Spelunking for Beer in Southampton

For many years now, the Hamptons have been synonymous with abundance—rarely have the vacationers and seasonal residents here settled for less. When it comes to handcrafted beer, however, there was a time not so long ago when the options were anything but plentiful.

It was hard for me to believe, especially after scanning the enormous list of imported and craft beers available at Peconic Beverage in Southampton. But Terence McCulley remembers when. And he should know, McCulley’s business has been selling beverages to the Hamptons since 1971. Sure, he’s seen a spike in interest in local ales and lagers, and true, he did recently install a beer cave or walk-in cold case, but as co-owner of this retail and distribution business on County Road 39, he doesn’t depend on beer alone to cover his expenses. Plus, as he explained over the phone recently, “no one drinks tap water out here. We actually sell more water than anything else.”

So he and partner John Wojcik carry close to 50 different brands of water, from French Evian to Norwegian Voss. And yet these days it’s beer enthusiasts who are most likely to find themselves making the trip to Peconic Beverage for a case of inky Imperial Porter from Southampton Ales and Lagers, or the rare, Champagne-like (and pricey) Infinium brewed by the Boston Beer Company.

“The beer cave has been a big hit,” McCulley says, and the reasons why were plain to see: shelf after shelf of sought-after Belgian imports like Corsendonk and Gulden Draak alongside popular craft brands such as Lagunitas and Stone. And with everything inside the cavern already cold, there’s never a wait to enjoy a crisp pilsner or a fruitier hefeweizen. The only real danger for indecisive beer hunters is the possibility of contracting a mild cold injury like frost nip while making up their minds about what to bring home. Then again, by standing in front of any of the three large windows looking in, shoppers can single out their liquid quarry before entering the cave.

“But the home delivery part is huge,” he continues. “During the summertime, we deliver to all of the mansions. I’d bet that 70 percent of our business is between May and September.”

For the second time in almost as many minutes, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Delivery? As it turns out though, McCulley is one of only 400 companies in New York State that holds a so-called “C-license,” a permit that allows bearers to sell beer via both retail and wholesale channels. In other words, he will supply your restaurant and bar, or if you’re someone with extra basement space or a maybe just a couple of spare refrigerators, he can help you start a personal beer cellar. An order of at least 10 cases—or 240 bottles—is necessary to get drop-off service though, so you might want to make sure you have the room before McCulley’s truck arrives.

“The reason we’re getting into craft beer is that we had to find another avenue,” he says when asked about the comprehensive index of breweries on his Web site. “We needed another reason for people to come into the store, and these are beers with a following.” For that same reason, he also installed a growler station with six rotating taps.

Often, they feature beers from New York craft producers. According to McCulley, Patchogue’s Blue Point Brewing Company is a popular choice for his regular customers, but Peconic Beverage also carries other locals like Great South Bay, Fire Island, Long Ireland and a Brooklyn brewer—Sixpoint—that began canning for the first time last year. He also says he’s looking forward to the appearance of Montauk Brewing Company, yet another craft business that will add to the East End’s ever-expanding variety of beers once they obtain permits and licenses and put the finishing touches on their small brewery.

“Years ago we used to be the only deal in town,” McCulley reveals after a while, almost wistfully, before describing the influx of gas stations and convenience stores that have made things more difficult for an independent beverage distributor. But in an increasingly competitive environment, he sees promise in specializing as well as diversifying—essentially appealing to a dedicated market with a wider selection. Peconic Beverage added a Facebook page, “so beer geeks can know what we have,” McCulley says, before mentioning that he has started offering monthly tasting events to introduce customers to newer styles and brands.

As for delivering craft beer to the seasonal Hamptons crowd, he claims “We tell the estate section not to buy so much at once, so the beer will be fresher.” Still, he laments what he considers inconsistent regulations that limit him to carrying beer, soda and water, while a gas station can sell a wide range of groceries and goods, not to mention beer. “We’re able to sell chips, but not salsa,” McCulley says. “Cigarettes, but not lighters. Legally, we can’t even sell coolers.” But with time and the help of a lobbyist, he and other C-license holders hope they can convince lawmakers in Albany to change the legislation that prevents them from stocking much more than the beverages that they’ve offered area drinkers for more than four decades. “We don’t really think it’s fair. And we don’t sell gas.”

Change may yet come to Southampton and its surroundings, but in the meantime, if you’re anywhere between Shinnecock Bay and Montauk Point, Peconic Beverage remains a destination for those in search of good beer. Elude the dog days of summer in the temperature-controlled cave, grab a refillable growler or price out a half keg of your favorite seasonal brew.

Of course, if you’re thirsty (or entertaining) you don’t have to stop there. The cider selection is dependable, and includes hand-pressed hard cider from McKenzie’s in upstate New York. Rumor has it they sell a fair amount of bottled water here, too.

Ben Keene lives in Brooklyn and writes about beer, books and travel for DRAFT, All About Beer and Rails to Trails.