Should you need an indication of the power of Twitter, then consider this. Two weeks ago, when using the medium to brag about an upcoming visit to New York, I expected only a few ‘you jammy sod’ replies (90% of Twitter being pompous self-promotion, after all).* What I didn’t expect was a reply suggesting I get in touch with Jimmy Valm, Production Manager at the Brooklyn Brewery, and arrange a look around their facility. Turns out, Jimmy cut his brewing teeth in Edinburgh, and although our paths didn’t cross while he was here, he was more than happy to show me and my long-suffering girlfriend around. So, thanks to Twitter (and @NuStu in particular), she ended up taking this fantastic photo of me approaching the Brooklyn Brewery.
* The other ten percent of Twitter content is roughly split between One Direction and hackers.
Situated in Williamsburg (a district so überhip, it makes Shoreditch look as cool as a retirement community in Hertfordshire) the brewery operates from a building that was previously a steel foundry. We met Jimmy in the offices upstairs, before heading down to the bar area to begin the tour. Lined with old posters and advertising campaigns, the walls act as a Brooklyn Brewery timeline – with pride of place being given over to Milton Glaser. Not one of the founders, Milton instead designed the ‘B’ logo (his most famed work being I ♥ NY). The Brooklyn B has to be one of the most instantly recognisable brewery symbols, and it was fascinating to see the initial sketches co-founder Steve Hindy sent over to Milton, trying to explain what he was after.
In 2010, the brewery had outgrown the foundry building, and needed to urgently acquire more real estate. As commercial property prices tumbled in the wake of the recession, Brooklyn were able to purchase surrounding warehouses and knock through into one enormous brewery. The $6m expansion enabled the company to continue growing, and came just at the right time. Today, the main building handles all of their large bottle releases and small batch series beers, with another warehouse over the road housing the distribution side of the business. All of their ‘core’ bottled beer – the regular-sized Brooklyn Lagers, and the like – are still contract brewed by FX Matt in Utica.
Contracting these bulk brews to upstate New York is still a necessary evil for the Brooklyn Brewery – they simply don’t have the capacity to produce everything at their home site, even with the expansion. Despite this, they really want to be a part of the local community. The tap room – which, surprisingly to me, is only open Friday-Sunday – gets phenomenal numbers of visitors (Jimmy told us that the queues begin outside half an hour before the doors open). They run a token system, so a small merchandise window near the entrance sees plenty of traffic, as people file through and exchange their money for plastic beer chips. With around ten taps, and a full fridge behind – every brewery should be able to have an on-site bar. I bet the staff love it – can you imagine finishing a day’s work in the office upstairs and heading down for a beer before going home?
Despite being a fully working brewery, the building has plenty of interesting, designer-y touches for visitors. For a while, they have asked people to donate old Brooklyn-area beer bottles for their display (of which, this photo is only a small part). Construction workers often uncover these embossed glass bottles when digging up old buildings, and then send them to the brewery. Before prohibition decimated the industry, there were dozens of small-scale, local breweries in the borough. It’s hard to see, but the bottle on the left has the Star of David stamped onto it, indicating it was from a turn of the century Jewish brewery. Now, the US craft beer revolution is in full swing, and Brooklyn has several breweries – but, sadly, will never have the variety of those older times.
Some of the ‘small’ fermenting vessels in place at the main doors of the facility. In October of this year, Brooklyn installed eight colossal 250 barrel fermenters (over twice the size of the ones pictured here). It was a mammoth operation, with engineers from Germany on-hand to supervise, and then install, the new equipment. That process is still ongoing, and they are scheduled to begin using the shiny gear over the next couple of weeks. Following the warehouse expansion, the new FV’s are the final part of the push to get brewery production up to as higher level as possible – 100,000 barrels a year. Those new tanks are simply huge – about 30ft tall – and seen close up, they dwarf everything else.
Jimmy pointing at the current brewing gear, with the original brewing kit behind us. The smallest set up – which is still pretty hefty – is used to create their Brewer’s Reserve series of beers, and other short run releases. The main kit is fully automated, with a series of monitors controlling every aspect. Having just spent a day brewing in Ayr, and climbing into the copper to scoop out spent hops with my bare hands – I can see the appeal of clearing everything with the push of a button. Evin O’Riordain* once told me that he would hate to become fully automated at the Kernel, as he’d lose that connection with the brewing process. But, after a while it simply becomes impractical to send someone into the tank with a shovel (even if they are a blogger, willing to do it for nothing).
Over the road, alongside all the packaging and distribution, is the barrel room. At the start of our tour, brewmaster Garrett Oliver wandered over to us – “You gotta show them the barrel room, Jimmy” he said, so over the road we went. The smell inside was amazing. Sweet, soft wood and whisky, tannin, molasses – it would make the perfect car air freshener. Brooklyn get almost all of their barrels from the Woodford Reserve distillery in Kentucky, and age their stronger beer – such as their Imperial Stout, Black Ops – in the whiskey barrels for several months. Some are also soured with Brett, and sit there, quietly absorbing and enhancing, while everything else goes on around.
Not surprisingly, that made us really want a beer – so, we locked up the barrel room, and headed back over the road to the bar. Garrett was there, having nonchalantly opened a bottle of Pliny the Elder for people to try. We had previously peeked inside the hop store, which doubles as his beer cellar – all kinds of dusty things were there, ready to be shared out. As good as Pliny is – and it is very good – the Brooklyn beers we then sampled were just as tasty, such as the wonderful 9% DIPA Brooklyn Blast, or the brand new Brewmaster’s Reserve release, There Will be Black (a 7.5% American Black Ale). Also, unexpectedly, we got to try Dial M for Mild – which is a style I never thought I’d be drinking in New York.
Other treats that we got to sample included their Weisse, which was soft and delicate, and the latest Brooklyn saison – Radius, which at 4.8% was similarly floral and light. Jimmy explained their philosophy, which is to get flavour into beers without making tastebud-pummelling hop bombs that many other American brewers produce. I’ve always thought that Brooklyn beers are all about the balance – even the 9% Blast was firm but not overstated, and tasted fantastic as a result. It was great to stand there and chat for a while, as the employees milled around, having a beer at the end of their shifts.
With that, we let Jimmy clock off after a day’s hard work, and headed out. As we were leaving, he suggested we cross over the road and visit the roof-top bar of a neighbouring boutique hotel. Just as he said, the views over to Manhattan were amazing, and we had a couple of Brooklyn EIPA’s in true style. The Brooklyn Brewery aren’t sitting on their laurels following the recent expansions and new tanks – next in line is an on-site restaurant for dining and food pairing lessons, with a planned roof-top bar of their own. Just before they signed the deal on the expanded premises, the possibility of having to relocate to New Jersey was a very real option. Everyone in Brooklyn should be glad they managed to stay where they are – as without them, Brooklyn would be a very different place.
Many thanks to Jimmy, Garrett and everyone at the Brooklyn Brewery for being so hospitable.