A beer festival, like an open bar, is inherently risky. You’ve laid out a decent sum in advance and now you have a window of opportunity and a seemingly limitless array of choices. The trick is to take maximum advantage while not ending up crumpled in a corner, lying in an unsavory pool of unknown provenance.
Or so was my mindset as I entered the Brooklyn Expo Center in Greenpoint last Saturday for the Village Voice’s Sixth Annual Pour, a one day beer tasting festival with over 125 different craft brews, cider, mead, and specialty liquors from over 70 local, national, and international breweries.
To avoid becoming that man, I decided to limit my options to local breweries, specifically those in Brooklyn and Queens.
First on my list was Gowanus-based Other Half Brewing where I spoke with Joe and Cam. Other Half is a relatively new brewery, started in 2014, but is already drawing large crowds to its tap room on Tuesdays and on weekends and is developing a reputation among consumers and fellow brewers for its excellent beers.
I sampled the crisp and floral Double Mosaic Dream, a double dry hopped IPA made with lupulin powder, not pellets, and a darker, more intense, deep and malty All Green Everything Imperial IPA made with a blend of different hops.
Next up was Bushwick’s Kings County Brewers Collective (KCBC) where I spoke to Pete Lengyel, one of three “Brew Commanders.” Pete, is featured as a home-brewer in the 2013 documentary, Brewed in Brooklyn.
Three years later he’s made the leap to co-owner of his very own local brewery. Pete took the time to explain to me the Bug Bite, an easy to drink, low alcohol, common use table beer and the Janiak Maniac, a German pilsner style beer named after a former landlord.
While Coca Cola has jealously guarded its secret ingredients for over a hundred years, Pete was happy to discuss with me his recipes which included American 2-row malt, Scottish Golden Promise malt, and others from England and Germany.
He chatted away about his hops: Citrus Cascade from the U.S.A., Styrian Golding from Slovenia, and the Czech Saaz. He even divulged the origins of one of his yeasts, London Ale III.
KCBC is a brand new brewery. It opened up two and a half months ago and its tasting room has been open only for the past five weeks. Amazingly, KCBC is the first brick-and-mortar brewery to operate in Bushwick in more than 40 years.
The next destination on this liquid tour of Brooklyn was Coney Island Brewing Company located next to the Steeplechase Beer Garden under MCU Park. Launched in 2010, Coney Island at first brewed single gallon batches and was officially the smallest commercial brewery by volume in the world.
I sampled the Freaktoberfest Big Ol’ Pumpkin Ale. Blended with espresso beans from Café Grumpy, this sturdy ale had subtle hints of pumpkin and unmistakable notes of coffee.
Older, more established breweries were also on hand. The pioneering Brooklyn Brewery, founded in Williamsburg in 1988, made news this summer when its 29,000 square foot warehouse sold for a reported $37 million.
Brooklyn Brewery will continue to brew from its two plants, its flagship Brooklyn facility and one upstate at FX Matt Brewery in Utica, until its lease expires in 2018. Brooklyn Brewery is moving to Building 77 in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where it will set up (s)hop with its office, a brewery, and even a rooftop restaurant and beer garden starting by early 2018.
Until then, you can still sign up on their website for the Brooklyn Quarterly Experiments (BQE), or new release parties, where you can try limited runs of pop-up beers and free food, fun, cocktails, and music. Currently on tap is the brand new release, the Tripel Burner, a spicy fall concoction with hints of licorice and white wine.
The New York City equivalent of Jim Koch, founder of Boston’s Samuel Adams Brewery, is Kelly Taylor. If Steve Hindy and Tom Potter, founders of Brooklyn Brewery, are the grandfathers of all these young upstarts, Kelly is more their father figure. Several of the younger brewers in attendance have worked for him at one point or another, including Robby Crafton of Big Alice Brewing in Long Island City.
Taylor brewed his first batch in college, assembling his beer making kit from spare parts he picked up at Home Depot. By the late 1990s he had moved to New York City and became the Head Brewer for Heartland Brewery where he continues to oversee production. In 2006 he and his wife Sonya Giacobbe co-founded Clinton Hill-based KelSo Brewery, an amalgamation of their names.
KelSo, a medium sized company, distributes about 6,000 barrels (12,000 kegs) a year. A small brewery needs to supply bars a minimum of 200 kegs a month to establish itself in New York City.
KelSo now produces bottles and cans, a phase in the economic lifecycle that some of the younger breweries are striving for but have not yet achieved.
In their infancy, breweries make money from keg and tasting room sales. Only once they have established their brand through draft and built a reputation can they progress to bottling and canning for supermarket retail distribution.
Taylor announced in June 2016 that KelSo would likely move from their Clinton Hill base at 259 Waverly Avenue (between Fulton Street and Atlantic Avenue), citing rent issues and a lack of support for manufacturers in the neighborhood.
I hit the beach again, this time in Queens, at Rockaway Brewing Company to taste their flagship Rockaway ESB (Extra Special Bitter), a malty, sweet and chocolatey, English-style ale with a light fruit nose (I may have had some assistance with these descriptors from my beer sommeliers).
I also trekked to Long Island City to check out Big Alice Brewing (named after Big Allis, the four prominent red and white striped smokestacks in LIC that are part of the Ravenswood No. 3 electric power generator). Big Alice had some of the more unusual offerings: Jalapeno Rye, Sour One, and Sweet Potato Farmhouse Ale.
Co-founder and Brewer Kyle Hurst explained that he loved the freedom to experiment with bold new ingredients, methods, and flavors and contrasted this to the Reinheitsgebot, or the German Beer Purity Law, which strictly limits beer ingredients to barley, hops, and water.
My final destination was the Brooklyn Beer Shop, not a brewery but a wholesaler of one and five gallon brewing kits. It was fitting that I would end up here for a last drink from their test kitchen, as many of the people I had met and talked to: brewers, salesmen and saleswomen, delivery and events people, got their start this way.
In fact, I recently brewed up five gallons of Bitter and Esters’ Summer Fun Blonde Ale to the great appreciation of family and friends. The Circle of Life was complete.
Before leaving the Expo Center I had one last task. I had noticed and was curious to gain admission to the two VIP rooms off to the side. I walked up to two burley guards at the entrance and asked, “Is press VIP?” The bouncer on the right looked to his companion for guidance but the answer was unequivocal and brief. I quickly spun around on my heels and headed to the exit.
Hakuna matata. No worries.