So You Wanna Be A Micro Brew Star

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As a society progresses, so must its beer. Thankfully, there is no shortage of microbreweries on Long Island offering a beer experience beyond cold-activated color changing cans.

Born in basements and garages, with and without spousal approval, homespun ale artistry on the island often froths forward from conversations over really bad beer — the kind of beer one spends $10 for a 30-pack while in college. Those initial conversations about the betterment of the drinker’s personal beer world sometimes morphs into a far grander dream to bring beer brewed with care to the masses.

The local brew master’s tale runs a common thread, from fledging startups like Barrage Brewing Co. in East Farmingdale and Greenport Harbor Brewery Co. to the crown jewel of Long Island microbrewery success stories, Blue Point Brewing Company in Patchogue. All breweries start as mere dreams; then with equal measures of hard work and dedication, plus every ounce of capital available, they become brick and mortar microbreweries.

However, it is no easy task and successful brewers warn against foolhardy vanity projects where the proprietor merely wants to slap his likeness onto a beer bottle.

BarrageBrewingLogo_FinalOL1
Photo: Barrage Brewing Logo

“Don’t do it,” said Stephen Pominski, owner of Barrage Brewing Co. in East Farmingdale. “If you have a lot of money, like a nest egg of millions of dollars, I say give it a shot. But the average working guy should keep his operation small.”

Pominski, who has a full-time job aside from brewing, began his quest for beer purity in 2008 when he brewed a small batch of suds in his garage for friends. After passing the initial taste test, Pominski decided to take the plunge and bottle his brew. Financed with savings and investments by relatives, as well as a successful $18,000 Kickstarter campaign, Pominski’s brewery faced many obstacles on its way to bottling brew and filling growlers.

Zoning issues prevented his first location choice, Freeport, from coming to fruition. Through his location search, Pominski faced landlords who didn’t want fumes; sewers that proved inadequate; and town officials who thought a brewery would turn into a drunken party headquarters. He finally found an ideal location in East Farmingdale in 2012, but the hardships continued.

First, Hurricane Sandy blew through, taking National Grid’s attention and delaying the installation of a gas line for six months. Then, Suffolk County officials said his sewer lines were not up to code — a restoration project that cost Pominski $17,000.

“There are so many underlying costs associated with this, things you would never think about,” he said. “But my passion for it is still there. Just like chefs, brewers are artists. We make something out of nothing and when we are recognized for it, there is no better feeling.”

And despite the obstacles, the brewery scene is overflowing with aspiring beersmiths. According to U.S. Census Bureau data released in July, the number of breweries in the nation more than doubled — from 398 to 869 — between 2007 and 2012. On Long Island alone, brewery growth has been phenomenal — from five microbreweries in 2008 to 15 as of this year, according to the New York State Liquor Authority.
Clearly, passion outweighs risk when it comes to craft beer creation.

Photo: Greenportharborbrewing.com
Photo: Greenportharborbrewing.com

Another do-it-yourself brewery based on the island, Greenport Harbor Brewing Company., was born out of the combined passions of co-founders Rich Vandenburgh and John Liegey. The pair met in college and admit to spending way too many nights drinking cheap, bottom of the barrel beer. The plan to brew their own was a simple solution to a complex problem.

“The idea was based on the simple business plan that if we owned our own brewery, we would never have to buy beer again,” said Vandenburgh. “Eventually the stars aligned and we found an old firehouse for sale in Greenport. It was perfect. God was telling us something. He was telling us, ‘beer.’”

“The larger beer companies didn’t represent what we wanted to drink,” added Liegey. “We wanted to brew beer that would bring people to us, rather than satisfy someone else’s definition of beer.”

Greenport’s purveyors credit Long Island’s craft beer explosion to the same line of thinking that has elevated local wine and cuisine — people want farm-to-table freshness delivered with originality and quality control.

“People are much more interested in where their food comes from, where their wine comes from,” said Vandenburgh. “Anything local enjoys a second look. Maybe someone doesn’t think they like craft beer, but then they have our Black Duck Porter because it’s local and they have an epiphany.”

Thanks to a newly minted second location, Greenport Harbor hopes for more beer epiphanies. After months of anticipation — and plenty of roadblocks — Greenport opened a brewery in Peconic in July. Though the original location will remain open and fully operational, the new spot will eventually feature the company’s popular brews, a beer garden, food, outdoor seating and live music.

Liegey said Greenport’s second brewery puts the company in a position to scoff at the banks that denied loan requests during the early days.

“We were turned down by every bank in the state and I live to remind them of that,” he said.

While the goal of brewing remains creating unique beer for the people, sticking it to bankers and naysayers is what one might call a fringe benefit. Craft beer artists want to brew a product so iconic and noteworthy that it becomes the only job they need to have, and all day jobs, side jobs and odd jobs can be tossed aside like yesterday’s spent grains and hops.

Photo: Craftbrewingbusiness.com
Photo: Craftbrewingbusiness.com

Such success was realized by Blue Point Brewing Company, the golden chalice in the Long Island craft beer industry. The first microbrewery on Long Island, Blue Point debuted in 1998, long before the scene fully fermented into what it is today.

“Our beginning was a grassroots effort based on guerrilla marketing,” said Mark Burford, who co-founded Blue Point with Peter Cotter. “We did it by ourselves, going bar to bar. There was no east coast micro-brewing scene to speak of.”
More than 15 years later, the scene exploded and Blue Point was purchased by Anheuser-Busch on the strength of its more than 40 beers. The sale caused some purists to scoff, but Burford said the sale will not change the recipe or location of its beer, but will inject a seemingly endless amount of resources into Blue Point.

“Now we are better funded than we ever dreamed of being,” said Burford. “As for the beer, it will only get better. We still maintain 100 percent say in the beer.”

Blue Point’s staggering success serves as a reminder to all brewing fanatics that society has indeed progressed beyond low-grade water substitutes disguised as beer.

This is what Stephen Pominski of Barrage Brewing Co. believes. As he continues to establish his own facility, Pominski looks to Blue Point, Greenport Harbor and other accomplished breweries for inspiration and his own taste of the brewery dream.

“I’ve made friends with guys from every brewery on the island,” he said. “You have got to pick the brains of the successful guys. Not just about the physical brewing, but every aspect of the scene.”

Anyone interested in making their life all about the beer would be well served to attend the seventh annual International Great Beer Expo at Belmont Park Racetrack on Nov. 8. The biggest names in international brewing will gather indoors on the concourse of the racetrack, offering beer tastings that will showcase more than 50 breweries from all around the world.

There will be two beer tasting sessions — the first from 12:30 to 4 p.m. and the second from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Check out www.greatbeerexpo.com/nassau for more information and to purchase tickets.

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