Bottom Line: America was once the laughing stock when it came to beer, but out from the shadows, craft brewers all over the U.S. have put this country on the map for quality brews. It is these passionate brewers who are blending ancient traditions in harmony with innovation.
Review: WNYC couldn’t have chosen a better moderator than Jimmy Carbone, owner of Jimmy’s No. 43 bar, whose cheerful mantra is all about local food and beer. So when Jimmy introduced Rich Castagna of Bridge and Tunnel Brewery, David Lopez of Gun Hill Brewing, and Celeste Beatty of Harlem Brewery, the audience knew it was in for a treat. Though this talk and tasting discussed beer in 17th and 18th centuries, the personal stories of these brewers were even more fascinating. Similarly to many local brewers worldwide, making beer is a family affair, often deeply rooted in heritage. Drawing inspiration from their backgrounds and life experiences, these beer makers have put their own individual stamp on beer.
David Lopez collaborated with the production team behind award-winning musical Hamilton and created an 18th century-style beer, donating some of the proceeds to Graham Windham Charity from the Bronx. Rich Castagna starting brewing out of his garage in Maspeth before relocating to Ridgewood, Queens. Finally, there was Celeste Beatty whose African roots have also influenced her style of beer.
Many in Europe and the Americas during the 17th and 18th centuries drank ale because of the fear of water contamination. But brewing in the colonies was far from easy with disease and hostile native tribes. Life in the New World also meant that colonists had to make due with local ingredients and often in short supply. Somewhere between trial, error and triumph, they began brewing ale or gruit, according to Rich. Similarly, this evening’s panelists also have used local ingredients and experimented with different recipes. Sometimes, it didn’t go to plan. Rich told the audience how a simple batch had gone terribly wrong, releasing an unimaginable stench and causing him to quickly throw it in the bin.
The beer we sampled, happily told a much different story. Using spruce from Sullivan county and a bit of black molasses, Bridge and Tunnel’s amber rye had a slight fruitiness. Very pleasant with a little bite to it and perfect for a summer picnic.
David’s Rise Up Rye, in contrast to Bridge and Tunnel’s, was lighter in character. Similar to a bière blanche, or wheat beer. He chose to make a refreshing beverage without being too hoppy that appeals to the masses but still preserves the historical style of brewing. Very much like a light pilsner, it would go really well with sushi or a bowl of ramen.
Celeste’s Renaissance Wit beer was truly remarkable. It told a personal story of a young woman who intertwined her family roots in Harlem and North Carolina with her African ancestral heritage. It had a surprisingly smoky bouquet like a beautiful Southern barbecue. The taste had complexity without being over the top. A slight spiciness from the cumin with an orange fruitiness. Smooth and not bitter. She definitely had it on the button. On its own or with a spicy curry, it will be heavenly.
Jimmy and the panelists discussed the future of local breweries. With multinational giants such as AB Inbev who own almost 48% share of the market and has since 2012 snatched up over 200 breweries, craft beer makers can hardly compete. Nevertheless, craft beer sales represented almost 20% of the market share in 2015, reason enough to make mega beer companies nervous.
Craft beer may have entered the mainstream but still has a long way to go. While some like Brooklyn Brewery have moved their breweries to larger facilities upstate, others are vulnerable to larger corporations. Fortunately, brewery guilds, such as the national Brewer Association or New York City Brewers Guild provide local brewers a support network and sponsor beer events allowing them more exposure to the public.
Don’t miss this Wednesday’s final Craft Beer Jam event, New York’s Farm-to-tap Brews.