My inspiration for the September Session topic came from a recent experience that I had at the North Fork Craft Brewers Festival in Jamesport, NY (Long Island). Only a few years ago I can remember visiting my relatives on the island and bemoaning the lack of local beer. Sure, it was pretty easy to get any of the beers that were distributed on the island (and in fact, there are still some that I can only get in NY that haven’t made it up to Maine yet) but there was basically only one or two breweries that distributed to Long Island bars or were sold in 6 packs. I spent many days drinking “beers-from-other-states” as I enjoyed summer activities there.
I’ve written about local beer before, but yet have had to remind myself several times about what it really means to seek out that local beer instead of the newest, most exciting thing to come from the “other coast.” Living in Portland, ME, I’ve been happy to see the rise of the Maine Beer Co. (mentioned here), and had a chance to talk with the owner of the up and coming Baxter Brewing in Lewiston.
Applying my local enthusiasm, I had a strategy for this LI beer festival. Instead of going straight to Stone and Dogfish Head or Shipyard from Maine, I thought I’d start with the local brews I don’t know… then I’ll go see what the big guys are up to. I didn’t think this would be too much of a problem, so I opened up the brewery list to see what I was in for. Wow – tons of breweries I hadn’t yet met – Barrier Brewing Co, Fire Island Beer Co., Great South Bay Brewing Co., Greenport Harbor Brewing, Long Ireland Beer Co., and Rocky Point Artisan Brewers just to name a few.As I made my rounds, I made a few observations about how these “new guys” were doing. Every one of these breweries were staffed by people who were involved, knowledgeable, and often, owned/brewed or were otherwise involved in the beer’s production. While this wasn’t uncommon, it was notable because they had everyone from brewer’s wives to the guy that cleans the brewery floors, to homebrewing friends willing to lend a hand – all in the name of having a good time and drinking good beer. They’d talk your ear off if you let them (and I did let them, gladly). I think I was most impressed at the strategy that Rocky Point Artisan Brewers (RPAB) took – they actually created a bar with seats for the festival, so you could pull up a stool and they could tell you about the beer. That tactic felt very genuine to me, and their attitude in general almost reflects that of the “slow food” movement.
They didn’t talk about the other guys or why their beer was “better” than anything. They just introduced you, like a good first date. “Here’s my friend, Shelia. You might like her,” became “Here is our Black Lager, casked.” They just discussed why they’re doing what they’re doing, and their hopes and dreams for the future. I think the culture on Long Island may have played a part, but the brewers that were really ground-up, very small were proud of it, and the ones that contract brewed out so they could be distributed seemed a little sheepish to admit it.
To all of them I say – have hopes and dreams, but embrace where you’re at. Even if you contract brew, know that your beer is getting known locally and be comfortable with it. If you’re tiny and can measure your distribution area in city blocks, embrace it like RPAB and use your size to shimmy into new niches.
Because I don’t live on Long Island, it’ll be hard for me to follow up regularly with these brewers and watch their progress. But the struggles that they face are universal – how do you engage a craft beer community in a memorable way? How do you find the right balance of creating excellent beer and getting your word (and beer) out to the public? After talking to these brewers, I think that there is no magical “right” way to do things when starting out as a brewery. So in the end, I have little advice to give except for this – be yourself, geek out about your beer and share your enthusiasm with other geeks like me – the word will get out there.
09/09/10 – Corrected a greivous error on my part where I claimed Shipyard was in NH. Shame on me for messing that up, though I blame the fact that I first had Shipyard beer while living in NH… 😉