Despite being a ride-or-die Mets fan, I’ll admit that it takes a lot to get me to Queens. I’ve turned down countless invitations to visit friends in faraway lands like Astoria and Sunnyside, dismissed endless amazing restaurant recommendations in Flushing and Jackson Heights. Like many of my fellow South Brooklynites, I tend to avoid taking the G train above Metropolitan, nervously anticipating the inevitable disorientation that comes from trying to make sense of an address like 47-47 47th Avenue while my cell phone’s GPS putters away on two bars. But, when Rockaway Brewing’s Justine Yeung came calling last week, I gathered up my strength, downloaded some Nas off Spotify and set sail for LIC.
The first time I made the trek out to Rockaway Brewing Company–yes, those devils had successfully coaxed me out to Queens once before–was last spring, at a time when the then two-barrel microbrewery was perched on the brink of a major expansion. Back then, the brewers and co-founders, Marcus Burnett and Ethan Long, gave us a quick, 5-minute tour of their little diamond in the rough, leading us through three sizable (yet mostly empty) adjoining rooms and finishing in the tiny taproom, a two-line filling station where they served their guests freshly brewed samples and poured to-go growlers of their core lineup.
Imagine my surprise when I wandered in through Rockaway’s unassuming red doors on Friday to find a long, bustling bar and a busy brewhouse welcoming me in from the cold. The taproom, once just big enough for a few stools and a gazebo-sized wet bar, had taken the place of the original brewhouse and could now easily hold dozens of happy drinkers. Eight draft lines glimmered below a giant chalkboard listing the day’s selections–four “classics” and four “others”–and Justine quickly, and thankfully, got to work pouring me a flight of ESB, Pharm (a tasty, mild farmhouse ale), Golden Rye and Black Gold Stout on Nitro.
“We built this back bar towards the end of last summer after we did a Kickstarter to raise money for our canning line,” Justine explained, handing me a flight board that slightly resembled a narrow wooden painter’s palette. “There was a lot of incentive to get the bar up and running for the campaign launch.”
“It was still just samples and growlers, though,” Justine continued. “We didn’t start selling pints until December, but now we’ve got the place open six days a week.” Rockaway, which has been churning out suds consistently since 2012, benefited greatly from The Craft New York Act, which granted microbreweries up to 75,000 barrels the ability to serve beer on-premise by the bottle or the glass. That vital piece of legislation came through just in time for Rockaway, as a recent influx of young professionals migrating to the neighborhood is dramatically changing Long Island City’s business appeal.
“The LIC Flea is setting up just across the street,” said Justine, pointing just beyond the brewery’s quiet corner. “I think we’re going to be pretty busy on Saturdays from now on.” In addition to the ample taproom, Rockaway has opened an event space upstairs in an former artists studio, hosting everything from gallery opening to benefit parties to pop up restaurants. “Kimchi Smoke was up there before,” Justine added, smiling dreamily. “It was like, Korean-Southern BBQ? I don’t really know, but they had these deep fried ramen wings — oh man, those were so good.”
Behind the taproom wall, brewery co-founder Ethan Long was busy whipping up a batch of Black & Gold Sout. Beer in hand, Justine led me through the open door and into the brewhouse, an impressive 10 barrel system that made Rockaway’s previous setup look like a glorified homebrew kit. And yet, despite the extra space, Rockaway was already packing it in tight–a handful of fermenters were clustered opposite the kettles, a pile of wooden barrels stamped “King’s County Distillery” lurked in one corner while a yeast lab was planned for another. A massive glass garage door filled the room with beams of sunlight that reflected off the stainless steel fermenters to give the space a warm glow.
“Yeah, that garage door is really nice to have,” said Ethan, noticing my stare. “Before that, we just had a skylight. It felt like brewing in a submarine.” He excused himself and hustled over to the kettle, opening a bag full of green aromatic hops and pouring them into the bubbling liquid–the last hop addition of the day.
“We’re down to the last two minutes of the boil,” he said, rushing over to punch a stop clock affixed to the brewhouse wall. “We’re slaves to the clock around here.”
At two batches a day, three to four days a week, I could understand why. In October, the brewery signed with Union, a move that greatly extended its reach, especially into Manhattan’s hot market. And while the team is still committed to maintaining facetime with their accounts, the distribution deal allows Ethan, a man who wears many, many hats, to focus on in-house concerns like brewing and, well, building pretty much every piece of furniture in the place.
We passed through the brewhouse and into the back workshop, where Ethan had been constructing a multi-tiered display cabinet to hold the tap room’s growlers. “Back here we have a loading dock–it’s mostly just empty pallets,” he explained. “And, um, a cabinet.” Before opening Rockaway, Ethan was a set builder, operating out of a studio just down the street from the brewery. He and his father are responsible for the tap room’s stools, growler fill station, signage and shelving, amongst other structures. Like many small brewers, Ethan is more than happy to harness his multiple skillsets for the sake of his business. Yet, his heart remains in the brewing.
“I studied sculpture at SF Art Academy, but beer got in my system when I was in Madison, Wisconsin,” Ethan explained. “I was taking a Food Science class just for fun and we had a final project and an option was to make a homebrew. That was 1992, and I was hooked.”
By 5:45, my tour was over and the tap room was beginning to fill up with a friendly mix of local regulars, spandex-clad bikers out for a chilly, sun-spiked afternoon ride and first timers wandering in off the street. Justine rinsed growlers, filled glasses and chatted with customers, handing over complementary bags of Cape Cod potato chips with each pour.
“Yep, we’re seeing more and more foot traffic as people move into the neighborhood,” Ethan nodded, scanning the tap room before popping back into the brewhouse to finish the job. “I guess we’re no longer the last corner of the planet.”
Alright, Queens, color me impressed. I’ll be back.
Rockaway Brewing, 46-01 Fifth Street, Long Island City