The Hophead: Something’s Brewing With New York Locavores

What: Homebrewing

Where: Williamsburg

Why: Because the retail options for buying equipment and ingredients in New York City have multiplied from basically nothing to several in just the last few years, and an entire subculture has sprung up.


On Saturday, Oct. 2, I hoofed it from the Metropolitan stop on the G train (why did I trust that subterranean Dodge…) and texted Josh Bernstein that I would be late for the Brooklyn Homebrewers Tour.

I met Josh in early September in Denver during the Great American Beer Festival. He writes about beer for AOL News, among other places; and has been organizing tours of homebrewers’ lairs for about a year now (cost $25; next one’s likely to be in November). He also has a book coming out next year from Sterling Publishing: Brewed Awakening.

This particular tour would take a group of about two dozen through three places in Williamsburg, each a celebration of a locavore approach to liquid bread that one would not have expected to grow in a megalopolis rarely envied for its extra square footage. Or: How do you brew a commercial-quality craft beer in a small apartment? Answer: quite well.

Josh was waiting outside the first stop, a second-floor walkup on Wythe Street, where Ray Girard, president of the New York City Homebrewers Guild, lives.

Mr. Girard, a trim, 29-year-old native of Western Massachusetts, was a natural introduction to a subculture that may appear at first as opaquely laden with physics, chemistry and microbiology, weighted by its own David Foster Wallace-esque terminology (you ever sparge your wort into a lauter tun?); but that in the hands of someone amiable like Mr. Girard becomes something else entirely. It becomes fun. Math class turns into P.E.

“Little do you know,” Mr. Girard said as his apartment filled with gawkers, “when you buy a significant other or a roommate a kit, you’re going to end up with one of these.” He patted a Whirlpool keezer (keg + freezer, get it?). He was talking about the normal progression most homebrewers take, whether in New York or elsewhere: first comes that virginal ingredients kit that might hold some grains, some malt, a bit of hops, some tubing and a carboy; then comes every means of production, storage and conveyance just shy of Anheuser-Busch.

Mr. Girard’s keezer held five-gallon kegs full of his latest homebrew. He picked up homebrewing from his dad, who did it during the forcibly anarchic ages of the craft beer movement, when amassing supplies and equipment was time-consuming and often frustrating. He moved to Atlanta after college to do photography. He ended up bartending. Then he came north to Queens in one of those an-available-apartment-jump-on-it situations, and has been brewing for a few years now. He runs the homebrewing section of Brooklyn Kitchen.

On this particular tour stop, Mr. Girard was serving a low-alcohol session pale ale (“You can have a bunch during a session,” he explained) and a Belgian ale he made with several ounces of cocoa nibs that he sterilized with vodka. (A bit of beerhead irony: The Whirlpool that made Mr. Girard’s keezer acquired Maytag in 2006. The first modern American craft brewery, Anchor Steam in San Francisco, was saved from going out of business in 1965 by Fritz Maytag, great-grandson of the founder of the former appliance concern.)

After Mr. Girard’s pale and Belgian ales, we took a long walk through sunny Williamsburg to Powers Street, between Lorimer and Union Avenue. There, in another second-floor walkup, we met Dan Pizzillo. Think Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, only much sharper and more coherent—nevertheless, a similar look: the beard, the hair, the ease with life. Mr. Pizzillo’s a software engineer and a regular instructor for Brooklyn Kitchen’s homebrewing classes.

A 29-year-old native of Marine Park, Brooklyn, with a youth spent in Virginia Beach, he had given over a sizable portion of his kitchen to brewing (he served a brown ale that was delightfully hoppier than most you’d encounter). Still, it was not protrusive: the equipment was shelved; the ingredients, too—an entire shelf below the in-wall air-conditioner given over to jars and containers of spices, grains and the like; a keezer, smaller than Mr. Girard’s but still formidable, rested against a wall near the door to the backyard.

Mr. Pizzillo said he plans to keep a friend’s chickens in that mostly concrete yard. The deal is: Mr. Pizzillo will feed the chickens with the leftover grains from his brewing; in exchange, he gets the eggs. Slow food, people. Back to the earth in the backyards of Billyburg…

“I guess I just assumed that it would be really difficult to do it because of the space in my apartment,” said Eva Potter, a Nolita resident and a Web designer with clients in the wine industry. She was standing in Mr. Pizzillo’s future chicken pen. Ms. Potter changed her mind on homebrewing after getting a one-gallon kit from Brooklyn Brew Shop. “It was great; and I thought I screwed it up because there were a few things I knew I fudged on–temperature, I don’t know if I controlled for that…. I thought, ‘This will taste awful.’ I expected the worst batch ever. And another thing was I ended up spilling stuff, so I ended up with half a gallon instead of a whole. I thought it tasted a little on the yeasty side, but it was Belgian trippel so I think it worked. And I thought it was delicious and it looked beautiful. I was happy with it.”

From Mr. Pizzillo’s apartment it was a short hop to one of those achingly roomy Williamsburg factories-turned-artists’ space/living quarters, the sort that are falling almost monthly before the scythe of condo redevelopment. Up a steep set of stairs and behind a door with a sign that read, “Beware Bad Dog,” loomed the multi-level loft of Jon Conner, 39, and Joshua Fields, 31, sculptors who happen to brew 18 gallons of beer at a time in an atmosphere that feels like a Catskills farmhouse. (The building, of course, is up for sale, the fate of its tenants unknown.)  

Messrs. Conner and Fields found their equipment partly through eBay and Craigslist, including a 110-gallon fermentation vat. “Clearly, we’re not brewing with that because it’s too big to be legal,” Mr. Conner, who has been in the loft since 1996, said. “The hope is to maybe use it some day in a professional sense.

“I think, maybe, Josh’s brother-in-law was homebrewing and we tried one of his beers; and we said, ‘Hey, we should just do this’ because we drink a lot of beer.” He and Mr. Fields were serving a saisson (a lighter Belgian ale) and an American pale ale.

I ran out the afternoon drinking that APA with Roy and Theresa Simonson. Older than most on the homebrewing tour, they had heard about it online; driven from their home in Newark, Del., to Trenton; hopped a NJ Transit train; and joined the fun via the trusty subway (though I doubt they took the G). Not a bad way to kill a day.

Mr. Simonson was a Navy veteran, and the couple had settled in Yakima, Wash., after his service. Family and jobs brought them first to Wisconsin and then to Delaware. And Bert Grant brought them to Brooklyn on Saturday afternoon. Grant, who died in 2001, was a fiesty, finicky Scotsman who himself end up in Yakima, where he opened in 1982 what many consider the first brewpub in the United States (a restaurant that serves the beer it makes on site). The Simonsons liked it because Grant enforced a smoking ban. They also liked the beer.

The likes of which made their way cross-country, to the unlikely cramped kitchens and concrete yards of New York.


So You Want to Make Your Own Walkup Studio Ale…

Brooklyn Brew Shop
Founded in 2009 by Stephen Valand and Erica Shea–they were inspired by Burkhard Bilger’s New Yorker profile of Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione–the virtual shop offers ingredients and equipment, but is mostly well-known for its trippy, vibrant kits, which lead homebrewers toward results like Blackberry Red Ale and Pumpkin Dubbel. The kits are available at the Whole Foods on the Bowery.

Brooklyn Kitchen
Taylor Erkkinen, a former construction manager, and Harry C. Rosenblum, a lighting designer opened up in 2006 because, according to a New York Times story, they couldn’t find a place in chi-chi Brooklyn selling “high-quality cookware and other kitchen necessities.” The shop also offers homebrewing classes.

Brooklyn Homebrew
Started two years ago by former chefs Danielle Cefaro and Benjamin Stutz, it remains New York’s only standalone homebrewing supply store, offering a plethora of equipment and supplies–and a nice, yeasty brewery smell due to all the grains! They used to operate out of a front room in their Sunset Park apartment, but in January 2009 opened a proper retail spot at Eighth Street and Third Avenue in Gowanus.

New York City Homebrewers Guild
“Promoting great beer since 1987,” according to its Web site, the Guild has perhaps more than any other group dragged Gotham homebrewing out of the relative Luddite ages. It hosts homebrew contests, holds a monthly meeting every third Tuesday of the month at Burp Castle in the East Village, and just generally celebrates New York bearheadom. and Twitter: tacitelli

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