Five years ago, Erica Shea and Stephen Valand decided to make beer, but they weren’t so keen on making it all the time. So, they decided, instead, to put the power of brewing into the hands of the people and after months of troubleshooting, finally put together Brooklyn Brew Shop’s Beer Making Kits, which are now available in 13 countries. Today, they’re running a highly successful business (you’ll soon find their kits in Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom), preparing to tie the knot in late April and will release their second book, Make Some Beer: Small-Batch Recipes from Brooklyn to Bamberg, on May 13.
Even with all that on their plate, they decided last year to take at least some of the brewing back into their hands and the concept for EST Brewing Company was born. Their flagship beer is a popular Coffee & Donut Stout they created when Brooklyn Brew Shop was still in its infancy and while it’s a good start, it’s only a preview of bigger plans they have for the company. We spoke with the couple about their ever-growing business and their newest venture.
What inspired you guys to start EST Brewing Co.?
Erica: From the start we always did events and classes and pretty much pretended we were a brewery. People would drink the beer and they’d always be like, Oh, this smells amazing, where can I get it? And we’re like, Oh, you have to make it yourself. And so we kind of thought it was funny, but the more we made it and shared it with friends, we realized that we really did want to share it on a wider scale as well.
Stephen: No matter how easy we tried making it, there are some people that would never make beer. So, this is for them.
How did you come up with the brewery’s name?
Stephen: We thought it was funny to be the Established Brewing Company, but not have a location and not necessarily want to because it’s the exact opposite of—
Erica: Being established. And so, we were going with this pop-up brewery model and going to different breweries and brewing there and it’s just a play on that Established-Whatever-Year, but not actually being established.
For this first run, you partnered with Brewmaster Chris Cuzme. How’s that been?
Erica: He’s kind of like mayor of the craft brewing community and so we’ve known him for years. He was really excited that we were getting EST up and going and was like, You guys can come here. And we’re like, This is perfect. It’s an 80-gallon system so we were in there scooping grain and mixing it. It felt very much like just a really large batch that you would do at home.
How much input did he have?
Stephen: He did all the heavy lifting. But the Coffee and Donut Stout is a recipe that we’ve had for a couple years, but we’ve never brewed on that scale. We chose it because it would definitely scale pretty well. When you’re using professional brewing equipment, you’re getting more sugars out of the grain and stuff like that. We thought, well that’s only good when you’re talking about a coffee that’s dark. It’ll make it taste more coffee-and-donut-y. So, for the most part Chris was really helpful when we started adding certain things because he knows his equipment better than we do.
How long did it take you to put together the Coffee and Donut Stout recipe?
Erica: It was back for the first book [Brooklyn Brew Shop’s Beer Making Book].
Stephen: We probably started coming up with it in 2010. We compete on recipes.
Erica: That one’s mine.
Stephen: The next one, I think, is going to be mine. At this point we know what our strengths are and we would come up with the concept of a beer together and then do two different takes on it and then do another test batch or we’d combine elements from it or extract one altogether.
Erica: Focus on tweaking the other. The Coffee and Donut Stout was actually a surprise because Stephen did the Chocolate Maple Porter. Stephen does a lot of the great darker beer recipes that we’ve made and so this was a good win for me because it wasn’t something that I normally won test batches at.
Beer geeks want to know: what gives your Coffee and Donut Stout its distinctive taste?
Erica: The donut-y taste comes from caramel malts. We use two different 60 and 128, which just gives it a really nice caramel-y/toffee taste and then we add in brown sugar and coconut flakes and so it’s kind of a deconstructed donut. For the coffee flavor we use darker roasted malts as well as three and a half pounds of coffee. Funny story: Chris thought we could just run the coffee through his mill, but he wasn’t having an easy time of it so we actually took turns mortaring and pestling three and a half pounds of coffee.
Stephen: Probably took an hour and a half.
Are all EST beers going to be food-related?
Erica: Yeah. Always good to eat with food or drink with food. Our Brooklyn Brew Shop recipes are inspired by what we’re seeing at the farmer’s market and on restaurant menus and in spice stores and really kind of tailoring things to the season to go really well with food. There’s just so many great restaurants in New York City that we want to partner with and want to be on their menus.
Stephen: We really like putting beers in terms of food because you go into restaurant and you read the menu and you know what a ham and cheese quiche is gonna taste like because it says that on the menu whereas if you see a Lighting Strike Quiche—what the hell is this? So, that’s the funny thing about beer and we just like putting it in English in terms of cooking and in terms of food.
Erica: Most of our beer names should give a really good idea of what the beer should taste like.
How long does it typically take you to come up with new recipes?
Stephen: It depends. When we’re making recipes for the book or for new mixes, we might do ideally nine variations on a theme. Some you hit right away and definitely as you understand what different grains will do to a beer you can kind of speed up that process a little bit.
Erica: Going into a recipe it’s never going to be an undrinkable beer, it’s going to be good. It’s just getting it exactly the flavor profile that we like and want from it and especially because we like working with weird ingredients. So, whenever you’re adding something a little bit bizarre into it, figuring out that balance can be tricky.
Do you guys have any idea what your next one is going to be?
Erica: We’re thinking May timing and that we might do something with flowers, so maybe lavender.
If EST grows enough, will it get to the point where you’ll have your own brewery?
Erica: We can never say never.
Stephen: It doesn’t mean ruling it out, but we’re more into coming up with recipes than we are with cleaning shiny metal. From the beginning, we’ve always made recipes, put them together for people and then sent them out and collected the goodwill and helped people troubleshoot. We’re still coming up with good recipes and then when it comes down to kegs saying, See you later. Because kegging is not fun.
Erica: But then traveling around and visiting breweries, we do often fall in love with, Oh, this would be great if we had this space. I always loved the really small breweries.
Are you worried about being able to balance this new venture with Brooklyn Brew Shop?
Stephen: Time-wise, sure.
Erica: We haven’t slept in four years. I joked earlier today that apparently we’re getting married in two months and we don’t have a caterer.
Stephen: It’s looking like BBQ is gonna win.
Erica: But we have a really fantastic staff at Brooklyn Brew Shop and are just looking to build both companies.
Stephen: We want people to be able to drink a beer and make it and then go to Whole Foods and see, Oh wow, they have this beer on tap and they have the kit. We want people to realize that what once was something that everyone did in their kitchen can still be something that you do in your kitchen.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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