CULT OF TASTE: Suds and Sand

suds_sand

Charting a beer trail across Long Island.

Ask a beer geek where to go for great American brews and he or she will tell you Oregon, Colorado or maybe California. Long Island, often considered the refuge of beach bums and celebrity homeowners, probably wouldn’t make the top of anyone’s list. Historically, it’s enticed more wine enthusiasts than hop-minded vacationers. But in recent years, a growing number of small producers outside of the five boroughs are changing New York’s craftbrewing landscape and turning the area into a worthy beer destination. Now, at last, the East End has ales to travel for.

On a rainy early-spring weekend, I set out with my friend Luke to sample some of these beers direct from the source. Sure, our neighborhood bar had been serving Blue Point Brewing Company’s coppery toasted lager for years now, but we’d heard of other, smaller brewers—some of which only offer their creations onsite—and decided to verify their existence for ourselves. After all, fresh beer, as any imbiber will tell you, is the best beer. And, so, heading east from Brooklyn, we set out to blaze a beer trail across the island’s low-lying coastal plain.

Serious vinophiles know that the combination of cool mesoclimate and sandy soil here helps to nurture grape varietals such as cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, particularly on the North Fork. Luke and I didn’t care about wine, though.

We were curious to learn about the types of malts and hops used by the microbreweries scattered throughout Suffolk County. Our first stop was the Southampton Publick House, the East End’s first brewpub and the first on Long Island to sell its beers nationally.

We were seated in the larger dining room, in plain sight of the large polished kettles where brewmaster Phil Markowski has experimented with different styles of beer for the past 14 years.

Scanning the draft list, I enquired about the Imperial Pale Ale. “It’s not like a Green Flash,” Michelle, our raspy-voiced waitress explained. “But I don’t know how much you guys know about beer.”

We knew enough to try the three seasonals in addition to the piney, resinous IPA, and decided that some food would be a wise decision, too. Adding an Altbier to my sampler (the slightly nutty Secret Ale), Michelle turned to Luke to take his order. Glancing at the blackboard behind our table he paused for a moment, then swiveled around in his seat decisively. “You know what, I’ll have the same,” he said.

The food and the drinks paired together well, but upon consulting his iPhone, and GoogleMaps, Luke sensibly pointed out that we would need to hurry in order to reach the next brewery on our list before it closed.

Arcing around Great Peconic Bay on Route 24, we cruised through Flanders, spotting the enormous—and soon to be 80-year-old—Big Duck on our way to Greenport Harbor Brewing Company. Merging onto the Main Road just outside of Riverhead, we drove on through the heart of wine country, passing sod farms, vegetable stands and restaurants like the elegant North Fork Table & Inn en route to Greenport’s tiny tasting room on Carpenter Street. Lured by the sight of fresh produce and a sign advertising homemade pies, we did make one detour, pulling into the parking lot of Bayview Farm and Market in Aquebogue. Gravel crunched under our tires as we pulled away, newly burdened (and happily so) with a thick-crusted, sweet-smelling strawberry rhubarb pie and a single bunch of the biggest asparagus stalks I’ve ever seen.

A stop for produce wasn’t part of the plan Luke and I had devised, but it made sense. When I caught up with John Liegey later that week to ask him about his inspiration to start Greenport with Rich Vandenburgh, I began to understand the closeness of the relationship between craft beer and seasonal dining. “People’s desire for good, fresh local food whether farm-stand or from the sea, is exactly the same impulse as one for handcrafted freshly made ales,” he told me. “We are first a local brewery. The mayor comes and fills his growler amongst a large group of local customers. Our personality and brand is Greenport and the North Fork. It is exactly that attitude that we want people to experience when drinking our beer.”

Located in the old Star Hose/Eagle Hose firehouse, built in 1890, Greenport is the realization of a dream John and Rich have had since they became friends in college. Eight months of repair and renovation resulted in a well-appointed, nautically themed brew house and the delivery of the first keg of Greenport Harbor Craft Beer to Claudio’s restaurant on July 12, 2009. Luke enjoyed the crisp, honey-tinged summer ale, while I would gladly make the two-hour drive back for another taste of their Black Duck Porter, a full-bodied, well-balanced, black ale that inspires thoughts of colder weather and espresso.

Later that week I ventured out to Patchogue on my own, half expecting to find a smaller, East Coast version of Portland, Oregon. Leaving the engine hum of the Long Island Railroad behind, I walked down South Ocean Avenue on a breezy afternoon, glad to put some distance between the city and myself once again. The sun warmed the back of my neck as I turned onto Main Street and caught sight of the BrickHouse Brewery, a 19th-century dry goods store that now serves lunch and dinner along with six of its own house-made beers plus two taps devoted to offerings from neighbors Blue Point Brewing Company.

Sitting down at the long bar, I asked Tricia, the bartender, to tell me a little bit about the history of BrickHouse.

“I think we’re going on our 14th year,” she told me as she readied a wooden beer paddle with six small glasses of frothy liquid. “We actually have a hop garden in the back. In the fall we have a party where we pick the hops for the Kitty,” she continued, referring to Hurricane Kitty, their pleasantly bitter IPA. For my money the Brussels Muscle was the best they had on draft. A dark chocolate stout brewed with abbey yeast, it weighs in at 7 percent alcohol by volume and produces a yeasty aroma with a trace of cocoa. Full-bodied and less sweet than others of this style, Brussels Muscle had a sharp, tangy taste to my palate—something more akin to a Belgian strong ale than an American stout. With a train to catch I was pressed for time, however, so I hurried back in the direction of Patchogue Bay and River Avenue.

Blue Point’s Tasting Room had already spring to life by four p.m.: close to 20 people in T-shirts and blue jeans crowded around the bar to taste a plastic cupful of beers like Rastafa Rye, Blueberry Ale or, my favorite, a Cherry Imperial Stout. Over the din of the small crowd I could just make out the unmistakable voice of David Byrne, leading the Talking Heads through their greatest hits. Various awards were hung around the room as well as an antique Jameson clock and a framed photo of the Blue Point Bastards, a hockey team sponsored by the brewery. For a facility that operates at capacity, producing beer for drinkers in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, in addition to New York, Blue Point still maintains a local ethic summed up in the philosophy that good people drink good beer. As I waited for the bartender to fill my growler with a liquid souvenir (the silky, sepia-toned Oatmeal Stout) I had to admit, Patchogue sure seemed to have a good thing going.

Counting a short stop to try the full-flavored, high-octane Imperial Pilsner at the Black Forest Brew Haus on the way back from Greenport, I’d only made it to about half of the breweries on Long Island. I had underestimated the amount of time needed to cover the full length of a beer trail I once thought so easy. Plus, to make matters worse—or better for hop-heads—it seemed to me that the tide of new brewers wasn’t about to ebb any time soon. This summer, Fire Island Beer Company will celebrate its first anniversary.

Wondering what might be fueling this surge in the local beer business, I asked Jeff Glassman at Fire Island for his opinion. He made it sound so simple.

“There is something about being on an island close to the ocean that makes people want to relax and enjoy fine food and fine beer!” Elaborating on his goals for the company, he told me that they wanted to open their own tasting room next year, and, eventually, a Fire Island brewpub. “We are just getting started and are working toward introducing Long Island to a handful of unique Fire Island–inspired brews over the next few seasons.” In addition to the Spring Beer Festival at the Nassau Coliseum and Blue Point’s annual Cask Ale Festival, newer events like the North Fork Craft Beer, BBQ and Wine Festival suggest that the enthusiasm for East End ales is still on the rise. And yet challenges face entrepreneurs who set out to teach Long Island drinkers the pleasures of malted barley and fermentable sugars. The economy may have turned craft beer into an affordable luxury, but Don Sullivan of Southampton has seen this all before.

“The investment needs and associated risks are high on both counts. As the marketplace is crowded with national and regional crafts, it’s surprising to see so many new ones starting up. I think people look at the rise in percentage of sales of the craft segment against the overall industry and think that will continue. That’s pretty dangerous thinking considering that mid and late ’80s and ’90s saw slowdowns in growth before gains in subsequent years.” Dangerous maybe, but then again it isn’t safe thinking that leads to exciting beer. And he acknowledged that competition would ultimately benefit small producers, driving them to innovate and encouraging smart brand management. Plus, as Phil Markowski put it, “the demographics of the island can certainly support several craft breweries, and that is great news for all of us on L.I.” I liked his optimism. In a way, it almost sounded like a wordier version of a slogan the Long Island Craft Brewers Guild might consider adopting: There’s nothing to fear but beer itself.

Ben Keene lives in Brooklyn and writes about beer, books, and travel for DRAFT, Time Out New York, and Rails to Trails.

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