Bravery, love, hops and hope set Erica Shea and Stephen Valand on a trek and track that would forever change their lives. They launched Brooklyn Brew Shop back in ‘09 after deciding to pitch it all and backpack around Europe’s stein-centric capitals, exploring, sipping, learning and talking, talking, talking about beer to each other and the incredible chain of interesting folks they met along the way in preparation for what seemed like a pretty crazy new business idea. And yet, here they are five years later, totally killing it. Congrats, Erica and Stephen.
This month, the duo released a really great how-to tome on gettin’ sudsy at home, Make Some Beer! Small Batch Recipes from Brooklyn to Bamberg, a book that implores, shows and whets the appetite not just for home brewing, but using the results of your tinkerings in craft beer culinary endeavors that totally kick ass. (What brews together, goes together, right?) And, maybe, for a little brew-centric travel to boot.
After reading it, I felt pretty inspired both by Shea and Valand’s “let’s do it!” backstory and their infectious energy putting the notion in my head that maybe I could try my hand at brewing, too. They had some pretty interesting and encouraging things to say on the topic — check it out:
Edible Brooklyn: Erica, in the beginning of your book, a ribbing is made at how you weren’t that into beer before starting Brooklyn Brew Shop. How did each of you discover the big, sudsy world of craft beer? And was there a life-changing brew that kicked it off for each of you?
Erica Shea: I wasn’t a fan of beer before we started making it (it turns out anything out of a red cup in college is not going to be the best introduction). But I really liked cooking and kitchen projects, so when I found my dad’s old equipment I thought it would be perfect for our next food adventure. The life-changing beer was actually the first one we ever made (an early version of our Grapefruit Honey Ale). We had made beer, it was carbonated and delicious, and it was alcohol — from that point on we were both very much hooked on beer and teaching other people how to make it, too.
EB: Ha — I just recently figured out that this is why I never liked beer either. The word “stove-top” comes up a lot in your book. To you both, does beer (more than wine, spirits or even cider) connect the most closely to the kitchen?
ES: Absolutely. The first step of making beer is like making a big pot of oatmeal. You steep the grain (mostly malted barley), strain it, collect the liquid (which will be your beer) and boil it with hops and any spices or other ingredients the particular beer you’re making calls for. Your brew-day is always focused around the stove whereas with wine (which we think is best left to those with vineyards and 50 year old vines) and cider (which we do really enjoy making), it’s more about fermenting than cooking. And while the first step in making whisky is making beer, distilling is definitely not legal to do at home.
EB: True enough. But you’ve built a business on the caution-to-the-wind notion of “DO try this at home!!” I look at all the equipment in the book and feel panicked; what encouraging philosophy would you bestow upon a terrified but curious brewer-in-waiting like me?
ES: Really the only equipment you need other than the kit is a couple large pots, a strainer and a funnel. So if you made pasta you’re 3/4 of the way there! The best advice we can give is that a dozen small things will go wrong with your first batch, but not to worry about them because you will still end up with delicious beer (even if you are a few minutes or degrees off).
EB: You talk about sour beers being on purpose, or being spoiled — how do you know that? And if wild yeast is generally ambient, is that something you can encourage in home beer making? Or do you really need to be somewhere in the Belgian countryside for those kind of shenanigans?
ES: For our second book we definitely added in some trickier beers, most of which are sour. Some like our Berliner Weisse and Celery Salt Gose use a sour mash (where you leave part of the mash in a warm place for a couple days to cultivate some lacto bugs). And a couple (a Kriek and Farmhouse Ale) recommend using certain liquid yeast blends that have traditionally wild yeast strains in them. There is one recipe in the book, our Blended Fruit Beer where you let the blended fruit (we especially love peaches) ferment on its own with whatever is in the air, and then add the beer and an ale yeast strain on top of that. Sour beers are definitely not for the first time brewer but are a lot of fun once you get the hang of it.
EB: I think it was Anheuser-Busch who just bought Long Island’s first and biggest craft brew success story, Blue Point. What did you think when you heard that news — is it the craft brewers’ ultimate success or the sad story of selling out?
ES: We think that whether any business decision is a success or a sad story is really only for that founder to say. We hope Blue Point continues to turn out the same quality beers, employs and supports the same community that made it such a Long Island favorite to begin with.
EB: Who are you favorite New York brewers and why?
ES: There has been a few new brewery additions to the boroughs this past year that we are quite fond of. We biked out to Finback Brewery in Glendale, Queens over Memorial Day weekend and loved their Finback IPA and the delightfully tart Star Child. We also did a tasting of Grimm beers with our staff that was great and are looking forward to when Other Half opens its tasting room so we can try out more of their IPAs at the source.
EB: You’ve got a lot of great recipes in your new book — not just for brewing, but cooking with beer, too. Did you come up with all of those?
ES: Of course! We got into brewing because we loved cooking, so beer and spent grain (the grain left over from brewing) worked their way into our favorite recipes. We’ve been sharing cooking with beer, beer cocktails and spent grain recipes on our blog, The Mash for the last few years but were really excited to take inspiration from our travels for some completely new (and totally delicious) recipes including beer-soaked oven fries, black pepper beer poutine, farmhouse ale risotto and more!
EB: What do you think of the term “beer sommelier?”
ES: We love that beer is taking a well-deserved place beside wine at the dinner table and on restaurant’s beverage lists and fully support the Cicerone program.
EB: If you were a beer, which one would you be?
ES: Today it would be the Strawberry Rhubarb Strong. Its light strawberry flavor and easy drinking body hides a 7.7% ABV. But really, it’s whatever beer we’re working on or enjoying at the moment.
EB: What advice would you give to other young NYC start-ups who dream of launching a seemingly crazy culinary-minded business to the shock and horror of their family and friends?
ES: Starting your own company is an exhausting, exhilarating and at times, totally agonizing endeavor. You have to love not only the product, but the process and the people you are making it for, as well as the people you make it with. And we always recommend starting small and testing it out in your neighborhood. We were lucky enough to launch Brooklyn Brew Shop at the Brooklyn Flea (back in July 2009). We learned so much from the direct feedback from our earliest customers and the advice of our fellow vendors and can’t recommend markets enough.
Word to your brewer.
Featured photo credit: Dark Rye