The Forgotten Borough. This is what they call Staten Island.
It's a sure bet to say you've never been there. Most NYC residents have never been there. And that's a shame, considering Staten Island has a terrifically interesting history along with a veritable deluge of urban redevelopment projects coming down the pipe in the next 5 years. Ask any Islander and they'll give you an earful on why Staten Island is the best borough in New York City.
And while that's a stiff claim to make, there's absolutely nothing stiff about Jay Sykes and his team building Flagship Brewing Company. They've got a mission in mind to build a craft brewery that their borough can speak about with pride. My conversation with Jay was sincere, honest, and full of that rare form of energy that can only come from an entrepreneur who know's he got a winner on his hands.
This is the team over at Flagship Brewing. Bunch of studs.
Hey Jay. Great to meet you. Give us a little background.
Hey there. I started working in the beer business on the distributor side of the three-tier system. It was a distributor called Phoenix/Beehive here in New York City. Specifically, I worked in Staten Island on chain sales. From there, I move over to working on off-premise accounts (these are accounts where you buy beer to take home with you) in Brooklyn. When I went to Williamsburg, it opened by eyes as to what craft beer culture really was and I fell in love with it.
Dude…we’ll be honest. We don’t really know anything about Staten Island.
Almost nobody does. That’s why it’s called “the forgotten borough”. We get a lot of people coming here from Manhattan and Brooklyn from the ferry these days, and the brewery is within a short walk of the ferry drop-off. The best thing is the recent rise in buzz and energy on the Island. There are a lot of redevelopment projects and businesses setting up shop. There’s a new Staten Island happening, in a way.
You’re from Staten Island, but most people have never been there. Why did you think that opening a brewery there was a good idea?
Staten Island has a great brewing history. We were pioneering high-quality beers in the 19th century with breweries like Bachmanns and Betchels. In the 90s there was one brewery out here before the craft beer boom. I remember beer made here called Harbor Ale that pretty good. As somebody who loves craft beer and homebrews a lot, I saw and felt the need for great beer on Staten Island. I knew that people would be interested in drinking a local beer. There was certainly a challenge to convert the people who drank mass produced domestic products, but we could get it done.
So you started a brewery.
My business partner John, who’s also my best friend, grew up across the street from me. I came to him one day and said “what do you think of starting a brewery?” His immediate reaction was “are you kidding? We don’t know anything about it!” But eventually he came around. Our other business partner, Matt, grew up around the corner, and he worked for Diageo for a long time before joining us in this venture. I still remember signing the lease for the building and saying “Well…I guess we have to actually build a brewery now”.
Pot committed. You didn’t have a brewer at this point right?
Not yet. I knew that we had to do this right, and I had some experience homebrewing, but I had no experience brewing on commercial equipment. We chose Patrick Morse, a seasoned brewer trained at Harpoon. Pat was on board from day 1 with our outlook and vision for Flagship. He was an integral part in getting this off the ground and is a truly fantastic brewer. He’s excited to make the beer his own and help us build a great reputation.
So tell us about the ethos of the business. What kind of brewery are you trying to be?
I think the general consensus is that, starting out, we wanted to make 3 very solid beers. We also wanted to win customers here in Staten Island first, then take over the rest of the city. Surprisingly, our American Pale Ale is the most popular beer, given the number of Blue Moon Brewing drinkers we knew existed on the island. We’re making headway and really showing that Islanders are creative and entrepreneurial.
We definitely ask this too much, but what does quality beer mean to you?
I look at quality a few ways. Obviously ingredients are key. We spend a little more on our base malts because it gives it an extra toasty flavor and that quality rings through the beer. Quality is also beer that’s consistently done well. You need to be able to dial in a good beer to make it as good as it can be. Our head brewer Pat knows that building our customer base come from consistently good beer and works toward this.
So you guys don’t make a lot of one-off styles?
I think breweries make a lot of different beer styles because of drinking habits these days. Craft beer bars keep you on for a keg or two, then rotate on to something new. If we can reach the beer buyers and show them that whenever our beer is on draft, it consistently does well, then that’s the customer we want. I have nothing against the one-off model at all, but we've seen that good beer will sell well. We certainly do the one-off styles every so often, but our model stems from existing in a different area of NYC where a consistent product is critical. A lot of successful local breweries have dialed in their products and we’re striving to do the same.
Why are you called “Flagship brewery”?
Well…we thought about calling ourselves Staten Island Brewing Company, but that was way too easy. As you might expect, we wanted the name to be synonymous with quality. I read a book on Rockefeller and why he named his company “Standard Oil”. He said it's because people associate the “standard” with the best of whatever that thing should be. Usually people think of a brewery’s best beer as their flagship, so we went with it.
What are you biggest challenges so far?
Growth itself is one of the biggest challenges. Coming from a sales background, it’s hard for me to sell just one or two products when I had such a large portfolio at the distributor. Trying to come up with a plan around operations (brewdays, supplies, timing, etc) is incredibly difficult. It’s been such a learning curve on getting ahead of the growth and learning how to time new product launches while meeting the demand of the draft lines we have our there now.
But that's all part of it. Being able to do what you love, where you’re from, is a great feeling. The thought of being millionaires was never on our minds. Just being able to live this lifestyle and live our dream is a privilege.
How are you supporting your community?
A lot of people said that opening a craft brewery on Staten Island was a mistake, but we knew differently. We felt the need for great beer, so we knew other people felt it as well. We’re glad to be part of the community here. A few days ago we had a huge fundraiser here to help support a member of the local fire department. The great thing is that we act like a local business because we are a local business. Our taproom is literally a community center these days, and just a general place to kick around what’s happening in the community.
If you’re into craft beer, Staten Island is a great place to be. We have a great tap room and it’s a good spot to come have a beer. There are tons of restaurants and businesses that have opened here lately, mostly focused around craft beer. For somebody who's enthusiastic about great beer, this is perfect. Come visit! I know you’ll like it.
Thanks Jay! It was a pleasure. Here's to raising another pint soon.
Check this sweet little video about them as well!
Article published February, 2015.