Ask Your Local Brewery, Question #2: Why Did You Open Your Brewery in NYC?

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Photo illustration by Jane Bruce.

In our series, Ask Your Local Brewery, Brooklyn Magazine poses questions to New York City’s beermakers. The latest question is: Why did you open your brewery in NYC?

Shane C. Welch, Sixpoint
When we opened in Brooklyn in 2004, we were the first wholesale production brewery to start their production and succeed in New York City in nearly 50 years. All others had failed or closed shop. How things have changed in the past 11 years is amazing. The flood gates have truly been opened, like when the Erie Canal was completed! I expect more fellow brewers to follow our lead for years to come.

The reason why Brooklyn was the home for Sixpoint is because Sixpoint has always been about leading the charge with innovation and craftsmanship, which we believed the people were craving when we opened. These principles are right there in the DNA of our company, right down to the logo and heritage of the name, which reinforce each other. Sure enough, flashforward 10 years and Brooklyn is known globally as a major incubator for artistic endeavors, crafted foods, design, and even tech. But this wasn’t the case in 2004. We saw where the people wanted to go, and we led them there.

When we opened in 2004 in Red Hook, the neighborhood was only a decade away from being named by Life Magazine as one of the “worst neighborhoods in the U.S.” and the “crack capital of America.” But to me, Red Hook from the beginning was real Brooklyn: industrial, authentic, and gritty. I saw an honest charm in it and look back at those early years as magical times. Now we have an even stronger vision of where we want to go in the next 11 years. We can’t wait to share with New York City what we’ve been working on.

Rich Castagna, Bridge and Tunnel Brewery
Growing up in the Ridgewood and Maspeth towns of Queens, I saw firsthand a lot of the growing pains that this city has been through. In my elementary and teenage years kids were raised to always be on their guard, to not count money anywhere in public, to tie their shoes so someone wouldn’t steal them, to basically regard every situation as a possible volatile one. By the time I was 19, I had been mugged twice and jumped once by a couple of guys who came at me with both fists and a polished butterfly knife that I still have to this day. My mom got mugged on her way to church when I was 15, knocked over and dragged for her pocketbook. My neighbor was mugged in his driveway. A couple of guys I knew became the first casualties of 1990, shot in Times Square while watching the ball drop. Some schoolmates ended up in jail, on the run, or dead. The neighborhoods were infested with crack, which meant car windows got smashed all the time for car radios.

For college I attended Baruch and took the M train to get there. The NYPD at the time said the “M” stood for murder. You looked out of the scratched and hazy windows of the elevator train in both fear and amazement at the site of landscapes in Bushwick and Bed-Stuy—swaths of burned-out buildings and empty lots of rubble like war zones. There was an edge everywhere, and you walked with a stance of readiness or else you walked with a target on your back. I worked hard in college because I hoped that it would get me out. I loaded 40-foot trailers in the middle of the night for a trucking company to pay my tuition, working side by side with guys who talked of the same dreams, to get out of the mess that we felt we were in. I vowed that as soon as I graduated college, I’d leave for better horizons. And that’s exactly what I did. I lived in Montana for about six months just a few miles shy of the Canadian border. Not long after that, I ended up in South Korea, then ruck-sacked my way deeper and deeper into the world to see what else I’d find. I spent the better of 10 years living like that. Working, but living very far away and not wanting any part of the city that I grew up in. But yet never being able to fully clean the grit of my formative environment out from under my nails and skin. No matter where I found myself, I was always labeled by others as the kid from New York City. I even went as far as trying to adopt a more neutral accent. Didn’t work.

When a family member died, I came back to Queens to look after my elderly mom. Shortly after returning, I met my wife. I wanted to leave again, but from living in Asia I learned the concept of duty to parents. So I started building a life here. A few years went by, and then the shock of 9/11 happened. My wife lost a cousin. The attack cut deep and on a personal level. But out of all that, I remember how this city pulled together, total solidarity, and it made me realize how my home had turned a corner; how far we’ve made it past the growing pains of the ’70s and ’80s. It was a shining moment for New York City, despite the tragedy. We pulled together as one.

This place is so deep under my skin. I made it through the rollercoaster ride when others got off and never came back. My brewery is literally up the street from the hospital where I was born. It’s in the neighborhood that I attended elementary and high school, and where I saw both good and bad. I think of my brewery as a flag that I’m raising—not only for the current successes, but for the rough-road history of this place, for the people that built it, endured it, and who also have it so far under their skin that they’re almost self-conscious over it. I raise this flag and tell the stories because I want people to know this city and love it not only for its bright future, but for its difficult and colorful past. I’m here out of a deep connection to this place and all that it has triumphed over. And I’ll wear my heart on my sleeve to answer this question if I have to, because I’m not going to front over it. It is what it is.

Sam Richardson, Other Half Brewing
I was visiting Providence with my now wife eight years ago and saw a posting for a head brewer job in New York City, which is rare now but it was like finding a unicorn then. I took the train and went for an interview at Greenpoint Beer Works in Clinton Hill and got it. I had worked at breweries in Seattle and my hometown of Portland for the four years prior to that and had always wanted to open a brewery of my own. At the time there were only four breweries in New York City and I saw it as a great opportunity to have an impact on an underdeveloped brewing scene, so after six years at Greenpoint we gave it a go.

We ended up in the space we are in by luck. We weren’t exactly set on a neighborhood, we were more concerned with just finding something reasonable. The fact that we are near a subway stop is amazingly lucky. Getting open was really difficult, way more than it should have been. The majority of our delays were caused by the city’s Department of Buildings and National Grid. It took over eight months to get a gas meter from the latter—everything just moved at a glacial pace. Despite the delays, New York City has proved a great place to own a brewery. We not only have a ton of support from the locals but we constantly have people visiting from all over the world. The number of craft-beer bars here is just ridiculous. It’s going to get harder to open from here on out too. Real estate is getting way more expensive and you still have to deal with added expenses that non-NYC breweries don’t. We pay an excise tax that breweries in the rest of the state don’t pay and we have to pay for spent grain removal which is something most breweries get for free or are even paid for by farmers. That means NYC breweries have a harder time being competitive pricewise with non-NYC breweries selling beer here. In spite of the cost, though, I wouldn’t want my brewery to be anywhere else.

Ethan Long, Rockaway Brewing
The short answer is that I was jealous of Portland. I’ve now been in New York for over 20 years but originally being from California I was once told, “You can take the kid out of California but you can’t take the California out of the kid.” A number of years ago, Marcus [Burnett, Rockaway’s other owner] and I were on a road trip with our families visiting relatives in California and then heading up the West Coast before heading east and camping our way back to New York City. Over beers on our trip we came to the revelation that what we needed—or I should say what we wanted—back home was the beer that we were seeing and tasting in small pockets across the U.S. We knew we didn’t have the money to start a large operation but that wasn’t the point. To be able to drink a beer made in the city we called home and loved was something worth the effort. New York with its great beer history was missing out on what places like Portland had in spades.

When we started looking for spaces we were connected to an old meatpacking plant that my landlord for my design/fabrication shop (Konduit) located on the same block in Long Island City had made available to us with a great deal. This allowed us to start dreaming. We began building our operation from a mix of our homebrewing equipment which was taking over the backyard of my Rockaway bungalow and a small two-barrel system we had found on ProBrewer. The local enthusiasm and support that we’ve received has encouraged us to keep building and tweaking and growing ever since we rolled out our first beers to the public. I’ve been amazed at how the NYC brewery scene has grown exponentially in the last number of years, and I’m very proud to be part of it. From a small list of pioneers before us we now have a rapidly growing list of new breweries creating our own local scene. Doing business in this city is an expensive proposition so I hope that as we all grow and new breweries emerge our elected officials will take notice and keep encouraging the growth of our local industry enabling us all to drink locally made beer with a diverse and hopefully expanding list of homegrown breweries.

Ed Raven, Greenpoint Beer & Ale
Opening a brewery in Brooklyn has been a 25-year journey that took me from account representative to beer broker (Sierra Nevada) to importer (Jever, Gaffel, Riegele) to specialty beer-shop owner (Brouwerij Lane) to now, owner of Greenpoint Beer & Ale and Dirck the Norseman. With the exception of beer broker, I still maintain all faucets of these businesses. Experience in all aspects of the specialty beer business has provided us with a diverse business platform. We appreciate what all sides of the industry go through on a daily basis. The future success of any brand will depend on how well it adapts to market changes. Most important, introducing unique beer and the social experience surrounding it has always been the underlying passion for me.

Jay Sykes, Flagship Brewing
There is a simple answer to this question: because my business partners and I are lifelong New Yorkers. But the more complex and passionate answer is a bit longer.

New York City has long been a place of opportunity, a place where you can see firsthand the grand accomplishments of driven entrepreneurs by simply looking at the skyline. Our hometown borough of Staten Island, although a major part of New York City, has always been and continues to be a bit different. It’s the “Forgotten Borough” to many, and we utilized that saying in our slogan–“Unforgettable Beer, Brewed in the Forgotten Borough”–not in agreement but as a sarcastic way of saying those days are over. We feel our borough is a true reflection of NYC’s past, present, and future. It’s a borough that once had a thriving brewing industry that had dwindled into nothing and became mostly forgotten in our lifetime. We as a group saw and felt a need to bring it back to our hometown. And with the curiosity already here with a growing homebrewing community and a few established craft-beer bars, our vision of a craft brewery on Staten Island was not ours alone. So with a business plan, tenacity, and a dream we set out to do just that and somehow pulled it off. We leased a 13,500-square-foot, manufacturing-zoned building right next to the Staten Island Ferry directly in the area of all the major redevelopment of the North Shore. And we focused our beers on quality, creativity and approachability, a set of standards we felt reflected our hometown. The doors opened just a year ago with great support from Staten Islanders and NYC as a whole. To be able to do what you love in a place like New York City is a truly amazing thing.

Damian Brown, The Bronx Brewery
To me, New York City has always been the place people go to be with and compete with the best no matter the field. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Or something like that, right? I was about halfway through the Master Brewers Program at UC Davis in April of 2009 when it became clear to me that there was no other place in the world I’d rather build a brewery. But why the Bronx? It has a long tradition of brewing—Haffen, Ebling, Hupfel, North Side, Mayer’s, Eichler’s, Rheingold—one we sought to restore when we started selling beer here in 2011. It’s also where things are made in NYC. Sure, Brooklyn may have the cool, trendy brands. But the Bronx is where the real manufacturing takes place. It undoubtedly has its challenges, both real and perceived, but it’s been a fucking blast and deciding to invest in, grow a business in, and become a member of this community is something I wouldn’t change for anything.

Kyle Hurst, Big Alice Brewing
2008 saw a downturn in the economy and, unfortunately, my career. At the time I was a technology manager for an AT&T call center in Appleton, Wis. and after almost 15 years with the company I learned they were eliminating my position along with thousands of others. Fortunately, my job search didn’t last long and I soon found myself at Arista Air Conditioning in Long Island City. It was there that I introduced a couple of coworkers to my hobby of homebrewing. Little did any of us know that only a few years later we would open Big Alice Brewing Company together.

The plan at the time was to open our brewery in the warehouse space at Arista in Long Island City on what essentially was a glorified homebrew system. We really only wanted to make really interesting and experimental beers for ourselves and sell enough to the public to cover our expenses. Well, it didn’t take long to learn we’d never get a brewery license in that space and so began our search for Big Alice’s home. We wanted to be close to work so our focus was always Long Island City. Somewhat ironically we ended up in a space owned by a different HVAC company but this one met the licensing guidelines. In what can only be described as a geographic anomaly the space seemed to be 10 minutes from everything: work for us and around eight different subway lines for everyone else.

It has been an awesome experience to a part of the craft-beer renaissance in Queens. Only a few years ago we had no breweries and today we have almost half of all of NYC’s breweries. Long Island City alone now has four. I’m really looking forward to the time when NYC bars and restaurants only serve NYC beer because that’s what consumers want. Some of the other great craft-beer cities in the country are already there so why can’t we do it here? I think we can and we will.

Andrew Unterberg, Threes Brewing
Our project, like our name, came into being through the journeys of the three of us. We each came from different backgrounds, professionally and personally, but shared a vision of our neighborhood and how great beer could fit in it. I grew up in Dallas, Texas, but my parents were New Yorkers and you didn’t hear a lot of “ya’lls” coming out of our house. It was a New York embassy of sorts and so it was probably inevitable I would find myself living in this great city and feeling immediately that I was home.

When my partners, Josh [Stylman] and Justin [Israelson], and I connected with our brewer Greg [Doroski] and started looking at spaces, we knew we wanted Gowanus. We live in the neighborhood and wanted our brewery to be a gathering place for our community. Gowanus is an amazing area. Nestled among ever-changing residential neighborhoods of Park Slope, Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and others, Gowanus is a focal point grounded in the city’s history of manufacturing, tainted by pollution and the whims of a larger economy, and re-emerging as a rare area of space for artists and businesses to create local products that require a footprint.

Operating in New York has it’s challenges. From high costs of real estate to even the small costs such as spent-grain disposal, everything is more expensive. But with that also comes the opportunities inherent with having 8 million people living within 10 square miles of you. We chose to build a brewery while trying to reimagine what a brew pub could be. In part, it allows us to shield ourselves from some of the stresses of pure distribution on a small system which in turn means we can be more fanatical on production and focus on more styles that take longer. Of course, running a front-of-house component is also not without its own challenges. We each bring our own preferences of flavor and aroma and you’ll see that in our portfolio but we’re also able to get immediate feedback from our patrons every day. At the heart of our space is the ability for many people to experience our beer directly at source and to be able to find a place where they can come together with friends and have meaningful conversations around beer (or another drink of choice) and food.

New York is a great tap town and its surprising when you think about how few breweries are New York born. But that’s starting to change and there’s a lot of great beer coming from New York now. We see a future where there is plenty of room for more great breweries and more great beer to come from our city.

Dave Lopez, Gun Hill Brewing
When Kieran [Farrell] and I sat down in 2012 to start brainstorming how to put this all together, there were no physical breweries in the Bronx. The Bronx Brewery was already around and there was talk that they were looking to build a brewery, but nothing was set in stone. Given the large number of ties that we had to the Bronx, and the number of breweries beginning to pop up in Queens and Brooklyn, we felt this was our opportunity to bring something really exciting to the borough. Furthermore, we felt New York City’s craft-beer scene was still lagging behind the rest of the country. As a result of all this, there was never any option or consideration to opening anywhere else.

The Bronx has special meaning for both of us because of the importance it played in shaping our lives, both directly and indirectly. Kieran was born in the Woodlawn section of the Bronx and lived there until he was 10 years old, and his family has lived in the area on and off for over 40 years. He very quickly returned to the city to go to Manhattan College. And although I was born and raised in Manhattan, I went to school in the Bronx my entire life until college. My mother was born and raised in the Riverdale section of the borough, and my grandfather had been a standout football player at Evander Childs HS which just so happens to be around the corner from Gun Hill. Most importantly, the baseball team that Kieran and I play on is based out of the Bronx and we play our home games at Roberto Clemente State Park. Had we not met playing on this team, Gun Hill Brewing Company would never have come into existence.

When it came to choosing a space, square footage, ceiling clearance, foot traffic, and accessibility were all part of the equation. Given that we are in NYC, the number of buildings that can actually check all these boxes are a few and far between. And once you throw reasonable rent prices into the mix, the number of options dwindles even further. We were very fortunate to find our current location on Laconia Avenue because we feel it gives us the freedom to operate exactly how we envisioned. Opening an on-site taproom was a critical part of what we wanted to do, so being in an accessible area was critical. We’re approximately a mile off of both I-95 and the Bronx River Parkway’s Gun Hill Road exits, we are blocks away from the Gun Hill Road and Burke Avenue stops on the 5 and 2 trains, and we are within walking distance to Montefiore Hospital and a large number of residences. All of this has combined to give us exactly what we were hoping for when we sat down to discuss starting Gun Hill. One other perk about our location is that it actually was the determining factor in choosing the name for the brewery. It was very important to both of us, given that we are both NYC natives, that the brewery’s name had a real “New York” feel to it. Gun Hill was on that list given it’s Revolutionary War historical significance and it’s prominence on I-95 (anyone who has ever driven on I-95 through NY has passed by the Gun Hill Road exit). Once we saw that our space was a stone’s throw from Gun Hill Road, we immediately knew it was a sign that our brewery would be Gun Hill.

Travis Kauffman, Folksbier
I’ve been living in New York City for 16 years and Carroll Gardens for nine. I helped open five businesses here before I started working on Folksbier so it was a natural place for me to want to start my brewery. There’s a great community of diverse and interesting people from all sorts of backgrounds that make for a really interesting social-cultural melting pot. NYC is a hard place to make it in any business so the people that live here are some of the best at what they do: bright and energetic go-getters with a cohesive world view and progressive thinking, who also have great taste and want the best for themselves. Who could ask for a better audience?

I came to New York to get a graduate degree in computer art from SVA. I graduated in 2002 into a horrible economy but decided to stick it out. I was teaching “New Media” and “Intro to Web Design” as an adjunct professor at Hunter College and NYU while making ends meet by doing freelance web programming and some design work. I burned out quick on sitting in front of a computer for a living so I helped by buddies Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo open a new restaurant in Carroll Gardens called Frankies 457. Flash forward 11 years to today and I’m no longer in the restaurant business but doing something that was a hobby for 20 years and is now my profession: brewing. While I was at Frankies I had the chance to be everything from a bartender to director of operations, and I learned a ton of great lessons about running businesses in NY and got a really intimate view of the hospitality business which I think is extremely valuable since that’s the industry I now service as a wholesaler.

To be clear, I’m a country boy. I grew up on a farm in Northern Michigan where we grew most of our own food which included milking the cow, churning butter, and tending to chickens, sheep, goats, and turkeys. Brewing has really helped me reconnect with my roots. When I realized how difficult it is for small brewers to get good hops, I invested in a one-acre hop yard at my family farm in Michigan as a test plot. It provides a great legitimate excuse to get my hands in the dirt and visit northern Michigan and hopefully nearly 800 pounds of delicious hops will arrive this fall. Ultimately I’d like to grow Folksbier in NYC and also start a farm brewery in Michigan where I could put up big batches of lager in the fall and sell it on the farm the next summer. I have this bucolic fantasy of giant farm tables in the hop yards filled with people drinking lagered beer from last year’s harvest. I’d like to do the same on a grand scale in New York City.

Running a business here is hard but worth it. There are a lot of hoops to jump through and the cost of operating is much, much higher but when you put that in context of the quality of people who live here and the relative population density, it’s kind of a no-brainer. It’s competitive for the same reasons and if you are off your game or have a bad month or year it can be devastating. The other side of that is the potential success available to businesses here which is infinitely greater than almost anywhere else. New York is still underserviced with breweries. The Brewers Association ranks us 33rd for breweries per capita, 1.1 breweries for every 100,000 adults over 21 years old. I think that leaves tons of room for the industry to grow especially since New Yorkers as a whole, not just beer aficionados, are starting to appreciate local beer more and more. And I wanted to be part of that.

Read Ask Your Local Brewery, Question #1

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