(L to R) New York Distilling Co.'s Potter, Kings County Distilling Co.'s Austin, Brooklyn Brewery's Hindy, Brooklyn Oenology's Shaper and Sixpoint Brewery's Welch
At the inaugural Craft Beverage Expo in San Jose, Calif. last month the best example of how the concept of “craft” has evolved across beer, wine and spirits could be found nearly 3,000 miles away.
The borough of Brooklyn, N.Y. enjoyed the spotlight as a microcosm of sorts for the grander artisanal movement sweeping the nation (and the world) in the conference’s opening session: “Craft as Community—A Brooklyn Case Study,” led by Brooklyn Brewery co-founder and president Steve Hindy.
Joining Hindy were Nicole Austin, master blender at Brooklyn-based King’s County Distillery; Tom Potter, who co-founded Brooklyn Brewery with Hindy and is now president and co-founder of the borough’s New York Distilling Company; Alie Shaper, founder, president and winemaker at winery Brooklyn Oenology and Shane Welch of Sixpoint Brewery.
The whole notion of a “craft community,” especially in Brooklyn, didn’t exist when Hindy and Potter were starting up in 1988.
“In the very beginning, it was actually a little bit lonely,” Hindy said. “There was no craft community that I knew of in the late ’80.
What’s more, the very ideas of hosting beer pairing dinners in the vein of wine dinners and “buying local” were foreign concepts.
“It seems like an obvious thing to do now, but if you go back 25, 30 years ago, these were revolutionary ideas,” Hindy pointed out. “Things like greenmarkets—there were no greenmarkets in New York city in the ’80s. “The connection of beverage with a sense of locality, with an artisan producer movement, those things were still new in the 1980s and early 1990s.”
It really wasn’t until the past decade that the local/artisanal scene really started to pick up steam in Brooklyn, not to mention the rest of the country. Sixpoint’s Welch suggested that things may have accelerated with the help of the most unlikely of factors: the financial crisis of 2007/2008.
“I did see a larger [craft] eco-system come in to play,” said Welch, who co-founded Sixpoint in 2004. “The tipping point was when the financial markets melted down. People realized we had to be more self-sufficient. We couldn’t just import everything. [It got to] the point where Brooklyn became the epicenter of cottage industries.”
And, if beer could be produced in such a setting, why not wine, thought Brooklyn Oenology’s Shaper, who founded the winery in 2006. “There’s no reason a winery can’t exist in a city, so why not New York?” she thought. “Brooklyn, in particular, was really alive with the locavore movement in New York City…To me, it made the most sense to stick a winery in the middle of the most populous scity and bring the grapes to us.”
In the spirit of locavorism, Brooklyn Oenology sources its grapes from New York State growers.
A little later to the scene has been craft distilling, but it’s already become a cottage industry unto itself in the borough.
“Craft distilling was coming later when that eco-system was already mature, and in some ways already beginning to play itself out,” recalled Austin, noting that Kings County got its license in April of 2010, becoming the first legal distillery in New York City since Prohibition. “Every year people keep saying [it’s saturated or played out] and we just keep proving how not true that really is.
Sure, there’s competition, but that competitiveness is balanced by the sense of community, she added.
“That density’s a good thing,” Austin said. “Having successful craft beverage producers of every stripe helps everybody…I absolutely feel that if I wasn’t in Brooklyn, I wouldn’t be nearly as far along on that road to success.”
So how does this community of craft continue on that road?
“If you’re small, if you’re artisan and craft, you have to be distinctive, you have to be different,” stressed New York Distilling Co.’s Potter. “You need to be looking to do things that stretch a style or reintroduce a forgotten style. We want to be able to be available in places that will enjoy us all year.”