To Queens Brewers, Community Matters Most
It’s taken 50 years for Queens to start brewing again and it’s back with a vengeance, Thanks to changes in state laws, Queens now has about a dozen microbreweries either pulling taps or getting ready to. On October 13th and 14th, beer enthusiasts from around the city – and country – flocked to LIC Flea for the second annual Queens Beer Festival. Attendees were given a small mug upon entry and the opportunity to drink unlimited samples from roughly twenty participating breweries and distributors.
Less than a century ago, most of Queens was still undeveloped farmland. This rural heritage is reflected in the prevalence of New York State Farm Beers from Queens. Breweries with this certified designation use ingredients that were produced in state.
“Farmhouse is becoming a buzz-word in the beer world,” says Kyle Hurst, co-founder of Big Alice Brewing in Long Island City. “We take our commitment to local agricultural practices very seriously. Local hops, local honey, it’s all from around here.”
Samuel Bosrok of ICONYC Brewing has a similar vision of what it means to be a local brewery, describing a freshly tapped keg of his wet-hopped saison.
“This is a farm-style beer with hops that we literally picked from a farm on Long Island,” he exclaims, pouring me a second glass. “It doesn’t get any more farm-y than this!”
For the Queens beer community, localism extends beyond the product. To Scott Rubel, president of Queens bottle sharing and home-brewing collective Brewstoria, beer and philanthropy go hand in hand. With support from Brewstoria’s rotating membership, Rubel has held fundraisers, funded scholarships, and hosted food and clothing drives. Most recently, Brewstoria raised over $25,000 to aid hurricane victims in the Caribbean.
Queens is one of the most diverse places on earth. Vivek Baliga spoke with me about 1947 Lager Company and its focus on bringing South Asian consumers into the craft beer market.
“Our whole marketing team is South Asian, and that’s our target market. Indians are the fastest growing immigrant group in the United States, and one of the fastest growing industries in America is craft beer, so we thought this was a great opportunity to share something we love with people from our background. Our beer is an all-barley lager that is both complex and accessible.”
Queens is full of stories, and so is Rich Castagna, the affable mastermind behind Bridge and Tunnel Brewery. Castagna, who was born and raised in the borderlands between Brooklyn and Queens, began brewing in his Maspeth garage over ten years ago.
“If you’re not doing it by hand, you’re doing it wrong,” he emphasizes. When I ask if he has any formal training, he laughs. “Not really, man. My background is scattered; I’m self-taught with everything. I built all of this myself in my house – it’s a wild ride but I’m proud and patient. My wife is patient too,” he chuckles.
Castagna uses beer as a conduit for telling tall tales. As I sample B &T’s Honey Maple Gruit, he tells me what he calls “the B-side to Thanksgiving”, a story about how, in 1642, a group of English settlers left comparatively-crowded Manhattan to seek out green pastures in what is now Maspeth, Queens. Castagna’s recipe is historically accurate as well. He uses barley, corn, rye, wheat, honey and maple syrup as the beer’s grain bill, and utilizes spruce tips and period-specific hops for a historically accurate flavor profile.
For Castagna, staying local is key to his work. “Our brewery in Ridgewood is on Wyckoff Avenue. I was born down the street at Wyckoff Hospital. It’s funny how things come full circle.”
Before heading home, I stop at newly christened Fifth Hammer Brewing to enjoy a final beer with brew-master Chris Cuzme, whose approachability and generosity were striking to a first-time visitor.
“It’s amazing to have this much support from local drinkers and brewers. We’re all in this together. We don’t compete, we collaborate. How do you like that coconut stout, huh?”