North Fork breweries expand, some across state lines

By Joseph Pinciaro for Northforker
Photo by Barbaraellen Koch

The rise of the craft beer industry in the past few years has been well documented by the national media.

In fact, The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Budweiser is shifting its marketing strategy to combat the proliferation of microbreweries — and even smaller nanobreweries — and enhance its appeal to a younger audience as loyal Bud fans age and a new generation of beer lovers gravitates toward specialty brews.

On the North Fork, perhaps more than anywhere else on Long Island, the rise of the industry persists.

In Southold Town, Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. opened a second location in July in Peconic, allowing the brewery to produce 18 times more beer than was possible at its original location on Carpenter Street in Greenport. The company plans to begin distributing its beer statewide within the next couple of weeks and received a delivery of 90,000 bottles this week to fill up a newly purchased bottling line. It’s also in talks to get on tap aboard the Cross Sound Ferry.

Just to the west, in Riverhead, Long Ireland Beer Company is expanding distribution into Westchester County and plans to cross state lines into Connecticut as well. Moustache Brewing Co. will upgrade its brewing capacity in the coming months to keep up with demand and Crooked Ladder Brewing Company hopes to sign with a distributor before next summer.

For local brewers with goals that extend well beyond the Riverhead Town line, questions of when, how and where to grow — in terms of both where their beers are sold and their physical presence in town — become a balancing act akin to carrying a tray loaded with full pints.

“It’s always funny, because you think you have one ball under control, and when you have that one under control, you have to say, ‘How about that ball?’ ” said Rich Vandenburgh, who opened Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. in 2009 with John Liegey.

Vandenburgh said the brewery hopes to be distributing to New Jersey in the coming months as well and is about to sign on with Craft Beer Guild Distributors to ship its product as far north as the Canadian border. Greenport Harbor’s $300,000 investment in the new bottling line will enable it to expand within current markets while offering more revenue sources as it expands its geographical footprint.

“The profit margin is so slim, that this really can be a volume-driven business,” he said. Having bottles to offer retailers, as well as bars, gives the brewery another product to sell as competition for barroom tap handles intensifies.

As far as options go, Vandenburgh said the brewery plans to bottle its year-round offerings — Harbor Ale, Black Duck Porter and Otherside IPA — and let them sit for about a month, at which point they’ll make sure they’re ready to go to market.

According to the Brewers Association — a national industry trade group — New York State had 75 craft breweries in 2011. That number more than doubled in the next two years to 165.

Two of the breweries that opened between 2012 and early 2014 — Moustache and Crooked Ladder — are located in Riverhead. While Long Ireland contracted with Clare Rose distributors close to three years ago, those in earlier stages of growth are still shipping and selling their product themselves.

Duffy Griffiths, Crooked Ladder’s head brewer and co-owner, said he’s looking into signing with a distributor by summer and is “getting close to maxing out on our capacity already.” Currently, the company — co-owned by Stephen and David Wirth — ships to about 150 different accounts on its own.

Signing with a regional distributor, which would sell and deliver beer on the brewery’s behalf — would permit the company to move its full-time salesman into more of a brand manager role, Griffiths said.

Moustache Brewing Co., owned by Lauri Spitz and her husband, Matt, started off brewing one-barrel, 31-gallon batches when it opened in April. Ms. Spitz says the nanobrewery will soon upgrade to a 19-barrel system. She said Moustache is actually not selling to new accounts until the new hardware arrives to ensure it can produce enough to satisfy its current clientele. Although the Spitzes talked about contracting some batches out to other breweries, they’ve philosophically decided against having someone else create their product.

Statewide — and locally — the number of breweries continues to expand.

“There are at least 30 in planning right now,” said Paul Leone, executive director of the New York State Brewers Association. Leone was hired about 18 months ago, making New York the 13th state to hire a full-time director. He expects another dozen states to do the same within the next year.

In Riverhead, Long Beard Brewing Co. has been eyeing a downtown location and Twin Forks Brewing Company recently purchased office space on West Main Street.

Connecticut distributor Larry Golia, who will be selling Long Ireland beer, said he’s found — especially during the recent craft beer boom — that nothing can replace quality.

“These days, the consumer might even be more educated than the retailer, so you really need a quality product,” Golia said.

He said he expects Long Ireland’s breakfast stout and raspberry wheat to fill a couple of places in his portfolio that aren’t currently addressed by any of the 20 other craft breweries he deals with. Those two styles will alternate in six-month cycles, with the stouts selling in colder months.

Long Ireland Beer Co. co-owner Greg Martin said his experience selling Long Ireland beers upstate (it currently sold in 16 New York counties) confirms that the consumer runs the show in the end.

In Dutchess County, for example, Long Ireland’s breakfast stout is the number one seller, but on Long Island, its flagship Celtic Ale is the most popular.

In the meantime, the Spitzes are keeping tabs on demand in their own tasting room, trying to make sure the kegs don’t run dry in Riverhead.

“We don’t want people coming and have to tell them, ‘Sorry guys, the beer is out,’ ” Ms. Spitz said.

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