Fifth Hammer Nails It
An important thing to know about Chris Cuzme is that he’s first and foremost a saxophonist. The same creative ability necessary to find a rhythm and harmonize comes out in the beers he makes at Fifth Hammer Brewing, Queens’ newest brewery. Cuzme is probably best known as the former brewer at the now-defunct 508 GastroBrewery. With the October opening of Long Island City’s sixth brewery, Cuzme became a co-founder and head brewer of, finally, his own brewhouse.
Beer geeks know Cuzme as a gregarious figure in New York City’s brewing scene, having been involved with Greenpoint Beer Works/KelSo, Wandering Star Craft Brewery, the New York City Brewers Guild and New York City Beer Week. He’s one of those warm people you can’t imagine having a bad day. And yet, he was a little lost after 508’s closing in late 2014. He had free rein over their taps for two years, experimenting with flavors, and making 508 a go-to destination for beer connoisseurs. After they shuttered, he and his wife started their own gypsy brewery, Cuzett Libations, but Cuzme craved a schedule and office to ground him.
Part of what keeps Cuzme anchored these days is his co-founder, “reformed lawyer” David Scharfstein. Scharfstein was already looking to open a craft beer bar when he caught wind of 508’s shuttering, so he emailed Cuzme about possibly working together. The two had instant chemistry. Scharfstein’s quiet nature balances Cuzme’s vivaciousness, and because of the former’s limited brewing experience, teaching Scharfstein forces Cuzme to revisit the basics.
It took the duo 18 months of searching, with at least three failed bids, before they found the perfect space at 10-28 46th Ave. And a choice spot it is. It’s two blocks from their friends at Rockaway Brewing, and right next door to the vintage bowling alley and bar, The Gutter. Reminiscent of the neighborhood’s manufacturing days, there’s an original brick wall dividing the front taproom and 15-barrel brew house; bygone industrial chains and pulleys hang from the ceiling, a nod to the building’s former life. The taproom’s handcrafted furniture sports pipe accents while reclaimed bluestone slabs top the bar, trimmed with wood from old pallets.
Cuzme and Scharfstein are curating a little something for everyone on their eight taps. Through the winter, patrons can expect styles similar to their opening list: hoppy lagers, IPAs, porters, stouts and some sours. In addition to their creations, they will be tapping kegs from other local breweries to round out the selection. Once the dust has settled, Cuzme will be back to improvising like a mad scientist with the help of seven conical fermenters he salvaged from his days at 508, “The Seven Dwarfs of Funky Stuff.” Kettle sours and other slow-fermentation beers will be on the way soon. And don’t be surprised if Cuzme’s tinkering leads to limited-edition kombuchas, ciders and other envelope-pushing fizzy drinks.
What you won’t find at Fifth Hammer are signature beers. Cuzme has a more fluid approach to his offerings: “Our tastes change and we’re influenced by the people around us.” He’s also taking into account what hops are available on the market, the seasons, how the last batch brewed, all the variables that require flexible recipes.
As a licensed New York State farm brewery, at least 20% of the hops and 20% of all other ingredients at Fifth Hammer must be grown in-state. To that end, Cuzme often sources from upstate hop and malt suppliers like Willet Hop & Grain and New York Craft Malt. The license allows them to offer other New York–produced brews, and they plan to run specials with the Homebrewers Guild, brewing a version of the winning beer, or allowing winners to take over a tap with their own recipe.
And while growler fills are welcomed, Cuzme and Scharfstein like focusing more on the “crowler” business. Those are fresh, clean 32-ounce cans filled and sealed at the tap. These allow the brewery to ensure the beer’s quality once it leaves the taproom. There currently isn’t a kitchen at Fifth Hammer, but guests can order from one of the food trucks typically parked outside the space.
Working with the Homebrewers Guild isn’t the only callback to Cuzme’s former life: Fifth Hammer boasts an upright piano and will soon have a sound system created with musical acts in mind. The build-out didn’t leave Cuzme much time for tooting his horn, and he’s itching for a rollicking jam session. For the past few years, the wood-burned “Brewery & Music House” sign that once hung above 508’s door had been a fixture in Cuzme’s living room. It’s also found a new home, proudly hung at the brewery’s entrance.
Even the brewery’s name itself is a musical reference. The theory goes that Pythagoras discovered harmony and a musical mathematical equation by listening to the hammers of four blacksmiths. For the perfection-seeking Pythagoreans, the four hammers were part of the world order. But there was a fifth hammer that was inharmonious, discordant. That fifth hammer represents individuality and infinite possibility, the dreams behind Fifth Hammer Brewing.