Stephen Hindy is co-founder and president
of Brooklyn Brewery, a Williamsburg-based company that has been a growing
local favorite beer since its founding in 1988. The Lager and Pilsner
are the top-sellers of the Brooklyn collection, which also includes
standards like Brown and India Pale Ales, Brooklyn Weisse; and seasonal
brews like Oktoberfest, Black Chocolate Stout, Pumpkin Ale, and others.
While most of their beer is brewed upstate, approximately 20 percent
is brewed on-site in Brooklyn, where they recently converted the total
energy supply to windpower. They also created an organic beer for the
Renewable Brooklyn Festival in October, though only one batch was made
as a Brewmaster’s Reserve and is not available in bottles (yet—perhaps
with a little consumer pressure it will be!).
Rachel Cernansky recently visited the brewery to chat with
Stephen Hindy and Brewmaster Garrett Oliver
about the potential for an organic beer, the company’s involvement
in the Slow Food movement, and the growth and philosophy of Brooklyn
Brewery as a community-oriented business.
The Brooklyn Brewery has really
exploded in recent years—it’s still locally-minded, but
the company is on a much bigger scale than even just a couple years
ago. Have there been any points along the way where you were growing
too fast—any growing pains?
Oh yeah, we had nothing but growing pains early on, it was tough getting
established in New York. In the early days, there were months when [my
partner] Tom and I didn’t get paid ‘cause we didn’t
have enough money. I used to be a reporter, for 15 years I worked as
a journalist for Associated Press and Newsday—six years in the
Middle East. I left in 1987 and sold our first beer in March of 1988.
In 1991, during the Gulf War, I went back to work nights at Newsday—editing,
copy, etc.—because the brewery was really struggling.
Did you read about the two Newsday guys who were captured in Baghdad
during the war? I helped get them out through some contacts that I had,
actually with the PLO—Arafat helped get them out.
I’m working on a book now with my partner, maybe the title will
be something like “You Don’t Have to Lie, Cheat, and Steal
to Run a Good Business.” In the news for the last few years it’s
been all about the guys who are lying, cheating, and stealing—thank
god [it’s] catching up with them—but I don’t think
you have to do that.
How did you get started brewing beer?
Well, when I was in the Middle East I met these diplomats who worked
in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where they have Islamic law and you can’t
buy alcoholic beverages, and they all made their own beer at home. So
I used to drink their homebrew. Then when I came back to the States,
I started making my own beer at home, and eventually got carried away
with the whole thing—and started the Brooklyn Brewery.
Can you talk about elements of social responsibility or green
design within Brooklyn Brewery?
Farmers pick up the used grain here to use for feed out in New Jersey.
And the windpower really is something. The windmill company came to
us last spring and said it’s possible to buy electricity from
windmills up near Syracuse. We talked about it for a few months because
it would cost us more money, but it seemed like the right thing to do…I
think someday people will look back on this and say, wow, Brooklyn Brewery
was really ahead of things back then. It was right after the blackout
that we decided it’s obvious there’s a big problem.
Also we’ve been working against the plans to build a big power
plant down here on the waterfront for several years, so this seemed
to be a way to say, not only are we opposed to the power plant, we’re
going to buy our power from windmills in upstate New York. That’s
a concrete way of putting your money where your mouth is.
I’ve been very surprised with all of the letters and emails I’ve
gotten from people praising us for doing this—particularly younger
people. I think young people are plugged into the notion that America
has to do something about the way it uses energy. And that’s a
good thing for us—all brewers, from a business point of view,
want to be able to sell their product not only to their generation but
to the next [as well]. The big guys spend all this money on advertising
trying to look edgy and cool to young people, but we don’t do
that—nor would I want to.
I did it for my house too—if you use a certain amount of electricity,
you can do it at home. I think it’s an important thing, but I
guess a lot of people just look at it as, “Is it cheaper?”
It’s cheaper just to continue to plunder the world’s resources,
but is that better? I don’t think so. The windpower people say
that if New York maximized its use of windpower, it could provide between
five and ten percent of the electrical demand of the state; that’d
be a pretty significant shift in resources. And people who say the windmills
are ugly, or I don’t want those on my horizon, that seems so stupid
to me, because I think they’re beautiful; and what they’re
doing is a beautiful thing.
It’s nice to hear such thoughts coming from someone running a
business that’s been financially successful.
I’m not pretending we set out to be green when we started the
company; but we did set out, and it has been a strategic value in our
company, to be a good citizen and to have links in the community. And
I think we’ve done a good job of that. We donate beer to hundreds
if not thousands of not-for-profit organizations every year. I’m
on the board of the Prospect Park Alliance and the community board,
and many of our employees are involved in the community.
It’s interesting, I think that’s very unusual for NYC businesses
because most of the manufacturing businesses in particular are really
alienated from public life and feel like the city has been screwing
them and is probably going to screw them more in the future; and so
you look around at the businesses in this part of Brooklyn and most
of them have graffiti all over the buildings and they don’t really
care how their building looks. And a lot of the owners hop in a car
and drive off at the end of the day, they don’t live in Brooklyn.
Most of us live here or in the city and we think that being a good corporate
citizen is good for us, in selling beer.
We don’t do any advertising—mainstream advertising—it’s
all word of mouth. It’s really all co-promotion with small arts
groups, and some larger groups like P.S. 1 and Brooklyn Academy of Music,
and in the city some of the museums; and that’s worked very well
for us. I feel in a lot of ways we’ve only scratched the surface
of this market, but I think being a good citizen has helped us get attention.
And advertising is such, I don’t know, such a waste of money.
Tell us about the organic porter!
The brewmaster had been resistant to doing an organic beer in the past
because he felt the quality of organically grown grains that were available
was not that good. But I really wanted to do it for the Renewable Brooklyn
Festival, so he took another look at it and talked to Morgan Wolaver
(of Wolaver’s Organic), and found some dark roasted grains that
were pretty good, so we made a dark beer—Brooklyn Sustainable
Porter. The hops—a tiny percent of the weight of the beer—are
not organic, because he couldn’t find the quality that he wanted,
so the beer is probably like 99 percent organic.
You ask people what beer is made of and they all say hops, but they
don’t really know what hops are. The biggest ingredient in beer
is barley, and that barley has to be malted to prepare it for making
beer. Malting is a process: you soak the barley in water, it sprouts—it
thinks it’s springtime, it’s time to grow, so it sprouts.
The sprouts get to a certain length, you dry it, and the sprout withers
and falls away. It’s a stone-hard grain in the beginning; after
you malt it, it’s crunchy—that’s the same ingredient
in Grape Nuts cereal. The hops are basically like the spice—the
salt and pepper—of the beer, they add bitterness and aroma. Hops
are a flowering plant, a perennial, they grow like 30 feet high. We
used to grow them up the side of the brewery, but people let their dogs
pee on them all the time, so we stopped doing that.
Can you talk about the growth or path of development of the
Actually there’s some news in that area. When we started the Brooklyn
Brewery, we did something on the advice of Sophia Collier, an entrepreneur
who lived on our block in Park Slope. She was the founder of Soho Natural
Soda—remember that product? It was really the first of the kind
of new-age, all-natural beverages and was sort of a challenge to Coke
and Pepsi. At the time, Sophia was selling Soho to Seagram’s for
$20 million or something like that, so she was our hero. I asked if
she’d give us some advice, and she said the smartest thing we
could do is distribute our own beer—none of the big distributors
are going to pay any attention to a couple of guys with a great beer
but no money, no advertising. So over the last 15 years, we basically
built two companies: Brooklyn Brewery and the distribution company called
the Craft Brewers Guild. We distribute our beer, about 15 other American
microbreweries, and all the fancy beers from Belgium, Germany and Britain.
And if it wasn’t for that distribution company, I don’t
think we would have survived.
Now we’re selling the distribution company, and we’re pretty
excited about that.
How do you think that’ll affect Brooklyn Brewery?
I think we’re going to sell a lot more beer. We don’t really
reach the whole New York City beer market—restaurants and stores—we
reach maybe 15 percent. This big distributor that’s buying the
rights to Brooklyn, they’re in 100 percent of the market, they
distribute Heineken, Bass, Guinness—big brands. But Brooklyn is
in that game now, in terms of volume, so that’s a very big deal
What do you see next on the product front?
I’m interested in where we go with this organic beer. We brew
about 20 percent of our beer here, and the rest we do in upstate New
York. I’ve thought about maybe producing the porter in bottles.
It’s really a good beer, very tasty—and it’s not very
high in alcohol so it’s very drinkable; also, it’s dark
but it’s not that heavy. People think if a beer’s dark it’s
going to be heavy, but you can make a very dark beer that is light in
body—and you can make a very light beer that is very heavy in
And we want to expand here [at the brewery]. We want to buy the property
next door and add more tanks so we can do more production; and also
add a bottling line, so we can do cork bottles, you know, like the Belgian
Are your beers vegan?
Yes; we don’t use any finings, except in the cask-conditioned
ales, which are less than 100 kegs a year and served at only a handful
of bars. The rest of our beers are vegan.
Cask-conditioning is an English technique, a special way of packaging
the beer in a keg. When the beer comes out of the fermenter—out
of the kettle—it goes into a cask—which is like a keg, instead
of a tank, and you add the yeast in the cask and then you put a bung
(a cork, except made of wood), and it ferments actually in the keg.
When the fermentation stops, you add the finings—we use fish extract—and
you seal it up again. And the fermentation—conditioning—completes
in the keg, instead of in a tank. This is a traditional English style,
and there are only three bars in the city that can even serve this,
like the Blind Tiger, d.b.a., and the Gingerman. If a bar serves cask-conditioned
ale, it’s usually on only one tap, and everyone knows that that’s
the cask-conditioned tap, I mean it costs more money.
Brooklyn Brewery offers free tours—complete
with a tasting!—on Saturdays. For information, call (718) 486-7422
or visit www.brooklynbrewery.com.
Getting Real with Garrett Oliver, Brewmaster at the
How did you find the experience
of developing an organic beer?
With the Brooklyn Sustainable Porter, the tricky part is that organic
ingredients are only now becoming widely available for brewing. Barley
has been cultivated for a long time and has generally been done, especially
in this country, in an intensive agriculture sort of fashion. So organic
barley is very expensive and the quality has tended to be low. Frankly,
that’s one reason why we decided to make a porter—because
the flavors are less dependent on the direct flavor of the barley itself,
and more dependent on the way the roasting is done and things like that,
so if there are deficiencies in the barley flavor, you have other big
flavors going on that make it still work well. And I think the beer is
There’s a growing market for organic beer, but it’s still
very small. If you’re going to sell this on a regular basis and
make sure that it’s fresh—and good beer should be fresh—you
can’t have a situation where it’s going to sit around for
three months, you really need to keep it moving. So we’ll see.
Can you talk about the Slow Food movement
and its relationship to you and to the Brooklyn Brewery?
Slow food is basically what you might call an eco-gastronomic [movement].
It seeks to preserve worldwide food culture and also the biologic diversity
necessary to make real food; along with protecting the land, and issues
that surround it. I first started working with them in 1999, and when
they came to establish the national office, I was on the founding board
of directors of Slow Food USA. Now I’ve kind of been kicked upstairs,
I’m an International Governor of the Slow Food movement, which means
instead of doing very hard policy work, I get to go to Naples in a couple
weeks, do a couple days of policy work and then eat a lot—which
is much easier for me [laughs]. You certainly get to see a much broader
picture of how issues of sustainability work within not only our system,
but systems in a lot of other countries when you meet, you know, cheesemakers
from Australia, and people who are dealing with these same sort of issues
in China and stuff like that, so it’s been very interesting.
When you’re involved in making beer, you are involved in agricultural
issues. You’re buying grain that’s grown on land, and the
land has to be preserved. Beyond that there are quite a few people involved
in the brewing industry who are interested in Slow Food. In fact, there
was a Slow Food booth at the Great American Beer Festival this year for
the first time.
It’s important for people to learn what’s real and what isn’t;
that’s part of what Slow Food does. The craft-brewing movement is
involved in all the same stuff. The beer that most people are used to
is the beer version of Twinkies, it’s not real. It’s this
thing that’s highly industrialized [and has bubbles and gets you
drunk], but that’s about it—it has no real connection to the
traditions of what it is that we’re doing, so to those of us producing
what we feel is real beer, it’s important that people know what
the differences are.