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Is East End craft brewing tapped out?

With more than 50 craft breweries spread across Nassau and Suffolk counties, Long Island’s craft beer industry is undeniably hopping. These locales and  their attached tasting rooms offer an array of unique brews — from stouts to pale ales, seasonals and yes, IPAs —  to those seeking a fun night out as or a six-pack of something they can’t get  at the supermarket.

In the past two decades, numerous craft breweries have opened on the East End. While a few have since closed or shifted gears, there are even more home brewers who hope to soon join the party. 

But the regional industry is a different world today compared to 15 years ago, when two powerhouses that are still going strong — Long Ireland Beer Company in Riverhead and Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. — arrived on the scene. They were the only acts in town on the North Fork. Their nearest competitors were Patchogue’s Blue Point Brewing Co. and Southampton Publick House, which stopped selling its own brews at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

(Nicholas Grasso photo)

Since those early days, what feels like countless breweries have opened in the region, especially in Riverhead, a gateway to both forks. Brewers who have always been distributors and marketers are now hospitality and entertainment specialists who depend not only on their customers, but their competitors to build and maintain a vibrant local craft brewing scene. With so many newcomers and changes to the very nature of the game, some are asking whether the industry on the East End and around the nation can continue to expand  or if the bubble is about ready  to burst.

“The discussion on the national level, pre-COVID-19, went from ‘There’s plenty of runway ahead of us’ to ‘It’s a maturing marketplace, and yes, there’s more competition, but don’t worry, you can still make a living ,’ ” said Rich Vandenburgh, a founder and co-owner of Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. and current president of the New York State Brewers Association, a 21-year-old promotional and legislative advocate for the state’s breweries and related businesses. “Now, it’s, ‘Welcome to the world of being just another business out there fighting to survive.’ ”

While it seems only logical to question whether such a saturated industry that has grown from a novelty to a driving force in the local economy can sustain itself, brewers here on the East End recognize the changing tides, but are not sounding any alarms just yet.

“We’ve kind of always had an attitude that a rising tide floats all boats, and that we’re happy to have these neighbors here,” said Dan Burke, who co-founded and co-owns Long Ireland with Greg Martin. “I have my regular customers and I have people visiting the North Fork. They’re not going to just stop and have beer here … They’re gonna bounce around a little bit.”

Regardless of change, exceptional beer remains a brewery’s key to survival. Burke and Martin began learning the tricks of the trade and brewing their own beers at a friend’s brewery in Connecticut and ferried kegs back to Long Island for self distribution. Over the years, Burke  said he and Martin have crafted upwards of 60 brews, including their flagship Celtic Ale and specials such as their Pumpkin Ale and Hooligan Irish Stout. Currently, Long Ireland is for sale, but not because times are tough. After nearly two decades in the industry, Martin hopes to exit the business, but Burke said he will remain involved in its next chapter, which could possibly see new owners dust off some old recipes Long Ireland’s fans have been craving.

“I am super enthusiastic about the future Long Ireland Beer Company, and for a blend of nostalgia and innovation,” Burke said.


Vandenburgh and his partner John Liegey opened Greenport Harbor in 2009, and their first few years in business marked a period of substantial growth. In those days, it was distribution that brought in the big bucks.

“We were distributing throughout Long Island, we were distributing into New York City,” Vandenburgh said. “We agreed to some partnerships where we distributed our beer up to Albany, where there were places where they thought it was a great local New York beer [even though we were] hours away. The number of breweries was growing, not only in the state, but nationally, but we were still considered local within a 600-mile circle, and we enjoyed that; it was great.”

Distribution was especially important during Long Ireland and Greenport Harbor’s early days. For many years, tasting rooms in New York were quite literally for tasting; they could only serve samples of their brews to customers, who could then purchase cans to drink at home. This changed when then-governor Andrew Cuomo signed the 2014 Craft Act, which permitted micro and farm breweries to sell their beers to patrons by the pint. With this law in place, tasting rooms’ profit margins skyrocketed and a welcome wagon was rolled out for more breweries and tap rooms. According to the Brewers Association, a national industry trade group, New York State was home to 75 craft breweries in 2011. That number has since multiplied nearly sevenfold, and by 2022 New York State was home to 504 breweries. .

Experienced brewers and newcomers alike recognize they must keep experimenting with new brews while maintaining brewer-tested, drinker-approved offerings on tap.

“I think it is important to make sure that you have a core lineup that is true and consistent and always available,” Vandenburgh said. “And then you can kind of gamble on the edges, do interesting things that are unique — limiteds, one-offs— but aren’t necessarily going to be the mainstays for you. If you can nail down what that combination is, that’s probably the best recipe for success.”

Like their recipe books, Burke and Vandenburgh have faced growing  competition on  the East End since 2009. Twin Fork Brewing Co., ubergeek (formerly Mustache Brewing Co.), North Fork Brewing Co., Tradewinds Brewing and the recently shuttered Peconic County Brewing, all opened since the 2014 Craft Act was passed — and that’s just in Riverhead. 

As to why brewers flocked there, Burke pointed to former town supervisor Sean Walter and other elected officials, who he described as “pro-business,” as well as an underground secret to success.

“Building a brewery, you want to be in a sewer district,” Burke explained. “For every gallon of beer you produce, you’re producing about eight gallons of sanitized wash water, [including from] cleaning all the equipment … We kind of developed a wastewater management system that all the breweries that have come in after us use. It’s a dilution tank that then bleeds off into the sewer district at a gallon-per-minute, so we’re never overwhelming them.”

By the time brothers Pete and Dan Chekijian opened their Twin Fork Brewing Co. tasting room in 2020, after six-years distributing brews, the nature of a tap room had radically changed. Music defines Twin Fork’s brand, with brews bearing names like the Legato Stout and their flagship Chromatic Ale. The motif is quite appropriate within the East End’s craft brewing scene, in which live music is a key driver of success. For the past several years, industry veterans and newcomers alike have realized they are now in the hospitality industry — whether they set out to be or not. Among countless promotional events, they draw customers and boost tap room revenue through live entertainment, trivia nights, karaoke and hosting fundraisers.

Vandenburgh said public and private events at Greenport Harbor’s Peconic location, such as their popular annual chili cookoff, now generate  “at least 50%” of revenue. For the Chekijians, private events like the bridal showers and rehearsal dinners for which they rents out their space have been a key revenue stream since the  tasting room’s inception. Over at Long Ireland, Burke hosts what he described as “drinking ideas,” including an annual “Pintwood Derby,” a more raucous version of a classic Boy Scout Pinewood Derby.

Each brewery has its share of followers who flock to events or pop in on slower weeknights, but their ranks pale in comparison to the legions who are broadly devoted to craft beer. 

Like punk rock, craft brewing has something of a DIY vibe, and the East End scene is particularly vibrant and successful because it has several venues, all of which local fans and travelers from farther west can visit in a single day.

“They’re not necessarily loyal to a brand, like if your dad was a Chevy guy, you’re a Chevy guy and your kids are going to be Chevy guys,” Burke explained of craft beer devotees. “They’re loyal to the independent nature of the business. We all do different things, but we share customers.”

But zooming out, its clear the sheer volume of breweries has diminished  one sector of many  breweries’ portfolios: distribution.

“We were still having great [wholesale] success on Long Island and in New York City, but year after year, there were more breweries entering the marketplace,” Vandenburgh  explained of his experience in the years after he moved the brewery’s base of operations to Peconic in 2014. “That 600-mile circle of what was considered local started to get smaller and smaller … We were competing with the newer little guys that were starting to pop up in the Albany area and upstate. They were more local than we were. They had a following and may have had a small tasting room, so it was a lot easier for those guys to win the battle for the tap handle in those restaurants and bars than it was for us.”

But other local brewers, including Twin Fork, are still finding broader success.

“We’re actually spreading much farther,” Pete Chekijian said. “My brother is negotiating some distribution contracts in the northern Hudson Valley, up into the Great Lakes area, up in Syracuse.”

While achieving widespread distribution and brand recognition is much harder these days, some home brewers are still frothing with anticipation at the chance to enter the East End scene. Among them is Lindsay Reichart. She and her partner, Gunnar Burke, started brewing more than a decade ago and have  been canning Springs Brewery offerings, including the Lazy Lightning IPA and the Radio Radio pilsner, for two years. After her father retires later this year, she hopes to take over his auto body shop and convert it into a tasting room of her own. She will join Kidd Squid Brewing Company and Westhampton Beach Brewing Co., which opened on the South Fork in recent years. From her perspective, those neighboring establishments “don’t feel like competition.”

“It’s interesting because when we started thinking about this, there weren’t really many breweries on the South Fork,” she said. “The beer culture in Riverhead was still small, and there was Greenport [Harbor] and Montauk [Brewing Company]. Things have evolved … I think having all these different breweries enriches the culture and the respect for these fermentation practices … In Germany, every town has a different brewery that’s doing a different thing and providing a different perspective. I think on the East End, where everything has turned into this fancy Hamptons thing, beer can be this social condenser that is very accessible and really brings people together.”