Wild (Ales) Thing: A Taste of New York City’s Newest Brewery, LIC Beer Project

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Photos by Jane Bruce

LIC Beer Project is an apt name for Long Island City’s newest brewery—now the neighborhood’s fourth, all opening in the last three years. This appropriateness is partly due to its appellation’s first part, an acronym that accurately denotes location, but mainly it’s the last two words that best embodies the adventurous newcomer debuting at Crescent & Vine this Friday, the first day of Queens Beer Week.

I recently met with Dan Acosta and Damon Oscarson, two-thirds of Beer Project, for a tour of their ample and alluring 5,500-square-foot workspace near the Queensboro Bridge. While a mammoth 20-barrel brewhouse and four towering fermentators immediately commanded attention, a crew of stainless steel equipment almost puncturing the brewery’s high ceilings, Acosta and Oscarson were more eager to display a vessel considerably shorter and visually less impressive than these, one concealed in a small room and only visible through a tiny pane of glass: the coolship.

A contrast to the sleek skyscrapers nearby, this uncool-looking coolship will be an integral component of Beer Project’s Belgian-inspired operation. Its name may evoke a vivid image of a rhinestone-studded rocket orbiting the remaining Roy Rogers locations in New Jersey, captained by Roy Orbison’s corpse, but this long, shallow, and uncovered metal pan was once an essential piece of equipment for brewers, originally used as a heat exchanger to cool wort—unfermented beer—to allow yeast to begin its alcohol-producing feast before the advent of refrigeration. The hot liquid was pumped into the coolship, which offers a high surface area-to-mass ratio, and left to cool overnight, exposed to the air.

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As time passed and technology advanced, coolships basically became as prevalent as the stegosaurus. Its function only flourished in Belgium, however, as venerable breweries like Cantillon, Drie Fonteinen, and Lindemans discovered that, in addition to enabling efficient cooling, the coolship also exposed wort to the indigenous, naturally occurring yeasts and acid-producing bacteria floating in the atmosphere. These wild microorganisms—including Brettanomyces, Pediococcus, and Lactobacillus—are the catalyst of a unique and long-romanticized-by-beeronauts process called spontaneous fermentation. Though cautiously avoided by most modern-day breweries hellbent on maintaining a stronghold on sanitary measures, these “critters” are essential to creating Belgium’s mysterious and most-prized once-wort export: lambic.

The lambic-creating process is not completed in the coolship. The spontaneously fermented beer must leave the open-air vessel and enter wooden barrels or giant foeders, which possess its own naturally occurring Wild Things, for extensive aging and further development. The subsequent minglings that occur in the wooden womb over time can yield brilliantly complex, layered, and balanced beers—ones that showcase a range of tart, sweet, funky, fruity, and earthy flavors.

After a period of extensive aging, a pure lambic beer usually serves as a base to make different styles: gueuze, a blend of aged and young lambic; kriek, a lambic aged with cherries; and framboise, a lambic aged with raspberries. It’s also understood that a true lambic can only be made in Belgium—Brussels and the Payottenland region, specifically, which has a town named Lambeek. This type of geographic exclusivity, simultaneously captained by the area’s unique yeasts and bacteria and by the distinct character it imparts, is no different than the concept of terroir in wine. There are some who may dispell the notion of terroir in beer, but more and more breweries—from Sierra Nevada (Estate Ale) to Scratch (Chanterelle Saison)—are exploring how the surrounding environment can uniquely shape a beer’s character. It’s likely, too, that their initial curiosity was peaked by the iconic lambic.

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A testament to the enduring, inimitable influence of breweries like Cantillon, Lindemans, Drie Fontenien, and Oud Beersel, Acosta’s fermentation geekery began during a trip to Belgium about 10 years ago. The first in New York City to use a coolship, LIC Beer Project joins a small revolutionary squad of American breweries—Allagash, Russian River, Anchorage, and New Belgium are a few examples—that are using old-world methods like spontaneous fermentation as a conduit to modern-day innovation, a path to provenance. The varied results are collectively grouped in the vague category of “American wild ales,” a mouth-puckering pack of sour beers that aren’t required to spontaneously ferment (brewers can easily purchase Brettanomyces strains now), but must endure fermentation with non-Saccharomyces yeast or acidifying bacteria at some stage.

The spontaneous-fermentation exploration is a risky and expensive endeavor that requires practice and patience. These beers require dedicated equipment and often need years to fully develop; Allagash’s three spontaneously fermented ales—Resurgam, Red, Cerise—each need about three years from start to finish, for example. During our conversation, Beer Project understood the unpredictability involved. They likened navigating the unknown with its coolship, and with its non-coolship brewing, as a beer odyssey. The trio, which also includes Gianni Cavicchi, previously a sommelier at Cafe D’Alsace, want to create beers uniquely tied to, and representative of, Long Island City.

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In June, Beer Project will start distributing with a heavy focus on Queens, and will open a 10-draft tasting room at the brewery. Both, of course, follows its debut at Crescent & Vine this Friday. If you’re interested in learning more about them, these are some excerpts from my chat with Acosta and Oscarson:

Dan Acosta: I started brewing in the winter of 2004. I’ve always worked construction as my full-time job, and brewing was something I started on the side. I went backpacking through Europe that winter, and by then I was already drinking some of the bigger craft breweries at the time like Dogfish and Sierra. But when I went to Europe and ended up in Belgium, I was just blown away by the whole thing. It wasn’t so much the beer that opened my eyes, even though everything was insanely delicious. It was more the process of how these beers were being made—the focus on yeast and fermentation, the techniques being used for centuries, that tradition. Later on that summer I went to San Diego and went to Pizza Port in Solana Beach and had a beer called SPF 45. That saison really opened my eyes to the fact that Belgian-style ales were being made in the U.S. and being made well. So I started searching for other breweries doing the same thing. …

I was still working in construction and brewing in my garage. I was brewing all the classic Belgian styles and experimenting heavily with wild ales. Two years after that trip to Belgium, I enrolled in the Siebel Institute in Chicago for its brewing science program. For the next eight or nine years after that, I’ve just tried to learn as much as I could about beer and develop my style. The plan from the beginning has always been to open a brewery. I met Damon and Gianni and we all fit. That’s when it all came together.

Damon Oscarson: I approached Dan on a bus headed up to the TAP-NY festival. This was 2012. I knew he was a homebrewer in the same club as my friend, so I introduced myself and we started talking. We quickly realized we were interested in the same things, we liked the same beers; we had a shared love for the monastic styles, the farmhouse ales, the Belgian styles. I knew Gianni, who runs the beer program at Café D’Alsace, and that has one of the most extensive programs dedicated to that stuff in the city. So I introduced him to Dan. Next thing you know, we were on our way.

DA: We got the space about a year ago and started the buildout. And since that time, we’ve been brewing with different and experimental yeasts on our small pilot system, trying to nail them down, trying to evolve them into where I want them. Trying new yeast strains, adding stuff I’ve cultured, it’s all a process to get where we’re going. I’d say we’re on a beer odyssey.

DA: I hate having to affix a specific style to our beers. I think it’s restricting, but I know we have to explain them to people. [Laughs.] We make Belgian-style beers, and we make wild beers. I really don’t like to use the terms rustic or farmhouse, which is commonly thrown around with Belgian stuff. We’re in Long Island City. This is not farm country. If I had to describe us as concisely as possible, I’d say that we’re focused on fermentation here. That’s what we want to explore. A lot of beers have pretty straightforward grain bills. Most of the character comes from the yeast and the fermentation process.

DO: We’re launching with three or four beers to start. Ardent Core is our Belgian-style saison, and it’s a really easy-drinking beer. We use a French saison yeast with super clean character. It’s super dry. Great balance of spiciness of the saison yeast plus fruity notes of the yeast. The second is an unnamed brune, a brown ale brewed with a mixed fermentation of Brettanomyces and Saccharomyces yeast. We mash the brown ale to a high temperature and use a saison yeast until it’s about 70% attenuated. Then we pitch the Brettanomyces yeast. Our third is an amber-style beer, loosely based on a bierè de garde. It’s made with a saison yeast and we add a lot of interesting spices—not to contrast the spiciness of the yeast, but to compliment it. For example, using orange peel will accentuate its citrusy notes.

DA: I’m not really into making the typical pale ales and IPAs in general, but add to that the amount of brewers in our area already representing those types of beers and doing them so well: Peekskill, Captain Lawrence, Other Half, SingleCut. We have an all-Brett lineup of beers that will offer somewhat of an answer to all the hoppy beers in the market, but with our spin. I have a Brett yeast strain that’s really unique that I’ve developed over the last few years. It really kicks off a lot of fruit, so it goes well with American hops. So we’ll have a line of beers all primary fermented with Brett, and that’ll probably only be served in the taproom.

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DO: This is an adaptive brewing process, so we’ll see where the next year or two takes us. Then we’ll have more solid ideas, more concrete ideas of what we are and where we’re going. Right now we know what we want from all of these beers, so we’re basically working backwards to get there—all while keeping an open mind, because anything can and likely will change with brewing. But that’s what makes it fun.

DA: Getting the coolship, we wanted to bring a local feel to the beer. Not many breweries are doing spontaneous fermentation in cities. You have Jester King, Allagash, but not many in real urban areas. At the beginning, we’re inoculating the beers with yeast in the coolship and, whatever we pick up, we pick up. The room is under negative pressure, so whatever goes in stays in, and then it’s built to bring air in. It’s all about progressing toward finding some type of terroir in the area—what microflora we can see, what we can pick up.

DO: We’ve started to brew our three sour bases: brown, golden, and red. The golden base is actually in the coolship right now. So we’ll move each one in after sitting in the coolship to wine barrels. We have Pinot noir, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon blanc. They’ll be added to the barrels with a mixed culture of wild yeast and bugs. Then we’ll see what happens.

DO: There’s definitely an artistic approach to some extent, but we’re heavily relying on science here. We built a standard lab upstairs and we might hire a microbiologist too. This last year we put some petri dishes on the roof to see what we could collect, to get an idea of the microflora in the air. When we put those cultures on the roof, we sent them to a lab and they found some really interesting data. Apparently there was a population of fig trees that date back many, many years ago. And in specific times the microflora is still in the air. So that’ll be cool to get some of that in a beer, definitely.

DA: We have about 40 wine barrels right now, and definitely one of our goals is to have the city’s biggest barrel program. We love having that vinous character in beer, it just adds so much complexity. A lot of this type of brewing and the beer it yields, we feel it’s still not understood, and it’s definitely underserved in our area. So we want to bring that here.

DA: The goal is to be making these beers and making them on a large scale. Crooked Stave, Lost Abbey, Russian River, Jolly Pumpkin, Allagash, they’re getting their beers to people. And that’s what we want. We’re taking risks and dreaming big. If I didn’t do things the hard way, it just wouldn’t be my way.

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