If Bushwick is the first neighborhood that comes to mind when you think “party,” it might have something to do with the lingering beer ghosts of a brewery-boom past. In 1898, most of the borough’s 45 breweries (including Rheingold, now slated for residential development) were located in the Bushwick area. But by 1976, when Schaefer shut down its brewing operations, the local industry was basically bust, having been overshadowed by monsters like Anheuser-Busch. This spring, when Kings County Brewers Collective (KCBC) opens its doors on Troutman Street, it will be Bushwick’s first brewery since the decline of the neighborhood’s first Golden Age of beer.
Tony Bellis, Pete Lengyel, and Zack Kinney are the three homebrew enthusiasts and longtime Brooklyn residents behind KCBC who recently made the move to professional status. As graduates of a professional brewing school in Vermont, and experienced brewers working for companies like Brooklyn Brewery and Kelso, the guys felt it was time to put their heads together and open a brewery of their own.
Pete pointed to his partners, indicating each one contributed an expertise: “Business background, science, and advertising– that’s exactly what we need.” Pete, a scientist and co-founder of Beer Street in Williamsburg, said he was “real close to opening” a brewery in Greenpoint that fell through at the last minute. Tony cut his chops in the coffee industry, while Zack, who worked in advertising for a while, was President of the New York City Home Brewer’s Guild and almost opened a brewery in Chinatown.
The guys said they’d looked “all over Brooklyn” for the right place, but were rooting heavily for Bushwick. “We thought it would be a great area– between art, restaurants, and other food manufacturers— so many people are doing cool things here,” Tony said.
“It’s like Williamsburg 20 years ago,” Pete said. “There’s new stuff popping up all the time, there’s a kind of excitement.”
It wasn’t hard to predict this one, given the neighborhood’s expansive industrial spaces, the rising popularity of craft beer, the plethora of restaurants around here that love to keep it local, and the borough’s large homebrewing community. But the barriers to opening up shop in Brooklyn, let alone Bushwick, are considerably high, as we’ve seen with Braven (the beer company touts the Bushwick name while brewing upstate, but eventually hopes to move their operations here).
The KCBC guys admitted that real estate prices in the area are crazy, but they were lucky enough to find what Zack called an “old-school landlord who remembered riding on the back of yeast trucks” as a kid who was receptive to their business plan. Despite the cost for this 5,000-square-foot space (“about the size of Other Half,” Zack said), they’re all confident in this location, about a block and a half from the Jefferson stop. And the impressive feat of Brooklyn-based brewing cannot be overstated– as Tony pointed out, even the borough’s eponymous and probably most widely-distributed beer company, Brooklyn Brewery, “started out brewing upstate” and still makes a large chunk of their product outside of the city. “But there’s gonna be more breweries in Bushwick, for sure,” Tony said. “And we’re excited about that, too– bringing back a community of people working in an industry that historically left the state.”
It seemed odd that KCBC would be happy about the prospect of more competition, but it kind of went along with with a major theme of their business model, what Tony called “a lack of ego.” It may sound like startup speak, but actually the guys say they’re all about foregoing their personal preferences and even their desire to control the beer-making process at KCBC for the sake of experimentation and approachability.
When I asked what their flagship beer would be, the partners said they had some ideas, for sure, but they were going to leave that up to their patrons. “We’ll let the customers decide what their favorite beers are,” Pete said.
KCBC, having grown out of the homebrew community, will also have a place for the DIY beer makers. “We want to bring in the homebrewers, because that’s where the real talent is,” Pete said. “Some of the best beer you’ll ever have comes out of somebody’s kitchen.” They don’t have all the details worked out, but Zack hinted that homebrewers would be given the opportunity to guest spot at KCBC. “We think this cross-pollination thing will result in a lot of experimentation and collaboration,” Zack said.
And though opening a brewery seems like accomplishment enough for Brooklyn, KCBC will offer another thing that we’ve been seeing more of in the city, something which was surprisingly hard to do (legally) up until Governor Cuomo’s moves to relax certain archaic, and some Prohibition-era regulations. “The Governor’s been pretty pro-craft beer, even down to the farmers who grow the ingredients,” Zack explained. Cuomo also helped eliminate a statute that required breweries to have a full-fledged restaurant in order to run a tap room. “Thankfully they said, ‘If you’re making the beer there, you can serve it,'” Zach said. Pete added that the arrangement had historically been the result of “the distributors, the middlemen.”
The preliminary renderings for the tap room show a high-ceilinged room with a long, wooden bar facing the brewing area, which will be surrounded by glass and windows facing the street. “We want to make it as transparent as possible in terms of what you’re drinking and where the beer is made,” Zack explained. This goes not just for patrons imbibing at the bar, but passersby too. “You’ll walk by the street and say, ‘Oh, there are fermenters in there,’ and you won’t see just a bar,” Tony explained. “I mean, that’s how we differentiate, we’re actually making beer here.”
KCBC has a long way to go before that tap room comes to life. When I stopped by yesterday the place was still in demo mode and looked less like a brewery and more like, as Tony described it, “a gravel pit.” But come “late May, early June,” the partners expect to have everything in place. By that time, they project to be initially serving six to eight different kinds of beers on draft (this number will hopefully grow as their business does). And because each guy seems to have his own pet beer, expect diversity.
“What we like about the collective is the variety factor,” Zack explained. “We’ve all got different tastes, different ideas, and flavors that we like. Certain breweries develop a ‘house character,’ and all the beers kind of start to taste the same, because the brewmaster has a certain way of doing things. That’s not gonna be our problem.”
The partners offered me samplings from their “pilot test batches”– a lemongrass saison and a “lightly-toasted coconut stout”– bottled in brown glass with printed KCBC labels and hand-written descriptions. But that’s only the start of what we’ll be seeing come spring. For one, they’ll be swapping out glasses for cans (for better taste and sustainability). “We’re going to launch with an IPA, because they sell really well, to be pragmatic about it,” Zack said. “I want to do a kettle sour beer– really fresh and seasonal for when we open– and Pete’s been talking about doing what are called smash beers.” While the partners said ideally they’d like to be sourcing local ingredients, at the moment New York-grown beer materials like hops are hard to find. “But that’s something you’ll see a lot more of in the coming years,” Tony added.
Zack said that experimentalism is something they’re super into at KCBC. “Most of the beers will have a little something new, for people to experiment with, because that’s part of the fun.” But the partners also maintained they weren’t about to be jerks about fancy beers. “We want to make it very approachable,” Pete said. “And no attitude at all, we’re not snobs.”