America is in crisis. We're running out of regional breweries.
Actually this isn't true. Let me rephrase that. We've got plenty of regional breweries, but new ones aren't popping up at the same pace as they did. Regional brewing was, at one point, the best of what we knew in craft beer. The big dogs of the craft world (think New Belgium, Stone, Brooklyn Brewery, Sweetwater, and Magic Hat back in the day) were the think tanks of the creative American beer spirit, churning out an incredible quantity of well-made, and well-loved, beer. They had the wherewithal, technology, and institutional knowledge under one roof, riding a steep learning curve toward beer nirvana. I still love most of them, but it's funny how these times are a-changin. Small breweries are the new norm, and your local pint is quickly ousting the regional choices available on tap. Large regional brewing operations seem like they're dropping faster than a ripe apple on a crisp autumn day. I recently pontificated on this point myself, wondering if we all had a price, and whether that was actually a bad thing.
Suffice it to say that local beer has finally set a precedent, whether you realized it or not. You're more likely than ever to visit a brewery near your house, and they're more likely than ever to offer you a beer you really want to drink. It's working out well for everyone, and we're all teed up for the golden age of great American beer.
Westchester County is a confusing concept if you're not from New York. If you ask a New Yorker from Westchester County where they live, they'll say "In Westchester", which is a completely unhelpful statement if you actually want to know what town they live in (because it's a county, after all). The reason, as I've come to find out, is because Westchester County is enormous, very heavily populated, and has roughly one bazillion small towns in it. The likelihood of you knowing their specific town is actually quite low.
Broken Bow Brewery, which is rather difficult to say quickly, sits in the small village of Tuckahoe, New York, which is located in...good guess...Westchester County. It's been up and running since August of 2013 and they've doused the area with excellent beer since then, establishing a staunch and vocal base fan base around their small operation. I sat down with Mike LaMothe, founder of Broken Bow, whose warm report left no doubt in mind as to why folks seem to like this brewery as much as they do.
You've probably seen a lot of news about the number of recent brewery openings, and that's great. But that shouldn't take away from the fact that starting a brewery is a tremendous effort. A brewery takes planning and strategy. Infrastructure is important. A good energy supply, great water, a solid foundation, and a decent location are all critical components. It needs a tireless staff willing to work the long hours to produce a great pint of beer. In Broken Bow's case, Mike also had his own special list of requirements, the first of which included access to New York City's famously delicious drinking water. "It took 6 to 9 months to find the right place" said Mike, "I was living in Manhattan at the time and the biggest thing I wanted for the brewery was NYC water. That weeded out certain areas, because Westchester's water supply is divided. Some of it is the same water that goes to the city, and some comes from another location." Don't worry, they got the right water.
Their story started about 15 years ago with Mike's first homebrew kit in Stamford, CT. He actually broke his stove on the first attempt, which is kismet in a way, because it led him to call his dad, asking to come over to use his stove. Mike's family saw this process happen, which sparked the interest that has since led to the current number of family members working at the brewery. Mike's father Lyle runs sales, his younger sister Kasey runs the lab, his older sister Kristen is in charge of marketing, and his mom Kathy can be found in the brewery, mashing in with Mike on an almost daily basis, among her other jobs.
Broken Bow's foundation, as you may have figure out by now, is built on more than a solid slab of concrete. The entire brewery looks like a well-thought out story, from the setup of the brewhouse to the name. Broken Bow is a town in Nebraska where Mike's mom was born and raised, which is a lovely tribute to the family tradition at the brewery. More than anything though, the brewery seems to understand the importance of a conversation when you're part of a community like Tuckahoe. The tap room, a short train ride north of New York City, is welcoming and warm; the beer is famously delicious, and the beer's branding speaks proudly to its New York roots. I could be wrong, but it looks like the neighborhood certainly enjoys have a brewery around the corner.
Cans, the new norm in beer, are the vessel of choice for Broken Bow. Among other beers, they can their four mainstays; A lager, american pale ale, stout, and our personal favorite, the red ale. All are a great choice, but the red ale is great for this chilly time of year. Look for an upcoming big beer program as well, featuring a few larger-than-life barrel aged offerings in bombers. Twist our arm.
Being a New York City resident, I bluntly asked Mike why I hadn't heard of Broken Bow until now. His answer was the perfect humble brag, something I've yet to master in my lifetime. "It’s all about measured growth. You don’t jump into an industry and be the next heady topper. There’s always growing pains. We’ve had three times where we’ve stopped accepting new accounts. We also self-distributed for the first 15 months, which allowed us to get direct feedback from our customers. A lot of that has lead to growth, and it’s been localized. We’ve had three expansions, and we’ve added a couple accounts per week, but we try to hit pockets. Tackle another region and deal with it sustainably."
We've covered New York's beer scene pretty heavily on The Brew Enthusiast (we love every state, for the record), and there's a reason for that. Every county in New York, it seems, it loaded with amazing local breweries making delicious beer waiting to be discovered. Every employee at these breweries is genuinely interested in seeing their product be the best it can be. Westchester is a perfect example of place that loves its identity, and loves that craft beer will help to shape that idea for years to come.
So does Broken Bow, and by extension the rest of the country's small breweries, spell the quiet end of regional brewing? Is there room for a few more 50,000+ barrel breweries out there? It's easy to say to this, but only time will tell. As I've seen it, the informed craft drinker naturally finds their local offerings more appealing than a larger brewery's beer. Whether those offerings are actually "better" or not is another conversation. Broken Bow, it would seem, represents the small business analog we see in the business community at large. Most businesses are small, not large. Most businesses serve a small community, not a big one. The brewing parallel seems to follow. As the growth continues, more brewers will need to be happy with a nicely sized piece of a smaller pie if they're going to stay in this business for any significant period of time.
The beer will only get better, but it'll be interesting to see where it goes.
Published October 2015