Thursday 29 September 2011

The Brooklyn Brewery Story!

Hello everyone, I'm back!

Today I’m here, tomorrow I’ll be gone, well when I don’t feel like writing anymore that is, I will simply stop. Enjoy it today, my little testimonials. Like with good beer, here today, empty tomorrow, some never to be brewed again, and that’s fine, it was awesome, now try something new! And I always try to do just that. But sometimes or some places there’s no options, and that’s bad, other places there’s just a few options, that’s better! (But still not good!) OK so there I was at an airport, or specifically at Aquavit Bar Gardermoen. “Fine” I think, so I ask the bartender, “What do you have?” “East India Pale Ale from Brooklyn Brewery huh?” “Yeah, I’ll have one of those!” And I liked it, yeah it wasn’t my favorite IPA or anything, but it was an alternative to the otherwise crap beers you get served in Norway, and when I went home again I noticed a lot of the local bars, that didn’t really have much of a beer selection had this one. That was my first meeting with Brooklyn Brewery, I think it was a couple of years ago…

Brooklyn Brewery Black Ops

So Kjetil and I were sitting at “Rattle ‘n’ Hum” in New York City one September afternoon in 2011. We ordered the most expensive beer in the bar, a 40$ bottle from Brooklyn Brewery called “Black Ops”. This is what the bottle read: “Brooklyn Black Ops does not exist. However, if it did exist, it would be a robust stout concocted by the Brooklyn brewing team under cover of secrecy and hidden from everyone else at the brewery. Supposedly, "Black Ops" was aged for four months in bourbon barrels, bottled flat, and re-fermented with Champagne yeast, creating big chocolate and coffee flavors with a rich underpinning of vanilla-like oak notes. They say there are only 1000 cases. We have no idea what they’re talking about.” So this 10,7% Imperial Stout totally blew our minds, über complex and everything I expect and love in a stout. Dark as Satan’s soul and sweet as an angels chocolate heart. Awesome!

Me with a Goose IPA @ Ear Inn

Later that day, or another day, does it really matter? We were hanging out at the Ear Inn, as far as I know it’s New York’s oldest working pub. Bought by George Washington’s slave or something back in the early 1800’s. So anyway we met the owner I think, Sheamus, and he said he can set us up on a tour with the owner of Brooklyn Brewery, Steve Hindy. I thought it’s probably just the booze taking, but it sounded cool, so I said to Kjetil let’s gamble on that he’s a real honest guy. But we didn’t hear anything, and I thought, yeah off course all piss and wind. Then on our last night in NYC Kjetil got an sms, that we could go and get a free tour with the owner of the brewery Friday morning before we left.

NYC from one of the bridges to Brooklyn

So we set the alarm on for shit early and went to bed. The morning after we checked out of the hotel, and jump in a bus with no white or english speaking people in it. We headed out for the Central Station. We looked at the subway map and found our way around to the area we planned to visit in Brooklyn. With half an hour left we decide to walk the last mile or whatever, yeah nice neighborhood I thought! "Cop-Shot, 10.000 bucks in reward for tips that leads to the arrest of a cop killer", that’s what the local posters from the NYPD read. (Example) But whatever soon there, yeah then the road ended just before the house number we were looking for. Some friendly dude tells us we’re way off, 20 minutes that way. Awesome, we’re fucked! No taxis wanna stop, until some ladies helps us by calling some Hispanic taxi company. Half an hour later we arrived Brooklyn Brewery at the other side of Brooklyn.

Outside Brooklyn Brewery

I press the buzzer at the brewery and after a couple of minutes of explaining who we were they let us in. By the way the smell outside of the brewery was just awesome, sweet and malty! A short but friendly man greeted us, Steve Hindy that was. “So you’re the Norwegians that are starting your own brewery”, he said. “Yes, we are starting to brew”, were my response. I know we spoke a lot about brewing back at the Ear Inn, but if this misunderstanding got us something extra like this, lets just roll with it I thought. So he invites us into his office and gave me an article he got the same morning on the fax from an old friend from Norway. It was an article by Odd Karsten Tvedt about Brooklyn Brewery, and as far as I’ve understood they both used to be stationed in the Middle East as news correspondents, hanging out drinking and stuff. So we sit around in the office talking for a little while because Steve is waiting for some friends from the Anheuser Busch Empire…

The original sketches by Milton Glasor

On the off shot chance that you read this article because you want to learn more about New York’s finest: Brooklyn Brewery, I will include some facts now before I continue my story! All right, so after drinking homebrew in the middle east as a reporter, you know where alcohol is forbidden and everything, due to the fun, fun, fun “Sharia law”. Well Steve was surprised how good homebrew could be and he thought, damn it I can do this. He had to move home you see not to loose his wife and family, because they were sick and tired of following him into war zones. So Steve and his new neighbor Tom Potter started to brew. It was a rough start and nothing was for free, this was back in 1987. Steve knew that they needed a proper image, and after 10 or 20 requests Milton Glasor, the designer of the world famous “I <3 New York” logo said OK I’ll design your logo. He was paid in stocks cause the company hadn’t earned any money yet. So since they didn’t own a brewery all their beers were brewed at Matt Brewing Company in Utica, NY. Steve and Tom had their own distribution company, and were driving the beer around from store to store, pub to pub themselves. It wasn’t until 1996 they got their own location, in Williamsburg Brooklyn. But due to the capacity the Brooklyn Lager (And some other beers) was still produced upstate in Utica, and that’s how it is still. Now not long after moving into the brewery in Williamsburg, Steve got visited by the mob. Well actually he invited them, because Steve had a new Brewery and they didn’t earn money, he couldn’t afford bribes, and he didn't want his precious brewery burned down, so he invited them to explain his case, back in the 90’s this was still a rough neighborhood. (Maybe still, remember the Cop-Shot poster?) After a while the Mob guys walked out of the room to discuss, Steve sweating bullets heard them laughing their asses off in the next room, when they came back they main guy said: “Sorry we’ll have to hurt you”, squeezed his balls and threw him into the wall, then said: “Only kidding, we’ll leave you alone.” Before leaving they invited him to their Christmas party. Since then the brewery has expanded a lot, they now export to around 17 countries, one of them Norway. Steve is now running the business alone, and is currently planning to buy his own larger brewery with a beer garden upstate. I’m sure Brooklyn Brewery will be a world wide success, only thing I miss is export of their “special” beers.

Magic happens here...

So the Budweiser dudes steps into Steve’s office and we’re ready to start the tour. My first thought is noooooo, not another Goose Island, InBev the company that owns Anheuser Busch/Budweiser bought this excellent microbrewery earlier this year. It was very clear that Steve knew these guys from the road or something, and that selling is not his plan. Every day there is possibilities to get tours at the brewery, except Friday. So as we’re walking around the brewery, getting our Friday tour with the owner, he starts talking about tours. “You know every year we have around 2.000 tourist here for tours in the weekend, they’re always sold out.” And then there are the weekday tours. So we went through every part of the brewery, the fermentation tanks, the boilers, the bottling line, and we listened to stories. At the Brooklyn location all the special beers are made, and that’s the beers I think is the most interesting. We went to the barrel ageing room, and there was another smell, of wonderful oak and vanilla. Before they store the beers on barrels they have been used for whiskey, sometimes sherry or other stuff before that, but after the barrels arrive Brooklyn they are only used three times. After that they’re sold. Steve insisted that he can’t taste any different in flavor whether the barrel has been used once, twice or three times. The barrel aged beers are stored in different temperatures depending on were they are in the “aging” process. No it’s not lager beer! A couple of weeks before our visit, Brooklyn Brewery expanded even more, to get the new and larger conditioning tanks in, they had to remove the roof, with only centimeters to go on each side, or inches as the say in the US, Steve was nerve wrecked and didn’t dare to watch.

The new stuff!

After getting the tour at Brooklyn I now sees them as a microbrewery again, they’re far from as big as I thought. All special beers, the champagne bottles, the local beers, and cask beers for the local pubs is produced in Brooklyn. And Brooklyn Brewery were basically everywhere in NYC. “The importance of the special beers is to keep the fans interested, to keep their attention”, Steve said, when confronted with the question: Why do you make these beers that don’t make that much profit? The Bud guys nodded and said hmmm, before asking more questions about cost issues. Steve then decide to share a story about the “Black Ops” I mentioned earlier. He met a guy, I think it was Obama’s physician, now this was three days after the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. So this guy that meets with Obama weekly said he loved the “Black Ops” beer, and he would love it if the president and his staff could get the possibility to try this beer at this very special time. Some cases of this special threat were shipped to Washington, and there the president sat and enjoyed some “Black Ops” from Brooklyn Brewery, probably contemplating on his next Black OPS, with a beer prescribed by his physician, I want a doctor like that! Steve spoke about the brewing traditions of Brooklyn, even Yuengling, one of Americas largest and oldest breweries used to brew in Brooklyn, before the probation and all hell broke loose. Steve and Tom the co-founders of the brewery wrote a book a couple of years ago: “Beer School – Bottling success at the Brooklyn Brewery”. He said: “After you guys read this, you probably don’t wanna start a brewery after all.” The tour lasted a good 90 minutes, and afterwards we took a picture together and started our long journey home. The visit to Brooklyn had been a success, and if you’re ever in the area I recommend you to book a tour. Oh yeah, and try the special beers, they’re good!

Left to right: Haffy, Steve Hindy & Kjetil (aka Bongo)


P.S. It has been pointed out to me that you cannot write an article about Brooklyn Brewery without including Garrett Oliver. Steve mentioned him at our visit, and attributes a lot of his success to him, generously saying he would not have made it without Garrett. Garrett spends most of his time overseeing the production at the larger brewery upstate so we did not meet him when we visited. Garrett has written two popular books about beer: “The Brewmaster’s Table” & “The Oxford companion to Beer”. Pairing beer and food and hosting beer dinners is also one of Oliver’s activities when he’s not accepting awards for his fine work as a Brewmaster!

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