ve celebrated Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday, every November since that special year. Long Ireland’s Black Friday Imperial Stout is also unleashed annually in November, aptly on Black Friday.
November is a great month. The greatest, probably.
But I also love October. A lot. It’s the only appropriate time, as I said last month, in October, to repeatedly hate-watch It’s the Great Pumpkin Ale, Charlie Brown and begin assembling my autumn advocacy army, The Downfall of Fall-Flavore—Fuck! It’s Everything! It’s Everywhere, Too! (TDoFF—F!IE!IE,T!).
October is a great month. The greatest, probably. It’s now dead until next year, though, and I was bummed on its inevitable final day, Halloween, which arrived promptly and unapologetically on Saturday.
While some humans spent Halloween costumed as Pizza Rat, demanding miniature bags of M&M’s from strangers for their store-bought efforts, I sought to distract my lamenting headspace with a new assignment, the only one that could provide me with a modicum of comfort. I arrived unannounced at the doorstep of Rich Castagna, owner and brewmaster of Bridge and Tunnel Brewery, for some Netflix and Chat.
Castagna has operated Bridge and Tunnel somewhat covertly from a 150-square-foot garage behind his house in Maspeth, Queens since opening the small brewery, described on its Facebook page with terms like “self-built,” “low-tech,” and “bomb-proof,” in 2012. This will soon change, however: He’s in the process of expanding to a large warehouse at 15-35 Decatur Street in Ridgewood, homehood of Niko Krommydas, with a 16-draft tasting room and a bigger (but still self-built) brewhouse to continue making a range of beers often named after crotchety neighbors and local punk legends.
BTW: Castagna is a gentlemen. After we Netflix and Chatted about his roving life before Bridge and Tunnel, his deep connection to New York City, and the progress of his new site in Ridgewood (according to this article’s title, it’s reaallllyyy close to opening!), he invited me on tomorrow’s episode of Beer Sessions Radio, which airs from Roberta’s every Tuesday at 5 p.m. on the Heritage Radio Network.
Niko Krommydas: You’ve given some really thoughtful, thought-provoking answers in our Ask Your Local Brewery series.
Rich Castagna: Thank you.
NK: In the second one we did, you told me, “I saw firsthand a lot of the growing pains that this city has been through.” Did you think it was ever going to get better?
RC: When you’re a kid you can’t imagine actually becoming taller than a few feet, but it happens. But you also don’t necessarily notice it. The changes here have been going on slowly for over two decades, but there was a time when I was sick of living here as a whole. The crime, the rampant drugs, the overall pessimism of city dwellers, the bad attitude that we all had toward each other … It wore me down.
Traveling became an addiction for me because of that. I saw other communities could hold it together and treated each other better than we did. Seeing that brought my optimism back. But while there was a time I was looking for some other place like that to call home, the way the city exposes you to things made it hard for me to be away from it. I always came back.
This isn’t the NYC that it was decades ago. But I hope the younger generations coming up can somehow not take the improvements for granted. We can’t ever roll back to the bad times. We’ve become quite possibly the most culturally evolved city in this country and it’s important that we don’t lose those gains.
NK: Has your connection to the city changed at all since opening the brewery? Or while in the process of expanding it?
RC: I think my connection to the city has changed in the sense that I understand my place in it better. I mean, I’m part of this city whether I like it or not. And that shows with the brewery.
I’ve stopped thinking about living another life somewhere else. I was one of the first people to leave here among my peers, and now I’m one of the last to still be here. Kind of ironic considering that I really went far out beyond the wire.
NK: You speak about that, again, in the Local Brewery series. About living overseas and a lot of the different jobs you had before opening the brewery.
RC: To the point where people probably think I didn’t had a final goal.
NK: Did you?
RC: Well, I didn’t have a safety net under me so I worked to pay rent and make ends meet. And that immediate need pushed me off course at times. What I always had in the back of my head, though, was that I wanted my own business.
I studied business management at Baruch and worked full-time to pay it off by loading cargo trucks and airplanes. I took a lot of small-business courses there. Right after I graduated I packed up, left Queens and worked as a line cook at a place in Montana called Lake McDonald Lodge. It was inside Glacier National Park. My dream at the time was to be a chef and own my own restaurant.
So I was cooking but I wanted to learn more, so I enrolled myself in a chef school down in Phoenix. I got a loan for the tuition and everything but after Glacier Park closed for the winter and I had a few months to kill before the program started, I came back to the city to cook. That’s when I was confronted with restaurants that wanted to literally pay two bucks an hour. I couldn’t even pay for the small room I was renting and that sort of deflated the idea. So I got into teaching English in Korea.
NK: That’s a considerable change.
RC: It was. The pay was great and I really liked it. I spent about six years off and on as a teacher, even some time as a middle school teacher here in the city at a public school.
See, like I was saying before: I always came back home.
NK: You were also in the clothing business, right?
RC: A vintage clothing business first, yeah. I was a buyer and part owner of a store called Bar Fly in Seoul with two Korean guys that I loved. Each month I came back to New York and then I’d drive either to California or Seattle to hit thrift stores and swap meets. Sixteen ocean-to-ocean road trips in that timeframe.
When that closed, I started my own clothing line. Sounds ridiculous saying that now, but that’s what happened. I took a pattern-making class in the city, sourced high-end materials and processes in Seoul, manufactured the designs there, and brought them back here to sell. I did that for two years.
NK: When did you start homebrewing during all that?
RC: About 13 years ago. I had always wanted to start and a buddy said he’d dust off his gear and start brewing again if I did. And that put a hook in me immediately. It was like the clothing line and cooking in the sense of creating something that someone else could enjoy.
NK: Let’s move on to the brewery. You started Bridge and Tunnel from your garage in Maspeth.
RC: The garage is part of the house that I grew up in.
NK: And you built the system yourself.
RC: In a little workshop in the basement of that house, with my dad’s tools still in many of the drawers. He’s been gone for 16 years but I can’t ditch his tools even though they suck.
NK: Was opening the brewery there part of the initial plan?
RC: Not at first. I was building the system down in the basement four years before Bridge opened in 2012. I didn’t have plans to put it in the garage, but I knew that building the rig kept a dream alive and made it easier for me to roll with my full-time job at the time. Also with raising three daughters, building kettles, stands, and fire boxes made me a more patient dad I think.
After my mom passed away, we left Astoria and came back to the house in Maspeth. And then I just started connecting the dots. Kettles in the basement. Garage not being used. An unfinished dream that I kept waking up to. And that’s how this ball started rolling.
NK: So you’re making beer professionally in your garage. When did you realize you’d need to expand?
RC: With a completely self-built system, there’s a learning curve in getting used to how it works. Add to that getting used to working with it in a space all of 150 square feet. It got dangerous at times, so I knew early on I’d have to expand.
NK: Dangerous how?
RC: I got injured a lot early on because I wasn’t used to where everything was and how a smaller space changed the way you would approach brewing. I had a steam explosion last winter. A pipe exploded and it blew shrapnel around. Could’ve taken my face off. It was a close call and all on account of brewing in 11-degree weather.
But adding to what I said just before, after seeing what I built function as intended, I started thinking about pushing it out further and started looking for a new space pretty early on … about two years ago. I wanted to get more kegs from a batch, I wanted more space, and I wanted a proper door. I’m done having to navigate literal ice to make beer, or having to brew with a waterproof jacket and furry hat.
NK: You’re in the process of building the new space in Ridgewood. Can you talk about what you’ve done so far?
RC: In a nutshell, I’ve covered a solid 80 percent of the building process myself because financially I just had to. The first place was built like that so that became the plan for Ridgewood. For the construction, it’s a long, dirty and boring list of stuff that needed to be done that I’ll save for the brewery tours.
The new brewing system was built from the ground up on a collection of parts that I pulled from different things unrelated to beer, like dairy. The result is a 10-barrel system, six times the capacity I could do in the garage.
NK: One of my favorite things about the brewery are the personal stories behind a lot of your beers.
RC: Well, my mom was Irish so right there I was listening to a steady stream of tales from a young age. And my dad was a World War 2 vet, so I grew up listening to his experiences in Europe and North Africa, and then coming back to New York and settling in Bushwick, on Bogart Street.
NK: Near Roberta’s?
RC: I don’t think Roberta’s was open yet, but nearby. [Laughs.]
NK: Can you talk about some of the new beers you’ll be making in Ridgewood?
RC: Staying on the subject of pizza, back in February I did a collaboration with Houdini [Kitchen Laboratory]. They’re down the block from the new brewery. We did a double rye IPA that we named Bound By Chains in memory of Harry Houdini, who’s buried a few blocks away from us. I’m going to revisit that one soon.
As far as new beers and ideas, I’ll be doing an oyster stout eventually, and possibly a spiced American strong ale named Grandma and a Doberman for another wacky neighbor that I had. I also have what I like to think of as a house kombucha blend that I’ve been working on named Bucha Baby. Do you know the Plasmatics?
NK: A little, but not much.
RC: Look them up if you like old punk. So the name of the kombucha is a riff on one of their songs, “Butcher Baby.” It’s for the late lead singer Wendy O. Williams. I like to think that others play soft music when their kombucha is fermenting for positive vibes, but we blast Wendy. We’ll most likely only offer that one in the tasting room.
NK: Can you talk about the tasting room?
RC: One of my accounts had passed some amazing bar equipment to me over the summer, and that included a 16-tap draft system. I have about 30 styles that I’ve done so far, so if I keep rotating through those as I did in the garage I think I can fill most of those taps.
For seating, I have three farmhouse-style tables that I built from old-growth pine beams that were being pulled out of a tenement building in Gowanus last summer. They were the ceiling joists. I also built a few benches for the tables, and there’s a standing area with wooden barrels to rest your beer on. And the bar, I built that out of reclaimed oak-wood flooring.
NK: When do you expect to be open to the public?
RC: Updates on our Facebook page have been fewer and fewer lately not because we’re not close, but because I don’t want to show the appearance of the tasting room. I want people to be surprised. It’s all self-built on reclaimed materials, and I’m very happy the way it came out. That being said, all I need to do now is bring photos of the last of the buildout to the Liquor Authority and it should be all green lights. Hopefully by the time this article is posted, I’ll have done that.
NK: So you’ll likely be open soon.
RC: I’d like to be open to the public within the next couple of weeks frankly. I’m working around the clock now trying to clean up the mess I made. Scrap metal and wood are everywhere.
NK: How do you see things changing for the brewery now that you’ll have a physical space people can visit?
RC: I think the larger potential of the brewery has been in a sort of holding pattern because there was no real place for the public to become part of it. I’ve only had the chance to meet our fans at events. My wife and I like accommodating large family parties with sit-down meals and treating our guests right at home, and it’s always been my dream to have a business that could do that. That’s going all the way back to when I dreamed of having my own restaurant.
Now that I have a public space, I’m ready to open my arms wide to Ridgewood. In the garage, I would just end up touching both walls.
Be on the lookout for news on Bridge and Tunnel’s opening, and find them on Beer Menus.