Gypsy in a Bottle: New York City’s Third Rail Beer
By Mike Conklin
Just a few short years ago, you’d have been hard-pressed to find any substantial number of people who knew what a “gypsy brewer” was. But now, with the addition of Grimm Artisanal Ales to the local beer community, not to mention the ever-growing presence of O.G. gypsy Jeppe Jarnit Bjergso of Evil Twin (and Torst) fame, it’s a concept understood by many. For the rest of you: gypsy brewers are brewers who operate without a brick and mortar brewery of their own and instead rent space and equipment at someone else’s.
The newest such brewery to pop up on the NYC beer scene is Third Rail Beer, owned and operated by a trio of native New Yorkers: Loren Taylor-Raymond, Kaitlyn Haubrich, and LarryKoestler. They made their debut last August with their well regarded Bodega Pale Ale and Field 2 Farmhouse Ale. Now, though, they’ve made their first foray into bottling, with Alternate Side, a stout brewed with chili peppers and cinnamon. We spoke to them about that beer, and lots of other stuff.
One of the things that’s so unique about Third Rail is that of the three of you involved from the start, none of you worked in the commercial brewing industry. What are some of the more eye-opening experiences you’ve had, on the brewing side as well as the business side?
Kaitlyn Haubrich: We definitely dove headfirst into the deep end and the past few months have been a wild ride. I continue to learn more about the inner workings of the industry every day – it’s simultaneously exciting and overwhelming. Third Rail is a very small operation consisting solely of its owners — Loren, Larry and myself, with me being the only one managing things full-time — so there have definitely been huge challenges along the way. Thankfully, the biggest eye-opener for me is probably how genuine the beer community is. I was familiar with this notion as a consumer but experiencing it on the industry side has been pretty remarkable. I come from a large record label that runs like a tight-knit family within its walls but the beer industry carries this philosophy pretty much across the board. Established breweries were eager and willing to share knowledge before Third Rail even had a name. It’s also such an effortless, natural exchange like borrowing sugar from a neighbor. For instance, we were a few days out from brewing our first commercial beer and, as if the anxiety from that alone wasn’t enough, a key ingredient was delayed in the mail. Without having many options, or connections for that matter, Loren reached out to a local brewer he’d never even met before. Without knowing anything about Third Rail the helpful brewer quickly offered to leave the ingredient on the brewery’s doorstep for us to pick up on our way up to Newport. Talk about sharing sugar with your neighbor! Our package actually ended up arriving on time so we didn’t end up need to borrow anything, but the gesture will always be remembered.
Loren Taylor-Raymond: On the brewing side, the mind-blowing quality of commercial ingredients. Hops are stored better, handled less, less oxidized, and generally seem to be the more choice lots. Yeast health is amazing and convection and pressure in commercial tanks gives wonderfully clean fermentations. Recipe formulation and scaling was an intensive and iterative process, but when it came to actual brewing and execution we were pleased with how similar the process was to smaller scale brewing and how well our commercial batches mimicked test batches. We also feel somewhat lucky to have had the opportunity to put in our brewing work alongside multiple other brewers in their own facilities. Being able to absorb different techniques, solutions, and general brewing philosophies has made us much wiser in the brewhouse — we hadn’t considered that advantage to our model, and it has been an impactful one. On the industry side, we were warned many times pre-launch that the distribution tier in New York can be messy, and we initially planned to self-distribute forever to ensure a focus on quality. It was eye-opening to meet some small-scale distributors in the area that are bringing the values of small-scale craft beer to the middle tier. It was in fact so eye-opening that we partnered with one — Remarkable Liquids — that we are proud to have represent us. Other eye-opening moments have included collaboration between local breweries, which is awesome and most certainly not for show. We have worked with many other breweries on events, brewing strategies, sharing accounts, and the shared mission of growing the local beer presence. Lastly, New York City has had so much growth in brewers and places to get great beer, but we are still surprised by how much more attention craft beer gets outside of the city. We are excited about how much cultural opportunity we see here.
On the contrary, are there instances where the lack of industry experience has worked to your advantage?
KH: In any industry it’s easy to get a bit jaded over time. Having no experience in the beer business, I’ve been a wide-eyed sponge digesting things from a different perspective than a seasoned pro. For example, without any sales experience my lack of training in strategy allowed for interactions with potential accounts to be the only way I knew how — really straightforward and honest about Third Rail, our beers, and who I am personally.
The pros and cons of gypsy brewing have been well covered elsewhere, but one of the things I feel like I haven’t seen discussed very much is how it colors people’s perception of the brewery, whether they’re other industry folks or just knowledgeable enough beer people that the term “gypsy brewing” even means anything. Have you felt like you have to prove yourselves a bit more?
LTR: We ended up putting more thought into how we would be perceived as gypsy brewers in our pre-launch phase than we have since. Craft beer fans who are knowledgeable about gypsy breweries tend to also be knowledgeable about some of the world-class beer that comes from them. When they hear about a new gypsy brewery they try to sort it into the same buckets they would a brick-and-mortar brewery: something they want to drink or something they don’t. There’s a perception risk because not terribly long ago most of the beer coming from partner-production fell into the latter category, but people who know the term today have had enough Prairie, Mikkeller, Evil Twin, etc., to not discount you for that reason. When we are face-to-face with beer fans and we won’t shut up about this year’s Citra harvest or our farmhouse yeast, they get the idea. Occasionally we see a skeptic and we get a beer in their hands as fast as possible. That being said, we are glad that some people are skeptical — it means they care about quality, and those are the standards we want people to hold for the industry in general. About two-thirds of people at beer events are new to the concept of gypsy brewing and it’s fun to see how interesting they find it. We plan to start bringing a crystal ball to events in the future.
Larry Koestler: To add to that, we were confident going in that Loren was going to brew great beer and hoped that it would speak for itself, but we also knew we would face some awareness/perception challenges by launching without a physical location of our own. By being transparent about where we were coming from and what our goals are; engaging at every opportunity; and — most importantly — putting remarkable liquid out; the beer-drinking community has really welcomed us with open arms since day one.
I know you’re at least somewhat actively looking for a space of your own within New York City, and specifically in Manhattan, but I’m wondering: Since you’re brewing in Rhode Island and have presumably spent a fair amount of time there, have you found yourselves wondering what it would be like to leave New York entirely and set up camp somewhere else? What’s keeping you here?
LTR: We have never considered a plan other than setting up a brewery in New York. This town is our blood and it’s the craft beer community here that we want to be a part of and have an impact on. We evaluated a lot of facility partners in many different places, and the geographic location of where we brewed was incidental as long as we were engaging the community and setting up our business in our home town. We very much are looking for a space here, and while it’s challenging and expensive we would rather find a creative solution than go with the path of least resistance. While we keep looking, our brewery host has proven to be a terrific partner. They are not only detail-obsessed and quality-focused, but really care about giving us the tools to brew our beer our way.
LK: As you know, all three of us are native New Yorkers, and I think we may even be the only NYC-based brewery that can lay claim to 100% native ownership. Part of our underlying philosophy for launching the brewery was the idea of giving the city and communities that made us who we are today beers that New Yorkers could be deeply prideful of, and that spark the memorable moments and conversations we live for. We’re beer geeks ourselves and love traveling to the homes of the breweries that we love, and we’re more pumped than ever to eventually open a place of our own in NYC for New Yorkers to come hang out at.
Can you talk a little about your brewing philosophy? What do you want people to take away from your beers?
KH: Third Rail has been founded on three pillars: Beer heritage, Innovation, and Community. We first and foremost want to honor the brewing that came before us. This has been a process that’s been the foundation of communities worldwide long before our time. It’s important for Third Rail to acknowledge those regions individually and show gratitude toward the history of beer. With that said, we want to take these traditions as a starting point, and use innovative techniques and processes to pave our own path. Loren uses his science background to challenge himself in our overall brewing approach and recipe development. Lastly, our hometown and the community within NYC is our motivation. Transplants and natives alike have a passion and hustle like no other city. Whether you’re a bartender, Wall Street trader, a fish monger, a graffiti artist, or anything in between there is a unified grind to get things done. These are the people of our city and we want to share our passion with them.
LTR: Our brewing philosophy is somewhat top-down. We usually have a specific flavor and aroma that we want to highlight and we build the rest of the beer around how to best support that. Bodega is all about bright tropical citrus flavor and floral aroma, and we always knew what hops we wanted for that. The malt base, carbonation, water treatment, yeast choice, and brewing process were all approached from the perspective of what supports or accompanies bright citrusy hops well. Developing the beer we decided that we wanted the full hop experience, which meant not making a session IPA that was shy on bitterness. Bringing substantial bitterness to a somewhat smaller beer was tricky, and we were able to get the quenching drinkability we wanted with mineral adjustments.
Have all the beers you’ve released turned out exactly the way you’d planned?
LTR: Yes and no. Using super-healthy commercial yeast somewhat voided our terminal gravity observations from test batches with potentially old homebrew yeast samples. This really was only an issue with Field 2, where our favorite yeast strain is a super attenuator – meaning that it consumes nearly all of the sugar in standard wort and can trick you into thinking it’s done when it takes a brief break. We kegged our first batch when the indicators from piloting said it was done (and even waited a few days after that). Fermentation continued in the kegs and they were all at about twice the upper limit for carbonation. It took so many hours of being covered in beer to fix, and we learned so hard from the experience. Other than that the trickiest aspect to replicate from smaller scale is bitterness that comes from late hop additions – meaning those at the end of the boil or after you stop boiling. Bitterness is a function of alpha acid quantity and time spent at hot temperatures, and we were used to going from boiling to room temperature in 15 minutes. On a larger system that process takes up to an hour, and the IBU formulas don’t work well for hops added at this point. We played around with a hop back, but in the end have liked the solution of slowly adding hops to the kettle during heat exchange better.
Your most recent release, Alternate Side, is a stout brewed with peppers and cinnamon — a style that’s been really popular in the craft world of late. A lot of those beers, though, tend to be super high in alcohol and be really heavy on the pepper. Alternate Side is neither, coming in at a substantial but not night-ending 8%, with a flavor profile that’s super complex and dynamic but doesn’t burn a hole in your throat. How important was that balance to you, and how difficult was it to achieve? My sense, even though it didn’t exactly stand out, is that the rye malts played a huge role.
LTR: Wow, it’s pretty awesome to see someone pick up on the importance of rye in that beer. I think we probably should have indicated Rye Stout on the label, because the approach to that beer was to merge the subtle spice of rye malt with the flavor of a smoked chili, a brighter chili, and the sweetness of cinnamon. We wanted roasted malt, rye, chili flavor, and cinnamon elements to play equal roles in the profile, and when one of those is spicy it can steal the show. Without rye that beer is much less complex and more of a vehicle for adjuncts, which was not what we wanted. Testing the right chili varieties and dosing was a crucial step, and we also got a big surprise when we did a near final test across a few yeast strains and the higher ester English strain did the best job of marrying the individual flavors. In a final adjustment, we were worried about getting a usable mash efficiency with the amount of roasted and specialty malt we were working with and killed two birds by using chocolate rye malt instead of chocolate and rye malts separately. Technical benefits aside, we’re excited to use more chocolate rye in the future because it turns out it’s delicious.
KH: I would add that while we can appreciate extreme beers with heavy adjuncts, Alternate Side was brewed to show balance and restraint. As Loren said, playing off of the natural spiciness of the rye was exactly the goal in this beer. We wanted what can typically be very overwhelming flavors to support the malts by playing a delicate, cohesive role in the beer.
Will there be more bottle releases in Third Rail’s future?
KH: Absolutely, we’re still working on what’s to come but we’ve really enjoyed being on shelves, and shared off-premise within the beer community.
Tomorrow’s your last day on earth. You can have exactly two beers. One of them has to be from a New York-based brewery that is not your own, and the other can be from anywhere on the planet. With no regards for seasonality or regular availability, what are you drinking?
KH: Yikes, this is tough and I can’t just pick two! Locally I’m torn between Barrier Money and Other Half Green Diamonds. For elsewhere I’d go with Cantillon Vigneronne or Brouwerij De Ranke Kriek. Aaaand now I’m thirsty!
LK: It’s literally impossible to pick just one. New York-based beer that’s not ours would probably be either Other Half Hop Showers, Barrier Money, Peekskill Eastern Standard or Rushing Duck War Elephant. Non-NY beer either Tree House Julius or Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine.
LTR: If Larry is getting Money I’ll have a few sips of that myself. Kaitlyn will undoubtedly go with hops for one of her two so if she’s willing to share as well I think we’re covered on hop bombs. I’ll take an Ithaca Brute and a garden variety Alesmith Speedway.