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By Matt Giles
47Hops Guest Writer
Since 2013, Brooklyn’s hottest ticket hasn’t been any of the bars in Bushwick, or the underground dinner parties dotting throughout the borough – it’s been on the border of Red Hook, in the shadow of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, behind a McDonald’s take-out window, and without any signage.
That’s where Sam Richardson – formerly of Pyramid Breweries and Greenpoint Brewing Works – and Matt Monahan – also of Greenpoint and an alum of French Culinary Institute – founded Other Half Brewery. In under two years, the brewery has become the darling of the city’s nascent, but quickly growing, craft beer scene, brewing 45 beers in the first twelve months. The co-founders recently graced the cover of an issue of Beer Advocate, and had write-ups in Serious Eats and Food & Wine magazine.
In early 2015, Other Half, which had recently begun canning their offerings in limited batches, began to sell these 16-ounce, modernist-looking cans up to twice a month. It was an immediate success: Other Half’s ‘release parties’ were mobbed with folks and the cans often sold out within hours of its start time.
“We really like cans,” says Richardson. “I know there will definitely be people holding on to stuff longer than they should. It’s a leap of faith. But we also don’t make enough for it to be a scenario where we are saturating the market.”
Those cans showcase Other Half’s unique take on one of America’s most celebrated beer style: the IPA. The brewery has distinguished itself by brewing some of the city’s – and country’s – most exciting IPAs.
There are Citra and Nelson, both single-hopped IPAs, followed by the multi-layered complexities of brews like Hop Showers, All Green Everything and Green Diamonds, each of which artfully blend multiple hop varieties . There are other beer styles served at Other Half’s appropriately sized draft room – it’s about the size of a Chinatown one-bedroom – but the brewery has cemented its a big presence with its IPAs.
“We brew mostly what I like to drink,” explains Richardson. “We make the beers that we like, but it also happens to be fortunate that is where the trend is for small breweries. It didn’t used to exist as a possibility, but you can now open a small brewery and make all IPAs, and it’ll work and do well.”
“The first thing we did,
after we signed the lease to our building,
was sign hop contracts.”
– Sam Richardson
Before Richardson arrived in NYC – the Portland native had also worked for a brewpub chain in Seattle – he knew that opening a brewery was a goal firmly on his horizon. “I moved here with that intention,” he says. “I already wanted to do my own thing, and the city was extremely deficient in breweries at that point.”
For years, the Big Apple’s craft beer banner had been waved by only a handful of breweries. Sure, there was Brooklyn Brewery, the city’s sole remaining outpost from a time when building a brewery meant dealing with the mob, but the city was starved for other options (the opening of Sixpoint in the mid-2000s did help slack the demand). But over the past several years, the city once referred to as the Borough of Churches, has exploded with craft diversity — From Big Alice to SingleCut, Gun Hill to Bronx Brewery, and Rockaway Brewing Company to Other Half.
“NYC still has a small scene compared to other parts of the country,” says Richardson, “and it is that deficiency that has been helpful for us. We were able to launch and then go as hard as we have from the beginning.”
An expanding palate has also been a boon for Other Half. Growlers are fun, but that’s up to five beers to enjoy, and since the median of Other Half’s ABVs is about seven percent, it can be a commitment. “Growlers are great though with a can, it’s easier for someone to just have one,” explains Richardson. Thanks to the city’s ever-changing population, Other Half is reaching more people than a brewery of a similar scale could have impacted previously. “We definitely have a more diverse tasting room that anywhere else,” says Richardson, “and that includes a lot of older folks who have gotten interested in craft beer, and a lot more women are involved on the consumption side.”
On a recent Friday night, there was even a bachelorette party that stopped by the taproom for a few pours. When told of this unheard anecdote, he elaborates, “That’s awesome. I’m a little more used to it being from Portland, where, for a longer time, no one thinks twice about women and craft beer. Now it’s becoming more common here too.”
As this renaissance continues, demand grows for a revitalization of the state’s hop industry, which, before Prohibition, was one of the nation’s most vibrant. The number of craft breweries in New York grew by nearly 60 percent within the past year. There are now reportedly over 200 craft breweries statewide. The local infrastructure has to advance to keep with this demand. “It’ll really take a big investment from a few hop growers that really want to do it bad enough,” says Richardson. “What grows best here, and what of those hops that grow best here do people want to use.”
Mention a hop variety to Richardson, and he likely has used it in one of his creations. “When you are a new brewery, having the hops you need is challenging,” he says. “The first thing we did, after we signed the lease to our building, was sign hop contracts. If you are going to be an IPA brewery, you have to be on top of that.”
During its first year, Other Half partnered with a New York State hop farm to create one of their brews. While Richardson maintains that partnership is still fluid, he wasn’t aware of the state’s hop scene when he first arrived on the east coast. “I didn’t think there were any hops growing here,” he says, “and I really believe if the industry wants to exist here and differentiate itself from Oregon and Washington hop farmers, it needs to have something unique, like new varieties.”
Although the luster won’t dim from Other Half any time soon, the increased attention has made the brewery a target for people trying to hack the system. The brewery sells four-packs and cases of 24, with a set maximum for each customer, but that didn’t stop a local craft beer store from stocking up on Other Half’s cans during a recent open sale. The brewery took to Instagram to protest and was vindicated by the dozens who beer-shamed the offending store.
“NYC is a difficult place to open a business in general,” Richardson says. “It’s been hard, but it hasn’t been the same sort of grueling punishment that I expected.”