Long Island’s Craft Beer Explosion


Long Island Brewerys

Towing a 170-lb. beer keg on the back of his company bicycle to a pub in tourist-clogged downtown Montauk on a recent sweaty summer afternoon, Vaughan Cutillo stops traffic as passersby marvel aloud at the spectacle.

It’s not the handsome 27-year-old’s public show of strength that turns heads and prompts shouts of encouragement, however. Many are just learning that the Montauk Brewing Company opened its headquarters near the traffic circle six weeks ago—and that bike is among their most visible advertising.


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“It’s our Clydesdales,” jokes Cutillo, referring to the team of horses Budweiser uses in their promotions. His trailer-hitched beach cruiser is also symbolic of the rustic, do-it-yourself ethos spilling from the Island’s easternmost tip into its fledgling namesake craft brewery.

The entrepreneur and two of his fellow ex-lifeguard buddies, Joseph Sullivan and Eric Moss, are not yet ready to quit their day jobs at a renewable energy design firm, but after experimenting with a home-brewing kit in a basement three years ago, they aim to match other local microbreweries’ output by the end of next year. They just built their “gallery tap room”—adorned with Hamptons artists’ abstract paintings and scenic photos—out of an old wood-working company showroom.

“We can’t wait to give tours,” he says between offering free 4-oz. samples to locals and day-trippers who wander in to taste the new brew in town. “We’ve been packed…even people who don’t like beer are excited.”

There’s plenty to raise a glass to, between collegiality with other local brewers willing to lend a hand and the enthusiastic response from the community.

“We got pretty lucky to be able to do this here,” says Cutillo.

In the meantime, production of their flagship foam—Driftwood Ale, an extra special bitter with “the same bold character as Montauk”—is outsourced to a Cooperstown brewery, as is widespread practice.

Montauk Brewing Company

Hot Wheels: The Montauk Brewing Company’s delivery bicycle doubles as a roving bilboard around town during short-distance keg deliveries to local pubs (Photos by Scott Kearney/Long Island Press)

Cutillo and his partners are just the latest to make lemonade from economic lemons and ride the beer boom wave on Long Island, which has been undergoing a literal craft-beer Renaissance and where craft breweries have doubled in the past year. As the subculture of hopheads behind this cottage industry goes mainstream, LI’s dozen breweries will soon have even more company. Fueling the phenomenon are recently passed New York State tax breaks, an influx of craft-beer focused bars, local beer festivals and LI brewery tours—plus countless craft beer drinkers with an unquenchable thirst for variety.

LI’s microbrew binge is but a drop in the keg compared to the explosive growth the $8.7-billion industry has seen nationwide. There was an 11-percent spike in US microbreweries opening last year from 2010, bringing the total to nearly 2,000, with another 1,000 in planning, according to the Brewers Association, a national trade group.

“We have literally doubled our market share in the last decade,” says David Katleski, president of the New York State Brewers Association, who’s among those rallying the troops to reach the microbrew sector’s goal of capturing 10 percent of national beer sales.

“The craft beer industry in New York State is one of the only industries from a manufacturing standpoint that is growing and creating jobs,” says Katleski, who also owns Syracuse-based Empire Brewing Co. He predicts breweries statewide will more than double from about 125 today to over 300 within five years.

If he’s proven correct, it would be about how many breweries existed statewide in the late 1800s when the population was just over 7 million and the Mohawk River Valley supplied most of the nation’s hops. The population is 19 million today, but the farmers have some catching up to do with the barley and hop crops.

When the hard work of making all that delicious beer is done—although many brewers say it’s more of a lifestyle than a job—the burgeoning biz in turn serves up a tall glass of hometown pride.

“It feeds into the whole homegrown movement,” says Bernie Kilkelly, a beer industry journalist who founded LongIslandBeerGuide.com. “It’s not enough to have a Belgian beer. Let’s have a Belgian beer that’s brewed here on Long Island, which is a great thing!”

BEER NUTS

LI’s newest brewery—even newer than Montauk’s—is Rocky Point Artisan Brewers, which was licensed last month and operates out of a detached garage. Its Summer Lager, Doppel Schwarz and Hefeweizen were only on tap at one neighborhood restaurant and a farmers’ market as of press time.

Four LI breweries opened last year, adding to six prior, in addition to the two that debuted this summer—not including brew pubs, or restaurants that brew their own beer and mostly only sell it in-house. At least four more microbreweries are planned. All play a role in fermenting new destinations for LI’s tourism industry.

“We would like to turn Long Island into a very diverse beer culture,” says Donavan Hall, a co-founder of RPAB, who envisions a brewery in every LI town, like in parts of Europe. “We want people to have a beer in Rocky Point that they’re really not going to get anywhere else.”

Hall, a 43-year-old physicist at Stony Brook University who helped found the Long Island Beer & Malt Enthusiasts—a beer appreciation club and craft brewery farm team—launched his business in a “calculated plan” he hatched eight years ago.

He set up shop in a nanobrewery his partner, Mike Voigt, initially built so he could spend more time with his late father. They then joined forces with their “mad scientist,” Yuri Janssen, another physicist and beer enthusiast Hall met at Brookhaven National Lab. With their below-shoulder-length hair and penchant for cowboy hats, the trio could be mistaken for a rock band.

“We don’t even look at it like a business,” Hall says, following a recent LIBME meeting at Dek’s American Restaurant, the only place that has their beer on tap. “We’re not going into this to make money. We’re not looking to get big. We’re just looking to make the village that we live in a more interesting place.”

His vision of a European-style brewtopia on LI isn’t just the beer talking. Kristen Matejka, director of marketing for the Long Island Convention & Visitors Bureau and Sports Commission, is glad to see the local beer flowing freely, too.

“We definitely see a broader potential for Long Island brewers,” she says, noting how her organization offers locally made products for their guests. “It’s a way to absorb the local flavor, and we think that’s great for tourism.”

And even more professional craft brewers-to-be are stepping up to the vat. Todd Long, president of LIBME, estimates the club has seen enrollment jump from about 50 to 500 in the past two years.

Among them is a young married hipster couple from Central Islip who are founding Mustache Brewing Co. in Bellmore after raising $31,413 seed money in a month this spring on Kickstarter.com, a fundraising website.

“One day it just clicked,” says Matthew Spitz, sporting a shaved head and his company’s namesake thick, old-timey handlebar mustache. “It was always like a daydream and the more we talked about it over the years it got to be more of a reality.”

Lauri, with her fire engine-red hair, recalls it more as a “what the hell am I doing with my life” moment. “This is what we like doing,” she says. “We’re going to have to find a new hobby.”

Eager to quit her day job uploading electronic medical records, and Matt with mutual feelings for computer retail, they shot a short video—part mock silent film, part genuine sales pitch—uploaded it to Kickstarter, wrote up their business plan, solicited investors and never looked back.

The thick-glasses-wearing, self-described beer geeks, both 29, hope to sign their lease soon and open the doors sometime next year to what they bill as a “niche brewery,” not just another LI-themed microbrew shop. Matt, the bassist in local reggae band Royal City Riot, instead dubs their suds with musical monikers—One Drum Pale Ale or Northern Soul, for example.

The DIY operation is not unlike forming a band, each beer like a song with a distinct melody. The basic ingredients of water, malt, yeast and hops require an uncompromising creative mind to score an original. Brewmasters often speak of hitting the right notes—in their field, subtle flavors that hit the tongue instead of the ear.

Like a song of the summer, Lauri recalls a beer that takes her back to one such season past. But the couple is hoping to be more than a one-hit wonder.

“You have this taste in your head and you just gotta figure out how to make it happen,” she says, running with the metaphor. Stay tuned.

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