A conversation with Erica Shea and Stephen Valand of Brooklyn Brew Shop.
From around the house projects to gourmet gifts, DIYs have been proof of our never-ending sense of satisfaction when we say the words, “I made this!” So it was only a matter of time before alcohol came into the mix, and the idea of brewing your own beer was born. For the last few years, Brooklyn Brew Shop‘s Erica Shea and Stephen Valand have been turning out beer making kits that can be made in your own humble abode. Since its debut, these kits (which are seasonally inspired and change throughout the year) have produced such unique combinations as Chocolate Maple Porter, Grapefruit Honey Ale and Jalapeno Saison. ACQTASTE met up with the dynamic duo to talk about their brand, its expanding empire and the craft beer scene – while enjoying some homemade brews of course.
Beer making kits
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WHEN DID YOU GUYS FIRST START THE BROOKLYN BREW SHOP AND HOW DID THE IDEA COME ABOUT?
We first started in July of 2009 out of the Brooklyn Flea, which is just around a mile that way. It’s a great little artisan market – I used to go there for records every week, pick stuff up. And we were at the time making beer in 5-gallon batches, which is the only way you could really do it at that time. If you were getting a beer kit, it was going to be a 5-gallon glass carboy; it’s essentially a big glass jug. Erica lived in the Lower East Side right over the bridge, and we couldn’t brew at her apartment, because she had a really small kitchen, smaller than this table basically. So we scaled it down so we could brew in both of our apartments and so she could lift it, because 5-gallon batches are heavy. The glass carboy itself is already kind of heavy – then fill it with 5 gallons of beer and it gets really heavy. And hernias run in my family so I wasn’t looking to test the fates. There was nowhere to buy beer-making ingredients or equipment in New York City, which we found a bit strange considering how there’s a thousand of everything to begin with. So we basically got pieces; there were some we had to saw down by hand because they just didn’t exist on this scale, and we put them together as kits and it turns out people were into them; even people who didn’t have small apartments. So we quickly started shipping all over the country and then we started selling at Whole Foods and West Elm and Urban Outfitters nationwide.
NOW YOU OBVIOUSLY HAVE THE WEBSITE, YOU HAVE YOUR DIFFERENT STOCKISTS AND STORES, AT WHAT POINT DO YOU GUYS WANT TO HAVE YOUR OWN BRICK AND MORTAR?
We choose the companies that we work with very carefully, so Whole Foods and all of the independent stores – we kind of think of those as our store. We don’t really need to sit somewhere, pay somebody to watch Karate Kid 3 on a rainy Wednesday or rainy Thursday like today. So a store doesn’t really interest us too much. We like the mobility.
IS THERE A LONG TERM PLAN IN TERMS OF EXPANSION, LIKE MORE BOOKS?
Yeah, we’re always writing. When you’re done brewing, you have what’s called spent grain, which is just barley that’s wet and with all the sugars out of it. We’re doing cooking with beer and spent grain recipes.
WHO DOES YOUR PACKAGE DESIGN, AND BRANDING?
His name is Deryck Vonn Lee. He used to be the art director for Trace Magazine and Giant Magazine also. He’s freelance, kind of employee zero. But he’s great, he knows what we need and he can do it. So he does all the packaging. Erica and I do all the other stuff. But when you’re making 10000 boxes or so, you want that to be right. I don’t want to screw up the InDesign file.
DO YOU GUYS HAVE A BIG STAFF NOW?
We just hired our third full-time employee. We have a Production Manager, a Sales guy, and then we just hired a Marketing person just last week.
BEFORE THAT YOU GUYS DID THAT ALL ON YOUR OWN?
Yeah, there were a lot of sleepless nights. In the warehouse, it would just be me and Erica in dirty jeans packing stuff for the month before Christmas through 3am everyday. But now if 2000 orders come in one day, they can exist. Otherwise you’re like, “Well, that’s not happening.” The first year we existed, we couldn’t make anymore. We just ran out and we were like, “Sorry guys.” So we had to send mix certificates, where you’d get the kit but then it’d be “Mix is coming” – and you’d get a second box in the middle of January. Not the worst thing, we let them know. Only three people wanted a refund, but that was the first year.
WHO WAS YOUR FIRST BIG CLIENT?
Our first store was actually the Whole Foods on the Lower East Side, where we started selling the kits on December 23rd. They sold out in two hours, and then we sent them another batch the next day on Christmas Eve and those sold out in three hours. They said it was like Tickle-Me-Elmo for adults. Do you want some beer?
YEAH SURE, WHY DON’T WE GIVE IT A TRY.
So we can start with the Lobster Saison. It actually has lobster in it, you throw the shells right in. They’re oyster stouts basically, and that’s a stout that has oysters. When you’re making it, there are actually oyster shells in the beer. They do it in Ireland; we had it on our backpacking tour. Before we started the company, we went on a seven-week backpacking trip. We quit our jobs, and it was kind of a way to see if we still liked each other.
SO GIVEN THE UNIQUE INGREDIENTS IN THE BEER, WOULD THE SHELF LIFE BE SHORTER? HOW DO YOU GUYS COME UP WITH THESE FLAVOUR IDEAS?
We brewed this for the book party in November, so I think we brewed this up in September. All of these are from last year. We wanted to approach brewing more like cooking—it’s not a science project, not something you need a basement and a man ponytail to do. So we just go through the farmers’ market, see what ingredients are fresh; think about how we would a) cook that in a meal and then b) how we would cook it in a beer. So farmers’ markets we always like to go to. There’s an Indian spice store in the Lower East Side, which is a fun challenge, just full of spices, and things that you don’t really ever see. We saw cardamom in there and we’re like, “Why don’t we make a cardamom beer?” And then we saw that they had black cardamom, which is just smoked, so we thought, “Let’s use black cardamom.” It’s two completely different beers at that point—the second one tastes like a smoked beer and there actually are smoked beers that use grain that’s smoked over beech wood. They also do cherry wood sometimes. It just makes it a beer that almost tastes like bacon, kind of interesting.
When we’re coming up with beers, we kind of just think about foods that we like, because we came to beer from liking food. The Gingerbread Ale – our Christmas beer basically – is inspired by Gramercy Tavern’s gingerbread recipe. It uses a lot of spices, kind of like a deconstructed gingerbread: it has cinnamon, nutmeg, candied ginger and cloves, and it tastes like a cookie but ultimately it’s still a beer. But the other three – the lobster, jalapeno and the bourbon – all have Belgian candied sugar, which ups the alcohol while keeping it light in body. It’s this rock sugar that comes from beets. It doesn’t make your beer sweeter; it actually makes it drier because it all ferments into alcohol. It’s a cool ingredient and great because when you’re brewing at home you have a little more freedom to use it. It’s an expensive ingredient. Breweries are mostly going to use syrup when possible instead just cause it’s really pricey.
DOES THE HEAT ACTUALLY COME THROUGH IN THE JALAPEÑO BEER?
Yeah it’s spicy. While the beer’s still hot, you take a jalapeño, chop it up, and we leave the seeds in. We do a spicy and a mild version; this is the spicy version I believe. You get a really nice kick; it’s not super spicy. That’s why we like the jalapeño, more than chipotle or other peppers, because we wanted the actual taste of the pepper. Some people make beer with other peppers but I think they just taste like smoky water sometimes. Yeah some of them are really good, but this is the perfect nacho beer. We wanted it really light in body, so it carries the spice really well and it’s also 7% alcohol. We usually do higher alcohol beers, because if you’re doing it at home, why not? And if there’s higher alcohol, they can still be light and easy drinking.
DO YOU HAVE A BACKGROUND IN COOKING?
No, we just liked food. I was working in film; Erica was working in magazines, marketing. She was working for the MPA—the Magazine Publisher’s Association, so a trade association for magazines. Food for us was just something we like to do, and eat.
DO YOU WANT TO INCORPORATE MORE FOOD INTO YOUR PRACTICE?
That’s what we’ve been doing. Beer is a really good ingredient, and most people think of cooking with beer and they think of beer cheese soup, or something that’s kind of gross – beer can chicken. Those are the two things they see to cook with beer, but you can actually use it as a really nice ingredient. Pretty much anything that has chicken stock, you can replace it if you have a lot of beer. I like to braise chicken legs in it; we do braised short ribs, and put that in them.
HOW DO YOU SEE THE BEER SCENE HERE IN BROOKLYN OR IN NEW YORK IN GENERAL, AND WHO OUT THERE WOULD YOU SAY IS DOING SOME REALLY COOL STUFF ASIDE FROM YOU GUYS?
In New York, the beer scene is pretty cool because it feels like you could almost get anything, style-wise. It takes a lot of beer to be able to take on New York; you have breweries in California that distribute to the West Coast and New York, things like that. But there are still a lot of things that you can’t get. It’s always funny when we go to Texas and beer is $3 and for the same beer here it’s $8 or $9. So it’s definitely different. But there are three breweries in Brooklyn—there’s Brooklyn Brewery, there’s Sixpoint and then there’s Kelso. Kelso brews mostly for New York City under the Heartland label. Sixpoint has a neat little farm on their roof where they grow hops. Not the hops for their beer, because you need a lot of hops for beer, but you can still brew a couple batches with it. And then Brooklyn Brewery does some really interesting one-off beers, all the specialty things.
I think all the people in the area, and craft beer as a whole across the country, are kind of thinking about what they haven’t seen before and what other people are doing and getting inspiration from them. So you’re seeing a lot of things aged in barrels now, which is pretty new. You’re seeing more sour beers, things like that. Everyone here is doing a good job, and you kind of have to in New York. People are going to get bored pretty quickly, especially in the craft beer bars. All the breweries make their pale ales which do fine in bars, but that’s not what you’re going to that brewery for. For a lot of breweries, a pale ale is a pale ale.
The bar scene in Brooklyn is what sets it apart from other places. There are just tons of really good craft beer bars. In this area, Fourth Avenue Pub and Pacific Standard are right next to each other. And ReBar (in DUMBO, Brooklyn) is really good. In Williamsburg, there’s a place called Spuyten Duyvil, and then across the street there’s Fette Sau and they have really good barbeque. It’s really good meat – they do some good smoking. But yeah, pretty much every neighbourhood has a good number of craft beer bars. It’s pretty astonishing.
DO YOU KNOW OF ANY RESTAURANTS INCORPORATING BEER INTO THEIR COOKING?
Yeah. Probably the best one is Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan. They just came out with a book recently. They’re doing some really good things. We took one of our staff members there for a beer lunch, and every course they paired with a beer. They actually decanted one; it was really nice, just to tame the carbonation. It was a later course and going with something a little richer. Any time you pour something carbonated, carbonation is going out into the air. But because of that, the flavors come out a bit. Some beers you want to warm up a little – like if it’s a darker, richer beer you might want it to get a little warmer and decanting helps with that. Garrett Oliver, who is the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, said that was the best beer dinner he’d ever been to, so it’s quite good.
DO YOU FIND YOU’RE GETTING MORE EXCITED OR INTERESTED IN THE WHOLE RESTAURANT SIDE OF THINGS?
We definitely think that’s a way for people to get into beer, by eating food, because it pairs really well sometimes. Certain things like spicy foods handle beer a lot more than wine may, although we still drink wine with plenty of meals. One of our former interns went on to be the beer director at Colicchio & Sons in Manhattan. He puts all of their flights together, usually like a few paired, this size or smaller. When you taste beer, most things you don’t need a full pint of – it just gets a little much. And we like variety, so we’d rather have five little beers than one big beer. That’s why we like the scale of our kit because in the past, you make 5 gallons of beer and you have 50 bottles of beer. And even if it’s your favorite beer, it won’t be your favorite by the end of it. After 50 beers you might get sick of it, unless you have a party, which is not the worst thing in the world. But you can still party other ways too. When you’re doing small batches, you have variety. I’d rather have three 1-gallon batches of three different beers.
SO ANY FINAL ADVICE FOR SOMEONE WHO’S TRYING TO GET INTO THIS WHOLE THING, WHAT’S THE SIMPLEST SUGGESTION YOU HAVE FOR THEM IN REGARDS TO MAKING BEER?
Don’t freak out. Making beer is a series of simple steps, none of them are hard. But don’t go on the Internet and be like, “Why does my beer look green?” Beer is green sometimes for the first few hours because hops are green. So just have the understanding that if you do everything, pay attention and trust yourself, your beer will work out. It’s been made for thousands of years by people with no high tech equipment, even as high tech as a thermometer. It’ll work out – your beer will be beer.
Not too many. When we were doing the book, we did nine test batches a day because they’re scaled down – you only need one burner really to make a pot of beer. So we usually had three batches of beer going at once. And then we had one pot just heating up water, because you need hot water throughout. Because of that, we’d do a controlled middle and then take the one ingredient, like jalapeño, and do that to the extreme and then one much lower. One we did that stands out was the Belgian Strong. We used spices that go into gin like juniper and coriander. With juniper it was kind of interesting, because you forget that it’s actually a berry. So when we did a test batch it came out really strong. We did 40 berries in a 1-gallon batch and it was really strange and super fruity and pink – which we didn’t quite expect. And we did a Bourbon Dubbel. The night before you brew, you take charred oak chips and you soak them in bourbon overnight. And then when the beer’s still hot, you add it to your beer. So with that one we had to do test batches with different kinds of woods. We did one with charred oak because that’s essentially what’s inside a barrel when you’re making bourbon. But we did ones with light oak and ones with cedar – and those tasted like a closet. And someone told us that might be poisonous, so that would probably be one of the mishaps I guess you could say. Potentially poisonous closet beer.
Interview + Photography by Chuck Ortiz
Edited by Heather Catuiza & Arianne Persaud
Transcription by Heather Catuiza
Layout by Chuck Ortiz
Thanks to Brooklyn Brew Shop
Brooklyn Brew Shop