Bushwick was once one of the country’s major beer-making centers. At one point before Prohibition, one-tenth of all beer produced in the United States originated in Brooklyn, and the majority of it was from Bushwick. Now, for the first time in 40 years, a new brewery will open in the neighborhood.
The last company to make beer in the neighborhood, Schaefer, closed in 1976, ending a prosperous period that spanned over 100 years. (The decline was due to several reasons, including Prohibition and the “emergence of national brands in areas where regional beer once dominated.”)
Kings County Brewers Collective will be the first to make beer in Bushwick since Schaefer. Another modern beer company, Braven Brewing, has also established Bushwick as its base. While its owners plan to open a facility in the neighborhood sometime in the future, its beers are currently made at a facility in Saratoga Springs, New York.
We talked with Kings County’s three partners—Zack Kinney, Pete Lengyel and Tony Bellis—about how they met, their original plan for the brewery, what beers to expect and their “comfy” collaboration with Rockaway Brewing Company that’s being released today.
Edible Brooklyn: You’ll be the first brewery to make beer in Bushwick since the ’70s. How does that feel
Pete Lengyel: It’s an awesome feeling. We love that we’ll be part of a new movement to revive that tradition here.
Zack Kinney: It’s hard to believe there were something like 14 breweries in 14 blocks in this area. That figure you always hear—that 10 percent of all the beer in the country was brewed in Brooklyn, with most of it coming from Bushwick—it’s crazy.
EB: Did that history narrow your search for a place to just Bushwick?
ZK: When we were coming here and looking, the past was definitely on our mind. But this ended up being our home largely because it’s where we were finding landlords that seemed to like the idea of us opening a brewery. There aren’t many areas in Brooklyn or in the city overall that are still zoned for this type of industrial work. Bushwick is doing a great job of keeping manufacturing alive.
PL: Finding this space and everything working out so well, I also think it has to do with who our landlord is. The owner of our building, he’s a real old-school Bushwick guy in his seventies who grew up in the neighborhood. He remembers hitching a ride on the back of the Rheingold yeast truck to get to school in the mornings.
Tony Bellis: He also remembers the days when pretty much everyone in the neighborhood carried a gun.
PL: We love the guy. He’s a total character. His name is Gary Janiak and we’re already thinking we should name a beer after him.
TB: Janiak Maniac! [Laughs.]
EB: That’d be a sure hit. So, how did you all meet?
TB: I met Pete in 2012, around the same time I enrolled in the American Brewers Guild (ABG). We got to know each other through the Brooklyn Brewsers homebrew club which he’d started.
PL: We actually all went to the ABG. I joined in the summer of 2011. Zach—2012?
ZK: Yeah. It’s funny, we didn’t know one another from [the ABG]. We all met from just being involved with the local beer scene, in the homebrew clubs.
PL: We were all dedicated homebrewers, and individually we all wanted to [start a brewery] from pretty early on. Zach and I had both tried to do our own brewpubs before this, with different partners, and we both had that fall through because of architectural issues.
TB: I had mentioned to Pete when we met about a unique idea I had for a brewery. After the ABG, I got a lead from Pete on a job opening at Greenpoint Beer Works, cleaning kegs and driving their forklift. I got it and worked my way up there to lead brewer.
PL: I have a science background—molecular biology. I remember somehow getting my boss to give me five weeks off for an apprenticeship at Brooklyn Brewery—
ZK: Brewing is science. So you were technically still working.
PL: This is true. [Laughs.] So it was around then that I ran into Jason Sahler at a homebrew event. I was checking in with him and we started talking about maybe joining forces. He also mentioned Tony was interested in starting a brewery and we looped him in. Fast forward a couple of weeks and there were a group of us. We dubbed ourselves the Kings County Brewers Collective.
EB: What about you, Zack?
ZK: My dad has been a pretty dedicated homebrewer for over 40 years, so I helped him a lot growing up. Mostly taste testing, honestly. But that led me into brewing. Eventually I won some awards for my recipes, became a certified beer judge, served as president of the NYC Homebrewers Guild… At some point I realized that I’d rather be making beer than doing advertising, and that’s when I ran into Pete and Tony. I knew they were working on Kings County so we sat down over beers to talk about it and it seemed like we’d all be a really good fit. We’d all studied brewing with a beer guru at ABG, Steve Parkes, so we had a similar appreciation for the fundamentals of brewing and the importance of quality control. We all agreed run with the idea.
EB: In an article from 2014, Jason Sahler—who was part of your team before opening Strong Rope Brewery in Gowanus—said, “We’re trying to create a brewery with different brands created by different brewers.” Was that the original business plan?
TB: Yeah. We originally wanted to do an incubator-type space where we’d have a small setup for several brewers to use until they were ready to leave and open up their own brewery. A commercial kitchen, basically. So we worked with Jason and a few other interested brewers for a few months on a business plan. That was the first group. But early on we realized that it was going to be hard to do this in a way where four or five people could make a living by brewing their separate brands out of one space. In a city like this, that type of setup is next to impossible to succeed.
ZK: The way we’re planning to operate as a collective now is more about combining each of our strengths to build a single successful brewery and brand. Sort of like Voltron, or maybe like that mythical three-headed dog? What’s its name?
[We all start to Google it.]
ZK: That’s it. But yeah, we’re still going to be rotating a good portion of the recipe design between us because that’s a big part of the fun of owning your own brewery. But that quote from Jason, that was referring to the original plan.
PL: We’re really proud of what Jason has done at Strong Rope. We’re planning to do a lot of collaborations with our friends and he’s at the top of that list.
EB: Returning to your facility, where is it located?
ZK: It’s a warehouse on Troutman Street, right near the Jefferson L-train stop. I think it was built in the 1950s so it’s still in really good shape. At one point a plastics company owned it, and then it was a dental-supply warehouse. But it was empty when we moved in.
EB: How are you organizing the space?
PL: We have the equipment in the back; a 15-barrel brewhouse from American Beer Equipment with four 30-barrel fermenters and a brite tank of the same size. In the front of the space, we’ll have a tasting room with 12 draft lines where people can hang out and sample our beers, and buy crowlers to take home.
TB: We want a friendly, approachable, community space where everyone from beer geeks to the steel workers on our block will feel welcome. We’ll be offering tours of the brewery and classes pretty regularly. We’re making all of our beer here in Bushwick, and we want to educate the drinkers that come visit and be as transparent as possible.
EB: Do you plan to offer a flagship and other year-round offerings? Or more of a rotating portfolio?
TB: We’re aiming to launch with six or seven different beers, but we’re not committing to anything that we’d call a flagship just yet. I’m sure we’ll have certain beers be more popular than others; and we’ll definitely make more of those if that’s the case. But we’re going to wait and see what people are really liking first.
ZK: With three different brewers, I think we’ll be able to challenge each other to keep up with evolving tastes, rather than getting stuck with the same sort of “house character.” We love new flavors and new techniques.
TB: We’re starting off with a lineup of beers that we think will be great and we’ll go from there.
EB: You’re all sharing the brewing duties. What kinds of beers can we expect from each of you?
PL: As far as to start with, I’ll be making a saison with lemon zest and a hoppy pale ale with Golden Promise malt and a new hop called Idaho 7.
ZK: I’m working on a Brett[anomyces] saison and a Berliner weisse with a fruit that’s yet to be determined. I’ve done a pilot batch with mango, a strawberry-guava one, and a tart-cherry one. I want to try watermelon or pomegranate so it might be one of those.
TB: Pilsner and a gratzer… We all have separate recipes, but we’re all contributing to the first IPA and double IPA recipes. Everything we’re planning to brew for the summer will lean toward the drier side of things, and we’re aiming to keep all of our beers balanced and drinkable, even the edgier stuff.
EB: So the plan is to open in the summer?
TB: That’s the plan. The bulk of the infrastructure work is done and right now we’re onto connecting the brewhouse and the fermenters. If all goes well with that, we should be able to test our brewhouse in the next few weeks and put out some preliminary releases, just on draft for bars in the area. We’re thinking the tasting room should be ready by early summer.
EB: Lastly—you recently made a beer with Rockaway Brewing Company [that’s being released today]. Why is it called Yoga Pants?
ZK: We love yoga pants. I’m definitely going to wear mine to the release.
TB: I brew in very tight yoga pants because of the comfort factor. Zack and Pete enjoy the view, too.
EB: How did the collaboration with Rockaway arise?
PL: I was working part time at Rockaway and about to leave to join Tony and Zack full time. Ethan [Long, one of Rockaway’s partners] suggested we do a beer together before I leave. At home I’d been experimenting with various fruit zests to give a little added zing to my saison recipe and I thought lemons worked best. So we decided to go with the saison idea, and we added Meyer lemons. We zested 12 and tossed them in the whirlpool, and then we fermented it warm with a French saison yeast.
EB: How does the beer taste?
PL: Light, dry… Really crushable, being it’s around 5 percent ABV. I love the nose: bready, spicy, lemony.
ZK: One of the great things about saisons is its ability to pair well with foods. But ours also pairs well with a pair of comfy and stylish yoga pants.
PL: [Laughs.] That was a reach.
Photos courtesy of Kings County Brewers Collective