I had my head down in my phone, staring at Google Maps, as I slowly moved along Brooklyn’s 47th Street. I didn’t want to miss what I figured would surely be an indistinct door on this industrial block, barely marked with an address or signage like these new spots usually are.
The Sunset Park street I walked was full of decidedly... eclectic businesses. A water mains and sewers installer. A welder. A Halal meat processor and a printing press for Chinese takeout menus. 50 Cent’s strip club. I had just about reached 215 when... I came upon a behemoth. A massive stone warehouse surrounding giant glass garage doors, a sign lofted some twenty-five feet above the sidewalk. It read:
FIVE BOROUGHS BREWING CO.
In the last few years, Brooklyn, New York has become one of the most significant beer scenes on planet earth. On the outskirts of the tiny Carroll Gardens neighborhood, Other Half Brewing Co. (opened in 2014) brews some of the country’s top Northeast-style IPAs – good enough to draw overnight lines of geeks waiting to hand over their money for “freshies.” Around the corner there’s Folksbier Brauerei, a Bohemian beer specialist with a lovely wood-heavy taproom that opened earlier this year. Always packed with locals. Nearby in the Gowanus neighborhood you have Threes Brewing (2015) – their Vliet Pilsner just won the Governor’s Excelsior Cup as best beer in the entire state. Cross the borough to Bushwick where Interboro and KCBC (both opened last year) have acclaimed brewers and incredible buzz. I haven’t even mentioned Brooklyn Brewery, the old dog of the scene, now famous enough to hawk their product in Europe and Asia.
So what kind of crazy person would open a brewery in such a crowded marketplace?
What is even the strategy for doing such a thing?
And how the hell can a new brewery possibly succeed these days?!
“One thing that sets us apart is scale,” explains co-founder Kevin O’Donnell when I catch up with him a few days before Five Boroughs’ opening. “Which has been part of both our cultural concept and business plan from the day we conceived of the brewery.”
Situated in an old steel fabrication plant (a crane car that was once actually used in the facility is on display in the taproom), the gorgeous multi-million dollar space has, maybe the highest ceilings I’ve ever seen in a brewery taproom, some 30 feet or so. The walls are covered with corrugated roof paneling (an interesting design choice that actually works), while the spacious bar has ample seating.
It’s immediately evident some serious money has been put into this place, all the more so when you see the 12,500 square foot brewing space complete with a quality-control lab. There’s only (“only”!) a 30 barrel brewing system at the moment, but with enough room to perhaps expand ten-fold. You’re awestruck before you’ve even had a single sip.
“You better be brewing the best beer in New York City from day one if you want to succeed in New York,” claims Chris Spinelli, a founder of Roc Brewing Co. (Rochester) and a regional board member for the NYS Brewers Association.
That seems obvious, but with such financial backing behind Five Boroughs, with such a spectacular space, you’d almost expect their beers to be an afterthought. Not the case. In fact, brewmaster Nick Griffin’s offerings are total crowd-pleasers. A former brewer at Southern Tier, he’s not making the best in Brooklyn just yet, but his beers are quite tasty and totally flawless. I particularly liked the Helles and a 3.5% offering called Tiny IPA.
“We’re definitely not a niche brewery,” O’Donnell explains. “We set out to create a place that made the highest-quality beer possible that could be enjoyed by the widest number of people.”
Indeed, when I returned to the brewery a few days later for the official opening party, I found the 2,500 square foot taproom packed with a diverse crowd, angling several deep at the bar for a pint. These were not just beer geeks, but locals from the neighborhood, nearby blue collar workers, some dudes who seemed to have just got off the basketball court, and children galore (the brewery had savvily set out hula hoops for them to play with).
Sunset Park is, or was, a neighborhood lacking a brewery, yet with a bunch of people who had clearly been wanting to drink fresh craft beer from the source. So, in a way, Five Boroughs felt like visiting a giant beer hall in Munich, where customers are simply enjoying life while pounding beer, not fetishizing the beer instead of enjoying life. It was a nice thing to see.
“In the city, where manufacturing space is at a premium, it’s not always easy to get a hold of high-quality beer because the volume that gets produced is inevitably small due to space,” notes O’Donnell. “This can end up putting really great craft beer at arm’s length, both in terms of being able to actually get a hold of it, but more importantly being able to be a part of the culture that’s created it.”
Five Boroughs doesn’t just plan to bunker down in their small neighborhood though. Pretty soon their beers will be available in, fittingly, all five boroughs.
A few days earlier, I’d attended a preview event for Circa Brewing Co. I’ll be honest, I had not heard of Circa whatsoever until I received an email invite a few days previous. Maybe I’m a shitty journalist, but a fellow writer told me he was in the same boat.
Are we now entering an era where new breweries will just emerge like magic tricks? Now you have an empty warehouse, and now... a taproom. Tada!
The brewpub was packed for opening night – fellow writers, friends and family, investors, and Instagrams “influencers” aplenty, more concerned with correctly lighting their pint glasses than actually drinking from them. It’s a slick 6,000-foot space and a lot of thought has been put into it. (In fact, the entire second paragraph of the “story” section on Circa’s website is about the design, going so far as to credit the architecture firm Greg Yang Design (GYD), a “visual identity” courtesy MGMT. and brand strategy and direction via Texture, while noting it was “inspired by Brooklyn’s manufacturing spaces and drawing from the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water.” Well OK!)
Just like Five Boroughs, Circa is located in a neighborhood with really no other great craft beer options. Unlike Sunset Park, however, downtown Brooklyn is quickly becoming a hot spot attempting to lure those much-maligned food- and drink-loving gentrifiers.
In the last year, an Alamo Drafthouse has opened as well as the DeKalb Market Hall in the nearby City Point Brooklyn complex. There’s always been a lot of foot traffic in the area due to the ample clothing stores and nearby courthouse, but now there’s even more. Circa is clearly well-funded too, complete with a Manhattan publicity team, something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a brand-new brewery enlist right off the bat.
Again, with clearly so much money being spent, you might not expect much from the beers. But brewer Danny Brucket’s offerings are quite solid – I gravitated toward their Pilsner and New England IPA (both Five Boroughs and Circa have adopted simple naming conventions for their beers, seemingly to attract an “average Joe” crowd). They plan to only sell their beers in-house, and not distribute beyond the brewpub walls.
Of course, Circa is also designed to make money from people who don’t give two shits about beer. They have a robust wine list and cocktails courtesy Damon Boelte, a noted mixologist from the borough. While the food is particularly high-end, with fancily-topped Neapolitan-style pizzas from Danny’s twin brother Luke Bruckert. There’s also cheese and charcuterie, steak tartare, steamed clams, not to mention a market price, wood-fired tomahawk steak, inherently designed to be Instagrammed by those aforementioned influencers.
Good way to build buzz...
“I was lucky to have a lot of organic press about me and the brewery, but that’s not enough to keep the business afloat,” Katarina Martinez tells me. Well-liked and -known on the city’s beer scene, she opened her Lineup Brewing Co. in the spring of 2016. Unlike Five Boroughs and Circa, her spot is significantly smaller, using shared space on the sixth floor of an Industry City complex that lacks air conditioning. She funded the whole thing herself.
“I can tell you what everyone else is going to say,” she says of my question as to how to succeed in this crowded marketplace. “‘Make good beer.’ And they’re right. But ‘good’ is so subjective these days and I’m finding more and more breweries making double dry-hopped IPAs that taste exactly the same every week and similar to each other’s.”
To combat that sameness and stand out from the crowd, Martinez has played around with a lot of styles you’re not seeing as much of these days. Her launch beers included an English pale ale and a milk stout named Voodoo Juice. She recently brewed a cream ale, Shame, to welcome the new season of Game of Thrones. While Naked Mike is a pale ale made with limes she hand juiced herself – the tasting room serves it with a cayenne pepper and Himalayan pink salt rim and a dehydrated lime garnish. She jokes it’s like an artisanal version of Bud Light Lime, and it’s indeed been well-received by a wide group of people during the dog days of summer.
“Everyone wants to bring in this untapped market,” she explains. “But you can’t skip over your foundation.”
By that, she means the true craft beer lovers. In fact, Martinez wonders if a lot of the new breweries opening today are trying to succeed too quickly, without necessarily doing things the “right” way. In other words, by ignoring the small percentage of long-time craft beer fans in order to pack their breweries with a certain hoi polloi who typically don’t venture into breweries and brewpubs. She thinks the key to her ultimate success will be in building a loyal fan base not fickle toward the lure of the newest thing.
That might be wise as this untapped beer market is only going to get smaller and smaller as more and more breweries continue arriving in the borough. Wartega Brewing opened earlier that same month on that same sixth floor space and even shared brewing equipment with Lineup. According to their website, husband and wife team Merlin Ward and Mimi Ortega have “entrepreneurship and marketing backgrounds.” While, their brewing focus so far has been on beers fruited, herbed, and spiced, like Overmorrow, a citrusy light ale brewed with juniper berries. They also produce intriguing barrel-aged coffees.
It’s always scary opening up a new spot.”
Meanwhile, the Randolph bar group will soon opened their first brewing operation in the pricy DUMBO neighborhood. The 5,500 square foot space is the brainchild of owner Dave Plate, Brooklyn Brewery vet J.R. Jordan, and longtime GM Kyle Kensrue.
“We’re entering the game as a brewpub, not a brewery,” explains Kensrue, calling that a key distinction which he thinks will be Randolph’s major competitive advantage. “We’re not looking to compete toe-to-toe with all the badass local breweries who can make the best IPA. We’re going to play to our strengths instead which are hospitality, running a world class beer program, and serving great food. We see a big opportunity here to do something special, so our brewing program will start in the kitchen.”
Grimm Artisanal Ales, already a big name in this country’s beer scene, will finally go from gypsy brewer to brick-and-mortar in the coming months too. They just broke ground on a space in East Williamsburg, a few blocks from Interboro. The anticipation is palpable and Grimm will almost certainly be immediately seen as one of Brooklyn’s bucket list brewery destinations.
But will that be at the expense of spots like Five Boroughs and Circa and Lineup and these other upstarts? Or is there truly room for everyone?
“It’s always scary opening up a new spot,” thinks Kensrue. “We think the place we built is great and we put our heart and soul into it. However, those first few weeks of judgement are always humbling.”