How Home Brewers Created Their New York
Four years ago, John Hall invited me to perform at a beer festival that was once held by the now defunct All About Beer Magazine. One of the “speakers” was Mary Itzett, who at that time was on a tour in support of her recently published book on home brewing, Speed Brewing. She came to the festival with her husband Chris Kusme, and I had a chance to spend a little time with them. (Those who are familiar with this couple – and there are many of them – know how interesting and charismatic they are, the mention of which involuntarily gives a smile.) In the following months and years, I followed Mary and her husband on Facebook, watching behind how they slowly but surely took their passion for home brewing to the professional level by opening the Fifth Hammer Brewing brewery in Long Island City.
In my memory, this was the first unprecedented example of how home brewers managed to create a successful beer business in this city. Home brewing has always been one of the starting points for many amateur brewers to go into commercial production, but today this scenario is becoming less common as third-generation brewers choose the more traditional career path. The recent increase in the number of new breweries in New York is fully consistent with what is happening in the American beer industry, but for home brewers to stand behind this “surge in activity” – this is a rare occurrence.
A couple of months ago, when I returned to New York, I made a short story for the Beer Sessions with Brett Teyler and Jeff Lyons, two of those home-brewers who went professional. Later, when we were already sitting at Roberta’s and sipping beer slowly, I caught myself thinking that our conversation seemed to be repeating itself: as soon as I called the guys some beer brand and asked about its producer, one of them told me talked about the fact that this is his old friend, who once engaged in home brewing, and then brought his hobby to commercial footing. Brett himself works as a brewer at Fifth Hammer and also runs his own Wild East brewery while Jeff brews beer at Keg and Lantern.
When I later asked Chris about this phenomenon, he gave me an incomplete list of breweries with “connections” in the field of home brewing (the list is incomplete, because I am more than sure that one of the breweries is Folksbier, which I visited and which did not enter this list was opened by a home brewer): Big aLICe, Finback, Grimm, Interboro, KCBC, Keg & Lantern, LIC Beer Project, Other Half, Randolph Beer, Strongrope and Svendale. The list, in my opinion, turned out to be quite impressive and includes some of the big names in the New York beer industry.
Initially, I planned to talk with those who were at the origins of this phenomenon, but life made its own adjustments to my plans. Nevertheless, I received a detailed email from Brett Taylor, and I would like to quote it for a better understanding of the situation. The following is the story of Brett, who talks about the important role of home brewing in the revival of New York’s beer industry. It would, of course, be nice to familiarize yourself with the recollections of other “witnesses,” but Brett perfectly set out his vision of this phenomenon.
“I became interested in home brewing in the late 2000s, when Sixpoint was the most popular brewery in the city. Six months after my immersion in this area, I began to communicate with other enthusiasts like me, from whom I learned that right around the corner of the house in which I was then living, there is literally an important pilgrimage site for amateur brewers. Fritz Fernow is one of those reputable home brewers who has never thought about becoming a professional. He still brews classic styles and uses bitter hop varieties and crystal malt in his IPA. His beer is just perfect. When I met Fritz in 2010, he invited me to his place – he was just cooking Flemish red ale with the addition of oak chips obtained from a barrel in which Russian River Consecration beer was once ripened. In the house of Fritz and his wife Jen, there was an open door policy, according to which the light in their windows meant that you could go into the light.
And people came in. It was there that I met many representatives of the beer industry: both professionals and amateurs. Fritz and Jen have long moved, but for me this place will forever remain a saint of saints in the Brooklyn beer hall. Fritz, for example, was amusing that in winter, in the absence of a kegerator, I kept kegs with my miserable creations on the fire escape outside the window, and to pour beer, I simply opened the window and turned off the tap. The fact is that the apartment in which I then lived was so small that there was no room for a kegerator in it. My home brewing was seasonal, and by spring I usually poured another “masterpiece” into the bottle for secondary fermentation.