I grew up in Philadelphia, a city that once boasted 700 breweries in its heyday. While it doesn’t approach those numbers now, Philadelphia has embraced craft brewing in a way no other East Coast city has. The area supports at least 20 small and craft breweries, ranging from America’s oldest beer, Yuengling, to the three-year-old Philadelphia Brewing Company. All those breweries and their brewmasters are very close, sometimes even collaborating on beers, and all are involved in Philadelphia’s annual Beer Week event. According to pints expert Don Russell, who writes a beer column for the Philadelphia Daily News under the nom de plume Joe Sixpack, Philadelphia’s “grown so unified because of our local bar owners, who have always supported local beer. Around here, bar owners drink in each other's bars, and so do the brewers.”
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Brooklyn Brewery is small by any measure of that word. It will never be an Anheuser-Busch, a Coors or a Miller and it presently only produces one-twentieth the amount of beer Sam Adams does annually. Yet in Brooklyn, where to many, small is better, Brooklyn Brewery is starting to seem big and corporate and thus, passé. I definitely know people who seem to prefer other local beers to Brooklyn purely on some sort of unarticulated principle. In other brewing cities, like Denver or Philly, where beer connoisseurs feel the bad guys are the international conglomerates, not the local guys, this would seem unheard of, but not in New York. According to the New York Press, Park Slope bar Union Hall stopped carrying Brooklyn’s beers last spring because, as the bartender puts it, “You can get a Brooklyn in Texas,” so it feels less unique. The same article cites the growing number of other bars in Brooklyn that no longer serve the borough’s namesake beers.
According to Russell, “Drinking in New York is all about what's trendy.” Brooklyn Brewery, which has been around since 1988, is decidedly no longer trendy. Part of its apparently diminished cache can be traced to 2006, when Brooklyn Brewery president and co-founder Steve Hindy publicly expressed support for the controversial Atlantic Yards arena project. Arena opponents organized a failed boycott of Brooklyn’s brews, but in the eyes of many, the brewery came to be associated with the domineering big guys. It was no longer an underdog. Despite the boycott’s floundering, many of the bars that switched away from Brooklyn’s beers never switched back. One argument used to support the change to say, Sixpoint, was that much of Brooklyn’s beers were brewed upstate due to the lack of space for a bottling facility in the city. Sixpoint didn’t sell its beer in bottles or cans until a few months ago (it still doesn’t sell it in bottles), and thus all of its beer was 100% locally made. Hindy says he doesn’t hold it against other brewers for taking advantage of the opportunities the arena incident presented, noting he probably would have done the same thing. For his part, Sixpoint founder and president Shane Welch says of the boycott, “Honestly I don’t think it made a big impact. We didn’t use that as an opportunity.”
The influence image has had in motivating certain drinkers to turn their collective noses up at Brooklyn can be seen in the growing popularity of relative newcomer Kelso. The beer, which is increasingly appearing on taps that once poured Brooklyn’s ales and lagers, is actually made by Greenpoint Beer Works, the same people who make beer for the decidedly corporate Heartland Brewery chain. New Yorkers who would never touch a beer from Heartland, happily order Kelso because most of them have no idea about the connection.
According to Hindy, “In New York, there’s not a real close relationship among brewers because there are not that many of us, and frankly, it has been a hard slog getting started in New York City. More than 20 startups have failed in the past 20 years. Those of us who succeeded had to have laser-like focus on our businesses.” Despite this, Hindy notes that the Brooklyn big three, Sixpoint, Kelso and Brooklyn, do collaborate on political issues. For example, they are presently working to reform New York’s franchise law which currently gives brand rights to distributors, making it extremely difficult for brewers, especially small ones, to switch to a different distributor, even if they are unhappy with the service being provided. Says Hindy, “Realistically, political issues are more important ones for brewers to come together on.” The masterbrewers from both Kelso and Sixpoint were also invited to the February ribbon-cutting at Brooklyn’s newly expanded facility.
Sixpoint, the brewery that has probably benefited the most locally from Brooklyn Brewery’s perceived faded coolness, paints a slightly different picture, asserting that the relationship among New York’s brewers is close. Sixpoint spokeswoman Cathy Erway assures me that there is “a very real affinity amongst craft brewers in NYC, who are a pretty small bunch.” Sixpoint’s president Welch echoes this sentiment, noting his great respect and friendship with New York area brewers. But then again, I didn’t expect them to say, “No, we are out to close every other brewery in the five boroughs.” In fact, Welch made a point of saying, “We have a very strong company mandate: we never say disparaging things about our colleagues, about other brewers.” Erway also cited a recent Greene Space panel hosted by public radio station WNYC, where a representative from Sixpoint joined representatives from Kelso and Brooklyn, as evidence of the beer-makers’ camaraderie. And that’s great, but it still pales in comparison to the frequent joint efforts of brewers in other cities. For the most part, microbrewing and New York are a new pairing; microbreweries and the beer-making culture have plenty of time to evolve. Hopefully that evolution will lead to an environment similar to what one sees in America’s other great beer drinking cities.