At 10:15 Monday morning, people are already drinking. Husky men in dark suits stand next to guys in Brooklyn sweatshirts, each with a hand wrapped around a stemmed glass of Main Engine Start, the abbey single-style ale brewed especially for today: the ribbon cutting for the expansion of Brooklyn Brewery.
It is Valentine’s Day, and the birthday of both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. Both show up to the airy new space in Williamsburg to put their spin on the small-business success story, and to eat a slice of the two beer-infused cakes baked for them with "Happy Birthday," scrawled in green frosting, incorporating the beer company’s signature loopy "B." Several other pols, including U.S. Representative Nydia Velazquez, line up next to Brooklyn Brewery President and co-founder Steve Hindy for the dog-and-pony show.
The Mayor settles in before the cameras as the event’s emcee. He faces a fleet of cameras. An official city podium had been imported for the event. Smiling tightly, Bloomberg calls the $8 million expansion that will allow the brewery to up production tenfold, "just about the best birthday gift for a mayor I can imagine."
Brooklyn Brewery is now a powerhouse business in a borough that has, in the last two decades, become an international brand. The brewery grew by 20 percent in 2010 and is projected to grow even more this year. It is now among the top 40 breweries in the country and, according to the company, the number-two draft beer choice in the city, having made serious inroads into Midtown bars.
Yet the maker of Brooklyn Lager, Pennant Ale 55 and Local 2 has been losing sway in its own backyard. In many ways, the company has become a victim of its own success, size and image, which has always been tied to its namesake borough.
A keg of Brooklyn’s Brown Ale could easily be rolled the two blocks that stretch between the brewery and The Bedford, a sleek, dim-lit bar and restaurant that opened up on the corner of North 11th Street and Bedford Avenue last summer. But, so far, this neighborhood haunt—one that embodies the borough’s farm-to-table fad—has shown little love for the neighborhood brewer that makes beer around the corner and it does not serve the beer on tap or in bottles.
That neighborly omission became apparent Dec. 6 when The Bedford (currently 305 Twitter followers) tweeted a message at Brooklyn Brewery (12,256 followers) that invited them to get lunch. No response from Brooklyn Brewery’s Twitter feed (though Hindy grumbled when asked about it).
In fact, bars from Greenpoint to Park Slope have dropped Brooklyn Brewery from their taps in recent months, while the evolving craft beer movement provides enthusiasts with an ever-growing universe of breweries and tastes to choose from.
"The renaissance in Brooklyn has outgrown Brooklyn Brewery," Hindy says. "And now we’re trying to catch up to it again."
Twenty years ago,
Brooklyn Brewery was a fledgling DIY underdog that wanted to bring a
heady selection of craft beer (or microbrews, as they were called at the
time) to a city dominated by Budweiser, Miller and Heineken. And that’s
precisely what its founders did. They brewed their own beer recipe, and
then they started a distribution company that gave small brewers across
America a toehold in one of the country’s biggest beer markets.
craft is the fastest growing part of the beer market, both in Brooklyn
and nationwide. More than 1,500 craft breweries operate around the
county, according to the Brewers Association, an industry trade group.
Preliminary statistics show mainstream beer sales declined by about 2
percent in 2010, while sales for craft beer shot up almost 10 percent.
In Brooklyn these days, both bars and distributors that once shunned
craft beer want a piece of the action.
Hindy started Brooklyn Brewery more than two decades ago, it was a
different story. In the late 1980s, Hindy, a journalist at the time, and
his friend Tom Potter, a banker, lived in Park Slope. Apartments sold
for five figures then and MacLaren strollers were an obscure import.
Hindy was cooking up homebrew. Potter was drinking it. Eventually they
got the idea that beer with a Brooklyn flavor could constitute a real
and Potter imagined a gourmet beer that tapped into Brooklyn’s long
history of American breweries. Their 1987 business plan summed it up
nicely. "The emphasis will always be on craft and quality, and on
linking Brooklyn Brewery’s image to the resurgence of Brooklyn pride,"
Potter and Hindy wrote in Beer School, the book they co-authored in 2007.
In the late ’80s, the borough was still an underdog. The
Dodgers had left. Industry had vanished. Truck drivers refused to drive
through Bushwick. Brooklyn Brewery was an underdog, too: a small,
high-quality beermaker in a market flooded with huge corporate brands.
a bit of searching, they found a brewery upstate that agreed to produce
their beer on a contract basis. But Hindy and Potter learned an
important lesson early: You can make as much beer as you want. But if
you can’t get it to market, you won’t go anywhere.
was the key to success then, much as it is today. Distributors "get to
decide what beer is out here," says John Rauschenberg, who co-owns
Pacific Standard, a beer bar on Fourth Avenue in Park Slope. "In the
end, it’s up to them."
Brooklyn started, most of the small distributors in the borough had
closed up shop or consolidated. Those that remained had little interest
in putting in the man-hours or money to promote small, expensive beers
no one had heard of. Small brewers struggled to hook a distributor. Bars
looking to serve unusual beer had few options.
the advice from a friend, Potter and Hindy bought trucks, painted on
that now-iconic cursive "B" and started to peddle Brooklyn Lager to bars
and bodegas. The company started to distribute other craft beers, and
it expanded to Massachusetts and Upstate New York, accumulating the
largest portfolio of craft beer in the city. Distribution became key to
the business, and two-thirds of Brooklyn’s re-occurring revenues.
the beginning of the new millennium, however, Brooklyn decided it
wanted to focus exclusively on its own beer. Over 18 months, beginning
in 2002, Hindy and Potter began to sell pieces of their distribution
The sales meant profits that could go into expanding the brewery, but it also put 30 of the company’s 59 employees out of work.
Martin Schoneboom, a purchasing manager who was laid off during the sale, was quoted in a 2003 article in the New York Times as
saying: "It’s pretty disappointing. Brooklyn was kind of a
do-it-yourself operation. This kind of feels like a good indie band
signing to a major label and selling out."
"major label" was Phoenix Beverages, the distributor with which
Brooklyn Brewery signed. Phoenix didn’t want the other craft beers
Brooklyn distributed. So Hindy and Potter sold the craft portfolio to
Union Beer Distributors. Union Beer has since become the craft beer
powerhouse in the city, representing more than 150 different breweries.
2003, bar owners and managers have gone the way of the curator,
choosing among a ludicrously large number of delicious and obscure
lagers, stouts, porters, IPAs, ales and pilsners—always on the lookout
for the next great thing. Beer distributors jockey to expand their craft
portfolios. Meanwhile, beer drinkers are becoming increasingly more
discerning in their tastes.
you don’t have a decent selection on tap," Mark Peterson, a regular at
4th Avenue Pub in Park Slope, says, "people will take one look at the
place and leave." It’s a chilly Monday in January at 4th Avenue Pub, and
"The Don" Triple IPA from Speakeasy in San Francisco fills many a thick
goblet. A couple trades sips of the special on cask, a hoppy beer from
Blue Point on Long Island. By 8 p.m., a decent crowd has settled in.
Conversation fills the bar, but no one has to shout. The popcorn machine
and a list of take-out menus keep customers sitting there for hours,
trying one of the 28 beers on tap—none of which comes from the Brooklyn
The bar is
the northernmost of a series of beer-centric watering holes that have
opened up along Fourth Avenue in the last five years. Down the block is
Pacific Standard, which favors West Coast microbrews and the West
Coast’s languid approach to drinking them. A few steps more and you’re
at Mission Dolores, which serves up 20 draft beers, with another on
cask. This is Brooklyn’s Beer "alley," but at none of these bars can you
drink a freshly pulled Brooklyn Lager.
Nearby at Union Hall, General Manager Kevin Avanzato says he stopped carrying Brooklyn last spring. He
feels it’s not quite niche enough for his specialty drinkers and not
mainstream enough for those who want to drink something they know.
Avanzato keeps his eye on local beer: Kelso of Brooklyn is on tap, as is
a keg from Sixpoint Craft Ales. "I sell more Sixpoint than Stella now,"
Avanzato explains. As for Brooklyn, he says, it feels less special.
"You can get a Brooklyn in Texas."
Brooklyn and its distributor, Phoenix Beverages, have worked to make
Brooklyn available to a wider audience. Phoenix also distributes
Guinness, Miller and Anchor Steam. From Phoenix’s perspective, the
effort to put Brooklyn in more bars—particularly in Manhattan— has been
Brooklyn trends are really good," Greg Brayman, vice president of
operations at Phoenix, says. "We have a ton of sales people out. We work
hard." As for the bars that don’t choose Brooklyn? "I can’t force
someone to buy beer," Brayman says.
some local bar owners say it’s not just the growing competition and
choices among craft beers that’s keeping Brooklyn Brewery out of some
spots. It’s the fact that Brooklyn’s competition is doing better
owners across the borough say Phoenix Beverages is hard to work with and
unreliable. "They fuck up a lot of shit," Mike Wiley says. He owns
Smith Street’s Bar Great Harry and Mission Dolores, which opened last
Phoenix say the distributor has failed to deliver orders on time and
that its sales representatives can be inattentive or difficult to work
with. Problems with Phoenix were great enough for both Union Hall and
Greenpoint’s Paulie Gee’s to recently stop serving Brooklyn Lager.
were horrible," says Paulie Giannone, who runs Paulie Gee’s, referring
to Phoenix. "They did everything they could to make themselves lose
many of these same bar owners have lavished praise upon Union Beer
Distributors, one of Phoenix’s main rivals. "You could easily just do
Union taps and have a fucking awesome lineup," Wiley says.
a plethora of beer to choose from, Brooklyn brews often aren’t missed
when not available on tap. But the brewery hasn’t lost the respect of
longtime beer experts.
a bleak Saturday afternoon in January, and Chris Cuzme is drinking a
pint in d.b.a. Brooklyn in Williamsburg, a couple of blocks south of the
Brooklyn Brewery. Cuzme was the 2010 president of the Malted Barley
Appreciation Society, a local group of beer brewers and aficionados, and
next to him sits Alex Hall, New York City’s cask-beer guru, and one of
Cuzme’s business partners on the newly-opened Wandering Star Brewing
Company in Massachusetts. Each has a hand on a pint of hand-pumped
Barrier, a microbrew from a Long Island brewery manned by a former
Sixpoint brewer. Barrier makes only two kegs at a time, changing the
recipe and style like 25-year-olds change job descriptions.
Brooklyn has "the potential to get a bad rap," Cuzme says. "That’s definitely not Brooklyn’s fault. That is a great beer."
homebrewers, Cuzme and Hall have watched Brookyn come up, and keep an
eye on the "Brewmaster’s Reserve" beers that Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn’s
brewmaster, has cooked up over the years. They also recognize that in a
borough where craft has started to go mainstream, small, seasonal and
experimental has pull.
want what’s new," Cuzme says. "We like to support local. We like to
support the small guys: Joe Underdog kind of people. That translates
definitely to the brewers as well. We feel that there is more attention
given to the product when it’s done at a small scale."
Ray Deter, d.b.a’s
owner, happens to be in the bar that afternoon, and Cuzme and Hall call
him over. Holding a 10-oz. of Dupont Saison, Deter can recount days
tasting family beers in Bavaria and his first cask beer—a pint of
Stone—during a bike ride through the English countryside in 1990.
Deter about beer, and his gripes run more along the
it’s-cool-to-drink-Pabst trend rather than the mainstreaming of craft.
As for Brooklyn, Deter says, "They’ve actually got the best of both
worlds." He explains how the brewery has a popular flagship, and a line
of hard-to-find specialties. Just think: Brooklyn Lager hit India this
past summer, and it will head to Minnesota for the first time this year.
has given Brooklyn the chance to expand, and the additional 16,000
square feet in Brooklyn Brewery’s just-completed addition will mean
Oliver’s experiments get brewed in higher volumes. Renovations will also
bring more space at the Tap Room, which packs in a crowd every Friday
"Now it’s crazy there," Cuzme says. "You turn up at 5. Past 6, you can’t get in."
picks up a short glass, a cloudy saison from a tiny new label called
Pretty Things, which recently signed with Union Beer. He takes a swig.
"They’re doing something right."
control at Brooklyn Brewery is a bank of offices and cubicles. To get
there, you walk up a staircase in a silo redolent with a yeasty smell:
beer brewing. On a late January afternoon, Steve Hindy sits in his
office surrounded by plaques, trophies and cloudy antique bottles.
Framed newspaper clips and a photograph of Hindy golfing with Bloomberg
hang on the wall. Hindy leans back in his chair, still trim but
considerably grayer than the photographs taken when the brewery
celebrated its first 7,000 cases. Last year, it put out 100,000 barrels
for the first time.
to any brewery, without question, they say they want to be twice as big
as they are," Hindy says. "You gotta grow if you’re going to succeed in
the beer business."
Hindy explains, isn’t the first brewery to face problems of perceptions
as it grew. "My colleagues who have had success around the country have
also had this issue in their home market."
Yet Hindy acknowledges there are problems.
"Brooklyn is our home. We want to be respected and well liked and hopefully poured in Brooklyn."
Hindy says the company is taking steps to draw people back in. Last month, the brewery teamed up with Edible Brooklyn for
a how-to night on pickling, jamming and fermenting. Two days later, the
brewery hosted a chili cook-off. The company has some of its people
cultivating relationships with bars that it lost when it left the
distribution business and hopes that being able to make more of the
Brewmaster’s Reserve will spark more interest with some of the newest
beer bars and restaurants.
former reporter, Hindy keeps a pad on his desk, scratched with notes of
issues to address. Phoenix, he says, will start installing taps for
bars to get more of the market. "If that’s what it takes, then you’ve
got to do it."
cares about Brooklyn, the borough and the brand. Brooklyn drinkers,
however, aren’t Brooklyn Brewery’s bread and butter. Still, losing local
drinkers matters to the company. It’s about the company’s reputation.
And it’s personal. Even so, Hindy seems to have few regrets about the
arc Brooklyn Brewery’s business has taken. Given the choice of being a
little-known local or a brand gaining international status, Hindy says,
"I think I’d take where I am."
the ribbon cutting, Bloomberg and his bodyguards make their exit. The
seven television crews follow and the mood eases. Those left—friends,
employees, a slew of print reporters—help themselves to another glass of
Main Engine Start. Hindy stands with Tom Potter, chatting about
Potter’s new business, a distillery that will soon start making its gin a
few blocks away.
one of the Brooklyn guys introduces himself to a woman from Blue Bottle
Coffee, a San Francisco micro-roaster that recently settled into the
neighborhood and provided the coffee at the morning event, along with
squares of cake made with Brooklyn’s Chocolate Stout. The barista
invites the brewer to come by to see the roaster one day. It’s a
you-show-me-yours, I’ll-show-you-mine between valued local beverages.
the back, Garrett Oliver, Brooklyn’s brewmaster, chews a bagel. He
looks dapper in a suit emblazoned with the Brooklyn logo. Asked if the
continued expansion might distract from the spirit of craft, Oliver
describes it as just the opposite. "As we’ve grown bigger, we’ve become a
more artisanal company," Oliver says. If Hindy is the business brain
that has made Brooklyn an international player, Oliver is the artist who
helps the company keep the interest of the most esoteric drinkers. And
he talks that way.
like the blues," Oliver explains, referring to how Brooklyn Brewery
works today. "Yes you get older, but hopefully you get better,
deeper—more vital, not less."
expansion gives Oliver more room to experiment—literally—and space for
technology that will streamline the labor needed for some of his
ambitious projects. He points to the bottling line on the east wall, set
up to streamline the production of "bottle-conditioned" beer, which
carbonates like champagne. He talks about a new setup that will help the
brewery offer spent grain to local community gardens. He has more than a
dozen prototypes brewing across the street.
to Oliver, it’s odd to be seen as "big" given that Brooklyn still puts
out only one-twentieth the amount of beer Sam Adams does each year.
Hindy and the bigwigs at Brooklyn Brewery seem fine with the fact that
they have created a brand that can sell in middle America, even if it is
no longer fashionable in the borough that spawned it. Oliver doesn’t
regret that Brooklyn has struck a chord with a wide audience. "After 20
years, our beer should be more popular," he says. "If it wasn’t, it
would mean we had failed."