On a recent afternoon, while clutching my copy of Dr. Seuss’ “Green Kegs and Ham,” I headed to enjoy summer by partaking in my favorite pastime: a game of volleyball at one of New York City’s beautiful beaches, with myself pitted against a towering team of Sneetches.
Coney Island Beach was our choice of sandy, seagull-inhabited venue on this day (not in May, I say!), so the search for a refreshing, alcohol-fueled respite from the day’s oppressive heat and humidity was a short-lived one following the intense match (I won, by the way); I strolled along the beachgoer-buzzing boardwalk and took a triumphant ride on the Wonder Wheel before arriving at Coney Island Brewing Company‘s year-old brewery on Surf Avenue, adjacent to MCU Park and open for its first full summer.
A terse backstory on the brand: Shmaltz Brewing Company launched Coney Island Craft Lagers in 2007, with a few freak-show-inspired beers like Human Blockhead and Sword Swallower. The brand was produced entirely at a contract-brewing facility in Saratoga Springs, New York, until 2011, when “the world’s smallest brewery” opened in America’s Playground making just one gallon of beer per batch from a tiny storefront. That facility was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy the following year, however, and Shmaltz—which opened its own facility in Clifton Park, New York, after years of contracting—sold the brand to Alchemy & Science, a subsidiary of Boston Beer Company (makers of Sam Adams).
Alchemy & Science retooled the brand and introduced a number of new offerings, including a line of hard sodas. The most significant introduction under new ownership occurred last September, with the opening of a production brewery and tasting room, complete with 10 rotating taps and boardwalk-style floors. There is also a flatscreen in the small area, where I met with Chris Adams and Eric Hernandez, brewery operations manager and head brewer, respectively. It was playing a cult film about the area: “The Warriors.”
Niko’s Note: My unnecessarily exhaustive recounting of events prior to chitchatting with Coney Island Brewing Company may or may not be slightly fictionalized. When reached for comment, I said, “Warrrioooorssssssssssss, come out to I-P-AAAAAAAAA.”
Niko Krommydas: In the film, after a long, hellacious night of “bopping” to survive, The Warriors finally returned home to Coney Island. Do you see any parallels in the brand’s back to the neighborhood after the first brewery was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy?
Chris Adams: I’ve actually considered that before! Like in the movie, it’s been a crazy ride but we’re back in Coney and better then ever. [“The Warriors”] is played in the tasting room a lot; it’s either that or old clips of the boardwalk on YouTube.
Eric Hernandez: We did a beer for the big Warriors reunion last summer too. It was a red ale brewed and dry-hopped just with Warrior hops. Warrior India Red Ale. We definitely want to do that one again.
NK: That’s amazing. I have an idea: Since you’re connected to a ballpark, what about a Baseball Furies-themed Berliner weisse served with a set of flavored syrups that correspond to the different colors of face paint?
EH: We already have a series of Berliner weisses, so yes, we’re taking that idea. [Laughs.] You know, if there’s one thing we’ve tried to do here it’s incorporate Coney Island into the beers we’re making.
CA: And we’ve been working with a lot of local businesses in and around the area, and using local ingredients. Even today we’re using Cafe Grumpy coffee in a new beer, a crazier version of our Freaktoberfest.
EH: We’re calling it Super Freak.
NK: What’s different about Super Freak? Freaktoberfest is made with Grumpy’s coffee, too, right?
EH: Yeah. Freaktoberfest is our fall specialty release, a pumpkin-spice-and-espresso ale we make with Grumpy’s Heartbreaker roast. For Super Freak, I decided to take it up a notch. This is over nine percent in alcohol, a deep amber ale with pumpkin, allspice, nutmeg, and lemon zest. Then we cold brewed 30 pounds of Grumpy’s Nyaruszia Rwandan roast here at the brewery in kegs and blended it in during fermentation. The roast and lemon zest give an incredible citrusy twist on traditional fall spices and it has a nice warming finish.
CA: I can’t wait for this one. I drink a crazy amount of Grumpy’s cold brew. We’re also doing a promotional week called Freak Week where we get out across the five boroughs into some amazing bars and showcase all we have to offer in beer while throwing fun Coney-esque themed events. People can keep an eye out on our social-media channels and website for where and when.
NK: Super Freak is a limited release?
EH: Correct. A small batch. We’re only making it in Brooklyn.
NK: Before being acquired by Alchemy & Science in 2013, Coney Island was owned by its founder, Jeremy Cowan of Shmaltz Brewing Company. How do you think the brand has changed since the acquisition?
CA: I suppose you could say we gave it a bit of a facelift.
EH: But it’s still a priority to pay homage to the brand’s history and to Coney Island. This is our home.
NK: The majority of Coney Island’s beer is made far from the neighborhood, at a facility outside of New York State. How do you define the role of this brewery in relation to the overall brand?
EH: This component, or arm, is a few different things. First and foremost, it’s our home. It’s a place where we can serve all of our beers in one spot and be here to talk about them. But it’s also our research facility, where we experiment and try new recipes and put them out into the public. And everything we do here, no matter how small, has a chance of getting into the regular lineup and being produced on a larger, national scale.
CA: About every 45 days we send a few sixtels of a beer we make in Coney into the local market just to see how it does. We do events around it and gather feedback. So the role we have here is just as important as what we do overall.
NK: What about the kinds of beer you’re making in Brooklyn? Is there a lot of oversight from ownership on what you’re doing?
EH: We have complete freedom to push boundaries and create wild, crazy, and tasty beers. And everything we put out nationally, we also make here.
I think what we make here really pushes to incorporate Coney Island, New York City, and creative brewing techniques. Our overall brand is rooted in these inspirations, and this gives me virtually unlimited themes to work with. We’ve made carnival-themed beers like our Cotton Candy Kölsch, beers with locally sourced ingredients like our Trapp’d on the Cylcone, and even cocktail-inspired beers like our Hot Toddy Ale.
NK: You also have a line of hard sodas.
CA: We do. They’ve been an incredible tool to drive people from all over the country and world here to visit. It’s really cool.
NK: What do people find here when they visit?
CA: A great atmosphere and great beer! A lot of beer, because we’re always changing up what’s hitting the taps. Mermaid Pilsner is our flagship, and our best-selling beer in the tasting room which I find interesting because we have so many different ones to try. Eric’s done 30 completely new beers so far, so you’re basically guaranteed something new every visit.
NK: You’re in a unique location, adjacent to MCU Park, which is home to the Brooklyn Cyclones. You also make two baseball-themed beers, one of which is exclusive to the team.
EH: We wanted to create our own versions of classic ballpark beers, beers that go well with the heat of summer and you can enjoy throughout a ballgame.
Home Plate Ale is our summer seasonal that’s available in bottles and draft. It’s a medium-bodied, moderately hopped ale. And our Home Team Kölsch is a special beer that’s only available at MCU Park and our taproom. We have a great relationship with the Cyclones, which is good because our ingredient deliveries come through the stadium. [Laughs.]
CA: They have a stand inside with five of our beers currently. It’s been a great partnership; the staff and performers [at MCU] have been known to pop in for a pint or two, which makes it really cool.
NK: How did you find the space?
CA: We looked all over south Brooklyn at first, went to Bushwick and looked at much bigger spots than this. But at the end of the day, we knew that the home of the brand should be in Coney Island. So we made it a point of finding something here.
EH: There were a few locations on Surf [Avenue] that we were entertaining. Then Sandy happened and the pizzeria that was here before us got washed out. A goal of ours was to find a unique space and I think this space was a perfect fit.
CA: It’s only 1,500 square feet, so we have to use every inch of it. But that’s one of its strengths, in my opinion. It gives us a certain intimacy that draws people in here to drink.
NK: You hosted a party for the facility’s first anniversary on August 06. How was it?
CA: It was a blast. Our guests got to enjoy somesword swallowing, snake charming, stilt walking and strongman acts from our friends at the Freak Show at Coney USA. We also debuted our first draft-only Beer Freak Club release, our Hard Root Beer aged in Bulleit Bourbon barrels. That was a huge hit.
NK: What have you learned in the last year? How are you applying that moving forward?
CA: It’s been a hell of a ride, no pun intended considering where we are. We’ve made some incredible beers to enjoy in a one-of-a-kind atmosphere, built a loyal and fun following, and hopefully have created a business that will continue to help drive people down to and revitalize Coney Island. We look forward to continuing to push the boundaries of everything we do.
Coney Island made over 30 different beers at its facility in Brooklyn last year. We asked Hernandez to pick his favorite three.
Imperial Russian Kvass, 4.0%
This is our take on kvass, which is a traditional grain beer, but it’s so low in alcohol that it’s considered more of a soda – even the small kids drink it in a lot of the Slavic countries. Because it’s double the alcohol of regular kvass, we put Imperial in the name, but it’s still only four percent; really light.
You traditionally make [kvass] by soaking Russian black or regular rye bread in water and adding yeast to it. After soaking for a few days, it naturally carbonates to give a slight sweetness and sourness that’s really distinctive.
What inspired us to do this is the large Russian community in and around Coney. We went to this Russian bakery a few blocks away last fall, and the place is great, all the bread is still warm and fresh. But it’s not like I could read the signs, so I had to ask which one was rye. [Laughs.] We scooped up a shitload of rye bread, which dominated the grain bill. We put around 30 pounds of rye breadcrumbs in the mash and not the boil, so the spicy character could really come through, and then we added raisin puree in the boil and in the fermenter. It’s really a simple recipe.
I think we passed the ultimate test when some real old-school Russians came in to try some. It was poured through nitro to really give that texture of real kvass and they really liked it, they all came back a few times … It’s an easy beer to drink, especially in the fall when the weather starts to get a little cooler. We’ll be bringing it back this fall for sure.
Cotton Candy Kölsch, 4.8%
I was struggling with this recipe for a while, to get a beer that tastes just like cotton candy but to also have the right color. I remember one of the test batches came out this crazy purple. We ended up nailing it by using a ton of strawberries, and I mean a ton; there’s a funny picture of Alex, our other brewer, I think on his Instagram, and it looks like he might’ve murdered someone, or maybe a strawberry patch. [Laughs.]
We use strawberries in juice form and in puree form, and then our own cotton-candy flavoring. Our kölsch recipe already has a fruity backbone, so that works well as the base and the strawberries give a nice aroma and flavor and also a nice pink tint … It’s a fun beer, a lot of people like this one. This really gave us the idea of doing a series of carnival beers as a way of paying homage to what Coney is.
Hot Toddy Ale, 12.5%
The goal was to make a beer that emulates a hot toddy. This was probably the most technically complex beer we’ve made here, for a lot of reasons. One of the main challenges was just to have it be balanced at such a high ABV, but I think we did a great job. We brewed it with honey in the boil, and then we fermented it with cinnamon and juiced lemons before aging it on whiskey barrel staves to get that rich, oaky flavor of bourbon.
I think for us, the coolest thing about this beer was that people were able to come in and have either a cold or hot version. Once the beer was made, I siphoned off some of it uncarbonated and kegged that up for the hot version. We carbonated the rest and kegged like normal, and that was the cold version.
For the hot version, we put each keg on a heat plate and wrapped a heat blanket around it. We served it uncarbonated and it was wild, it was like a mulled beverage and the difference in carbonation and temperature gave you different flavors. The cold focuses on cinnamon and whiskey tones, and the hot version is more honey and oaky.