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In This New York City Beer Bar, Hip Hop and Hops Get Equal Billing

May 14, 2019

By Chasity Cooper, May 14, 2019

When considering hit-making duos in the world of wine and spirits, the usual suspects immediately come to mind: wine and cheese, cigars and Cognac; Champagne and caviar.  But what about beer and hip hop? The two may seem like an unlikely pair, but they’re what makes BierWax NYC in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood unique.

Owner Chris Maestro grew up in Queens, New York during the early days of hip hop, when B-boys, graffiti, and the sounds of greats like Big Daddy Kane, RUN D.M.C. and Public Enemy began to infiltrate the airwaves. But it was jazz that ultimately kick-started Maestro’s love affair with vinyl during his college days at Binghamton University. “I purchased records by Horace Silver and Wes Montgomery, which I still have and know exactly where they are in the stacks at BierWax,” he recalls. “Eventually, I saved up money for a very cheap Radioshack record player that I connected to an old stereo and thus began the obsession with record collecting.”

After graduation, Chris returned to New York City where he became a school teacher and took up learning how to DJ as an expression of his love for music on vinyl. It took him an entire year to save for real DJ equipment, during which time his record collection continued to expand. “The quest for more and more was never-ending. I had an insatiable appetite for all types of records: jazz, soul, funk, Latin and, of course, hip hop,” he recalls. “My focus as a student and teacher of history was the African diaspora, so that's where my collecting sensibilities also resided.”

Inside BierWax; co-owner Chris Maestro. All photos by Brian Casse.

It wasn’t until 2004 when things really began brewing for Chris. During a trip to Hong Kong he discovered his love for craft beer (Samichlaus, to be specific) while hanging out in a cigar bar. “The doppelbock [style] was much maltier and fuller bodied than any beer I had ever tried, and to mention, it also gave me a pretty serious buzz,” Chris remembers. “When I returned to the States, it was hard to find Samichlaus in most bars, so I settled on discovering other beers that were rare with interesting flavor profiles. That is exactly when I began to learn about craft beer and the incredible independent breweries in the US and across the globe that make hand-crafted beers that taste nothing like the mass-produced beers that have a stranglehold on the majority of the beer consumer market.”

A few years later, Chris took another trip across the pond that sowed the early seeds for his future craft beer and vinyl bar. While visiting Cafe De Duivel, the oldest and most popular hip hop bar in Amsterdam, he was surprised to find that Dutch patrons were vibing out to the sounds of Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, Craig Mack, and other hip hop artists from the United States. “They had DJs spinning vinyl—not with CDs or Serato. By this time, most DJs had already moved on from vinyl in lounges, bars, and clubs,” Chris says. “The bugged-out thing to me was that these folks didn't speak English fluently, yet they had such a deep appreciation for 90s and underground hip hop. I thought to myself, Why doesn't something like this exist in NYC?”

The concept of bars dedicated to playing music on vinyl isn’t new. The concept originated in Japan shortly after the end of World War II. Particularly in Tokyo, vinyl bars at that time served as gathering spots complete with walls of records for music enthusiasts to groove to the latest jams from the West. Today, they’re hidden gems in Japan, but have remained influential to popular spots in Los Angeles, Houston and, of course, New York City.

With this new inspiration, Chris returned to New York City and worked at Finback Brewery as a taproom manager, learning the essentials of running a bar.  

In 2017, along with his wife and co-owner Yahaira, Chris opened BierWax NYC in Brooklyn. They originally thought about opening the bar in the Bronx, the birthplace of hip hop, but realized that Brooklyn was a little bit more special to them both.

“My wife was born and raised in Brooklyn and we lived here together before getting married, so it always felt like the logical place,” Chris said. “I lived two blocks away from our current location on Vanderbilt Avenue in 1999, so I am very familiar with Prospect Heights. More recently, I worked at an all-girls public middle and high school in Downtown Brooklyn, less than two miles away from BierWax. So this area has been my work home for nearly 10 years.”

Since opening BierWax, Chris and Yahaira have made it their mission to focus on cultivating the best of both worlds: great music spun on the 1s and 2s and great beer on tap. The record collection at BierWax is now 6,000 strong, with no signs of shrinking any time soon. Aside from bringing people into the space for a great time, the owners of BierWax make sure to show their support for members of the beer community both near and far.

Yahaira and Chris have created a space where everyone, especially people of color, can enjoy craft beer and celebrate culture.”

“Chris and Yahaira are using their power and platform of BierWax as a vehicle for social change,” said Daniel Luuggasy, a close friend of Chris, and who has DJ’d at the bar a few times over the years. “Not only is this a place of nostalgia, but they’ve created a space that is inclusive of all people. BierWax is about coming as you are, and sharing who you are with others.”

In March, Chris and Yahaira served as one of the hosts for the multi-city fundraising campaign of Crowns & Hops, a Black-owned craft beer brand by Teo Hunter and Benny Ashburn that will soon become the first brewery in Inglewood, California.

“BierWax both represents and embodies community,” said longtime friend and customer Rachel Jones. “It's a sacred space that was intentionally made to celebrate people of color, craft beer, the spirit of vinyl music, and everyday people's beautiful energy.”

Every Friday and Saturday night, DJs from all over New York City are invited to spin and keep the crowd grooving. In addition to the tunes, the bartenders at BierWax are also knowledgeable and friendly, helping the novice to expert beer drinkers navigate their beer menu. BierWax keeps brews on tap that are from independent craft breweries in New York state. The menu sticks to a variety of styles to please all palates, from IPAs to saisons and stouts. “Just as everyone can’t be as skilled as Jay-Z or Nas, not every brewery churns out top-notch beer. We only have 12 taps, so we try to curate the list to really focus on high quality beer from stellar breweries,” Maestro says.

With summer just around the corner, BierWax is looking forward to neighborhood patrons and beer enthusiasts alike to come and enjoying a beer under the grape vines on their patio.

“Yahaira and Chris have created a space where everyone, especially people of color, can enjoy craft beer and celebrate culture,” Jones said. “It's not just a bar—it's your favorite neighborhood bar where people can gather to respect artistry of all kinds.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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