When I’m not in the food biz, I work as a freelance journalist and my most visible regular outlet is the Wall St. Journal, where I write about jazz. In 2014, they let me write about beer on occasion. These are the results.
This story focused on the rise of gypsy brewers.
More New York City Craft Brewers on the ‘Gypsy’ Bandwagon
Joe and Lauren Grimm, itinerant brewers who live in Brooklyn, at Paper City Brewery in central Massachusetts. ENLARGE
By Martin Johnson
Feb. 27, 2014 10:23 p.m. ET
After years of making artisanal ales in the kitchen of their Brooklyn apartment, experimenting with ingredients such as rose hips and caramelized Belgian beet sugar, Joe and Lauren Grimm began brewing commercially last July.
But unlike most craft brewers who graduate to the next level, the Grimms haven’t opened their own brewing facility. Instead, each month, they make a roughly three-hour drive to the Paper City Brewery in central Massachusetts, often with their latest favorite ingredient in tow. Before making the trek to craft their limited-edition “Bees in the Trappe” ale last year, they stopped at Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket to load 300 pounds of wildflower honey into the back of their car.
The Grimms are part of a growing movement of “gypsy,” or itinerant, brewers, ambitious New York City-based producers who concoct new recipes at home, then rent unused brewery space upstate—or out of state—to scale up their production.
The Grimms produce 20 barrels, or just more than 600 gallons, a month of one-off brew, sold mostly in keg form to beer bars around the city and state.
“This way, we get to experiment more,” said Mr. Grimm. “If we had a brick-and-mortar facility, we’d have to make what everybody else brews—an IPA [India Pale Ale], a Pilsener, a Stout—just to pay our rent.”
Brewers say it can cost anywhere up to $1 million to open a brewing facility in the U.S.—and even more in New York City, where the heavy real-estate premium can discourage space-hungry startups.
The flexibility of microbrewing on the move, combined with a growing consumer palette for exotic and “oddball” beers, has brought gypsy producers to the forefront of the craft-beer world, said Dave Herman, spirits-and-wine general manager for Mouth.com, an online purveyor of small-batch specialty foods from around the U.S.
“I’ve seen a big trend in beer bars and stores highlighting the latest interesting twist from these nomads,” he said.
During the first half of 2013, some 7.3 million barrels of beer were sold by small and independent craft brewers, up 14% over the first half of 2012, according to the Brewers Association, a nonprofit craft-brewing trade group. A barrel equals 31 gallons.
The Grimms say their small contribution to the industry always sells out within six weeks of release. Their concoctions are often celebrated in launch events at beer bars around New York.
Labels for some of the ‘gypsy’ beers made at Paper City Brewing. ENLARGE
Labels for some of the ‘gypsy’ beers made at Paper City Brewing. Richard Beaven for The Wall Street Journal
Many itinerants say they were inspired by Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, an early gypsy brewer who began almost a decade ago. Beers from his company, Evil Twin, which include flavors like chili, sour cherry and marshmallow, have garnered numerous awards and are served not just at beer bars, but at more rarefied restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and Momofuku Ko.
Mr. Jarnit-Bjergsø said he has no plans to open his own space, and has contracted with two breweries in Connecticut to produce the dozens of varieties of Evil Twin released each year.
Working in someone else’s brewing space can require compromises. Some owners are particular about not allowing certain yeasts to be used on their equipment, for example.
“One of the challenges for us is to maintain the consistency of the beer,” said Rob Pihl, an itinerant who launched the Radiant Pig brewery with partner Laurisa Milici last March, after more than four years of brewing in their Manhattan apartment.
Focusing on a single beer called Junior, a cross between a Pale Ale and an IPA, the couple now brews in Connecticut, and says it isn’t always easy to replicate a recipe when the strength and availability of ingredients is constantly in flux.
“We got used to changing things on the fly,” Mr. Pihl said.
Some critics in the craft-brewing world say that so-called contract brewing can diminish the singular artistry of a master brewer, when a host facility’s staffers become part of the process, or even work on their own from a provided recipe.
Itinerant brewers like the Grimms say they are very much hands-on throughout the entire process.
While some makers choose the gypsy path by choice, others say it is a way to drive revenue and build buzz while financing their own facility. Brooklynites Matt Monahan and Sam Richardson, who worked together at Clinton Hill-based Greenpoint Beer Works (which produces beer for Heartland Brewery)), had taken a lease on a building near the Gowanus Expressway to launch their label, The Other Half. After permit and inspection delays drained their initial investment, they began brewing some beer at their former employer’s space. Sales from those batches, they said, enabled them to stay afloat until they were cleared to begin brewing beer last month.
Indeed, Zach Mack, co-owner of Alphabet City Beer Co., an East Village craft-beer bar, said he sees the nomad-brewing trend as a crucial interim step for many in the business, including The Other Half and other recently opened local microbreweries such as Finback, Rockaway and SingleCut.
“Their trail was blazed with the high-quality local itinerants,” he said, proving “New Yorkers are thirsty for the good stuff.”
The next one was during the summer and focused on barrel aging.
Barrel-Aged Beer Is Making a Comeback
A growing cadre of brew masters is aging beer in casks that once held bourbon, brandy or wine.
Owner Matthias Neidhart holds a glass of Zymatore beer and a glass of the beer in its original format. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal
With its barn, greenhouse and bucolic fields of camomile and berries, B United International Inc., from the outside, doesn’t look like a typical warehouse beer distributorship.
And inside the Oxford, Conn., facility, there is another anomaly: a room where beer is being aged not in huge industrial steel tanks, but in hundreds of hand-me-down wooden barrels. That is where B United, which distributes aficionado brands like Germany’s Schneider Weisse and Japan’s Hitachino, is giving some of its clients’ brew a secondary round of aging—in containers that formerly held wine, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages.
The Zymatore room at B.United International. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal
“Select beers can actually soak up the flavors and aromas of the spirit previously housed in the wooden barrel in a way that…makes it highly interesting,” said Matthias Neidhart, founder and owner of B United.
Mr. Neidhart is among a small, but growing cadre of respected artisan brewers using pre-used wooden barrels, in the belief that the residual flavors and lingering microflora from whatever liquid they previously held can enhance a beer’s aroma and taste.
Those elements don’t transfer from wood to beer automatically, brewers said, but are teased out during a secondary fermentation process involving wild yeast.
“Barrels that once stored a Syrah or Chardonnay to maturity can bring out so many more complexities in flavor,” said Zach Mack, co-owner of the Alphabet City Beer Co., an East Village bar that offers more than 350 varieties of craft brew.
The enthusiasm for barrel aging was first rekindled nearly a decade ago, when brewers discovered that aging beer in bourbon barrels could add tasty vanilla overtones to their porters and stouts. More recently, some have begun expanding their container repertoire, using barrels that have held everything from Sauternes and Scotch to brandy and rum, seeking flavor notes that range from sour to tannic.
New York area brewers are among the leading-edge wood-barrel users.
Garrett Oliver, brew master of the Brooklyn Brewery and editor of “The Oxford Companion to Beer,” said he is partial to bourbon barrels, which are typically made of virgin American oak and used only once before being sold. His brewery’s facility in the Brooklyn Navy Yard currently houses more than 2,000 wooden barrels for aging beer.
“Bourbon wood is quintessentially American, and that’s a big appeal for me,” said Mr. Oliver.
Brewmaster Ben Neidhart in the Zymatore room with barrels used to age beer. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal
Matt Monahan, co-owner of Other Half Brewing Co., which opened in January in Gowanus, prefers wine barrels. “If you age a beer in a bourbon barrel, it tastes like bourbon,” he said. Other Half is currently using barrels that once housed Zinfandel, Sauternes and even the cult California Cabernet Opus One.
Wooden barrels aren’t exactly new; for centuries, beer was stored and aged in them. But after Prohibition, the American brewery industry dramatically consolidated, and growing companies seeking larger-capacity storage with greater sterility turned to massive stainless steel tanks.
The return to wood-barrel use comes at a time of greater experimentation among craft brewers with more traditional, less industrialized materials and techniques. Some Pale Ale makers, for example, are using techniques like “dry hopping,” popular in the 19th century as a way to stabilize beer and enhance its flavor, by adding hops during the beer’s secondary fermentation.
Wooden barrels usually slow down the aging process. Basil Lee, co-owner of Finback Brewery, which opened in January in Queens, said his company ages beer in both bourbon and wine barrels and chose its 13,000-square-foot space because it had room for longer-term brewing projects.
“I have tasted beers where you wished that they had aged more,” he said. “We sought out a space that would enable us the freedom to age beers for a year or two if necessary.”
Many large-production commercial beers typically age for one month; some lagers take up to four, experts say.
Mr. Neidhart of B United said slower barrel aging allows natural processes to take their course, rather than artificially helping them along with, say, rigorous climate control.
“Conventional brewing is all about controlling the process,” said Mr. Neidhart. “We are trying to return the control to nature.” He ages some of his clients’ beers for two or three years.
“Clients ask us when their beer will be ready and we tell them we don’t know,” he said.
Owner Matthias Neidhart holds two bottles of Zymatore beer. Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal
For all the effort, Mr. Neidhart said his barrel-aging program accounts for just 2% of his business, moving over 400,000 case-equivalents of beer annually.
And to be sure, barrel-aged beers are still a niche part of the $14.3 billion annual U.S. craft beer market. But their influence is spreading nationally. California craft breweries like The Bruery and Firestone Walker Brewing Co., for example, have recently launched extensive barrel-aging programs.
In New York, drinkers can find them in beer bars like Proletariat, Terroir and Owl Farm.
And some are beginning to show up in local restaurants. Other Half, for example, is brewing several barrel-aged beers exclusively for Roberta’s, a popular Williamsburg eatery. That is because barrel aging not only adds to overall complexity, said Mr. Monahan, but also tends to soften a beer’s finish over time, helping raise its food-friendly quotient.
Then later in the year I wrote about the rise of the NYC brewing scene. In fact, several of the gypsies interviewed in the first scene are now opening their own breweries.
By Martin Johnson
Jan. 22, 2015 8:27 p.m. ET
It is 3:30 p.m. on a Saturday, but the din at Threes, the newest brewpub to join the city’s craft-beer scene—just a short walk from Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn—screams midnight.
There is a wait for seating. Big wooden tables are jammed with a lively, diverse crowd sampling Threes’ house-produced brews—including an IPA described on the menu as “juicy, pine, citrus, fresh bread, soft bitterness,” and a saison listed as “rustic, melon, grain, hay.” Also on offer: exotic brews like tripel and Flanders red from other craft producers and food from local purveyors who rotate in “residence” in the kitchen.
“It’s too early to call this success,” said Justin Israelson, one of three owner-partners in Threes, which opened to the public in December after a four-year ramp-up.
It isn’t too early to call it part of a New York brewing renaissance. Not since the early 1960s, when nearly 10% of the nation’s beer was produced in Brooklyn, has the city seen this much brewing activity. Threes is one of eight new craft-beer production facilities that opened within the five boroughs in 2014.
The newcomers aren’t just in the artisan mecca of Brooklyn. Threes, Other Half Brewing Co. and Folksbier Brewery are, but Transmitter Brewing and Finback Brewery set up shop in Queens; Gun Hill Brewing Co. and the Bronx Brewery operate in the Bronx; and Flagship Brewing Co. opened on Staten Island. In all, more than two dozen breweries and brewpubs, which make at least some of their offerings on premises, have opened around New York City in the past 30 months.
They are launching against some pretty steep odds—not the least of which are astronomical real-estate costs. Two renowned Manhattan brewpubs, Heartland Brewery in Union Square and 508 Gastrobrewery in West Soho, closed their doors in late 2014, while many of the newly opened facilities situated themselves on the outer fringes of the outer boroughs.
Patrons at Threes in Brooklyn. ENLARGE
Patrons at Threes in Brooklyn. Photo: Andrew Hinderaker for The Wall Street Journal
Brewery startup costs in New York City can run in the neighborhood of a million dollars—about twice as much as a comparable venture in Chicago or Atlanta, estimates Bart Watson, chief economist of the Brewers Association, a trade group. Some of the area’s new brewers said they had to craft their beer elsewhere—sometimes for years—to raise the startup capital and ride out bureaucratic waits for inspections and permits.
Then there is the New York consumer mind-set. “Many states, like Vermont, Michigan or Oregon, are very loyal to their local brands,” said Steve Hindy, co-founder and president of Brooklyn Brewery, which launched in 1988 and grew to become one of the best-known craft-brew brands nationally. “New Yorkers want the best of everything, and many do not care where it comes from.”
But the recent rise in New York City’s brewery scene reflects broader bullish trends, industry experts say. National craft-beer sales topped $18 billion in 2014, said Mr. Watson, up 26% over 2013.
Demographics are expanding. More women and minorities are tippling craft brews, said industry consultant Jen Schwertman, and the millennial generation has come of drinking age in an era when beer options expanded significantly past a handful of dominant national brands.
In New York City, homegrown brews are also infiltrating upscale bars and restaurants. “We make sure a large percentage of our beer list comes from local breweries,” said Hayley Jensen, beer sommelier at Taproom No. 307, a craft-beer bar with nearly 100 offerings. Artisan brews, with their unique, complex flavors, are increasingly being treated as pairing fodder for haute cuisine at such epicurean destinations as Eleven Madison Park, NoMad and others.
When Brooklyn Brewery opened in 1988, it sparked a revival of the city’s proud brewing tradition, which began in the mid-19th century and dried up by 1976. But the two dozen area breweries that opened after Brooklyn Brewery’s launch have failed, mainly because traditional beer distributors were reluctant to take on their product, Mr. Hindy said.
These days, he said, “you do not have to explain why your beer is dark or hoppy, or why it is strong and tastes like cherries or peaches or whiskey.”
Chris Gallant, co-founder of Bronx Brewery, said he hopes to follow Brooklyn Brewery’s example. But, he noted, “when Brooklyn started, there were just a few Goliaths like Bud and Heineken. Now, there are a lot more Goliaths, and they’re one of them.”
Back at Threes, Mr. Israelson described a culture of camaraderie between New York’s newest brewers.
“There’s a lot of sharing,” he said. “When possible, we go over to Other Half and bring them a growler of what we’re working on, and they have done the same for us many times.”
All of which raises the question of whether a New York-style beer might be in the offing.
“It would certainly have to be bitter…not overly fruit forward,” speculated Cory Bonfiglio, general manager of Proletariat, a Lower East Side beer bar, tossing out taste profiles like “confident and bold,” “robust yet brisk” and “a little funky on the back end.”
“I think we’ll strive to find our own tastes,” said Zach Mack, owner of Alphabet City Beer Co., a craft-beer bar and store. “Because if there’s anything a New Yorker is good at it, it’s forming an opinion on what is good and what is not.”