Feb 18, 2015
Move Over, Jayoncé: Chris Cuzme and Mary Izett Are Launching Cuzett Libations!
A new supercouple seems prepared to overthrow the sovereignty of Jayoncè—and to prematurely inject some Jerry Springer into this possible soon-coming scuffle for supremacy, I must mention: the challenger’s hometown is Brooklyn, Hov’s turf!
Cuzett is the portmanteau with the potential to become the “’15 Bonnie & Clyde,” formed by the fermentation-fueled merger of Chris Cuzme and Mary Izett. Are they qualified to reign unequaled as the supercouple, though? Are these two lovers, who united through their mutual adoration of brewing, capable of utilizing that fuel to cruise the Yeast Side Highway their way: in a Porsche Maltster, eyes behind safety goggles? It’s very possible.
As greatly demonstrated by Jay Z and Beyoncè’s individual triumphs throughout their respective careers, an important prerequisite for any prospective supercouple is a history of singular success on both sides. The contender hurdles this benchmark with ease. Cuzme is vice president of the New York City Brewers Guild, which organizes New York City Beer Week, and was brewmaster of 508 GastroBrewery for over two years before its closure in December. Furthermore, he is president emeritus of both the New York City Homebrewers Guild and the Malted Barley Appreciation Society, co-founder of both Get Real Presents and Wandering Star Craft Brewery, and—OH YEA!—he is a musician, too. (NOW WHAT, B?) Izett, meanwhile, is also president emeritus of both the Malted Barley and the Homebrewers Guild, is a nationally ranked judge via the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), and will release her first book, Speed Brewing, in June. These are two successful people!
Another criterion to snag an all-access pass to Supercoupleland is the experience of success through shared ventures. This is uncontestable in the case of The Adventures of Jay & Bey, and Cuzett easily hurdles this requirement, too. As members of the Homebrewers Guild, they formed the New York City Degustation Advisory Team to organize food-and-beer pairings. And since 2012, they have hosted Fuhmentaboudit!, an entertaining and educational weekly program on the Heritage Radio Network that “aims to demystify the art of home fermentation with a primary focus on home brewing beer.”
There is also Cuzett’s newest venture, Cuzett Libations, which is perhaps the one capable of catapulting the supercouple to the ethereal realm of the supercouple. The company was created as an commercial extension of their homelife, time dominated by brewing beer and other alcoholic beverages (mead, hard soda, kombucha, cider). It will operate as a gypsy brewery; Cuzme and Izett will make the liquids in the professional homes of their friends.
Libations will launch with Cuzett Grisette (think: a lighter saison), brewed at Greenpoint Beer Works in the guidelines of the Brewers Guild—sanctioned SMASH beers for Beer Week. Before its debut this Friday at Alewife NYC, I met with the ascendant pair at their apartment near the Williamsburg Bridge to chat about their history and their plans for Libations. I also needed to know: Can we expect them seated courtside at the next Brooklyn Nets game?
Niko Krommydas: Before we get into Cuzett Libations, why did 508 GastroBrewery close, Chris?
Chris Cuzme: It’s tough to name one thing, but I think the increasing lack of foot traffic ultimately led to our closure. That area of West SoHo on Greenwich Street is a very quiet stretch. Around seven businesses closed over there in the end of 2014. We kept hope alive but ultimately had to throw in the towel. I was very proud of what we were: the beers I was making, the food Jen Hill was serving, and all of the 508 staffers simply being awesome. That’s not saying brewing didn’t have its challenges.
NK: What were they?
CC: Well, there were just certain quirks. We called the brewhouse a “frankenbrewery”: It was a makeshift electric setup thrown in after the venue had already established itself as a restaurant, and if anything, we proved you could fit a functional brewery in the tiny basement of a NYC restaurant. But to dive into some specifics, I really wanted to work on distributing our beers outside of 508, just a small amount to get the word out that we were brewing. But I was using Cornelius kegs, and 90 percent of bars won’t use those. To that regard, as we didn’t have any brite tanks to serve the beers from in-house, I was spending a lot of time filling those Corney kegs up just for us to bring upstairs—fill, clean, repeat. The brewery had one employee and I was a keg cleaner that brewed in his spare time.
NK: I also remember you mentioning fermentation issues the last time we spoke.
CC: Yeah. The hot side was fine; that frankenbrewery was a champ! But on the fermentation and conditioning side is where the challenges lay. Without jacketed fermenters, all the fermenters would have to ferment at the same temperature in a single controlled room. I chose 65 degrees for the room and brewed around that number to get what flavors I desired. Aside from adjusting recipe formulations, I had to choose yeast strains that would perform well at this temperature and that limited the amount of esters that I would have preferred to attain for certain styles.
As far as conditioning, my “cold room”—a hardly insulated closet with an a/c connected to a CoolBot—wouldn’t ever get down below ~40 degrees. This meant the beers took longer to cold crash—getting yeast to settle out—and longer to carbonate. Sometimes we would run out of beer, and, even though it was rare, occasionally a keg would sneak upstairs before I felt it was ready.
When I was hired, I saw the brewery’s handicaps as challenges. As I tackled the challenges, I considered them charms. In the end I saw them as frustrating limitations, and thankfully that was the shortest chapter. Learning to deal with the issues made me a far better brewer, though.
NK: Let’s move onto you and Mary. How’d you guys meet?
Mary Izett: I met Chris through the New York City Homebrewers Guild. At the time, we were both doing these classes pairing food and beer, but separately; he was doing them at Jimmy’s No. 43 and I had this meet-up group I ran through Yahoo. That was around 2007. So as we became friends we decided to organize food and beer pairings together, and that became the Degustation Advisory Team.
CC: Yeah. We were good friends first. I had a serious girlfriend and Mary was married at the time.
NK: How long have you been together now?
MI: We’ve been dating for about three years.
CC: We fell in love through our passion for fermentation and the scene that surrounds it. It’s what we talk about when we wake up and when we go to bed—when I’m not singing Marvin Gaye or humming Coltrane.
NK: So going back, when did you two start brewing together?
MI: We made our first short mead in 2012. But before that, for beer, we made our first beer i11.
CC: It was a smoked beer called Mild Fire and we made that in Mary’s backyard.
MI: I had about 15 homebrewers at my apartment for a BJCP continuing education class on smoked beers. This was in the summer. I lived in South Slope and had a backyard. So we house-smoked our own malt with a group of people and brewed this smoked mild together at its conclusion.
CC: What she was doing in the basement of that apartment was awesome. She had about 20 carboys filled with sours down there, making magic!
MI: It’s funny: we have similar interests, we’re both interested in brewing for different flavors and doing eclectic styles. But because I have a science background, I guess I have a laissez-faire approach to fermentation. Yeah, we’ll just see where things take us.
CC: And I’m the opposite, especially since becoming a commercial brewer. I’m always paranoid and fretting about sanitation. That stuff needs to be clean! Together, it somehow works.
NK: What’s attracted you to brewing more eclectic styles of beer, and other alcoholic beverages?
MI: I think it’s more of a flavor thing for me. I grew up in the Midwest, it was rural and I really had limited exposure to international foods. The first time I had sushi was in Georgia in college. The first time I had Indian food was when I moved to New York. So, I’ve always just wanted to try new things, and brewing is a great outlet for that. I love to brew beer, but it’s more about the flavors I want to explore. And some of these flavors, they’re can’t really be captured in beer in an ideal way.
NK: Like what?
MI: Strawberries, for example. I’ve tasted some good beers made with strawberries, but short meads and water kefirs can really grab the elusive and ephemeral aroma and flavor of strawberries.
NK: That’s what your book is on, right? Short fermentation times?
MI: Yeah, it is. It’s called Speed Brewing. The fundamental idea of it is, it’s all the fermented alcoholic beverages you can make in a fairly short amount of time, like a week and a half. And they’re all low-alcohol, sessionable liquids, too: short meads, boozy kombucha, hard sodas.
When I come home from work, I want to drink something that’s refreshing and really low in alcohol, maybe 3 or 4 percent, and get some work done. I don’t want to drink a 12 percent barleywine and get messed up. So for a while I was really into sour beers—this was when Chris saw that I had the different carboys in basement that were tied up with Brettanomyces and Pediococcus. Making a short mead in only a week and a half was a great way to wait around while these beers were developing.
NK: Chris: One of the beer series you had at 508 was Pillow Talk, and that was with Mary. Can you guys talk about that?
CC: Yeah. We did three beers in the Pillow Talk Series at 508, beginning in 2013. They were all kettle-soured beers. We’re going to keep Pillow Talk as a part of Cuzett Libations to celebrate our interests in smoked and sour ales, but also other things we may be inspired to do through being hosts of Fuhmentaboudit!.
MI: Chris got the job at 508 during the same week that I moved in with him, which was also the timing of our inaugural episode [of Fuhmentaboudit!]. So the idea to do the Pillow Talk Series, it was all organic. I moved in and continued to explore these oddball beverages, focusing on non-beer stuff. And on the other side of the coin, Chris was brewing professionally—he went to the American Brewers Guild, got his certification. I think we were always interested in what the other person was doing, so it naturally came to make things together.
NK: What were the three beers you guys made in the Pillow Talk series?
CC: They were all sessionable kettle-soured beers. The first was a straight Berliner Weisse called Bangin’ Berliner, followed by the Sour Seduction Saison, and then the Blackberry Burlesque. That was a blackberry Berliner Weisse.
MI: Before we brewed together, we both loved to make Berliners separately. And this was a new way to do it on his equipment. [Kettle-souring is] a nice way to get a fast and clean tart without putting your brewing system at risk with bacteria.
NK: Let’s shift to Cuzett Libations. When did the idea for this start?
CC: We’ve been talking about doing Cuzett even before 508 had closed. We’ve always talked about doing our own large-scale batches of beer together, just something by us under our own name.
MI: When 508 closed somewhat suddenly, Chris was still committed to making a SMaSH beer for Beer Week. So Kelly Taylor [brewmaster of Greenpoint Beer Works and president of the Brewers Guild] encouraged us to have this be the first beer we make together, given the circumstances. It was the perfect opportunity to start the project.
NK: And you decided on making a grisette.
CC: Yeah. Cuzett Grisette is the official name of our first beer. With the idea of the SMaSH beers only using three New York State hops and malts, and since we actually used only two of the three hops and two of the three malts because there wasn’t enough to go around, the grisette style seemed like the best fit. The style is also a little different, people still aren’t too familiar with it. That’s what we’re going for with Cuzett.
MI: We used the Belle Saison Yeast from Danstar for the beer, which we both love. I’ve used it a lot in other fermentations, and Chris used it a ton at 508. Again, since we both loved that yeast individually, it made sense to brew something together with it.
NK: How are you defining Cuzett Libations?
CC: We’re looking at it as brewing the stuff we like to drink at the homes of our favorite people. We’re still working on the specifics of how to organize ourselves best for future projects, but the first libation will be served at bars as Cuzett Grisette, and we made that at Greenpoint Beer Works. Thank you, Kelly! Drink KelSo!
NK: And what comes after Cuzett Grisette?
MI: There’s a lot of possibilities of what we could do next. When we tasted Grisette out of the tank last week, we were just both really happy. We’re even thinking we’ll repeat the beer and just tweak some things slightly. But we’ve also talked about doing a kettle-soured beer somewhere. We’re also talking with Melovino Meadery in New Jersey about doing a short mead. I would love to do a cider, maybe a graf? See? A lot of ideas. But we’re focusing on fun projects. Fun things to drink that we don’t really see much commercially.
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