Beer Town

Charting a borough’s rise to neo-hipness alongside its love of good suds.

Moving-to-Brooklyn stories tend to involve similar ingredients—a patch of green, an extra bedroom, a deep infatuation with roller coasters, minor league baseball, diversity and a particular brand of craft beer.

Okay. To move to a borough for an alcoholic beverage sounds ridiculous.

But any Manhattanite who has experienced one of Brooklyn Brewery’s early block parties, where friendships with strangers were forged over bottomless pitchers on sweltering summer days, surely has tasted the bonhomie, the pride of place, the tradition in each Brooklyn-brewed gulp and thought—man, I could (should) live here.

But that wasn’t always the case. In fact, when neighbors Steve Hindy (a journalist) and Tom Potter (a banker) launched Brooklyn Brewery in 1987, after bonding over home brew beer in Park Slope, people wondered—why Brooklyn?

“We felt that Brooklyn was kind of an undervalued place,” says Mr. Hindy, citing everything from underground art to real estate. “And that turned out to be true in more ways than one.”

In their recently released book, Beer School: Bottling Success at the Brooklyn Brewery (Wiley, 2005), Mr. Hindy recalls following the success of start-up breweries like New Amsterdam in Manhattan, and dreaming about making good craft beer in his own borough. “It seemed to me that Brooklyn, with 2.5 million inhabitants and a proud, storied history, would also support a brewery,” he writes.

But it wasn’t until he met a man named Will Anderson—author of the exhaustively researched, out-of-print book Breweries of Brooklyn—that he realized a return to Brooklyn’s brewing roots may be propi- tiously timed.

“Brooklyn had been known as ‘the borough of churches,’ but it might have been called the borough of breweries,” Mr. Hindy writes. In 1898, there were 48 breweries in Brooklyn, and as late as 1962, 10 percent of national beer consumption was Brooklyn beer. Only a few—like Hell Gate brewery, which was at one time the nation’s largest—survived Prohibition. Those that did struggled to keep up in an industry that, like so many others, was becoming more industrialized. Many breweries relocated to cheaper locations linked to rail and highways. The last brewery in Brooklyn closed in 1977.

The founders of Brooklyn Brewery hired a direct descendant of those sudsy glory days as their initial Brewmaster: William Moeller, a fourth-generation brewer whose grandfather had brewed in Brooklyn at the turn of the century. His family recipe for lager—the predominant beer in 19th-century New York—has become their best selling beer and the fourth most popular draft in New York City, an accomplishment, considering how wan commercial beers have always dominated the taps.

The brewery tapped into Brooklyn’s appetite for nostalgia and the nation’s nascent cravings for good beer. The bottles and draft started popping up in all the right places. Under the band shell in Prospect Park. BAM. The Mermaid Parade. Even Manhattan.

“We decided rather than spending money on traditional advertising, we would focus on this renaissance,” Mr. Hindy said, addressing the groundswell of interest in Brooklyn that paralleled the growth of his company “It [the beer] did become kind of a symbol of a new spirit in Brooklyn,” Mr. Hindy said.

Charlie Papazian, President of the National Brewers Association, which in based in Boulder, says that even though NY isn’t a major player in the home, micro and craft brew scene—prices are prohibitive, and space is limited—Brooklyn Brewery’s contributions to the beer world are significant.

“What’s unique about the BrooklynBrewery is they’re one of the only craft brewers that have a lager as their flagship beer,” he said, explaining that the hoppy, historic recipe, which has achieved a cult following from Japan to Scandanavia, is a rare choice for craft brewers, who usually establish themselves with more emphatic ales.

And, in light of our borough’s lack of brew pubs (which is compensated for by a handful of destination beer bars, like the Brazen Head on Atlantic Avenue) Mr. Papazian added, “Enthusiasts really appreciate having their brewery in Brooklyn and being able to get fresh beer.”

For an entire decade, though, the only tangible connection to Brooklyn the Brewery could afford was a warehouse on Brewers Row, the area near Bushwick where the erstwhile breweries were once concentrated. Until they opened their brewery/public space in an old Ironworks factory in Williamsburg in 1996, they brewed exclusively upstate, where the bottles are still filled. The kegs are made in Brooklyn, which fuels a never-ending debate among fans over which is better—Brooklyn lager in the bottle, or on tap (you can guess which most Brooklynites prefer).

In less than 20 years, the little brewery that could has grown into the one that does it all—it’s not only a local institution but now the 38th largest brewery in the country, brewing 53,200 barrels (14 cases each), with distribution still concentrated in the Northeast. And its reach has sacrificed nothing of quality and inventiveness: Brewmaster Garrett Oliver’s reserve brews—like his formidable Saison and fresh, unpasteurized cask-conditioned ales—send beer connoisseur hearts aflutter. In a few months, he will begin bottling specialty brews in large, cork-topped bottles—at the Brooklyn location.

“They’re huge,” said Shane C. Welch, 27, Brewmaster of Red Hook’s Sixpoint Craft Ales, speaking not of Brooklyn Brewery’s volume, but their impact. “By virtue of the fact that they’re local, they influenced everyone. Now bars will carry us because they made that headway.”

Mr. Welch, a soft-spoken Midwesterner, is modest: not only beer cult bars, like Barcade and Sputen Duyvil in Williamsburg, but estimable restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, Good Fork, and Franny’s carry Sixpoint’s beers because they are downright delicious.

The 18-month-old venture—which Mr. Welch started with Andrew Bronstein, 26, a college buddy from their Madison, Wisconsin, days—represents the next generation of Brooklyn beer: irreverent, post-modern, impossible to categorize.

Take the beer they call Brownstone—does it get more Brooklyn than that? On the tongue, a mash-up of nut brown ale and stout. All of the beers—the Righteous Ale, Diesel, Sweet Action, to name a few—are based on home brew recipes Mr. Welch has been tinkering with since he was 19.

Mr. Welch moved to New York after brewing at a live music venue/brewpub in Madison, and started investigating places to make beer in Brooklyn. “It’s very cool to be surrounded by such enthusiastic and bold people,” he said.

One night while he and Bronstein were drinking at Liberty Heights Tap Room in Red Hook, the bartender offered to take them out back to see the brew equipment that was no longer in use.

“It was a total blessing,” Mr. Welch says. The retired equipment belonged to Steve Deptula, the space’s owner, who was former brewer of Park Slope Brewing Company, which no longer makes beer. Had it not been for Mr. Deptula’s willingness to rent it, Mr. Welch said they probably couldn’t have afforded to make beer here.

Now they brew about 175 barrels a month, and give free tours of their retrofitted facility, which is separated from the tap room by a courtyard filled with kegs the five-man crew spray-paints with six-pointed stars—an old brewer’s symbol for quality. Upstairs on the rooftop bar, there’s a storeroom where Mr. Welch stores hundreds of varieties of rare grains and hops.

It looks homespun compared to Brooklyn’s only other commercial brewery, Greenpoint Beer Works, which is actually in Clinton Hill and makes beer you can only drink in Manhattan.

A block off Atlantic Avenue, there are always a few dumpsters on wheels filled with sweet, spent grain waiting to be picked up by an upstate farmer and fed to his lucky pigs. Peek inside this old Borden milk warehouse, and a city of grain towers and beer vats rise up from the concrete floor. You’ll find brewmaster Kelly Taylor and three associates, elbows deep in Heartland Brewery’s beers.

Mr. Taylor has been brewing since 1990, moved here from Seattle in 1998 and soon after became the head brewer at Heartland. But as the brewpub’s owner continued to open locations—four, five, and now six—the consistency of beer became a problem. So Mr. Taylor designed the massive plant, which churns out about 6,000 barrels for Heartland and a few other labels, including the short-lived return of the Brooklyn native, Rheingold.

And later this year, he’ll be brewing kegs of his own beer, Kelso (named for him and his wife, Sonya), a zippy nut brown lager you won’t have to go to Manhattan to taste. It’ll likely be in the refrigerated keg cases at Bierkraft in Park Slope, a Brooklyn beer hound Mecca that stocks close to 900 bottles, and always has a few on tap for tasting.

This spring Ben Granger, a co-owner and former pastry chef who also mans the store’s outstanding cheese selection, started selling 64-ounce growlers of keg beers you can’t otherwise get in bottles. Unlike brewpubs, which often bottle growlers straight from draft, Mr. Granger’s are bottled under pressure and have the oxygen vacuumed out, which means they wont go flat before you have a chance to drink them.

There’s more Brooklyn magic going on in those fridges. As an affineur cares for a cheese by lovingly washing its rind and coaxing out its flavor, Mr. Granger puts his stamp on certain high alcohol beers by running them through three cylinders of fresh hops, which gives it a finishing high note before it’s bottled. The technique is known as dry-hopping, because the hops, which become bitter when cooked, are fresh.

“It’s all in the nose. It gives it a nice floral character,” he said, thrust- ing his hand in a bag of Czech Sazz hops he’s using with a keg of Rogue Mogul. “It’s a cousin of the marijuana family, so it smells a bit like grass,” he added.

He uses these and other artisanal hops, spices and flavorings, in the small batch brews he makes on the miniature brewery in Bierkraft’s backyard, where beer heads gather on Tuesday nights for the store’s legendary free beer and cheese tastings.

“I can’t sell it,” he said of his backyard experiments, “ but I can give it away.”

Ah, now there’s the Brooklyn spirit.

BEER BREAD

1 bottle of beer
1/2 c. sugar
3 c. flour
2 tbsp. melted butter

Combine all ingredients, pour into a loaf pan or a round cake pan. Bake at 375 degrees for one hour. Three minutes before it’s done, brush the top with additional butter and sprinkle with salt to taste.

Editor’s note: Liberty Heights Tap Room has closed.

Liberty Heights Tap Room in Red Hook, where Six Point Ales are served; Shane, Aaron and Buddy in the brewery. The Sixpoint stencil, an old brewer’s symbol for quality.

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