Among the most coveted limited-edition beers made in New York City is BQE, a bourbon-barrel-aged imperial stout released each winter by the Finback Brewery in Glendale, Queens. Ultra smooth and intensely flavored, BQE features coffee roasted in Brooklyn and chocolate made in Queens—or vice versa, though the ingredients are always sourced from small purveyors—which is why the highly regarded dark beer is named for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that passes through the two boroughs. And soon, both boroughs will share another, more significant part of Finback’s story. They’ll both be home.
Like some of its Queens counterparts in recent months, Finback has looked to Brooklyn to grow its business, an expansion that comes in the form of a second production facility in Gowanus. It’s worth noting that owners Basil Lee and Kevin Stafford had originally eyed Kings County, where they both live, for their brewery before settling on a 13,000-square-foot warehouse in Glendale, a largely residential neighborhood with few public transportation options. It’s here that the two homebrewers, who left their respective creative professions to start the company in early 2014, built one of the city’s standout breweries, helping to generate excitement (along with the likes of Other Half and Threes) for what had been a somewhat underwhelming beer scene to that point and shaping its future into its current strong and vital state.
The difficulty in getting to Glendale has never deterred beer fans from visiting Finback’s large industrial space (allowing it to take advantage of the increasingly popular on-premise sales model), thanks to an excellent portfolio that has always embraced variety. From humble classics to modern hype takes, there’s almost no style the brewery isn’t willing to tackle, yet never does that broad interest feel haphazard or disingenuous. And the results are consequently great. Whether it’s a hazy IPA, pilsner, sour or a barrel-aged stout like BQE, you can count on it being impressive.
Few details have been revealed about the second location on its Instagram page beyond an address—545 President Street, a few buildings away from Jason Sahler’s shrine for New York State ingredients, Strong Rope—and the arrival of a new brewing system. For the most part, sporadic posts have served to tease that an opening date is inching closer and closer. So what can we expect exactly, and when can we expect it?
These questions are why, on a recent sunny afternoon, I met with Lee at the new location, a few hours before it would receive a vibrant mural of abstract shapes in different shades of blue and pink (the brewery has always showcased rotating exhibits of local artists in its taproom). As you’ll read below, what Lee reveals is an exciting and ambitious growth project that will see Finback hybridize its operations in multiple ways, enabling him and Stafford to further express their creative vision. This won’t only be a production facility for beer but a “beverage studio,” as it’s being called, that will also include coffee roasting (Invisible Force) and distilling (Halftone Spirits).
There are now more than 7,000 breweries operating in the U.S. In an increasingly crowded marketplace, with a slowing growth rate, we’ve seen brewers look for new opportunities to expand or simply sustain their businesses, and for some that has meant diversifying to add spirits or coffee to their offerings. Finback, however, might be the first to try both. But there’s also a third, non-beverage component planned for Gowanus: A dumpling shop helmed by Lee’s mother, tapping into his family’s 40 years of running Chinese restaurants.
Lee spoke at length about the motivation to diversify beyond beer, the specifics of each brand, and his hopes for the customer experience in Brooklyn. Quite appropriately, our chat, lightly edited for clarity, was over cans of two new double-dry-hopped double IPAs: Kinda Brooklyn and Sorta Queens.
Edible Brooklyn: There’s a lot of speculation and anticipation about the second facility, and you haven’t revealed much. Now, on Brooklyn’s Instagram page you’re following three accounts other than the original brewery’s, and none have posted yet: a distiller, a coffee roaster and a dumpling spot. Are these pages connected in any way to the new venture?
Basil Lee: For sure, we’ve been a little quiet about the entire project because it’s been a long process to get the space ready and we didn’t want to reveal things piecemeal. Now that we’re seeing an opening date in sight, we’re super excited to share all of what we’ve been working on with you and the world.
EB: That’s great.
BL: So, we wanted to make the new location a space that represented the things we love and to be a place where we could explore more deeply our various passions. Kevin and I have always wanted to do more experimentation on a smaller scale, and a “creative lab” in Brooklyn was the perfect way to do it. Of course, we’re a brewery. But fundamentally we’re driven by creativity and deliciousness. As we were envisioning the new space, we saw it as a place for exploration, a place that focused mainly on the taproom and the customer experience, a place where we could brew differently than at our Queens facility, which has a batch size five times larger then the new Brooklyn location. With that in mind we took the opportunity to do a project that would allow us to be flexible across a broader range and to collaborate with friends in more media. That’s a longwinded way of saying, yes, we are going to be distilling, roasting coffee and making dumplings in addition to brewing beer.
EB: Amazing. Can you tell us a little more about each new venture?
BL: Sure. Let’s start with coffee. We use it in many of our beers and absolutely, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything these past few years without a steady drip of it. We see what we do in beer as how to coax flavor from simple ingredients, but also the creative process of how to make recipes and bring different ingredients into the brewing process. We see a lot of potential to dig deep into roasting technique and origin, but also in bringing other ingredients to add flavors to coffee. To start, our main focus will be to develop techniques and roasting processes with an eye toward complementing beer and spirits as well as to provide solid, unfussy coffee and cold brew for the taproom. We plan to bag beans, too. But our real passion is to experiment with different ingredients in the coffee, real ingredients that can flavor the coffee and transform it. Fruited IPAs and pastry stouts are common in beer now, and we want to bring a sense of that culture to coffee. Maybe pastry coffees?
We also see this potential in spirits, especially botanically driven spirits like gin, ways to combine and pull flavor from them. We’ve sourced a really cool hybrid still that will give us a lot of flexibility in what we’ll be able to make.
EB: So your main focus will be gin?
BL: Right. We plan on launching with four different gins: our twist on a classic London dry, an Asian-inspired one with yuzu, and an elegant “flagship.” And of course we’ll have to play with hops, for a dry-hopped gin. Beyond gin, we plan on making a limited amount of whiskey and spirits we can distill from interesting sources like sorghum, for baijiu. Some of you may know that Kevin is also super passionate about mezcal, born from his passion for smoked beers. So keep an eye out for some fun mezcal projects in the future. And now to the dumplings.
EB: You could make a case for dumplings being akin to beer in the way they function as a canvas for presenting a wide range of flavors. Plus, their bite-size nature makes them an ideal accompaniment to any drinking session.
BL: Agreed. We think dumplings, like pizza, are one of humanity’s perfect food inventions. They’re versatile and comforting, they capture interesting fillings in a perfect, self-contained wrapper, they involve dipping sauces, and they’re easy to eat. And they have some form in every culture. Restaurants are my family’s business and I grew up eating dumplings. We’ll be doing a few options; classic pork and chive will be the foundation, with some rotating and vegetarian options. They’ll be pan fried and have a Taiwanese lineage via my father’s northern Chinese heritage, my mother’s Hong Kong roots, and the more than 40 years of Chinese restaurants they ran in Rhode Island. My mom is going to help us here. I think collaboration between her and the Finback team will be interesting. She’ll bring knowledge, expertise and experience, while I think we’ll work with her to push some modern, creative takes on Asian snacks.
We think dumplings, like pizza, are one of humanity’s perfect food inventions. They’re versatile and comforting, they capture interesting fillings in a perfect, self-contained wrapper, they involve dipping sauces, and they’re easy to eat.
EB: Even with the extraordinary range of flavor-forward beers being produced today, we’re starting to see more brewers branch out to other beverages, even nonalcoholic kinds. Why do you think that is, and what was your main motivation to diversify in the ways that you are?
BL: We really do love creative projects and how the same motivations, energies, and preoccupations can run through different mediums. Before opening the brewery, Kevin worked in graphic design and illustration and I worked in architecture and we brewed beers together. It was a big professional shift to go from design to making beer, but we saw the same creative energy. From recipe formulation to designing our own graphics, logos and labels, we saw the brewery as a creative outlet where the result was a unique and delicious product. The Brooklyn space is very much a continuation of this. Generally I think diversification is a good thing. We certainly do see this diversification as following our passion, but it also allows us to continue to be relevant in a very dynamic market.
EB: I’m glad you said that. There are now over 7,000 craft breweries in the U.S. With all the variety, consumers are glutted with choice, and for brewers there’s an increased challenge to compete and differentiate themselves in a more crowded market. Did any of that influence how your strategy for growth took shape?
BL: Just speaking locally, we’re confident in the New York City market. We see the last five or six years as a golden age in craft beer here. We went from having very few breweries in the city to having many of the best breweries in the world here. New Yorkers have always had a lot of options and demand the exceptional, which I think made all us new breweries innovate at a faster rate. By adding spirits, coffee and food to what we do, it’ll open other potential avenues for expansion and we hope it’ll allow us to reach a new group of people. Your assessment on the industry is spot-on, though, and we have to respond to what resonates with people. I think by nature, we want to make new things anyways, I think we oscillate in what we like and there is a natural sway of new and old things. For sure we think about these things as we plan our next projects.
EB: You’ve been referring to the new space on social media as a “beverage studio.” How do you specifically define that term, and how will that definition be applied once you’re open?
BL: The studio environment is a place to do creative work, to experiment and explore. Kevin and I both worked in these environments and our education in art school was also dominated by that kind of culture. For me, I think it took some distance to realize how all those things I’ve learned has shaped the kind of brewery we are and want to be. There are certainly realities of running a small manufacturing business, but brewing beer brings together the best combination of super passionate, hardworking people. Art is very much like that as well, where people want to make things and explore ideas. We want the Brooklyn space to be where we can work in a lot of different materials, find common ideas between them, and enable our creative team to test ideas and brainstorm new things.
We wanted to create a variety of spaces, so expect a chill zone with lounge chairs and plants, a lounge area where cocktails will be right at home, and the comfortable taproom, a communal table experience like we have in Queens.
EB: So now the big question. When and how will you unveil the new ventures? Will there be, say, coffee and spirits offered when you open, or will it be slower, staggered rollout?
BL: Our original plan was to open with everything. It’s still our goal, but there’s a terrible thing happening right now with gas service in the city. National Grid has essentially politicized a new pipeline they want approved and since May, they’ve placed a blanket moratorium on upgrading and opening new gas service. We’ll have just enough gas to open the taproom, but we won’t be able to have our production activities run unless National Grid upgrades our gas in the coming weeks. But equipment is all in and we’ll be ready to go once gas service is upgraded, so fingers crossed, that happens soon and we won’t be far off. Yeah, we’re opening soon.
EB: For many brewers who add second locations, there’s a vision that it’ll allow more creative expression and experimentation, to explore many different styles, ingredients and brewing techniques. It’s less about increasing production capacity and more about the opportunity to build a portfolio with unique and distinct beers only available at that location. Is that what your hope is for the beer made here? What kinds of beers will you produce in Gowanus, and will that activity in any way involve what’s being made in Glendale?
BL: Brooklyn will be running a 5-barrel brewing system with 10-barrel fermenters, whereas the Queens location runs a 25-barrel system with tanks as large as 60 barrels. So in Brooklyn we plan on brewing more small batches, more styles that might have been tough on a larger scale. Some breweries use second locations to separate their clean and sour beers, but we won’t be making that distinction. We’ll likely continue to brew clean and sour beers in Glendale as well as in Brooklyn, but the kinds of beers will likely be a bit more radical in Brooklyn. Brooklyn will also allow us to do some super special, small-batch releases. You know, whales bro.
Taprooms are so critical to a brewery’s success. I think we wouldn’t have 7,000+ breweries in America if it weren’t for taprooms. They’re the best place to have direct engagement with your customers and to express what the brewery is about.
EB: Taprooms have become an integral part of a brewery’s business model. Can you talk about your taproom setup, and what kind of experience you hope to offer customers?
BL: Taprooms are so critical to a brewery’s success. I think we wouldn’t have 7,000+ breweries in America if it weren’t for taprooms. They’re the best place to have direct engagement with your customers and to express what the brewery is about. I think our Glendale space, from the day we opened there nearly six years ago, was a comfortable and chill space. We were lucky being where we were in Queens and having some space that people didn’t feel crowded. It was minimally designed, but has a warehouse-gallery vibe where we host really great artists and muralists to show their work. The Brooklyn space will be that, but more. Our design approach is minimalist with a touch of ‘80s whimsy. Clean, industrial and fresh. We have a fun mural by Kevin Mack, a muralist from Pennsylvania, that will anchor the space, and a lot of wall room that will be used for a rotating collection of art as well as art shows throughout the year. We wanted to create a variety of spaces, so expect a chill zone with lounge chairs and plants, a lounge area where cocktails will be right at home, and the comfortable taproom, a communal table experience like we have in Queens. We really can’t wait to open our doors in Brooklyn and have everyone come see the space.
EB: Lastly, this year’s BQE release should be approaching. Any news about that, and will the new Brooklyn space be involved in any capacity?
BL: We just tasted all the BQE barrels a few weeks ago, and without hyperbole, they’re tasting fire. We’re in the process of moving them all from barrels to packaging and will have some really fun variants this year. Our release date is scheduled for Saturday, December 14, in Glendale. We plan on the Brooklyn space opening around that time if the gods—the city’s buildings departments—are smiling favorably upon us. If that happens, we’ll release BQE at both locations. If not, you all have to come party in Queens.