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Something Big is Brewing

At Astoria's SingleCut Beersmiths, locals kick back with selections such as the Mahogany ale.

Something Big is Brewing

Led by Astoria, Queens Is Fast Becoming One of the City’s Top Craft-Beer Destinations.

June 15th, 2013

Daniel Krieger

Photographer

In the world of NYC craft beer, where Brooklyn Brewery and Kelso are household names, Queens was often seen as the dumpy little brother that sis wouldn’t bring to the cool kids’ party. Yet, after years of courageous work from a few pioneers, the borough is coming alive…and in a big way.  Until recently, Queens was a near wasteland for indie brews, but over the last year, four—yes, four—breweries have fired up their kettles, and there’s more on deck. With each passing week, beer geeks have begun reverently whispering a once-unthinkable destination: Queens.

While there was no one defining moment that signaled the turn of the tide, we certainly wouldn’t be here today without the valiant efforts of a few precocious bar owners. One such renegade is Juan Cruz, who took over Sunswick 35/35 in 2005.  A former bar manager, Cruz lost the hotel bar he worked at, and two colleagues, in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Looking to radically switch up his life, he took over a fledgling Astoria bar that had a rare stainless steel draft system with 25 taps (more than half of which were not being used), and started replacing the lines with craft beer.  “It was a shock to the neighborhood to no longer have Heineken or Amstel Light on draft,” he recalls. “One guy confronted me and said, ‘Leave the bar the way it is. What do you want to do, turn this place into Williamsburg?’”

But Cruz pushed on, keeping his prices accessible to the neighborhood. The size of the program, and the passion with which the beer was sourced soon brought new attention. Today, “the Swick” is a neighborhood institution offering beer-geek- enticing promotions like a Belgian Beer Fest and an East Coast vs. West Coast brewery competition. Cruz’s beer list is peppered with rare finds and limited releases only allocated to a handful of top beer destinations, and he is currently working on his next project, Opendoor, a 4,000-square-foot bar and restaurant in Long Island City.

Not far from Sunswick lies Sanford’s Restaurant, opened in 1922 as a coffee shop. Beloved by Astorians, and operating most of its life as a 24-hour diner, it’s owned by brothers Gus and Chris Karalekas, who literally grew up in the space. They morphed it into a seasonal, modern restaurant, and have built one of the most value-driven beverage programs in the city.  In 2002, Gus tried Duvel and Chimay, and there was no turning back. He began building a beer list that today includes almost 50 craft-beer selections, and has plans to soon install a draft system. He has also been collecting and aging large format bottles, ranging from 1.5 liters to the Alice in Wonderland–sized 9-liter. In the early days, Gus recalls, “some people thought I was trying to do something ‘fancy,’ but once I convinced them to just try the beers, they were hooked. Our clientele has gotten younger and more diverse, and they’ve been the ones asking that I carry certain beers. The dynamic has completely shifted.”

In 2011, perhaps a bit ahead of its time, craft-beer bar Alewife—there are two other locations in Baltimore and Cambridge, Massachusetts—opened in Long Island City in a massive space fueled by huge ambitions, offering rare beers and a high-end menu. It struggled. So, in June 2012, Patrick Donagher, a third generation Irish barman who brought prized Manhattan beer bar Rattle N Hum to greatness, took over the project.  “I’m focusing more on the neighborhood now,” he says. “The price points were too high, and the locals weren’t ready for that. I’m concentrating on American breweries and keeping the prices to $5 to $7 a beer. The scene is growing—slowly. But with the opening of SingleCut Beersmiths, it’s been a huge boost. Locals may not know what they’re drinking, but they love that it’s in their neighborhood and they can call it their own. 2013 is the year for local beer.”

Dan Bronson, beverage director at Astoria hangouts Crescent & Vine and the Strand Smokehouse, has also embraced the “eat and drink local” philosophy.  “At the Strand, all of our food and beverages—except our whiskies—come from within 200 miles of us,” he says.

Other key players in the borough’s craft-beer movement—Sweet Afton, the Sparrow Tavern and Astoria Bier & Cheese, in Astoria; Salt & Fat in Sunnyside; Alobar in Long Island City—are offering progressive, ever-changing beverage programs. But it’s the recent opening of multiple breweries that has really captured the city’s attention. SingleCut Beersmiths, Rockaway Brewing Company, Bridge and Tunnel Brewery and Big Alice Brewing were all drawn to Queens for its affordable rents, and are happily finding an eager, local crowd to champion their work.

“When 1,200 people showed up on opening day, it was a shock.  Everyone seemed to be saying, ‘It’s about time,’” says Rich Buceta, owner of  SingleCut Beersmiths, a 30-barrel brewery with a tasting room and live music. Unique among the breweries of NYC, SingleCut is fully embracing the idea of “local,” brewing its full production in Astoria. Buceta notes, “Most NYC breweries claim to be local, but they’re really not—the majority of production happens upstate or in Pennsylvania. This muddies the water for me as to what ‘craft’ really means.” One of the driving mottos for SingleCut is “no compromise,” and that means in everything from ingredients as well as equipment, ensuring that every drop of beer is brewed within Astoria.  SingleCut’s 19-33 Lagrrr! (a 5.4% ABV pilsner) and the Pacific NW Dean Mahogany ale (a 6% ABV American Amber) are now being poured throughout the city. Since opening, seven beers have been brewed, and there are plans to serve five year-round styles and a number of seasonals.

While SingleCut is the borough’s largest of the bunch, three “nan0-breweries” have also recently opened, with more on the way. One, lying behind the iconic Pepsi sign in Long Island City, is Rockaway Brewing Company, led by owners Marcus Burnett and Ethan Long, who began distributing in June 2012.  Burnett, a cinematographer for National Geographic, and Long, owner of a set design and fabrication company, set up a two-barrel system when they found “an old meatpacking plant that was built with many of the amenities we needed for a brewery.” So far, they have made an ESB, a porter and a stout called “Black Gold,” while a Kölsch-style ale is keeping them busy this summer. The neighborhood has embraced them, and “every weekend brings in more locals excited to have discovered us,” Long points out.

A short distance away, Bridge and Tunnel Brewery in Maspeth made its debut last September. Owner and brewer Rich Castagna has been building his one-man operation in small increments at a relative’s workroom. Balancing the demands of a full-time job, as well as three children, Castagna squirreled away equipment whenever he could and over the course of two and a half years he built a 1.5-barrel (55 gallons) system. “I had to really strategize to get the most out of the space,” he remembers. “At times, I disassembled and rebuilt it.  Now, when I see it all performing, it feels great watching each and every part that I wrestled with doing its job.” Castagna, a Maspeth native, says Bridge and Tunnel was destined for its location. “This is where it had to be. The place is in my bones, and I’m happy to now have an outlet to express the character of it all.” Bridge and Tunnel is currently brewing a milk stout with flaked oats called Ol Gilmartin Milk and Oatmeal stout, as well as the Angry Amel Dunkelweizen.

In Long Island City, just up the street from Rockaway, sits newcomer Big Alice Brewing, currently open by appointment only. Co-founder Kyle Hurst—his partners are Robby Crafton and Scott Berger—who works in business development for an air conditioning and refrigeration company (“hardly sexy work, but it pays the bills”), has no immediate plans to leave his day job. “It will be like juggling chainsaws, but I plan on doing both for now,” he says. This is truly nano-brewing at its most nano; brewing on a 1/3-barrel system (approximately five gallons). “This size gives us the flexibility to experiment. We can do things the big boys can’t. Unfortunately, it also means it will take some time to have a significant inventory for a meaningful opening,” Hurst explains. With no intention of putting out the same beer over and over again, Big Alice first brewed a Belgian-American Red Ale made with local organic cheese pumpkin. The second batch was a Belgian IPA made with a fragrant citron fruit, Buddha’s Hand, from California. Upcoming recipes include a Belgian Ale with raisins; a beer featuring 100 percent smoked malt and chiles; and a wheat-based, Gorilla coffee-infused stout.

For a borough that for far too long seemed to be trailing its brethren in Manhattan and Brooklyn, it has now taken the reins.

The Queens Kickshaw owner and craft-beer aficionado Ben Sandler is particularly enthused by the borough’s brewing developments. “I may be doing an all-Queens beer dinner. This is exciting, and not something we would have thought possible when we opened two years ago,” he says.

Well, look at that: Little Brother is all grown up, and it’s his parties that big sister’s friends want to get into. There’s no better time to be a beer geek who calls this borough home.