Between its shores, Long Island, New York has more than 30 breweries, many of which have opened their doors within the past 10 years or so. As new breweries continue to sprout across the fish-shaped island, beer festivals follow — as do millions of beer drinkers. While many may take for granted the availability of craft beer in the area, there are those who still remember the times when domestic beer selection at local bars was limited. What ties these breweries together is not only the sharing of customers in such close proximity, but also the challenges of overcoming many of the same barriers and having access to an abundance of freshly grown ingredients.
One of the largest contributors to Long Island’s thriving craft brewing industry is the expanded access to New York State’s farm brewery license. Designed to increase demand for locally grown products, further increase economic impact, and create new businesses surrounding the brewing industry, the farm brewing law, which went into effect on January 1, 2013, gives any brewer in the state an opportunity to obtain the farm brewery license. The catch? The license holder must use local ingredients in their beer. This requirement continues to increase over a number of years until January 1, 2024. The beer under these guidelines is designated as “New York State labeled beer.”
The legislation was modeled off of the 1976 “Farm Winery Act,” which spurred the growth of wine production in New York. Most helpful is that under the farm brewery license, brewers don’t need an additional permit to serve beer by the glass. They can also make cider and serve cider by the glass. In all, they are permitted to have five branch offices where they can sell their products and other New York State-labeled beer, wine, and spirits by the bottle. In addition they are allowed to operate tasting rooms, retail shops and restaurants and to serve samples and sell at farmers markets.
Despite legislative successes at the state level, some think Long Island’s craft brewing industry isn’t maturing as fast as it should.
“I think the biggest [unique quality] is how far behind in craft beer such a highly populated area is,” said Larry Goldstein, brewmaster and co-owner of Spider Bite Beer Company, based in Holbrook. “Many other cities and states have had almost this many breweries twenty years ago,” continued Goldstein.
Michael Philbrick, head brewer and founder of Port Jeff Brewing Company in Port Jefferson, is in agreement with Goldstein. Philadelphia, his hometown, is another place he believes is ahead in the craft beer industry compared to Long Island.
There are a couple of factors that have been impeding the growth of craft beer on Long Island, Goldstein said. One is that that brewing beer results in a lot of waste water and if you want to start a brewery on Long Island, you need to find property that has a large enough septic system to handle it. This can make it difficult for some town governments to give a potential brewery a license to operate. Another reason: craft beer pricing. When he first began customers used to complain about craft beer on Long Island being more expensive than imported beer.
Long Island’s geography may also slow down the industry’s growth. For instance, during our interview, Philbrick mentioned that one important beer ingredient not grown on Long Island is grains, which means brewers need to have this essential ingredient shipped to Long Island — and everything that is brought in by truck must go through New York City. This takes time which adds to the cost of shipping products. Long Island’s cost of living is 27.3 % above the national average. This also makes everything more expensive from salaries, ingredients, rent, land, taxes, etc.
On the positive side, what makes Long Island’s industry unique is its water. This makes sense for a brewer to bring up because, after all, water is a very substantial ingredient of beer, composing of 90-95% of beer by mass. Philbrick believes this is a plus for breweries on Long Island because of the quality of the water, which comes from the aquifers. Aquifers underlying Long Island are among the most prolific in the country. Almost all of Long Island’s drinking water is from groundwater with surface water an insignificant contributor.
Goldstein also acknowledged the water during our interview, saying, “I like Long Island water and personally only drink tap water. For brewing our town water is great and little needs to be done to it.” He said, “I do run it through a water filter to help remove chlorine since you don’t want that in your brew water. Also, by filling the kettles the night before I brew also helps get rid of chlorine.”
As far as business is concerned, what also stands out about Long Island breweries is their commitment to each other. Even though brewers are competitors, they help each other in need, Philbrick noted. For instance, after Hurricane Sandy, a number of local brewers came to the aide of a brewery damaged by the storm. Eight Long Island breweries came together to make a special edition beer, “Surge Protector, Sandy Relief IPA”, a Session IPA, as part of a relief effort from Hurricane Sandy. Profits from sales were donated to Long Island Cares to help the community and also to rebuild Barrier Brewing Co., located in Oceanside,which suffered $100,000 damages from the storm. The eight breweries that collaborated were Barrier Brewing Co., Blind Bat Brewery, Great South Bay Brewery, Greenport Harbor Brewery,Long Ireland Beer Co.,Port Jeff Brewing Company, Spider Bite Brewing Co., and Blue Point Brewing Co.
Like any other region, there’s more that can be done. There’s plenty of room on Long Island for brew pubs because there are only a few, Philbrick said. Most of the breweries on Long Island have tasting rooms, but sell no real food. While other places around the country many breweries also sell food. Just recently this author went to Lancaster Brewing Company, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where they brewed and served craft beer but also served food to go along with the beer. Not all breweries need to sell food, of course, tasting rooms alone are great places to enjoy great craft beer and good company, but there’s also potential growth in this area of the craft beer industry on Long Island.
Philbrick also said he feels that right now Long Island doesn’t have its own style of beer. Folks who don’t know much about craft beer often go into a brewery and look at the list of craft beer and ask, “Which one taste like a Budweiser?” It would be a big plus for the craft beer industry on Long Island if it gains a true identity. Of course, that could be just a matter of time.