At the Wartega Brewery, which opened early this year in Sunset Park, Merlin U. Ward and Mimi Ortega flavor their beers with fruits, herbs and spices. Production is limited; the couple brews just one barrel, roughly 31 gallons, at a time.
But classification is not. Beers are categorized six ways: small, strong, hoppy, amber, light and dark.
One particularly interesting beer in the dark category, Pinkerton, is inspired by Jägermeister, made with ginger, basil, licorice and molasses. Ward, a former digital marketer who handles the brewing duties, refers to his homage to the herbal liqueur as “an intense reconstruction project. I tried to break down its recipe through tasting and re-engineer it from the ground up.”
Another dark classification is the brewery’s latest offering, released on Friday in the tasting room it shares with Industry City Distillery. (You can gaze through a large plate-glass window onto the brewing system. The space also offers fantastic views of New York Harbor and the Manhattan skyline.) But its creation was galvanized by a boozy brother from another mother: Coquito, a holiday punch from Puerto Rico similar to eggnog. “Like eggnog went to a tropical island for vacation,” Ward said of the traditional drink, which is generally made with rum and coconut, along with sweetened condensed milk, vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. (And sometimes eggs, though the ingredient is a subject of fierce debate among makers.)
Wartega’s new ale is a collaboration with two members of the Pour Standards Homebrew Club in Staten Island, Angel Lopez and Niall Toner. They had created a similar coquito-inspired beer, which they developed for more than a year, that won a homebrew competition the brewery held in the summer. The prize: a chance to produce it commercially with Ward. “I’m kinda jealous I didn’t come up with the recipe myself,” he said, laughing. “Seriously, we loved it,” Ortega, who oversees Wartega’s barrel-aged coffee component, added immediately. “It felt right in line with what we love to brew and drink.”
Flavored with vanilla, cinnamon and coconut, the brew has “a sweet, roasty aroma with hints of cinnamon,” Ward said. “The first sip you get a nice coconut flavor and then comes a smooth chocolate finish with lingering spice notes.”
Lopez described its flavor in a more visceral way: “It tastes like my childhood.” He added, “I remember watching my father, who had learned it from my grandmother, make it every Christmas. The first sound of his blender marked the start of holiday season in our house.”
For Lopez and many Puerto Ricans, coquito is a connection to the island and to previous generations. It’s a way of preserving and celebrating cultural identity and traditions. “Everyone has their own version,” Lopez said, “but everyone makes it with love and joy.”
Wartega’s namesake beer arrives amid a need of immense aid for Puerto Rico, more than three weeks after Hurricane Maria caused mass devastation, deaths and catastrophic flooding, in addition to wiping out electricity across the entire island. Lopez, who has (safe) family in Hatillo, in the northern part, said there was “never any doubt we were going to use this beer to help in the relief effort.” The collaborators have chosen to donate a portion of the proceeds from sales to the Puerto Rican Family Institute, a nonprofit organization that is collecting and transporting donations in the aftermath of the Category 5 storm.
At the brewery’s release event on Friday night, there was a much-needed feeling of lightness in the air. Some guests swirled the Coquito around their mouths and critiqued it playfully. “Smooth and creamy, but not heavy,” one woman said. “I would put this in a daiquiri glass and drink it by the pool,” her friend nodded.
Across the taproom, Lopez’s wife, Liz, served macaroons she had made with the coconut used in the brewing. Ward ate a few, then announced to guests that the first keg had been emptied, and a second was just tapped. (Six kegs were filled in total.) “I want to thank you all for coming and supporting a great cause,” he said to the crowd. “Beer brings people together, and during a time like this that’s what we need.”
The next day, he told me he only expects Coquito to be available for another week—so you better go-quito and sup-pour-t.
Here, in Ward’s words, are four other beers you might find in Wartega’s taproom alongside Coquito:
“During a recent trip to Dubai, we experienced smooth Arabic coffee that changed our way of thinking about a cup of afternoon joe. There, it’s not uncommon to brew coffee with additions of cardamom and cinnamon. So we set out to produce a similar experience in this dark beer using fresh, green cardamom pods and cinnamon. Rich spice flavors complement roasted malts and add an enchanting twist.”
“This was inspired by trips to the Dominican Republic, Mimi’s home, and the fresh fruit available served on the beaches. It’s also the first beer we ever made on the Wartega brewing system. The batch we’ll serve at the party is similar to the original but with a slight tweak to the grain bill. We use tropical hops and a smattering of citrus zest to impart flavors of lemon, mango, grapefruit, pear and pine.”
“We put a delicious twist on a cream ale by including a hint of green tea and a bit of nutmeg. The tea adds a subtle grassy note to the beer, while the nutmeg complements its sweetness and adds a touch of nutty flavor. Our challenge was that a light ale must be carefully balanced to taste great all the way to the bottom of the glass.”
“Hibiscus, referred to as sorrel in the Caribbean, is used in holiday drinks. It’s boiled for hours to extract the color and sweetness. We use it in the same way in this beer, as well as dry hop with it. Parasol has a deep red color, sweet aroma and tangy finish.”