Long Island’s Craft Brewery Boom Takes Off

This boat rocks: Andrea, bartender at Port Jeff Brewing Co., keeps the brews flowing in the tasting room, where the bar is a boat. (Long Island Press)

Written by Timothy for longislandpress.com

A veritable local beer boom is flowing across Long Island, where the number of craft brewing companies building breweries nearly doubled in the past year, drawn from a burgeoning cottage industry of home brewers—despite negative economic news.

Long Ireland Beer Co. opened in Riverhead last summer, Port Jeff Brewing Co. set up shop in its namesake village downtown in the fall, and Great South Bay Brewery opened its Bay Shore headquarters this winter. They join Barrier Brewing Co.—poised to quintuple its bare-bones Oceanside operations this spring—by following in the footsteps of LI foamfathers Blue Point Brewing Co., Southampton Ales and Lagers along with fellow newcomers Greenport Harbor Brewing Co., founded just after the 2008 financial crisis hit.

It’s no surprise that free samples of fresh, cold beer tend to draw a thirsty crowd.

“There’s an interesting thing happening here,” says Mike Philbrick, the Port Jefferson brewmaster, noting how surrounding regions established microbreweries about 20 years ago. “It’s funny it hasn’t happened until now.”

And they’re not alone. Fire Island Beer Co.—which, like its rookie craft brewer brethren, is on tap at nearly 100 bars and restaurants—has been looking for a home while outsourcing their four-year-old brewing operations. Spider Bite Beer Co. in Holbrook and Blind Bat Brewery in Centerport are small, home-based brewers among those who may quit their day jobs next

The local brewers are distinct from brew pubs like Brickhouse Brewery in Patchogue, German-owned Back Forest Brew Haus in Farmingdale and Mass.-based John Harvard’s Brew House in Lake Grove, which only sell their suds in-house.

Although it may seem like the Island is awash in local beer—enough for charter buses to offer LI brewery tours—a communal spirit comes with the competition. Same as competing restaurants share stock, the brewers swap ingredients when they’re short.

“We wouldn’t be able to do what we do if they didn’t do what they did,” says Greg Martin, co-founder of Long Ireland, referring to local innovators Blue Point and Southampton, both established in the mid-1990s. He sold his first keg in 2009 after an apprenticeship, then secured investors and found a location in a barn-like old warehouse, ironically in the Polish Town section of Riverhead.

The proof is in his crowded tasting room, where traditional Irish folk songs are piped in while East Enders mingle with far-flung day-trippers. Bus-tour stops from nearby North Fork wine country are not uncommon.

But the flannel-wearing duo at the lone Nassau County-based brewery of the bunch, Barrier Brewing, were not shy about showing their competitive side after being named best brewery in New York State last year at the TAP New York Craft Beer and Food Festival.

“Some people [think] that because it’s local, it’s good,” said co-founder Evan Klein alongside partner Craig Frymark during a recent tasting. “Drink local only if it’s good.”

Mark Burfurd, co-founder of Blue Point, who is pleased with the trend and exploring a second location, cautions that despite the successes, “We’re all small guys in the big picture of brewers.”

Phil Ebel, director of sales for Great South Bay, likes it that way, given their glowing reception. “Connecting with the people that drink your beer, that’s irreplaceable,” he says.

To the average hop head, a local brewer has “made it” when their six packs are sold at neighborhood stores. Aside from Blue Point and Southampton, Fire Island is the only other local beer currently available in 12-oz. bottles.

Although some hope to expand into that market, most are only available on tap at bars and restaurants, although tasting rooms and select beer distributors offer the local selections in growlers, or half gallon jugs—often with tasting-room-only special releases. Blue Point, Southampton, Long Ireland and Port Jeff also offer some selections in 22-oz. bottles, dubbed bombers.

Some might say these LI craft brewers are still nursing their beer, as this boom has just begun. But they’re confident there’s still a large thirst in need of quenching.

“We can use a few more,” says Philbrick from his nautical-themed brewery with a view of Port Jefferson Harbor. “People like to drink local. And when it comes to beer especially, people don’t buy the same beer every time.”