I’m visiting the incomparable Shmaltz Brewing Co. in Clifton Park, N.Y., this Sunday to talk New York craft beer and its role in the larger American craft beer movement. That got me to thinking: What have been the pivotal moments that have made the Empire State one of the geographic giants of craft beer?
Bill Newman Delivers His Pale Ale
Bill and Marie Newman incorporated their Albany brewery with the state in October 1979. It was not until February 1982, however, that their first beer, a pale ale, debuted. The New York Times described it as “hopped” (with the quotation marks around the adjective). Thus was born the first ground-up craft brewery in the entire eastern United States since Prohibition.
Bill, a budget analyst with the state government, had apprenticed at England’s Ringwood Brewery; and he brought back with him very strong views on not only how beer should be made but how it should be served, insisting on around room temperature for most. (When an amber ale crafted to be served cold began outselling the lukewarm pale ale, Newman tempered his fanaticism about lower temps.)
The Wm. S. Newman Brewing Co. went out of business in the late 1980s under a heavy debt burden. Its brewery in Albany, the first new brewery in New York’s capital in 65 years, became a Bruegger’s Bagels factory—but not before it inspired other New Yorkers to take the flavorful plunge.
Matthew Reich Talks with Joseph Owades
Sometime after the calendar clicked over to the 1980s, Matthew Reich sat down with Joseph Owades in his Boston apartment. Reich was an executive on the business side of Hearst Magazines in Manhattan. He was also what would come to be called a foodie; he taught wine-tasting classes and, more portentously, he had read about the craft breweries opening in the western United States. Why not one in the East? And why not in New York City?
Because of the cost, Owades told the younger man. Owades was one of the best-known consultants in the brewing business, a biochemist who had, among other accomplishments, devised the formula behind light beer. To get around the startup costs of a New York City brewery, Owades suggested contract brewing: renting the excess capacity and labor of an existing brewery to craft a particular brand.
Owades connected Reich with the F.X. Matt Brewing Co. in Utica; and in October 1982, 7,000 cases of a lager Reich called New Amsterdam Amber Beer began hitting the streets. Reich’s Old New York Brewing Co., which lasted into the late 1980s, had brought craft beer to the nation’s largest city and had spawned the idea of contract brewing (though he had never let go of the idea of starting a physical brewery).
Steve Hindy Meets His Neighbor, Tom Potter
On May 13, 1986, Mayor Ed Koch pulled the first tap to mark the official opening of New Amsterdam, the capacious brewpub that Matthew Reich and his partners had built in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. Shortly after Hizzoner did the honors, Reich received two visitors.
Steve Hindy, a journalist, and Tom Potter, a banker, were neighbors in Park Slope, the Brooklyn neighborhood slowly becoming fashionable amongst Manhattan ex-pats. They wanted to ask Reich what Reich had asked Joseph Owades a few short years before: How does one start a brewery in New York City? Reich, wishing to avoid the intercity competition, was not all that forthcoming with advice (though he and Hindy later became good friends).
Undeterred, Hindy and Potter moved forward with their ambitious plans: a ground-up brewery in Brooklyn, the borough of around 2 million that had seen its last brewery, the regional Rheingold, close in 1976. By the spring of 1988, what they called the Brooklyn Brewery was up and running, iconic logo designed by Milton Glaser and all. The operation would become, not incidentally because of the very name, the most well-known and largest independently owned craft brewery in New York State.
F.X. Matt Takes the Gold
It was not until May 1996 that Steve Hindy and Tom Potter were able to officially open their physical brewery in Brooklyn. For the several years before that, they mimicked Matthew Reich and brewed under contract at F.X. Matt in Utica.
The company was one of a dwindling number of regional breweries in the United States, and by the 1980s, around the time it was contract-brewing for the Brooklyn Brewery, it looked like F.X. Matt’s number was up. A headline in the Feb. 6, 1989, metro section of Syracuse’s Post-Standard had this to say about upstate New York’s biggest breweries in an age of rapid consolidation and stylistic homogeneity: “Miller, Bud to Boost Production; Matt Hopes to Survive.”
Then the Great American Beer Festival stepped in. F.X. Matt had entered a beer called Saranac Amber Lager, which accounted for perhaps 1 percent of its sales, in the annual convention’s tasting contests in 1991. It won the gold in the American Premium Lager category, the first gold F.X. Matt had won at the GABF.
The win prompted the brewery to swing its marketing efforts behind Saranac Amber Lager and its other Saranac-branded beers (instead of behind its less expensive non-craft labels such as Utica Club). Sales of Saranac grew steadily. F.X. Matt is still very much around, its pivot to craft in the early 1990s the most prominent of any regional in the nation.
Andrew Cuomo Hosts a Summit
In the last week of October 2012, Gov. Andrew Cuomo hosted New York’s inaugural Wine, Beer and Spirits Summit, a booze-boosting conclave in Albany designed to further what were becoming some of the state’s fastest-growing industries.
The summit typified Cuomo’s craft-beer-friendly approach (though the governor is said to prefer hard liquor). Ideas born of the gathering, including streamlined regulations and stronger marketing, as well as other legislation Cuomo signed that summer, helped grow the number of New York State craft breweries from 40 to 93 in roughly three years (a 133 percent jump); the number of brewpubs more than doubled as well, from 10 to 23.
The actions from Albany in 2012 heralded not only such frenetic growth, but also stamped an official imprimatur on New York craft beer, seemingly for all time. Just last month, Cuomo announced the formation of the NY Craft Brewer Workgroup, which includes Steve Hindy of the Brooklyn Brewery. Its charge? “To continue spurring the rapid expansion of the state’s craft beer sector.”