Gut Instinct: Meet Me at the Gastrobrewery

Written by Joshua M. Bernstein on . Posted in Opinion and Column, Posts.

A TORRID Tuesday night on the western fringes of Soho, not far from the
languorous Hudson River, and I’m desperately craving a cold beer. To
find one, I enter Mediterranean-leaning restaurant 508 NYC (508
Greenwich St. at Spring St.,, where suited men sit at the
bar and slurp oysters and pints of amber-hued brews. They look
delectable, but those aren’t my desired suds. I saunter to the eatery’s
rear. Standing sentry-like before the kitchen is Anderson Sant’anna de
Lima, the restaurant’s bespectacled co-owner and chef, his arms tattooed
as colorfully as a 1940s sailor, his wallet attached to a chain.

me,” he says, leading me past slicing, dicing cooks and to a stairwell.
Step by step, I descend underground. The initial sights include several
boxes of root vegetables and a silver sink large enough to wash an
8-year-old. But there, nestled in the corner, is cooking gear so shiny,
so unlikely that I do a double take: a brew kettle. To my right, sacks
of grains are stacked like body bags. It looks like… “Welcome to my
brewery,” says Sant’anna de Lima, breaking into a broad grin. He leads
me to an air-conditioned room filled with dual plastic fermentation
tanks and 5-gallon kegs brimming with malty brown ales, coffee-flavored
porters and sweetly potent Belgian ales. “Want to try a beer?” he asks.
You know the answer.

New York City, brewpubs are rarer than an on-time G train. Outside of
Eataly and Chelsea Brewing Company, there’s nowhere to nab house-made
craft beer and food. It’s criminal. Though New York boasts gobs of
globetrotting restaurants, fancy-pants cocktail joints and beer bars
stocked with rare elixirs, brewpubs number just two. Two! This won’t do. Compared to brewpub-packed towns such as Portland, Ore., and Asheville, N.C., New York is a backwater ‘burg.

Partly, this can be explained by space.

brewery requires copious square footage to store equipment, raw
materials and beer. A big space costs big bucks. Secondly, there’s the
issue of licensing. Acquiring a New York liquor license is a legendary
slog, but navigating the red tape necessary to brew and sell suds is an
Orwellian struggle. “It took a lot of work, patience and lawyer fees,”
Sant’anna de Lima says of his year-plus odyssey, “but in the end we got
the license. We make our own food. It only seemed natural to make our
own beer, too.”

he brewed, Sant’anna de Lima cooked. In the 1990s, the Parsons grad and
Brazil native worked for an advertising firm. Seventy- and 80-hour
workweeks blazed a path to burnout. “I quit and started cooking, kept
cooking and cooked some more,” he recalls. “It was what I was made to
do.” After toiling in Manhattan kitchens, he and his wife, fellow chef
Jennifer Lynn Hill, moved to Virgin Gorda, in the British Virgin
Islands, to run the restaurant Barracuda. Beach living was a sunny
idyll, but the couple were unable to escape Manhattan’s magnetic lure.
After noticing a listing for a single-room restaurant in western SoHo,
they put in an offer. It was accepted. They returned to New York and
installed a menu of handmade pastas, seafood and small plates including
Coxinhas, which are fried Brazilian croquettes encasing a stewed
chicken-cream cheese core. Not long after, Sant’anna de Lima, a fan of
craft beers like lemony hefeweizens and bitter India pale ales, started
daydreaming of brewing. “I’d love to make my own beer,” he mused to his
wife. His wish had the hallmark of idle chatter. Except his wife decided
to force his hand. One day, Sant’anna de Lima’s doorman informed him
that he had a package. Inside, he found a homebrew kit. His brewery’s
seeds were officially planted.

When I say brewery, I’m
being generous with my description. At 508, Sant’anna de Lima has a
one-barrel brewing system, meaning he cranks out about two standard kegs
with each batch. To up his output he brews the same beer twice, then
consigns it to the cold room’s fermentation tanks where it conditions
till ready for consumption. His carbonated creations, such as the light
and lovely hefeweizens and a porter gently flavored with Kona coffee
beans, will populate 508’s six draft lines, elbowing aside all
commercial offerings. Also available are bottled brews, including a dry,
brightly citrusy IPA and an English-influenced strong ale that’s a
perfect mate for the restaurant’s tender ribs. In the end, it’s the
mingling of homemade food and beer that sets 508 apart, creating a new
breed of New York restaurant.

“We’re not a gastropub,” Sant’anna de Lima says. “We’re a gastrobrewery.”