Brooklyn could be on its way to reclaiming its crown as the beer capital of America.
Once the borough that churned out as much as a tenth of the nation’s brews, Brooklyn is seeing an unexpected beer renaissance. The number of Kings County breweries is on its way to doubling in just two years, going from four breweries to eight despite climbing rents and fierce competition for industrial space. The number is a far cry from the 48 breweries that made Brooklyn a Milwaukee on the East River in 1893 and at least two dozen beer-makers in the 1980s and 1990s only to close soon thereafter, according to Steve Hindy, owner of the pioneering Brooklyn Brewery, which first stated fermenting some of its product in 1996 after 13 years of solely upstate production. But demand for small-batch beer has never been higher and the brewers and boosters at the head of the malty movement bubbling up say this time it will stick.
Other Half Brewing, which opened in Carroll Gardens last December, features a year-round West-Coast-style India Pale Ale and a rotating array of French saisons and farmhouse-style beers. The area has been slow to embrace the craft-beer mania sweeping the nation, but is now catching the wave and surging towards the front of the pack, according to one of the company’s two main suds-men.
“We’ve been way behind the curve,” said Sam Richardson, former Greenpoint Beer Works head brewer. “But it’s happening.”
The borough beer veteran and his partner Matt Monahan launched Other Half — which can churn out as many as 400 kegs in one month — in December after an arduous tug-of-war with utility companies and the city, whose bean counters must sign off on any brewery that wants to operate outside of designated manufacturing zones, Richardson said. The Department of Buildings has gotten used to zoning new coffee shops and restaurants, but the agency does not really know how to deal with beer-making facilities yet, Richardson said.
“They want to treat us like we’re big industry when we’re not,” he said. “We produce less egregious waste products than your average auto shop.”
But once the brewers finally opened up shop, their wares started flying off the shelves and into nearby bars such as Park Slope’s Mission Dolores and Saint Gambrinus in Boerum Hill. Other Half has no plans to expand outside of the city because of the massive potential market and the popularity of small-batch beer, which Richardson says is bound to continue increasing.
Meanwhile, another duo is scouting Bushwick warehouses for a place to set up another beer-works. Braven Brewing Company raised more than $23,000 on the internet fund-raising platform Kickstarter to establish its own operation in the neighborhood. Bushwick once boasted about 24 breweries, including the factory that made Schaefer (“the one beer to have when you’re having more than one”), until national brands such as Budweiser took over the market in the 1970s. The newly minted brewers at Other Half are counting on a continued thirst for locally made products to fuel their success.
“People like things made local, whether it’s their beef jerky or their pickles or their t-shirts or whatever,” said Braven Brewing co-owner Marshall Thompson. “It’s part of the culture here, and it makes sense for a brewery to adopt that kind of mentality.”
Thompson and his partner in pints Eric Feldman, who hope to start brewing commercially by early 2015, are looking to whip up 20 kegs per week once they get off the ground. To start, they will stick with two main ales — a white India Pale Ale with a soft, wheat character and a typical bite, as well as a black ale that is a more “drinkable spin” on a dark beer, according to the pair.
The longtime friends insist on manufacturing their drinks right in Bushwick so that neighbors feel a deeper connection to the business. Outsourcing their product would detract from the character of their operation, they said.
“We don’t want to be just a company that says they’re a Bushwick brewery and has it made elsewhere,” Thompson said. “We really like making the beer and having people taste the beer that came, literally, from our hands.”
Another new brewery is already operating in a nearby booming, if expensive industrial enclave. Dirck the Norseman, Brooklyn’s first brewpub, opened in March inside a former plastic-bag factory on 15th Street in Greenpoint and features 16 taps of mostly German, English, and Belgian-style ales that have attracted a swarm of locals, according to a one of the brewers.
“It’s a real community place,” said brewmaster Chris Prout, who used to work at owner Ed Raven’s Greenpoint Avenue craft beer joint Brouwerij Lane.
But not all aspiring Brooklyn beer bigs can afford to set up their own shops, and some who rely on other people’s equipment can not even afford to rent in the borough. Gypsy brewers, the industry term for beer-makers who sire limited-edition batches in established breweries, are making temporary use of beer-works across Kings County and some, driven by the high costs of starting up at home, are looking far beyond the borough limits.
The married Gowanus couple behind Grimm Artinisal Ale, which launched in summer of last year, has been cooking their mostly Belgian-style ales through sud-lets at operations in western Massachusetts and Virginia. The alternative of swallowing a $750,000 bank loan to build their own space was too much to bear, the owners said.
“It’s just kind of crazy to be buying space or renting space to open a brewery,” said co-owner Lauren Grimm, who had been home-brewing with her husband Joe for eight years before taking the leap to making beer commercially. “In the end, we were told that there was no way we could start a brewery.”
The result is a business that does its paperwork in Brooklyn and manufactures its wares hundreds of miles away, only to ship much of the stock back to the borough, where a big chunk of its thirsty customers reside.
The Grimms say they are in talks with Sixpoint, which started up in Red Hook in 2004, to make a collaborative batch and that they have three city and upstate distributors who complete the hops circuit by selling their brews to Brooklyn pubs such as Marlow and Sons in Williamsburg and The Double Windsor in Windsor Terrace.
The recent resurgence of Brooklyn brewing is impressive, but the borough could theoretically support dozens more such operations, according to a Brooklyn beer writer and occasional pour-tour guide.
“There’s a lot of space if people can find a way to open up the doors,” said “The Complete Beer Course” author Joshua M. Bernstein. “We’re really at the very beginning of where we can get.”
This article is part of a series about how development is shaping the borough’s future, written for the Community Newspaper Group’s free magazine Brooklyn Tomorrow, which is on newsstands now.