How Homebrewers Built New York

Four years ago, John Holl invited me to speak at the now-defunct beer festival hosted by now-defunct All About Beer Magazine. One of the speakers was Mary Izett, who was touring in support of her just-released homebrew book Speed Brewing. She was there with her husband, Chris Cuzme, and I got to spend some nice time with them. (Those who know the two—and many people do!—know how engaging and interesting they are and you can always bring a glow to someone’s face by mentioning them.) In the months and years that followed, I watched Mary on Facebook as they slowly turned their passionate homebrewing into Fifth Hammer Brewing in Long Island City.

That was my first exposure to the unprecedented way homebrewers have built up the current vibrant scene in the city. Homebrewing has always been one way people get into commercial brewing, but it’s becoming more and more infrequent as third-generation brewers follow a more traditional path into the career. The recent explosion of new breweries in New York is totally consistent with what’s happening elsewhere—but homebrewers being at the center of things is not.

Brett Taylor is in the Wild East shirt on the left, Chris Cuzme is the standing man wearing a hat on the right, and Mary Izett is standing behind him. (Source: Fifth Hammer Facebook page)

A couple months ago, when I went back to New York, I did a segment on Beer Sessions with Brett Tayler and Jeff Lyons—two more homebrewers who’ve gone pro. Later, as we sampled beers at Roberta’s, it seemed like we kept having the same conversation over and over: a beer would get mentioned, I’d ask about the brewery, one of them would tell me how it was an old homebrew buddy who’d bootstrapped up to a commercial scale. Brett was brewing for Fifth Hammer while getting his own brewery, Wild East, up and running, while Jeff was brewing at Keg and Lantern.

When I later pinged Chris about this phenomenon, he gave me a non-exhaustive list of breweries with homebrewing connections (I say non-exhaustive because I’m pretty sure one of the breweries I visited, Folksbier, was founded by a homebrewer): Big aLICe, Finback, Grimm, Interboro, KCBC, Keg & Lantern, LIC Beer Project, Other Half, Randolph Beer, Strongrope, and Svendale. That’s quite a list, and includes some of the bigger names in NY beer.

My big plan had been to do a kind of oral history of this phenomenon by those who made it—but well, you know how life intervenes? I did, however, get a wonderful email from Brett Taylor, and I’d like to quote from it so you can get a sense of this whole phenomenon. Below he tells his story and expands on the importance of homebrewing to NYC’s commercial beer revival. It might have been nicer to have more voices, but Brett does a great job giving us a sense of things.

“I started homebrewing in the late aughts when Sixpoint was hottest brewery in the city. After about six months I started to meet other homebrewers and found out that a very important landmark was right round the corner from my apartment. Fritz Fernow is one of those venerable homebrewers who never considered going pro. He still brews classic styles, uses bittering hops and crystal malts in his IPAs. His beers are flawless. When I first met Fritz in 2010 he invited me over when he was brewing a Flanders Red with oak chips from a Russian River Consecration barrel. Fritz and his wife Jen had an open door policy where, if their light was on, you were welcome to drop in.

“And people did. It was there I first met so many members of the pro and homebrew community. They no longer have that apartment, but to me it's kind of a CBGB for the Brooklyn homebrew scene. Fritz loved that before I got a kegerator I would keep my corny kegs on my fire escape during winter and just open the window and pull in a cobra tap to pour a beer. I didn't have room for a kegerator in that apartment. By spring I'd be bottle conditioning again. Brew with the seasons.

“I hadn't been brewing long before I started having the recurring dream of opening a brewery. It was such a vague dream it was almost meaningless. But I was slowly making moves toward that end. First an unpaid part-time internship at Sixpoint (which at the time was practically a farm system for going from homebrewer to pro). I kept my day job at The Wall Street Journal, all the while developing my own brewing perspective.

“I was also part of Josh Bernstein's homebrew tour. If you're unfamiliar, they're two parts homebrew crawl, one part apartment voyeurism. In any case it's a right of passage for NYC homebrewers, and many met future investors standing in their own apartment pouring beer from their kegerator.

“The homebrewing scene here is big, but I wonder if it's not as big as other cities per capita. I say that because I feel like I knew all the homebrewers, at least from my own cohort. I can't say I knew them all now, but they tend to know me. Because of the logistics of getting around NYC there tend to be a bunch of small, localized homebrew clubs, and a couple big citywide ones. Interestingly, we only have one homebrew shop for all these people—I think that's what makes this big city so small.

“I think there are a few things that make our community stand out. For one, we have the highest barriers of anyone in the country in getting started at all. For what we pay in one year of rent you could buy a plot of land in most parts of the country. Our bureaucracy might not be the worst in the country, but it's probably up there. Those things have galvanized us, and as a result we're extremely few breweries per capita compared to most cities. We all started as homebrewers in cramped apartments and now brew in cramped breweries with relatively exorbitant rents, but with enough foot traffic that makes it all works financially.

“For me going pro was easy because so many of my friends had already done it. I still find it strange to meet a pro brewer who didn't have a previous career doing something else. But to look around and see the breweries owned by all the people I used to compete against in homebrew competitions, is phenomenal. And they've all helped me in one way or another in on my path to opening Wild East.”

I don’t travel as broadly as some folks do, but I get around. The intimate nature of the scene in New York makes it feel like an intact group of friends, perhaps more than in any city I’ve visited. Given how big and worldly NYC is, this really caught me by surprise. This dynamic makes it a great place to visit. To close out this piece, I’ll leave you with a final comment from the grandfather of all things beer in New York, Garrett Oliver.

“I do keep up with the NYC Homebrewers Guild, of which I was once president. I see the ‘farm team’ of American homebrewers generally having tight relations with their local breweries all over the country. Glad to hear that we are upholding the tradition! I personally feel that people have long underestimated the NYC beer scene, which I still think is possibly the best in the country.”

Maybe not yet—but it’s definitely getting there.

Jeff Alworth1 Comment