Monday, September 21, 2009
Monday, September 7, 2009
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
With the crisp smell of fall in the air after a weirdly short summer, many things come to mind. First and foremost: Where the hell did the summer go, anyway? But after that comes the anticipation the many, many great things about autumn in Brooklyn. The changing trees in the park, the cloudless blue skied days, breaking out the sweaters. All that good stuff. Another thing that springs to mind for me: Awesome beer. Now, I’m a year-round beer drinker, but I fell in love with good beer in the fall, discovering the dark deep maltiness of stouts and porters and then eventually moving on to rich, hoppy IPAs. A year or so after we first moved to Park Slope, a quaint little store called Bierkraft opened up just one long block away from our abode. We were struck by the old world charm of store interior: Exposed brick, antique beer signs. We were even more struck by the hundreds of beers they had for sale. Years later, Bierkraft has become an institution in Brooklyn, expanding operations to include draft systems and refillable growlers (see photo). We recently caught up with Ben Granger, one of Bierkraft’s owners and resident Brooklyn beer expert, to talk beer, 'kraut, CO2, and all things that make you kind of gassy.
KoR: So, from what I understand, you started working at the store and were brought on as a partner soon after. Do the Scholzes (the other two owners) have a background in beer or breweries or are they just really big beer fans? And you?
Ben Granger: Richard was a home brewer and Daphne just loves the stuff. As for me, I was a Chef for 10 years before this business so I like all consumables.
How many beers, roughly, do you all carry? And how many countries of origin?
About 1200 beers, and maybe 20 countries.
That’s a lot of beer, man. So, we’ve been fans of the store since it opened, but I think the thing that really wowed me was when you all created your draft system and started carrying beers, many of which are from small breweries that don’t bottle their beer, and filling growlers. Where did that idea come from? Did Whole Foods totally rip you off?
Yes, Whole foods totally ripped us off but they don’t do it anything like the way we do it. The idea came during a session of beer drinking at the Gate one night. My friend Bobby and I were having a few and the idea just kind of happened.
I remember I had a professor in college who told me most good ideas come about over beers late at night. But how does it work, the draft system? Is it pretty much the same set-up as a bar? Kegs downstairs, taps upstairs, a bunch of pipes and hoses?
Not at all. Our Kegerators are actually all old Deli cases that have been retro-fitted and converted to be bottle fillers. We don’t have taps, really. I have ball valves and quick disconnects. The system is designed to pressure-fill bottles and nothing more. However I am in the process of a new design, which will let me pour pints as well, which will be very cool.
Beer mechanics sounds like pretty serious stuff. Now, pretty recently, you added three taps for cask beer, what some people call real ale. Can you explain what that is and how it’s different?
With cask ale the bubbles are produced naturally in the serving vessel by live yeast. The beer never comes in contact with any extraneous C02. Because the beer is not supposed to come in contact with extraneous C02, we use a pump to move it instead of pressurizing the serving vessel (the cask). The pumps are designed and built in-house as well as all of the other equipment. Because of the way I like to do things, a lot of the equipment that I need to pull off some of the things I do just doesn’t exist. So if it doesn’t exist, you have to build it.
You’re like Beer MacGyver. Beergyver? Okay, so what is the Naards? And, maybe I shouldn’t ask…but WHY is it named…the Naards?
I am sorry to hear that you out of all people have never been Naard-ed. The naards is a giant hop filter that goes between the keg and the tap. This way you can run your beer over a bed of hops right before you drink it. We don’t use it as often as I would like because hops are now very expensive. The name is interesting. I have built 2 of these filters. The first one was very cobbled together, three chambers, and not very efficient. The current one is one chamber. It’s one of my favorite pieces of equipment that I’ve built and it’s incredibly efficient. The name comes from a brewery that has one of these filters too, which they call Randall. Theirs looks like my first design, only one chamber instead of three, and not so cobbled. So when I launched the second design, I worked out all the B.S. and had it looking good. Mind you, the second looks nothing like the first. People would come in the store and say, “Hey what’s going through your Randall?” and I would tell them it’s not a Randall. I built this and it’s not made by Dogfish Head. My cellar manger Matt decided that he wanted to name it Naards because it sounded cool and afterwards fit the acronym in as Not Actually A Randall Device System. I bet you are really glad that you asked now.
Actually, I am. Very glad to hear the name’s not nut-related. Do you plan on using it again soon?
Yes, I have a bag of really stinky Simcoe Hops that are begging for a big beer.
What’s your best-selling beer or beer type?
IPA, Double IPA, Imperial IPA.
We’ve noticed some changes in the store lately. You seem to have gotten rid of a lot of the space for cheeses (which, being vegan, we’re cool with) and the real estate for some of your other non-beer products and seem to be focusing on the beer and sandwich end of things. You’ve even put in some benches and tables at the one end. What’s going on, man? Are you going tiny German beer hall on us? Should we expect braids and lederhosen?
Not so German, but we are getting our serving license so that it will be possible to drink in the store.
We’ve also noticed a lot more seasonal vegetable toppings for sandwiches. Pickled fiddlehead ferns? House-made sauerkraut? What other kind of seasonal vegetables do you all get?
I make my own ‘kraut, kimchi, and lactic pickles. If you look on the board you'll notice that you’ll see eggplant puree sometimes, roasted squash and other things as well. In past years I have brought in stuff from my garden but this year I grew mostly flowers, hops and fruit. I’ll usually bring in whatever is good. Unfortunately there has been an issue (blight) with tomato’s this year, so no local heirlooms.
Right, our tomatoes got hit with that too. So I can get a pretty mean vegan sandwich there then? Sans tomatoes.
So, with the hops you grow in your backyard, what do you do with them once they’ve grown? Do you press them and use an drying kiln, or use them fresh? How long have you been doing that?
I use racks in my kitchen for drying. I also use them fresh because I really really love fresh hops. I have been growing for about 4 years.
So, not to steal your thunder, but could anyone with a yard or garden box grow their own hops and just throw them in a growler of beer?
No thunder-stealing here. I didn’t invent the hop. Yes, you could grow hops in just about any yard in Brooklyn. A window box might be tough; they would probably grow the first year but not come back the second. You could definitely stuff them in your growler. But if you seriously want to grow hops you need a few establishing years to let the vines mature.
Do you all have more long-term plans for the shop you can talk about?
We don’t do the secret thing, really. Right now I’m going to start concentrating on the furniture for the back yard. I built the furniture in the main dining area and most of it’s scrap or reclaimed materials. I am going to do the same for the back yard just a different style. I think more scrap-yard-like.
Nice. It can be like the junkyard Fat Albert and the gang hung out in. Have you ever explored beer delivery? I’ve always thought the notion of the pre-war milkman leaving bottles at your doorstep was quaint. I’d totally love to wake up to a growler of beer on my stoop.
That is something that we have discussed I just don’t have the kinks worked out yet.
Wait, for serious? That rules. Any crazy home-brewing stories? Like, ones that end with “…and that’s how I blew out the windows in our apartment,” or “…that’s why the carpet smells like buttholes?”
Every brew has a crazy story. If you ask around the shop you will find out that accidents just kind of happen when I am involved.
I’ll have to follow up on that then. So, I’m personally a huge fan of India Pale Ales and Double IPAs and top-fermented, just really hoppy beers. It seems like these kind of beers are having somewhat of a heyday through the popularization of small, craft breweries. Any ideas on why this type of beer seems so popular with that select crowd? Or even why craft beers seem to be experiencing this surge in popularity?
As you’ll notice in other parts of American culture, especially food culture, when we finally get something right we tend to take it to that next level—you know, BIGGER BETTER FASTER STRONGER. The thing is that the macro breweries developed these high alpha hops so they could grow less and use more, making the beer efficient beyond belief. Then the micro’s got ahold of some of these high alpha hybrid hops, but instead of using them just for the alpha acid bitterness they used them for aroma as well. These hops have oils that blow off grapefruit, passion fruit, pine, and all sorts of other flavors. This sparked a whole new movement in the production of IPA’s . We could write a book on the American IPA, American Double IPA and the use of hops in the American craft brewery in general. In short, hops taste really f’n good and it would be a shame not to use them for all of their worth.
Amen. Do you know of any breweries that have closed or are hurting significantly from this pesky economy thing?
I know of breweries that have been caused some trouble by their states raising sin taxes on their product and taxing them harder because the state is broke. But the market drinks when it is happy and drinks when it is sad.
I know there are some purists out there who frown upon too much experimentation with beer formulas. What’s your stance? Are you into adding anything beyond hops, barley, and water? How do you think a horseradish beer would go over?
I don’t know about horseradish but I have added some weird shit to some of my beers. My friend Carl and I just brewed a 12.5% root beer with fresh cherries and honey. It is pretty good and it will get you there in a hurry. I like a balanced beer but I also love a huge hop bomb that is just piney, grapefruitty hoppy goodness from start to finish. I will try most everything at least once, and if it’s good, I’ll probably try it a few more times.
Mmmm, fancy alcoholic root beer... Any little-known breweries that we should all keep our eyes on? Not in a ‘Hey, I think they have a bomb’ way. More in a ‘Hey, THEY’RE doing some cool stuff’ way.
YES! This is a list of breweries that you should watch. Some of them are little know some of them are just known by “Beer Geeks” and some of them should just plain old be mentioned. Mikkeller, Nogno, Three Floyds, Shorts, Cigar City, Russian River, Port - Lost Abbey, Bells, Struise, Captain Lawrence, SixPoint, Ballast Point, Green Flash…I am sure there are more.
Oh, man, I love Captain Lawrence. And, yeah, 4th Avenue Pub has been carrying a good IPA by Cigar City lately. So, are there certain types of beers that our area excels at making more than others?
I find that the North East has it’s breweries that are very specialized. I think that right now, there are some fantastic barrel-aged beers from the North East as well as some really good stouts as well as some hybrid Belgo – American beers.
Alright, I don’t know if this question’s allowed, but…is there a holy grail of beers for you? Something that you had once and wish you could have again but can’t for whatever reason (Indiana Jones Nazis, sheer distance, etc.)?
I don’t know if “Holy Grail” is the best term because these 3 beers are my absolute favorites and I talk loudly enough about them, so people bring them to me for trade pretty regularly. Neither of them are available in New York, so the only way to get them is by trade or travel. Russian River - Pliny the Elder (that is a lot of people’s favorite), Port Brewing Shark Attack (I even like it aged), and Ninkozi- Tricerahops.
Any favorite bars in Brooklyn or are you one of those My Living Room is my Favorite Bar kind of guys?
Yes, my living room and my garden and The Gate.
Alright, you’ve been kidnapped by these action-movie-style terrorists, they’ve got you strapped to a crazy table and, rather than waterboard you, they give you the inhumane choice of having a six-pack of either that Bud Light Lime, old-school Zima, or the now alcohol-less Sparks forced down you. What do you choose and why?
Bud Light Lime—at least there is some “Beer” hidden in there somewhere.
Okay then, here we go: Quick Fire Round. Best beer city?
So far, Chicago but San Diego is amazing from what I hear, I just haven’t been there.
Cat or dog person?
Dog, his name is Roscoe, he likes Imperial Stouts and Doulble IPA’s, but he also likes to sniff butts, so maybe his opinion is not that important.
The Mighty Boosh, ATHF (Aqua Teen Hunger Force).
Favorite beer shop that’s not yours?
The Foodery. It’s in Philly.
What you’d be doing right now if it wasn’t Bierkraft?
Answer 1 involves me being independently wealthy, so I’d be a furniture- and jewelry-maker. They’re both hobbies of mine. Realistic Answer 2: I would probably be cooking somewhere, considering that I came from the restaurant industry.
Favorite thing about Park Slope?
I get to leave every night…. Noooooo, one must keep up appearances, so the real thing is the actual park. I run the park every morning before work from 40th street to the park, around the park and then back to 40th street. I do really love that park.
Favorite thing about Sunset Park?
I get to come home to it every night. Mexican food, Bengali food, Brooklyn China Town, my backyard.
Biggest pet peeve at work?
“Can I ask you a question?” That shit drives me nuts !! First off, you just asked me a question, so I guess that makes you asking me to ask me completely useless. And, what, am I gonna say no and just walk away? Seriously. 9 times out of ten that question precedes some obnoxious bullshit.
Got it. So, can I ask you a question? What music are you playing in the store lately?
The staff picks the music at the store, I don’t mind. In my truck and at home I have been playing a lot of Old Crow Medicine Show and Doc Watson.
Oh, shit! Those guys started up in my college town, Harrisonburg, VA, back when I went to school there. They played this great restaurant, The Little Grill, like, every night. Excellent. Where was I…worst beer ever?
Too dangerous- Brewers have feelings.
Last book you read?
How to use Hops and The Science of Brewing.
Last beer you drank?
You mean: What are you drinking now? Lagunitas Imperial Red but I am not finished with it and “drank” implies that I have finished it, so the last beer I “drank” was Southerntier Harvest.
We thank you for your time, Mr. Granger, and look forward to being Naarded soon. Hm. That doesn't sound quite right...
If you haven't already, be sure to stop by Bierkraft in Park Slope, Brooklyn—5th Avenue, between Berkley and Union—for the best beer in town. And interesting brewing accident stories if you're lucky. Thanks to Allister McVittes for modeling our growler shot—hair, make-up, and talent management: Katie Frichtel.