Why One of New York’s Most Innovative Brewers Decided to Pack Her Bags for TexasSeptember 25, 2019
When Danii Oliver established Island to Island Brewery in Brooklyn in 2015, she quickly built up a reputation for doing things her own way. While other brewers were busy flooding the market with double and triple IPAs, Oliver was busy churning out more beers based around fresh fruit juices and spices. Her Jerk Spice Helles Lager is fragrant with allspice and cinnamon, while her potent 11% ABV ginger wild ale packs an aromatic punch, thanks to a painstaking, labor-intensive process. Throughout the fermentation process, Oliver has to mash everything by hand. She refuses to apply any unnecessary heat, in order to preserve the integrity of the flavors.
“We only do a ginger beer twice a year,” Oliver says. “It’s very personal and very hands-on—not at all like a ginger beer you’d get in the stores made out of a syrup.”
Part of the reason that Oliver applies that level of attention to detail to everything she does is that Island to Island Brewery has always been a deeply personal operation for her. It was born out of her first venture, House of Juice, which made cold-pressed juices and kombucha. The whole venture stems from Oliver’s belief in providing more holistic products and in honoring her Caribbean heritage.
Once Oliver opened her Brooklyn taproom, word spread quickly and local news sources heaped praise upon her ambitious, unique brewery. Island to Island Brewery was also the first establishment of its kind in Flatbush since Prohibition. It quickly became known as a warm, welcoming space in the neighborhood and encouraged other taprooms to set up shop.
People would always ask what it’s like to be a woman in beer, but it’s not a new thing. Women were the ones who brewed in my family.”
What should have been a straightforward New York success story took a turn this summer, however, when Oliver abruptly announced that she would be moving her operation to the outskirts of Dallas, Texas.
“We’re relocating to a bigger space. The simplest answer as to why is that Texas is the exact opposite of New York,” Oliver says. “We’re in a really great big metroplex here where it’s booming, while still maintaining its cultural identity. It’s super eclectic.”
The level of diversity in Dallas, which Bon Appétit just declared its restaurant city of the year, was one of the most significant factors in Oliver’s decision. While New York claims to welcome a broad spectrum of ideas, she says she often felt pigeon-holed and pressured into conforming to mass-market fads.
“I was a very big outlier in New York. I felt like consumers were expecting me to jump on trends,” Oliver says. “They would say that they were open to new ideas and that they were exploring, but then would turn around and say, ‘Why aren’t you doing it like these people?’”
More than anything, however, Oliver insists that the need for physical space—a rare commodity in New York, as any local will attest—was what drove her to seek other pastures. Whether it’s kombucha or craft beer, her work has always been ingredient-driven. In order to take it to the next level, she needed to go back to the land.
“In order to continue to grow this concept of the business, I needed access to land in order to grow my own. We’ll have a one-acre farm. My daughter insists we grow strawberries. My husband wants plums and peaches,” Oliver says. “Over time, I’ll be doing some experimentation with ingredients that are typical flavors in our beers, like ginger and turmeric.”
Ginger, turmeric, sugarcane, and sorrel feature prominently in her recipes in part as an homage to her Trinidadian roots. Her parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, but Oliver still feels a powerful pull toward the culture of the islands. Although her family members refused to share exact recipes with her, Oliver picked up more than a thing or two while growing up. Once she learned that she came from a long, matriarchal line of fiercely independent women brewers, she knew that she wanted to continue that legacy.
When people drink beer together, they’re more open to listening and learning and setting aside their preconceptions.”
“My grandparents and my great-grandparents were brewing in Trinidad and St. Martin and Santo Domingo,” Oliver says. “My great-grandmother would run back and forth through the island selling her contraband.”
When I ask if she means that literally, Oliver laughs. Like many elements of any family’s lore, some of the details have grown murkier over time.
“I’m not sure if it was legal at the time or not. That’s just what my mom said for a long time. I finally sat her down to ask her about it and she said, ‘Oh, she’d ferment alcohol and get on her boat to sell it to the men,’” Oliver says. “I found my great-grandmother on my father’s side did it too. She would disappear during Carnival time to sell all the stuff she had been making and storing. It was all kind of hush-hush, but from watching and peeking, slowly you would figure it out.”
Contraband or not, much of her family’s tradition of homebrewing was grounded in a spirit of generosity. Brewing fruit beers was a way of showing off your skills and giving back to those around you.
“Every Christmas, we had bottle shares. That’s something that my people have been doing forever. You didn’t go to a Christmas party without a bottle of your own stuff,” Oliver says. “It would most likely be a kind of beer, rather than a distilled spirit, because it would be based on what you could grow.”
The fact that women have been both the creative and entrepreneurial force behind beer in her family for generations is part of why Oliver objects to craft beer’s gendered image in the United States. To her, being a businesswoman in beer is the most natural thing in the world.
“In the beginning of my journey here, people would always ask what it’s like to be a woman in beer, but it’s not a new thing,” Oliver says. “Women were the ones who brewed in my family. My first sip of beer was from my aunts. Going to family events, I would see all these women drinking beer. What I started to learn over time is that the cameras are pointed in one direction, which is away from women, and that makes it seem like women are not welcome or part of this.”
Simply by existing as an influential person in the craft sphere, Oliver hopes to help normalize the idea of women in brewing. Her mission at Island to Island Brewery has not only been about creating great beer, but also about shifting societal perceptions. One of her last projects before closing her Brooklyn brewery was the Origine People Power Beer, a 9.1% ABV porter inspired by Carribean black cake. Proceeds from the sales went to the Fianza Fund, which raises funds to help indigenous immigrants detained at the border.
“These are my people. These are indigenous people who are being denied human rights, who are being separated from their families, who are being killed,” Oliver says. “They’re being segregated in various ways that have to do with skin color and the colonial language that we were taught.”
As with everything Oliver does, her decision to use black cake as a flavor inspiration was not accidental. Soaked in rum and stuffed with dried fruits, the cake is traditionally served at weddings and holiday celebrations throughout the Carribean.
“We serve it at a time when people are coming together who may not know each other. It lowers your inhibitions so you can talk and chat and overcome differences,” Oliver says. “When people drink beer together, they’re more open to listening and learning and setting aside their preconceptions. This beer was about bringing people together, as well as making them think about the biases that we have for things that are unfamiliar.”
For the time being, Oliver is still settling into her new digs in Big Sky Country. She continues to homebrew and to collaborate with local brewers in the area as she plans her next move. Though she doesn’t entirely know what that will look like just yet, you can bet that it will be unlike anything anyone else is doing. Most brewers might have been stressed out about the move, but Oliver views it as a natural extension of her family’s history.
“People in my family have always been voyagers. We don’t necessarily stay in one place. We’re from all the islands,” she says. “I’m just voyaging the way they did in search of new opportunities.”
Illustration by Remo Remoquillo.