Local Beer Makes Good in Brooklyn

May 18, 2017

By Justin Doom, May 18, 2017

It’s arguably the most indispensable A-Frame sign in New York City.

Posted outside Mekelburg’s, a craft beer bar and specialty foods purveyor in the Clinton Hill section of Brooklyn, the scrawled-on sentry points politely toward the red awning of a sprawling basement unit that otherwise may go unnoticed.

Except by locals.

“This, for many people, for a lot of people in the neighborhood, is their third place,” says Jeremy Grigsby, the bar manager. “I have so many local regulars who love the beer list. And, definitely, there is a sense of community. A lot of it’s over good beer. That’s how a lot of conversations start – ‘Oh, what are you having?’ ‘I’m having this.’ They get to know each other, start following each other on Twitter, stuff like that.”

When the shop opened not quite two years ago, owners Alicia and Daniel Mekelburg sought to provide to their neighborhood – where they’ve lived for about a decade – a friendly hub where you could grab a pint or a glass of wine and walk out with a chunk of gourmet mozzarella or a pint of premium ice cream for later.

The original plan included offering fewer groceries, says Jennifer Lee, the shop’s operations manager, but after the only nearby grocery store closed a few months before Mekelburg’s was scheduled to open, Lee saw an opportunity to expand from offering exclusively gourmet items. The shop added staples like eggs and cheese and milk, giving locals a reliable spot to grab essentials in what quickly had become a food desert.

Cory Smith / Good Beer HuntingThere's that all-important sign, and an indication of the variety of their wares.

“We had to pivot,” says Lee, adding that about one-third of all products in the stores are from companies owned by women, another way Mekelburg’s helps local vendors. For example, an artist who lives a few blocks away makes tea towels for the shop. “We always wanted to do with this, make it very localized, working with local producers and getting smaller vendors in who want a bigger presence. It’s supporting your local environment.”

That environment has changed rapidly since the Mekelburgs moved to Clinton Hill. Nearby brownstones, many of which have been gut-renovated, now sell for $2 million to $3 million.

“If you’re going to spend that much money, you need good food options as well,” Lee says. “This area, there used to be a lot of drugs on this street, some gun violence, and maybe five years ago was not somewhere you really wanted to be. But we’re not looking to take over. We’re looking to help make the neighborhood safer.”

In up-and-coming neighborhoods, taprooms and breweries are becoming the new coffee shops and art studios. Locals, old and new, find somewhere to hang out and start conversations and, well, exchange Twitter handles.

Cory Smith / Good Beer HuntingThe cozy bar at Mekelburg's helps initiate conversations, which are the seeds of congeniality.

And those locals want local beer. At any given time, about two-thirds of the offerings posted on the chalkboard behind the bar are from in and around New York.

Breweries such as Hudson Valley and Hill Farmstead and Industrial Arts are regularly featured on a list that’s typically 15 or 16 deep, spanning at least a half-dozen styles, most of which are available in half pints or pints, giving people the chance to try something new on just about every visit. As popular as the restaurant’s sandwiches and cheese plates and slab-bacon-topped baked potatoes are, regulars come back for the beer.

“People come in here,” Lee says, “and they’re just like, ‘Wow, I’ve never even heard of these beers before.’ And they realize how much more beer is out there.”

Customers aren’t the only ones excited by new beer. When kegs are delivered, for Grigsby and Eric Hall, Mekelburg’s beer buyer, “it’s like opening a gift on Christmas for them,” Lee says.

It’s Hall’s goal, he says, to have at least one beer on tap for everyone who comes in.

“I’m a firm believer that there’s a beer for everybody,” he says. “If you don’t like beer, you just haven’t had the right beer yet. Everyone who likes beer had that one beer at some point in their life that kind of opened their eyes – they went from macro generic lagers to, ‘Oh, wow, this is awesome, I want to try more stuff like this.’ And I get the privilege of doing that for people, which is really nice.”

Cory Smith / Good Beer HuntingLove your local chalkboard bar. Revel in the beauty of a high-velocity beer list.

For a literal mom ‘n’ pop shop in Brooklyn that prides itself on selling local and supporting local, getting good, fresh beer has never been easier. According to the New York State Brewers Association, there were 320 breweries in the state at the end of 2016, up from 95 in 2012. And that doesn’t include everything produced in Pennsylvania and New England.

“We’re in a really special time and place with so much new and exciting beer being made locally,” Hall adds. “I’m like a kid in a candy store. There are so many breweries both locally and regionally that we can kind of pick and choose who we want. There’s some really great candy out there.”

Kegs rarely last more than two weeks, regardless of size, Grigsby says, adding that other than perhaps a dozen or so beers, very few are regularly brought back.

“You want to keep impressing the beer nerds – absolutely,” he adds. “Generally, their tastes are going to line up with our tastes. They also want local options, they also want fresh options.”

“I might be a bit biased,” adds Grigsby, smiling and nodding toward the chalkboard, “but I think it’s the best list in the world.”

And in the neighborhood.

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