A rapidly growing brewery still relies on place-based experimentation.
“The Great South Bay—how does it taste?”
Jeff Glassman shouts his question over the roar of a single outboard motor. His cousin Bert Fernandez is busy steering our small craft across the wide, choppy stretch of open water, attempting to beat the sunset back to Bay Shore’s marina. This is my first time traveling from Fire Island on anything other than a ferry. Jeff and Bert on the other hand have made this trip hundreds of times, originally, like so many others, as beachgoers, but more recently under the auspices of the Fire Island Beer Company, the barely-two-year-old company that has just released its second seasonal and fourth beer overall, the winter warmer called Frozen Tail Ale.
As a beer writer and aspiring brewer, I tag along to witness one of the communal stovetop brewing sessions that still define their fledgling company, even though their product seems to be everywhere these days, from Brooklyn bars to Riverhead restaurants. We’re returning from Atlantique, one of 17 communities on the island and the site of some of Jeff and Bert’s first forays into craft beer. Here, in a family house located at the narrowest part of the island, these two men, along with their brothers Greg Glassman and Tom Fernandez, transformed a summer hobby into a serious job. Sitting around on the deck drinking their crisp Pumpkin Barrel Ale and lunching on burgers spiked with red onion and a liberal dose of barbecue sauce, I wouldn’t guess them to be partners in a business that had grown from a five-gallon production line to one that sold over 330,000 bottles and roughly 2,000 kegs in their first full year of commercial brewing. A business that started in a shack now needed the capacity of New York’s fourth-largest brewery—Olde Saratoga in Saratoga Springs—to keep up with demand. In fact, the only thing that hasn’t changed about Fire Island Beer Company in the past 19 months is their philosophy, a simple idea printed on the labels of their increasingly popular products: Relax in Excess. Drink in Moderation.
“The beer has to be perfectly balanced and not too polarizing,” Jeff tells me as we walk along the beach later, a cool autumn wind blowing off the Atlantic. “It has to be a beer that you want to bring to a get-together and share with friends and family.” He means his company’s first release, Lighthouse Ale, but, in a more general sense, he could be talking about the barrier island itself. Besides the screenedin bungalows and the iconic black-and-white lighthouse, Fire Island includes the state’s only federal wilderness area, a piece of property that shelters a rare coastal ecosystem known as a sunken forest. This narrow, 32-mile-long landmass hugging Long Island’s south shore manages to balance an influx of nearly one million summer visitors with year-round residents like eastern cottontails, red foxes and the white-tailed deer that feature prominently in the Fire Island logo. (Their Red Wagon I.P.A. pays homage to the preferred mode of luggage-lugging on this island.) In short, it’s the kind of place with the power to inspire. For Jeff and his cousins, inspiration struck at a humble little lunch spot in Atlantique Beach.
“I told you it was a shack, right?” Jeff asks as we approach the small white building with evergreen trim. He’s hardly exaggerating. Although it appears as if a new coat of paint has been applied fairly recently, a windowpane is missing from the front door and here and there the plywood exterior shows its age. The Shack has long been closed for the season on the day we stop by, but it is clearly the type of establishment with an optional shirts and shoes policy. In other words, a relaxed environment well suited for soliciting honest feedback on homebrew recipes. Which is exactly what Jeff, Bert and Tom used it for when they ran the concession stand for a couple of summers. This is where Lighthouse Ale was born.
“In a world where competition is trying to out-do each other by overdoing things, Fire Island is trying for quality,” says Reverend David Ciancio, proprietor of Idle Hands Bar in Manhattan, which will feature Frozen Tail Ale at its White Christmas Night.
“Sure, they could put dozens of hop strains into an imperial beer, age it in oak casts, feed it to a whale and see what happens after it’s “processed,” but that’s not them. They’re trying to make traditional ales and lagers with only a slight twist. Remove the pumpkin from their Pumpkin Barrel Ale and you still have a great ale. They aren’t relying on the added ingredients to carry the flavors, they’re using them to enhance the already fantastic beer behind them.”
Strolling away from the Shack, heading back toward the bay, Jeff describes how he hoped to impart some of the island’s laid-back vibe to the Fire Island brand. He keeps talking as we follow Shore Walk back to the house, but my attention has begun to drift out with the tide. The sound of waves lapping against the hulls of boats moored at Atlantique Beach fills my ears. Gulls call to one another overhead.
While we were gone, Bert had been monitoring our mash tun, a stainless steel kettle of boiling water, grain and malt extract.
“It smells like bread,” Greg announces upon entering the kitchen.
“It smells like a barn,” adds Jeff, going for a laugh.
On the electric stovetop, the dark, sugary wort continues to bubble away, slowly transforming itself into a version of the coldseason brew Fire Island will release in late-November as Frozen Tail Ale. A few minutes later, Greg pours several ounces of a coldbrewed Stumptown coffee blend into the kettle and then, with a nod, instructs me to pitch in the first packet of hops.
“Now it’s going to start smelling like beer,” he says, stirring the liquid with a long-handled spoon.
Rapidly expanding businesses—Fire Island sold through two batches of Pumpkin Barrel Ale in a matter of weeks this fall—don’t usually allow for casual experimentation. (After all, Greg’s friend Dan has pulled an old acoustic guitar out of its case and was strumming a blues progression.) Nonetheless, Jeff assures me that they still brew anywhere from five to seven different batches at Atlantique between April and October, adding an element of urgency and excitement to this late-season session. These brew sessions are often synced up with a dinner party or impromptu cookout, all the better to crowd-source feedback from tasting panels of friends, colleagues and neighbors.
As if on cue, Bert chimes in from the other couch, excitedly admitting that a bacon-flavored stout is something he wants to work on.
Greg looks up from the banjo he’s started plucking in time with Dan’s guitar. “I want to make a long-distance IPA,” he declares, “a tribute to long-distance relationships started on the island.”
Not to be outdone, I suggest my own style: Piping Plover Pilsner.
As we take turns tossing out hypothetical names that grow more ridiculous by the minute, it finally clicks. Fire Island isn’t about wild parties, slick packaging or huge palate-killing ales. It isn’t fancy, fussy or overly filling. Fire Island beers, like their namesake, are easygoing, well-balanced and meant to be enjoyed with friends. Even a burger or two. So in a way, it doesn’t matter what Bert, Jeff, Tom and Greg decide to make after their Frozen Tail Ale. I know that as bumpy as the road ahead might be in their competitive line of work, they are going to enjoy the ride.
Ben Keene lives in Brooklyn and writes about beer, books and travel for DRAFT, Time Out New York and Rails to Trails.