In 1984, Steve Hindy ended a five and a half-year tour as the Middle East Correspondent for the Associated Press where he covered wars and assassinations in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Sudan. On his last night in Beirut, his hotel was hit by a mortar barrage. Steve picked up a still-warm piece of shrapnel as a memento, packed up his family and returned to New York City. During his years in the Middle East, Steve befriended diplomats based in Saudi Arabia, where Islamic law prohibits alcoholic beverages. The envoys were avid homebrewers and happily plied Steve with their flavorful beers. Returning to live in Brooklyn and editing foreign news for Newsday, Steve started brewing at home. Eventually, he enlisted his downstairs neighbor, banker Tom Potter, and they set out to establish the Brooklyn Brewery. Steve placed that shrapnel on his desk as a reminder of his days in the Middle East, where it still sits today.
Brooklyn has long been the home of immigrants, movers, artists, creative geniuses and small business idols. Over the years plenty of trades and traditions have come and gone, but one has been constant: beer. Some of the earliest residents from Germany, Belgium, Ireland and other brew-centric countries brought their passion and knowledge to our shores, making Brooklyn one of the most productive brewing centers of the country in the 19th century. Forty-eight breweries churned out an incredible ten percent of America’s beer, mostly brewed with hops and grains from New York State. The city lived a happy, beer-soaked life until the 20th century was ushered in with a devastating one-two punch that rocked brewers from Brooklyn to the national level. First, a devastating hop blight in New York State made the costs of producing beer skyrocket. With the industry still reeling, Prohibition scored a crushing hit when most forms of alcohol were banned in 1919. A bare handful of Brooklyn breweries survived the dark years of the “Great Experiment” by marketing malt beverages and medicinal tonics, emerging in the light of repeal a mere shadow of the robust brewing scene that had characterized Brooklyn for so long. The businesses slowly dwindled, with the last two great brewing families-- Schaefer and Liebmann (Rheingold)-- shuttering in 1976. Aside from a few dependable bars, Brooklyn’s beer scene had been laid low.
Intent on starting a brewery that would pay homage to the rich history of their beloved borough, Steve and Tom set their sights on bringing in the legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser to create a logo that would give their fledgling Brooklyn Eagle Brewery brand an instant identity. Steve was particularly insistent on the name as a reference to the venerable Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. After months of repeated phone calls, Milton finally agreed to a five-minute meeting with the eager entrepreneurs. Knowing they had only a few minutes to make a strong impression, Steve and Tom employed a bold tactic: they entered Milton’s office and told Milton their stories, instead of just pitching him their business. Two hours later, Milton was persuaded to join in with the bold plan set forth by Steve and Tom. He first insisted on changing the name to Brooklyn Brewery, saying: “You’ve got Brooklyn here, who needs an eagle!” He even agreed to waive his usual fees in exchange for an equity stake in the company. Steve and Tom had no problem with that; after all, they had no money. With handshakes all around, Steve, Tom and Milton established a professional relationship (and personal friendship) that continues to this day. Milton designs every label produced by the Brooklyn Brewery, and the Brewery in turn keeps his office well-supplied with fresh beer.
With their Milton Glaser logo on the cover of their business plan, Steve and Tom raised $500,000 from family and friends, personally persuading each to share with them in their plan to build a “microbrewery.” They showed their plan to their neighbor, Sophia Collier, founder of Soho Natural Soda, a 10-year-old all-natural carbonated beverage company that was being sold to the liquor giant Seagrams for $22 million. Sophia was impressed by the Brooklyn Brewery logo and a test batch of Brooklyn Lager, but she told the budding entrepreneurs that distribution was the key to the beverage business. She said Soho failed when distributed first by health food wholesalers, then soda distributors and finally beer distributors. She said the product only took off when she bought a van, put her logo on the side panel and peddled the product herself.
Shelving the “microbrewery” plan, Steve and Tom commissioned fourth-generation brewmaster William M. Moeller, a former head brewer at Philadelphia’s Schmidt Brewery, to brew Brooklyn Lager at the FX Matt Brewery in Utica, New York. Moeller pored over the brewing logs of a grandfather of his who had brewed in Brooklyn at the turn of the last century to develop a recipe for Brooklyn Lager. The result was an all-malt lager beer with a tangy aroma created by “dry-hopping,” an age-old technique of adding hops during the maturation process to create a robust aroma. Brooklyn Lager made quite a splash in the 1980’s beer scene in New York City, dominated by the light, rice and corn lagers sold by Budweiser, Miller and Coors.
In 1988, Steve and Tom delivered their first cases of beer, and flickerings of brewed glory began to appear in Brooklyn once again. First on their list was Williamsburg local Teddy’s, an upstart bar run by longtime neighborhood activist Felice Kirby and her husband in the old Peter Doelger’s Extra Beer pub. Word started to spread that the two men could be found at bars and restaurants pouring this (relatively) shocking concoction that was darker than Heineken and smelled strongly of hops, of all things. Steve and Tom were hitting the streets to educate consumers from the bottom up, exposing a new generation of beer drinkers to flavorful beers that had been all but lost to the American beer scene. The fledgling Brooklyn Brewery found a following and began to grow.
In 1994, Garrett Oliver was brought on board as brewmaster to helm the brewing program and work on establishing the brand new Williamsburg brewhouse. Garrett began homebrewing in the 1980’s after living in England for a time, where he discovered cask-fermented real ale in between gigs managing rock bands. Garrett’s talents and personal flair led to his tenure as President of the New York City Homebrewer’s Guild, where he met Steve Hindy. Whether or not Garrett was wearing a cape (a matter of mild contention between the two men to this day), this meeting included Garrett describing the recipe that would become Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout. Not long after, Garrett left his post as brewmaster of Manhattan Brewing to cross the East River and join Brooklyn Brewery. On May 28, 1996, Mayor Rudy Giuliani cut the ribbon at the grand opening of the new Brooklyn Brewery brewhouse, Tasting Room and offices in Brooklyn. Steve introduced Guiliani to about 100 reporters assembled in the street in front of the brewery’s towering front doors. The mayor, who had a combative relationship with New York City’s notoriously prickly press corps, pulled Steve up next to him and said, “I want all you journalists to look at this man. He used to be a reporter, but now he is making an honest living.” The press loved it, and Giuliani joined Garrett, Steve and Tom in pouring the brand-new Brooklyner Weisse to the thirsty celebrants that day. Garrett went on to develop recipes from Black Chocolate Stout to East IPA, seasonal favorites to limited run Brewmaster’s Reserve releases. His beers and his books - including The Good Beer Book, The Brewmaster’s Table and The Oxford Companion to Beer - have won many international awards, including the 2014 James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional. To this day Garrett serves as brewmaster as well as juggling a demanding international travel schedule to teach and learn new brewing techniques.
2003 was a year of big changes for Brooklyn Brewery. Years of growth made the brewery large enough to be taken seriously by big distributors, so the distribution arm of Brooklyn Brewery was sold off. Tom, who had been heavily involved in the distribution division for the previous fifteen years, decided the time was right for him to retire and sold his shares to the Ottaway family. (Not long after, Tom grew bored with retirement and filled his time by founding the New York Distilling Company not far from the Brooklyn Brewery.) The Ottaways were longtime friends and early investors, spreading from David Ottaway’s days in the Middle East as a Washington Post reporter alongside Steve Hindy.
David Ottaway’s two sons, Eric and Robin, had run the Brooklyn Brewery’s Massachusetts distribution company before it was sold in 2002. Eric had a background in sales and operations stretching back to his early days selling metal mixtapes to local kids in Cairo while living there with his father. Robin was another expert salesman and the first to tell Steve Hindy that the Brooklyn Brewery should have its own website. The Ottaway family has deep roots in Brooklyn, though none of them lived in Brooklyn at the time. Their great-grandfather, General John Blackburne Woodward, unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Brooklyn in 1885 and was president of the board of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, which managed the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Brooklyn Museum. Eric and Robin left Massachusetts to work in Brooklyn, heading up operations and sales respectively. In 2014, Steve announced that the Ottaway brothers were assuming official leadership roles in the brewery, with Eric serving as CEO and Robin as President. All three continue to be highly involved in daily life at the brewery, which continues to be independently owned to this day.
A series of collaborations have created incredible opportunities both abroad and at home for Brooklyn Brewery. Amarcord Brewery in Rimini, Italy teamed up with Brooklyn Brewery in 2011 to launch the first of four collaborative beers: Ama Bionda, Ama Bruna, Ama Mora and Ama Reserva. In 2003, Carlsberg, the fourth largest brewery in the world, invited Garrett to Copenhagen to receive the prestigious Semper Ardens award, recognizing him for his contributions to the world’s beer industry. Carlsberg also assumed responsibility for distributing Brooklyn beers in Scandinavia. The Brooklyn brands took off as Brooklyn as a borough began to develop an international reputation as a center of the arts and entrepreneurship and America’s craft beer revolution began to take root around the world. In 2014, Brooklyn Brewery and Carlsberg celebrated the opening of their joint venture brewery Nya Carnegie, operating as a brewery and tasting room in Stockholm, Sweden. Nya Carnegie’s opening marked the first time an American craft brewery had established a facility overseas and is producing a line of truly unique beers that fuse Brooklyn style with Scandinavian taste. Later that year, Brooklyn donated a microbrewery to the Culinary Institute of America, one of the world’s foremost cooking schools located in the Hudson Valley north of New York City. Garrett is developing a brewing curriculum for the CIA to familiarize students with the brewing process and produce beers for the school’s restaurants. It is expected to open in 2015.
Today, the Brooklyn Brewery is continuing to thrive, spreading good beer around the world. Bars and restaurants from Texas to Sweden to Australia proudly pour Brooklyn beer and display our iconic logo in great cities and far-flung reaches. Here in Brooklyn, Garrett and his team push the boundaries of brewing with an expanded barrel aging program housed in the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard down the road from the brewery and an extensive roster of experimental batches tucked away for study (and tasting.)
The brewery is also currently planning an expansion site to boost production and send even more beer to old and new markets worldwide. Even with all the projects, experiments and ideas flying thick, our Tasting Room right here in Brooklyn continues to welcome all comers. Next time you’re in New York, come say hello and share a pint with the people behind the beer.