Getting Hopheaded in Brooklyn

Shopping

by Tom Acitelli, New York Observer contributor, 10/02/2009

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New York Observer

Erica Shea was on the Chinatown bus from Boston to New York after Thanksgiving in 2008, reading Burkhard Bilger's profile of Sam Calagione, the wort-crusted owner of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, in The New Yorker's food issue. She texted her boyfriend, Stephen Valand, who was visiting relatives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn: “We have to do this.”

Within five months, the couple were in Oslo, Norway, the first stop in their 15-country, seven-week backpacking, CouchSurfing.com European tour. They were searching for beer recipes and ideas that would ferment into the July 4, 2009, opening of the Brooklyn Brew Shop, a retail business of brewing supplies and recipes that enables Brooklyn's growing craft-beer fetish in all of its forms, from purism to absurdism.

Mr. Valand, 23, and Ms. Shea, 25, aren't alone in exhibiting the fiscal moxy that has seized various New Yorkers in this Great Recession: the guts to slough off day jobs-Mr. Valand worked in commercial production, Ms. Shea still does some marketing on the side-and start a business when signs point to "no," and a retail business at that.

But then many of the consumer trends that preceded the recession seem made for one. The Brooklyn Brew Shop certainly fits in well with the do-it-yourself food movement: slow food and organic produce, reusable canvas bags at the Park Slope Co-op and herb gardens in pots on the stoop, the feral desire to place your belly at the mercies of your own ability to scavenge for food and drink.

And to take it languidly; and to enjoy it.

"The nice thing about being there," Mr. Valand said of Europe, "was realizing that not everyone works all the time. And not everyone needs to get or buy anything they want at any hour of the day." Brewing, start to finish, takes a few hours-and then a few weeks of waiting on fermentation and aging. "It helps everyone relax a bit."

But their particular brand of beer enthusiasm also embraces the national, maybe international, movement-for lack of a better term, as it's not particularly organized and, almost by definition, doesn't move in lockstep-pioneered by the likes of Mr. Calagione at Dogfish that says beer doesn't have to fit a particular barley-hops-yeast rubric. It can be what you can imagine it to be.

Like Grapefruit Honey Ale, the Brooklyn Brew Shop's best seller right now. Or a beer that tastes like peach cobbler; or chocolate and maple; or lobster; or, what the hell-change we can believe in!-beer that tastes like s'mores, the graham-cracker-melted-marshmallow amalgam you may remember from summer camp.

These recipes are hatched and alchemized in the more spacious Prospect Heights apartment of Mr. Valand-'My apartment fits nothing,' said Ms. Shea of her Lower East Side place.

Neither was a particular connoisseur before they started brewing.

“I didn't even like beer,” Ms. Shea said over pints of pilsner and pale ale at a Flatiron pub earlier this month. “There were a few beers-I really did like Sam Adams Summer Ale.”

“Blue Moon,” Mr. Valand added.

“Yeah, and Magic Hat.”

“The sort of most accessible …”

“Yeah, people were like, 'Oh, you hate beer? Try this, you'll like it.' I said, 'O.K.' Then I realized I just hadn't been drinking good beer,” said Ms. Shea, a bubblier yin to Mr. Valand's flatter yang. “I got really, really into Belgian beers after that. And now I can't go back.”

“I would usually go to a bar and try to find what I never heard of,” Mr. Valand said. “I wouldn't necessarily remember the next day what it was. I liked good beers but I didn't really know anything about them or where they came from.”

He and Ms. Shea educated themselves intensively, and quickly.

It started a year before The New Yorker-induced epiphany, and again involved, fittingly enough, given the organic nature of beer, a trip home to parental roots. Ms. Shea discovered her father's brewing apparatus-“I was in charge of capping at 12,” she said of her father's hobby, “and drinking all the IBC root beer because he used those bottles.”-and hauled it to New York. They then researched like mad, focusing on the pragmatic side of zymology.

“I definitely came to it more as a recipe thing than as a scientific thing,” Ms. Shea, who likes to cook, said.

“We haven't spent too much time worrying about our pH levels,” Mr. Valand, who likes to clean, said.

“Anything with an -ology, I avoid.”

“I don't think either of us had ever fermented anything.”

The couple has the look of junior faculty in the humanities department at some New England college (they met as film students at Boston University and started dating after graduation). Mr. Valand is spectacled and given to slender neckties; Ms. Shea, to sundresses and scarves. A photo on the Brooklyn Brew Shop site shows them at the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, during their European trip, looking like summering backpackers wearing the best they could haul from the States.

They are earnest in their business approach-you'll find them at the Brooklyn Flea manning a table, milling grains, and chatting about beer with potential customers; they say they only recently reached the point where their doubts about the viability of the shop were extinguished.

Yet, they're breezy in their experimentation. Other brewers, even home ones and those cruising the same quirky edges, may not deem it proper to toss lobster shells into the admixture; or to advise the baking of grapefruit rinds.

Who cares? It works. In a recession. In a city that enshrines its farmer's markets.

“We've never had a sour batch,” Mr. Valand said. “We've never had a batch that's been undrinkable.”

“We've had things that needed to be tweaked,” Ms. Shea said. “Overcarbonation and things like that-nothing that ever went bad.”

“Never one where we've spat it out. If you make beer and you keep it clean, it's always going to be beer. And it might still be better than Budweiser.”

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