There is a noteworthy similarity between Rich Buceta and Don Draper, and it’s likely also the only likeness since, at a base level, the former is a real person and the latter is a fictional person disguised as another fictional person, both of whom jaggedly form one steadfast advertisement not for Glo-Coat or Topaz Pantyhose, but for how many uncomfortable, unfulfilled, and unrelentlessy bleak things can be stuffed into a perfectly tailored suit. If we can temporarily ignore that glaring truth and focus only on the singular samesie, we’ll learn that Buceta and Draper have both spent decades working in advertising. Buceta’s career, however, is one implanted permanently in the past. While Drape is presently and perhaps perpetually stuck riding the Kodak Carousel (C’mon, Don! It’s never too late! California awaits!), Buceta decided to leave the Lucky Strike Life and strike a match to ignite his own brewery in Astoria: SingleCut Beersmiths.
When I first met Buceta at his apartment in the summer of 2012 for an interview, he was unsurprisingly eager to launch SingleCut (it would happen that December) with the recipes he had refined over the preceding decade as a homebrewer. We talked about the expectations, both personal and public, affixed to opening Queens’ first brewery since the 1950s (it’s New York City’s most brewery-populated borough only three years later) and his longtime love of playing guitar, easily the most explicit influence on its brand. Before leaving that afternoon, he gave me a few bottles of homebrew to take home and I assumed I had consumed them all—from a highball glass, high atop the Time-Life Building, of course. But when my girlfriend and I were cleaning our apartment recently, I found one still unopened:
This bottle still contains Half-Stack IPA, bottled when Half-Stack IPA was still only a prototype brewed by Buceta in substantially smaller amounts than the 30-barrel batches now commercially crafted in Astoria. It has evolved into one of SingleCut’s best beers in a portfolio that has greatly improved over that period, a portfolio that, while largely defined by lagers—or lagrrrs!, as it’s designated by the brewery—is informed equally by many memorable IPAs. After happily drinking most of these IPAs over the last few years, including the latest and loudest in the BILLY family, 200-Watt Double IPA, I would even confidently declare that, with the exception of Other Half Brewing, there isn’t another brewery in New York City delivering as many praiseworthy hop-driven beers.
Since my discovery of Half-Stack IPA two weeks ago basically coincided with Queens Beer Week’s start last Friday, and since SingleCut brewed two exclusive IPAs for the annual 10-day series, it felt like the perfect time to have another chat with Buceta, this time about his brewery’s IPAs. As a sidenote, when I met him this time he was just finishing the latest batch of KIM Cherry Sour Lagrrr! and subsequently resembled Dexter Morgan more than Don Draper:
Okay! The conversation!
Niko Krommydas: Let’s start pre-SingleCut. As a homebrewer, was it hard to get a handle on brewing with hops?
Rich Buceta: I’d say it was definitely harder than any other ingredient to get a handle on only because with hops you’re dealing with such a large selection of varieties available, compared to malts or even yeasts. And what makes it harder even now is it’s growing and changing every day which adds to the challenge of understanding and knowing not only what hops my palate prefers but also what hops complement each other in a way that’s also distinctive in the market. I’d say from the beginning though, I only wanted SingleCut to introduce beers that had their own spin; what would be the point of brewing an IPA with a combination of Cascade and Centennial or Simcoe and Amarillo? It’s been done a million times since Sierra came on the scene.
NK: You’re the only brewery in New York City with lagering tanks, and that’s arguably SingleCut’s strongest distinction. Was it always a goal to have as many IPAs as you do now, or was it more keep going with what’s working best?
RB: When I put together our business plan and started to shop around for money, being a “lager brewery,” that was definitely one of the characteristics I thought would make us different from everyone else and allow us to fill a niche. But yeah, IPAs and lagers, those are the two things I prefer to drink so the plan was always there. My heroes for the longest time have been the breweries in Vermont making really juicy, flavor-forward hoppy beers. I try to make a pilgrimage there annually, drink as much as I can, and see what they’re doing. The style there, the late-addition hops, the focus more on aromatics than bittering, that’s what I like to drink.
That said, from day one I’d like to think we’ve been concentrating hard on making great balanced IPAs. 19-33 [Queens Lagrrr!] was our first brew we released and then DEAN [PNW Mahogany Ale] came, which is something like a red IPA almost, and BILLY Full-Stack IPA and BILLY 18-Watt IPA were our third and fourth beers. So that’s basically the first three out of four were IPAs. There was always going to be a BILLY family of IPAs, that was even in my business plan.
NK: Even 200-Watt? That’s the newest in the BILLY family, right?
RB: Yeah. 200-Watt was never in the game plan because I didn’t really want to have a beer in our portfolio above nine percent ABV. That high of an alcohol volume isn’t what I tend to drink. But there just seemed like a lot of steady demand for it. We get a lot of emails through our website and a double IPA was one of the two we got the most requests for. That and an imperial stout. We actually just made our first imperial stout, kegged it up and put in the cold room to age.
NK: As a brewery owner do you feel like you need to think about your customer base with what types of beers you brew?
One thing that I’ve learned in this industry, which of course is not a very long time, is that as much as you think you’re going to define what your portfolio is, it often doesn’t go that way. You might steer in one direction, but the marketplace will generally dictate what it prefers. But that’s okay. I decided to brew the 200-Watt and I was really happy with it, so thanks marketplace! [Laughs.]
NK: I was talking with a friend about this recently. Do you think New York City craft-beer drinkers, or just crafties in general, are “hops crazy?”
RB: I hear people talk about this all the time, but the best example I can give is my wife. She was never an IPA drinker but now she loves them. For a long time, people just associated IPAs with bitterness. For sure there’s a learning curve your palate undergoes to acclimate to bitter beers, but in the case of my wife’s development which is probably similar to many, she learned that very hoppy doesn’t necessarily mean it’s very bitter. Hoppiness can be expressed as flavor and aroma.
Hoppiness may seem like it’s a trend, but I think you have to realize where New York’s craft-beer culture is in relation to the rest of the country and how much it’s changed over the last two years. Locally two years ago, no one was making something that would be considered a “session” IPA, for example. But breweries in Colorado or California or Oregon, they’ve been doing drinkable hop-centric beers forever. I have a sister that’s lived in Portland for the last 15 years, and that’s another one of my regular pilgrimages. When I go out there, we’ll take a road trip and it’s hoppiness beers. Here, it seems like there’s a revolution going on because it hasn’t been offered previously, but I think we’re playing catchup, kind of. Hoppy beers are what the craft movement was founded on, so I don’t see it fizzling out here or anywhere in the U.S.
NK: Tell us about the Queens Beer Week IPA. It’s a collaboration with Barrier, right?
RB: Yeah. So Dan Bronson runs Queens Beer Week and had approached us to make an official beer last year, but the scheduling didn’t work out so we ended up just launching KIM across Queens that week. This year, we made sure we saved some time on the schedule for it, and how it worked out was that we were finally able to collaborate with our buds at Barrier. We both made beers with a single hop, then we blended them and finally we dry-hopped the blended batch again.
NK: What were the two single-hop beers individually?
RB: Barrier used a Pacific Northwest hop called Galena, and we used a New Zealand variety called Kohatu. Ours is a pretty rare hop, actually, but I used it a lot in my homebrewing days. Given its rarity, I couldn’t get it in large quantities to use it in one of our regular beers so I just saved it for when the right opportunity came.
Regarding the two beers on their own, Barrier’s had a more noble hop character, maybe a little touch of dankness. Ours was more tropical fruit with some pine, so when we combined them they’d complement each other, which was part of the plan of choosing the hops we did. But still there wasn’t that “IPA punch” we wanted, so we dry-hopped it again with varieties that weren’t in the original recipe: Equinox and Mosaic. It gave more of those fruity, juicy aromatics.
NK: And now you made a second IPA, too?
RB: Yeah. Since we brew on a larger scale than Barrier does, after we blended our single-hop brews we still had some leftover beer from our single-hop sitting in a tank. So we decided to dry-hop that with another three varieties different from the three used in the QBW IPA, and we’re releasing that as Is This The Real Life?IPA. [Note: Barrier is releasing its single-hopped beer, too.] Compared to the Queens Beer Week beer, our single has a more dank profile. QBW has a softer, fruitier profile with an undercurrent of piney dankness. But Real Life offers more pungent character up front. I really like that they’re born from the same base yet so different.
NK: If you had to choose, what’s been your favorite IPA you’ve made so far?
RB: BILLY 18-Watt, easily. That’s my favorite. If you ever find me drinking in the taproom, chances are that’s what I’m drinking. I love the character of it; it’s unique. It’s only 5 percent alcohol, but there’s more body to it than you typically find in that realm. Probably one of two beers most proud of. I believe the greatest challenge a brewer has is to make sophisticated and distinctive lower ABV beers. It’s been my pursuit since day one.
NK: What would be your favorite hop to work with, you think?
RB: It’s probably a tie between Nelson Sauvin and Citra. Shuggie and Mo’ Shuggie are two IPAs from us that use all Nelson. Nelson is a hard hop to describe—you hear notes of white wine and all, but it’s got such a unique profile, it’s just itself. That’s the best way to describe it. But I guess I would pick Citra if I had to pick one because I’ve been drinking that hop for the longest period of time. As I said, if you see me in our taproom I’m likely drinking one of our beers with Citra in it. Probably 18-Watt.
NK: How do you learn about new hop varieties?
RB: It’s an interesting little world I spent the majority of my homebrewing days concentrating on. In these days, if you don’t contract your hops five years in advance you’re shit out of luck. It was very stressful in the beginning to pick which ones we thought we’d want in the future, so I relied on all the homework I’ve done at home. I still do a ton of reading on them. And I make a point to just check in with our hop suppliers every month, just a quick phone call to ask “Anything new going on?” The thing that makes it tricky is, with any new hop variety you have to take a leap of faith. You have to take your rep at their word. It’s as simple as, “Are you interested? Do you want to contract it?” Ok. Say I contract 440 pounds of it and I’m disappointed. The fortunate thing is, there’s a whole market for hop trading. It’s like old-fashioned horse trading. As long as it’s a new hop, within a day it’s gone. Period. People are curious and anxious about new hops and even if it’s not the right one for us, it might be for someone else. Many brewers want to create a beer that’s different from everyone out there.
NK: Do you like the unpredictability of working with a new hop?
RB: Oh, yeah. It’s exciting. When something turns out great that you make without brewing a test batch first, like we did with 200-Watt or Laughter, it’s great, because it could have gone anywhere. Being a chef when you try new ingredients, you’ll know how it worked two hours later. But brewing a beer, you’re waiting five or six weeks to see how the product turned out and you’re spending a lot of money in the process. But that payoff if it works is priceless.
SingleCut Beersmiths, 19-33 37th Street; Astoria, Queens