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November 2003
A Brewery Grows in Brooklyn

The Satya Interview with Stephen Hindy
 

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 company?
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 for us.

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 body.

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 bottles.

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 Brooklyn Brewery

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 very nice.

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.



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