For the last five years, Lauren and Joe Grimm have been producing and packaging their beer at other breweries, traveling as far afield as Virginia and Massachusetts, often with ingredients in tow for batches of hazy IPAs, imperial stouts and dry-hopped sour ales.
Without a physical location, their company, Grimm Artisanal Ales, has gained a following among craft beer fans and collected plenty of accolades, including silver and gold medals at the Great American Beer Fest in 2014 and 2015, respectively, as well as this year’s Young Entrepreneurs of the Year award from the New York District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration.
But the ultimate goal for the couple, who live in Gowanus, has always been to build a brewery in Brooklyn. “We were already working on a brick-and-mortar location when we started commercially,” Joe said.
Last Saturday was when the dream became a reality for the Grimms, the day they unveiled their highly anticipated brewery and taproom in East Williamsburg off the Grand Avenue L stop. The two years spent converting the 7,500-square-foot space, a former garage on Metropolitan Avenue, were not without hiccups and heartache. Structural problems caused delays, including six months to repair the building’s chimney. There was also the unexpected closure of their equipment manufacturer, Oregon’s Metalcraft Fabrication, costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars. (When life gives you lemons, make IPAs with kiwis and mangoes. This isn’t a beer-world take on the popular lemonade-producing aphorism but precisely what the couple did in collaboration with Long Island’s Barrier Brewing, which also landed in the same predicament with the defunct fabricator, to recoup some of their lost investments.) “It was a difficult time, but we weren’t going to let it keep us from opening our brewery,” Lauren said. “Joe and I are the kind of people who will always find a way.”
The Grimms, who are also both artists and met at Brown University, found their way to brewing at a talk by writer and fermentation guru Sandor Katz and began experimenting with Belgian styles at home. But with their interest in barrel-aged sour beers still an acquired taste for American drinkers and a state law barring brewers from the crucial revenue source of on-premise sales (that would later change), the dedicated hobbyists decided to start their company in 2013 as “gypsy” brewers, meaning that they rented space and time at established breweries to build their brand and reputation.
Popularized by thriving international brands like Mikkeller and Evil Twin Brewing of Copenhagen and Stillwater Artisanal of Maryland, all of which have leveraged the business model into existing or soon-to-be-built physical locations, gypsy brewing requires no expensive infrastructure. Rather than immediately invest in a facility, an endeavor that can cost close to a million dollars, these beer makers realize their recipes while rootless, borrowing others’ equipment.
But consumers are increasingly seeking beer at the source, visiting breweries with taprooms for pints at their freshest and rare releases of cans and bottles. “That’s where you’re able to offer the best experience of your beer,” Joe said.
Free from the constraints of contract brewing, there is also the advantage of having total control over your operation, an especially important condition for brewers who work with rowdy yeasts like Brettanomyces, a wildcard unwelcome at most facilities, as the Grimms do. “You have the creative freedom to do everything in a more uncompromising way,” he said.
On Saturday, the brewery buzzed with the energy of people eager to enjoy a dream realized. In the taproom, customers escaped the oppressive heat and humidity and sipped new Grimm beers produced on the premises, including Zero Anniversary, a double IPA brewed with Simcoe lupulin powder, and Future Days, a golden sour ale aged in orange-bitters barrels for three years that is served by the glass. At the long, curved bar lined with stools, some carefully studied the lineup of 11 draft beers, while others snapped up as many of the limited-edition bottles and cans released for the opening to take away as they could.
With small wooden tables, large windows, shelves filled with art books and vinyl records, bare incandescent light bulbs hanging from the ceiling, flowing velvet curtains and an abundance of plants, the bright, restful, airy space, designed with the firm inc_a, has a “feel of California in the ’70s,” Lauren said.
The taproom serves a selection of local wines, ciders and sodas, and food from Samesa (Eli and Max Sussman’s nearby Middle Eastern restaurant). It overlooks the production area, anchored by a 30-barrel brewing system and over 150 oak vessels that will be dedicated to aging sour beer (continuing the barrel program begun at Virginia’s Beltway Brewing). The new facility will not only allow the Grimms to expand production, by 150 percent, and increase staff from just themselves to 20 employees, but also provide more freedom to play with a variety of experimental batches. One-fourth of the 7,500 square feet will be dedicated to the conditioning and blending of barrel-aged sour beers, some fermented with microbes isolated from the wild.
One evening last week, Lauren and Joe gave me a tour after canning one of their most popular beers, a hazy IPA called Lambo Door that they describe as tasting like “gummy bear juice.” Over some low-fills (these are cans holding slightly less than the amount advertised and thus not sold, instead drank by brewers and friends), we spoke in the company of large oak foudres and stainless-steel tanks. As the sun slowly dipped outside, I envisioned them as mighty bodyguards hired to safeguard the new space overnight. It was a decidedly different setting than our first interview, shortly after starting their company in 2013: their apartment kitchen, then also serving as a cellar for aging beer, crowded with carboys and bottles of homebrews in various stages of fermentation, all heavily harboring ambitions of a grand business plan.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Edible Brooklyn: You spent nearly two years building the brewery and taproom. What was the biggest challenge?
Joe Grimm: When our equipment manufacturer went belly up after we had made our final payment for our equipment but before actually completing the fabrication.
Lauren Grimm: If we’d been more aware of the possibility that could happen, we would have put our payments into escrow until our equipment was delivered and complete.
EB: Since starting the company in 2013, you’ve produced your beer entirely at other breweries, traveling as far afield as Virginia and Massachusetts. Will you continue gypsy brewing now that you’ve opened? And if so, how much?
LG: We really want to be producing everything ourselves because it’s the only way to avoid creative compromises. But we’ve been really fortunate to establish durable relationships with our brewing hosts and we appreciate them so much. We’ve been doing five or six batches per month on a gypsy basis, and we’ll now take it down to just one batch per month until our Brooklyn production can be scaled up enough that we can keep our distributors supplied with beer.
EB: Other popular gypsy-brewing brands, like Stillwater and Evil Twin, have also recently decided to put down roots with breweries and taprooms. In today’s craft-beer market, is the gypsy-brewing business model still a viable one with regard to establishing one’s brand without the upfront capital costs of a physical brewery? If someone were to come to you asking about the viability of launching as a gypsy today, what advice would you give them?
JG: Gypsy brewing is very, very difficult and there haven’t been that many brewers to ever make it work at the highest level of quality. Stillwater and Evil Twin certainly inspired us when we started and gave us the feeling that it was possible to make quality beer on a gypsy basis. But at the end of the day, we realized it wasn’t going to be possible for us to achieve the tip-top level of excellence until we had full control over every aspect of production.
EB: You were among the first brewers in New York City to put hazy IPAs in cans in limited quantities, and chasing your drops around town was one of the only ways locally to experience the style that particular way at the time. But now most breweries are doing this, and with regularity. What has been your experience in trying to compete with breweries that can offer seconds-old IPA when consumers had to wait a few weeks for your beers to be distributed, and how much of a factor was that, if at all, in opening your own place?
LG: It was a big factor. Our IPAs are going to take a big leap forward because we’ll be able to control temperature all the way to our customers’ hands, and get it to them faster.
JG: We also have some fancy new technique tricks up our sleeves that will increase our dry-hop extraction.
EB: What is it?
LG: We’ve got to keep some secrets!
EB: One of your other main focuses is barrel aging, in large part to create your sour and wild beers. How will you continue that focus here, and what are some things you can now explore in the realm that maybe you couldn’t as itinerant brewers, using other facilities?
JG: This is the most interesting and challenging area of brewing for us.
LG: For the 15 years that we’ve been making beer, old-world-style sour beer has been the white whale we’ve been chasing. Making world-class sour beer has been our dream, and it’s just so difficult to produce on a gypsy basis because it’s all about blending and complex microbiology.
JG: We’ve made great strides in our oak-aged sour beer program, including about 150 barrels ranging up to three years old, but it’s been tough making trips back and forth to Virginia to taste through our barrel library and compose blends.
LG: We’ve been hoarding some of our best wild beers for our opening, and we’ll be pouring four new blends from 750-milliliter bottles at the new taproom. These represent our proudest personal achievements as brewers to date and point the way forward for how we hope to grow in our sour beer program.
EB: Breweries are increasingly focusing on on-premise sales, in part a reflection of what customers want. How much beer do you plan to keep in the taproom, and how much will you continue to distribute to retail locations?
JG: It remains to be seen just how much we’ll end up selling at the taproom versus selling via distribution. It’ll depend on when our Brooklyn production will be scaled up enough that we can keep our distributors supplied.
EB: We love the space. What type of vibe did you want to create?
LG: Joe and I knew that we would be spending a lot of time at the brewery, so we wanted to create a place that we enjoy. The taproom kind of feels like an extension of our own home in a way. We’ve been listening to a lot of Harold Budd this year, and new age is definitely a theme. Lots of light and tropical plants with a touch of Twin Peaks from the red curtains.
EB: The frenzy for just-canned IPA is stronger than ever. On the brewery’s first day of business, you released three different limited-edition IPAs in cans. Will this large a drop be routine going forward? How do you plan to facilitate your drops of new IPAs in cans on site?
JG: We plan to get into a routine of weekly or bi-weekly beer releases.
LG: We’re really lucky to have customers willing to come to us to pick up fresh beer, because it means that the beer is consumed at the peak of freshness. Of course direct-to-consumer sales gives us a much better margin, which will allow us to throw caution to the wind on ingredient costs so we will be able to drop more money on the freshest fruits and the rarest and best hops!
JG: Sometimes our releases will be canned IPA, sometimes they will be bottled mixed-fermentation sour beers.
LG: We’re also introducing a new format for our Berliners. We’re excited to start packaging our Pop! beers and dry-hopped sours into 16-ounce cans beginning this week. We’re also looking forward to brewing some simple and beautiful lagers.