A Visit to Brooklyn Brewery

The first time I went to Brooklyn Brewery was with Colleen for an monthly event they hold called “Funny Story,” where comedians, authors, radio hosts, etc. share their comical tales with a group full of people enjoying a pint. After the stories were done, Colleen and I dallied a bit, looking at plaques that detailed the Brewery’s history and involvement with Milton Glaser of I ♥ NY fame. A couple approached us asking if we wouldn’t mind taken a picture of them in front of a wall of boxes, and in return we scored a couple of drink tokens. Today, not having much else to do, I decided to make use of these tokens to check out Brooklyn Brewery’s saisons and take a tour.

speakerUnfortunately for me, Brooklyn Brewery is undergoing a major expansion right now, leaping from America’s 30th largest craft brewer to 20th largest. Therefore, most of the brewhouse was off limits and the tour was confined to one room with a bottle labeler and many conical fermenters. A tour guide perched atop a step ladder addressed us over a PA system to compete with the din of running machinery. Not much was atypical about the tour — hops and malt were passed around, the brewing process was discussed, etc. — but what really stood out was the brewery’s history.

The brewery was started in 1988 by a banker, Tom, and a war correspondent, Steve. They found the cheapest space in Brooklyn they could (which in the 80s happened to be in Williamsburg) and started contract brewing out Utica, NY. That contract is still in effect and Utica produces 90% of their product, but with the new expansion that will be down to 45% with the rest moving into the Brooklyn brewhouse. The neighborhood was cheap at the time because it was dangerous. They had an early run-in with the mafia who demanded that several fictional employees be added to payroll so that they could be cut in on the profits. At they time they were also dealing almost entirely in cash and storing their profits in a safe in their offices across the street from the bar. They were twice robbed by one trio in ski masks who made off with $30k the first time and $20k the second.

barrels

Not all was misfortune and woe unto the Brewery. They were able to resist the mafia pressure, the mafia deciding that the Brewery would be good for the neighborhood (apparently something they cared about more than lining their own pockets). Also, they were able to get Milton Glaser onboard to design their logo despite only being able to pay half of his fee and having a completely different aesthetic in mind than he did. How did they manage that? Through the power of beer, of course.

After months of pestering Milton’s office, they secured a 15 minute appointment with him. They pitched their brewery and idea for the logo and asked for a 50% discount in the first minute. Milton said no. Tom and Steve asked if Milton might like to share a beer with them. Four hours later, Milton had agreed to design the label under the condition that his contract guaranteed him free beer for life. And it does. Milton Glaser turned 84 last month.

fermenter

Milton also, in fact, named the brewery. Steve had wanted to name the brewery Brooklyn Eagle Brewing after a defunct, pre-prohibition newspaper. Milton, knowing a bit more about branding than Steve, simplified the name down to Brooklyn Brewery at the same time that he simplified the logo down to the iconic B. Steve had previously asked for many different visual elements to reference Coney Island and other Brooklyn landmarks.

I tried two saisons while I was there: Sorachi Ace and Radius. My choice of style was guided by my post-move homebrewing plans. I have previously only had a sample or two of the style and thought now would be a good time to get a bit of a better acquaintance.

The Sorachi Ace was a character, opening up with a strong and sweet banana flavor that stayed on the palate until the finish. A grainy and peppery note begins shortly after the banana and helps the beer finish dry despite a smooth, full body. Hop bitterness was moderate to low, and seemed to slightly increase over the course of the beer. The finish also lost some dryness as I continued drinking. I couldn’t identify any kind of hop flavor or aroma, as the yeast sat firmly in the driver’s seat. In the soft light of the Brewery, the color ranged from bronze to illuminated gold.

The Radius was much more toned down. Unlike the Sorachi Ace, it had a persistent head that left thick lacing on the plastic glass in which the taphouse serves their pours. It was hard to identify a particular dominant flavor other than the general sort of character of Belgian yeast. I reached for melon or pear, but could make a connection to anything definite. There was also some sort of spiciness or zesty character. It was pleasant and I’d gladly have it again, but there was nothing particularly notable about the beer. If it weren’t for the fact that I have had few Brooklyn Brewery beers that I felt passionate about, I probably would pass over it in favor of exploring further into their portfolio.

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