by Zee Krstic
Craft beer (or homebrew as the old timers likely called it) is such a delicious and varied alternative to the big brewery output that it promises to relegate their insipid products onto the dusty lower shelves of every bodega in town. Try it out!
New Yorkers love to consider themselves connoisseurs of everything. From cupcakes to cocktails, we’ve pretty much established that we take everything a bit too seriously, even frivolity. Which is why microbrewing, at one time a lost art due to Prohibition, can be such a tricky business. Sure, it takes patience and heart and skill and drive, but it’s also a libation, a communal drink that gets you buzzed, plastered, and ultimately laid if guzzled to the right amounts.
“No matter what, beer is only as good as the people you drink it with,” says Chris Cuzme, head brewer for West Soho’s 508 Restaurant.
Touché. Thankfully, the newest wave of New York City’s craft beer masters seem to share this sentiment, navigating the tricky balance between ambitious crafting and enjoyable drinking.
“I think we’re trying to marry the tradition of the lager and the process with the modern day craft beer movement,” says Brian Dwyer of the newly opened SingleCut Brewery in Queens. “[We’re] trying something that we think is pretty unique.”
“It all comes down to drinkability,” Cuzme answers. Former president of the NYC Home Brewer’s Guild, Cuzme recently took over the post at 508 and turned the small gastropub into a destination spot. “I think it’s really important that you can drink four glasses of it, and enjoy the very last sip just as much as the first.”
Both men, big players in the New York City craft beer scene, agreed to sit down with Moves and discuss the future of brewing in the city and beyond. Both also unknowingly represent the newest trends in the industry. Cuzme, working alongside an established restaurant, is something of a beer sommelier, carefully crafting his brews to mesh with the strengths of the menu. Dwyer is part of the first brewery opened in Queens since Prohibition, a return to an era of local brewing and independently owned tap rooms that lined the city.
“There’s been a huge demand for a big brewery in Queens for a long time,“ Dwyer relates. “I’d say three out of four people who come in the door are Astoria residents.”
Yet despite its current appeal, it hasn’t been an easy road for the art of craft beer making. Back in the early twentieth century, Prohibition forced most US breweries to shutter their doors. By the time the act was repealed the damage had been done; independent brewing was decimated and replaced by a few large corporations. It wasn’t until the 1980s that brewpubs returned to the US, and eventually surged in popularity. Unfortunately, that popularity turned into a frenzy somewhere in the mid-2000s, becoming adopted by hipster culture and reaching almost Portlandia-esque proportions.
“Kind of with anything that grows in popularity, there start to be these trends that kind of get overplayed,” Dwyer remembers. “That was the trend for a while which was be as extreme and weird as you can, and people were making beers with high alcohol and weird ingredients you’ve never heard of. And it kind of became just doing it for the sake of doing it. It was like, with no regard for taste almost it seems.”
The best remedy for this? Accessibility. On the brink of approaching near parody levels of pretension, today’s current crop of brewers are venturing distinctly in the opposite direction, crafting palatable creations that put the fun back in brewing and, hopefully, appeal to a wider range of clientele.
Part of this push has to do with marketing. When competing in an industry saturated with seasoned conglomerates, independent brewers need to give wary patrons an incentive to switch their usual pint for something new. This usually boils down to crafting a catchy title for their products, and both Dwyer and Cuzme have done that in spades. “More Cowbell! Milk Stout” is one of the offerings at SingleCut in Queens, along with “Sourprize! Surprise! Pale Ale” and their trademark brand of “lagrrrs.”
“We’re trying to do very interesting, slightly aggressive lagers to the point where we actually spell lagers ‘lagrrr,’ with a nice ‘grrr’ at the end,” Dwyer explains.
So too has Chris Cuzme at 508 Restaurant and Gastrobrewery, crafting brews such as “Beauty Booty Blonde Ale” and Valentine’s Day’s “Saxual Heeling” (he also teaches saxophone.) But despite advertising “fun” with a capital “F,” these brews provide something notably different than the more popular brands that produce, package, and ship internationally. They come with their own personal stamp, a true “maker’s mark,” something that is unique to the brewer, the city, and the drinking experience. And that type of sincerity and personality can’t be duplicated by the millions.
“We made a really nice hibiscus pale ale, and the kitchen staff, they’re all from Mexico, when we brought that in to taste it they loved it,” Cuzme remembers. “So we’re gonna do a hibiscus pale ale offer at the 508… it had a tartness that was kind of fun.”
With kegs full of daring concoctions, both men are confident that the craft beer industry will continue to break away from its recent history of exclusiveness and become entrenched in New York City. Luckily, the opportunity to sample these one of a kind brews are becoming more and more available everyday.
Thanks to a thriving taproom located steps away from their massive brewing tanks, Brian Dwyer and SingleCut Brewery have opened up their brand of masterful brewing to anyone with willing taste buds. “One of the coolest parts about us is that people can basically take the subway to the brewery and see what we’re all about,” Dwyer states. “We cangive you a really in-depth tour… You can talk to the brewers, you can ask them what you want, see the whole process really in depth.”
Chris Cuzme hopes that being paired with a restaurant will continue to get local brews into the hands of more hesitant New Yorkers. Using pairings as a possible conversion tactic, he describes 508 as a “gateway for the non-beer drinkers out there.”
As for the possibility of an “overcrowding” of new breweries and microbreweries popping up in the city, he believes that the positives far outweigh the negatives in that situation.
“Some people are scared that the market will get saturated with more brew pubs coming up but I think that will add to the humility of everyone together, and the cream does rise the top,” Cuzme relates. “We’re going back to the way things were before Prohibition…It should be a no-brainer that we have access to craft beers on every block and on every store.”
And as for those who see the craft beer scene as merely a trend? Well, Chris Cuzme’s got a few choice words for them as well.
“I’d say come have a beer with me.”