Long Island beer brewers know there’s strength in numbers

Long Island Craft brews
BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Long Ireland Beer company owners Greg Martin and Dan Burke hope to start brewing in 6 to 8 weeks in their building on Pulaski Street in Polish Town. They bought all their equipment on eBay from the Pennichuck Brewing company in New Hampshire. They now have in place four 900 gallon and one 600 gallon fermentation tanks.

Long Island’s commercial beer brewers all know one another, and they all live by an unwritten code. One, there are no secrets in brewing. Two, don’t sacrifice quality. And three  — and this is the most important rule — when you’re out selling your product, never knock a local competitor’s tap from a bar’s draft line.

“My partner went into a bar and they liked our beer,” recalled Greg Martin of Long Ireland Beer Company. “My partner said, ‘What beer would we be replacing?’ The guy said Blue Point Winter Ale. So my partner says, ‘How about the Bass Ale?’

According to Mr. Martin, the bar owner sent them packing; he didn’t like being told how to run his business.

“But Blue Point is still a small company like us,” Mr. Martin explained. “We don’t want to hurt these guys. We’ll never go back and ask for a local competitor’s line; we just won’t. Most of the guys have that respect.”

In other words, if the local brewers are going to compete against big national and international brands, they have to stick together. And if one starts cutting corners in the brewing process or steeply undercuts his neighbors to try to make a splash at the bars and restaurants, they’ll all end up losers.

It’s clear the craft beer industry is coming to a frothy head here. The beers of Long Ireland, Greenport Harbor Brewing and Blue Point Brewery can now be found in bars, restaurants and beer retailers across Suffolk, Nassau and New York City, with Blue Point, founded 13 years ago and the oldest local brand, now competing with national brands.

Based in Riverhead, Mr. Martin and his partner, John Burke, sold their first keg of Long Ireland in March 2009. After only two years of having their beer brewed in Connecticut, they’re almost set to open an 8,600-square-foot brewery and tasting room in Riverhead’s Polish Town.

The Greenport Brewery, which opened on Carpenter Street in 2009, is also under construction as it undergoes an expansion and renovation. On Tuesday, two new 30-barrel fermentation tanks were installed. Soon a new, large tasting room will be opened on a previously empty second floor.

There are at least another 10 breweries of varying size on Long Island, mostly in Suffolk County, with more in the works, including on the North Fork, said D.J. Swanson, head brewer in Greenport.
Mr. Swanson feels there’s strength in numbers.

“I always compare it to the wineries,” he said. “If there’s one winery, who takes it seriously? But if you’ve got 40 wineries, now you’ve got wine country. So I don’t think more breweries is a bad thing, so long as everyone is serious about the quality. When someone jumps into it just to make money, and sacrifices taste, then that would just ruin the local product for everyone.”
So why the sudden thirst for pricier craft brews, especially in the midst of a recession?

More and more consumers like their beer from the tap, and a lot are taking theirs in glass jugs called growlers, which they can bring to a beer and soda distributor to have filled. Because most fledgling breweries do not sell in bottles or cans, they are benefiting from the growing preference for those hefty draft pours.

Mr. Swanson said about half the Greenport company’s sales is through growlers, which has accelerated the business’ reach to the west, where the popularity of growlers has skyrocketed. “Duane Reade is selling growlers [in Brooklyn],” he said. “The WholeFoods are. The local thing is really starting to jump when drugstores are selling growlers; it’s reaching that critical mass of people really starting to get it.”

It was only a short time ago when craft brews were hardly noticed, said Joe Hopp, a retiree and home brewer from Wading River who is a member of the 100-person-strong Brewers East End Revival, a club whose members meet regularly and compete for prizes with their brews.

In the mid to late 1980s, he added, the first good beers that started to show up locally were Brooklyn Brown and Pale Ales, Pete’s Wicket and New Amsterdam. “All three brands seemed to hit the stores at the same time and really started to change the market,” he said.

Still, Budweiser ruled Long Island, with the occasional Heineken or Canadian import mixed in. Things really started to change in the mid-2000s, he said.

“It picked up four or five years ago and all of a sudden started to soar,” Mr. Hopp said of his brew club’s membership. “I would just attribute it to the craft brew market expansion. People are now exposed to better beers, and you can’t get too enthused about making beer if you drink Budweiser.”

Several club members have since gone professional, he said, including Peter Cotter, a Blue Point co-founder.

Making the jump from hobbyist to professional is probably the most common path for brewery founders. They have to start small, he said, before building infrastructure and taking on the biggest marketing challenge: bottling.

“Bottling lines are really involved and expensive. You’ve got to start dealing with New York State and deposit laws; it opens a whole new can of worms,” Mr. Hopp said. “But any full size brewery has real high startup costs, and you have to start brewing beer people want in a hurry. And you have to be able to consistently produce beers, because if someone buys a beer and likes it and buys it again and it’s not the same taste, you’ve lost them. So you better have your brewing down or hire a professional — but that costs a lot of money.”

Mr. Swanson, who started as a hobbyist, said one of the biggest challenges facing breweries is having the capital to grow. “The price of success is that we have to keep buying more cooperage, more kegs, more tanks, and it’s a boatload of cash,” he said. “But really the hardest job is getting someone out there, beating down doors, talking about the brand.”

Owners and salesmen have to hustle to get their company’s beer onto a bar or restaurant’s draft line, he said. Hence that code of honor.

“The tap situation is this,” Mr. Martin explained: “Unless someone’s installing a brand new bar or draft lines, somebody has to come off for us to go on. In the past, there were companies who would offer a deep discount or a free keg to get on the line and try to hold the space; we’ve never fallen prey to that. We always felt that if someone couldn’t invest the money to give us a shot, maybe that wasn’t the best place for our beer.”

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