NEW YORK CITY, NY
Farmhouse Under the Bridge: Transmitter Brewing's Yeast-forward Approach in NYC
Interviewed September 26, 2016
At Transmitter Brewing - LONG ISLAND CITY, QUEENS, NYC
Head just across the water from Brooklyn, to Queens, in New York City, and you'll find yourself the the industrial-laden Long Island City neighborhood. Resting unassumingly under the Pulaski Bridge, sits one the New York's most intriguing producers, Transmitter Brewing. It might be hard to picture it, but their location could be described equally as tucked away and exposed at the same time. Housed in a former auto garage, Transmitter has that off-the-beaten-path vibe, while also being completely subjected to the sights and sounds of industry happening around them, in a bustling manufacturing district.
It was here, that founders Rob Kolb and Anthony Accardi opened the doors of their project, back in March 2014. And in just a couple years, the duo have managed to brew upwards of 80 different yeast-forward beers, housed in beautifully distinct cork and cage bottles, all while being inspired by a park across the way in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, from an idea that began in the early '90s as homebrewers. Got all that? Since then, the pair have had no trouble pushing the capacity of their venue, in a city where space comes at a premium.
Their careful approach and interest as 'yeast guys' have garnered them a well-deserved buzzed about reputation, brewing styles that hadn't yet had a place in NYC. We sat down with Rob and Anthony to discuss the tribulations of brewing in the city, efficiency, branding and why New York was late to adapt to the whole craft beer thing.
How did the two of you cross paths originally?
Anthony Accardi: We used to race bikes together, way back when.
Are you originally from New York?
AA: We both grew up in New Jersey. But, I came to school here at NYU and I've been here ever since.
And you'd been homebrewing for a while, Anthony, correct? How long had you been doing that prior to Transmitter beginning?
AA: A long time. Since the early 90's. I took a break–I had kids and another business that took over my attention. It was a time when information was less available, it was the edge of the Internet. There were some bulletin boards here and there, and if you go to the Wayback Machine, you can still find remnants of those things.
We first came across Transmitter via Print Magazine's Design Annual–your packaging had won 'Best of Region.' That's an incredibly high honor in graphic design, how did you get paired up with the designer, Jeff Rogers?
Rob Kolb: He's a friend of mine, we actually used to work together. I worked in advertising for the last 20 years, here in New York. Jeff [Rogers] and I worked on theater branding—Broadway theater. We had talked a little bit about [Transmitter] branding, and he then had done some initial designs that just didn't feel 'right'. Then, he stumbled on these QSL cards, that ham radio operators used in the '30s and '40s.
AA: We had the name, which came from 'Transmitter Park' in Greenpoint, nearby. So we'd already incorporated as that. Then, when Jeff stumbled on the radio cards, the visual...it just fit.
Where is Greenpoint in relation to where we are now?
AA: Only about a half a mile back, across in Brooklyn. We both live in Greenpoint. We thought Transmitter could be in Greenpoint originally, we just didn't find the right place. We'd already named it. So it's named after this park–which wasn't a park originally actually, but a small building. They moved the WNYC radio tower off of Manhattan in the 30's, as buildings started to interfere with the signal. So, they moved it off island, to Brooklyn, so it would broadcast through. There's a cool little one story building with a five-foot, art-deco-like radio antenna on it.
Is that the tower that's in the little icon on your labels?
RK: No, that's from the QSL cards. There was that 'bug' that has that radio antenna thing on it. But that wasn't even designed by Jeff, it happened to be on the original cards.
The packaging is beautiful. And you can name your beers endlessly within the system, correct?
RK: Yeah, it requires zero beer puns. Each style has a letter or a combination of letters. Saison is 'S', Farmhouse is 'F', Bieres de Garde: 'BG', Tripels: 'T.' So we have all these categories of beer and each number is a different recipe. 'S2' isn't a better version of 'S1', it's a different saison altogether. It could be different yeast, different ingredients, different hops–but it is still in this saison family.
We've read that you've isolated...how many different yeast variations now?
RK: We use roughly 20, consistently. Some are commercial–there's no reason to propagate some if it is readily available. Then we have others that we have cultured or traded for with yeast ranchers. There is a whole undercurrent of yeast sellers. Small companies like Omega in Chicago, or even a step down from that with science people culturing them or trading them. We focus on yeast, so we know a lot of small yeast purveyors...
We've read somewhere, you guys being described you as 'yeast fanatics.'
AA: Yeast-forward for sure. It's what is interesting about beer—I think anyway.
Did yeast drive these styles you brew, or you just knew from the beginning that you wanted to do yeast-forward beers?
RK: Both. That's what we were making as homebrewers—farmhouse, saisons, Belgian inspired stuff.
Is there a specific characteristic you look to get out of the yeast or do you prefer to just let it do its thing?
RK: Certainly we're not looking to just get one flavor profile out of all our yeast. They're corralled into that part of the world as inspiration, but we are not trying to mimic European beers necessarily. We just use them as a point of reference. Despite what we say about being yeast-forward, we don't limit ourselves with the hops we use.
I think we're developing. Even despite the broad range of beer styles, yeast, and hops–we have a sense of brewery culture that is happening in the flavor. I think things are starting to taste like we brewed them. What that is, is nothing so much intentional, as it just happens.
Has there been a learning curve with the style of beer you brew, for the average beer drinking patron?
AA: Certainly not with your, now, beer-centric person. Our beer does really well in restaurants and it pairs well with food. Once they discover it, they tend to be into it.
Any styles we will never see in a Transmitter bottle?
AA: We say we don't make IPAs.
Conversely, anything you might want to bring into the lineup?
RK: We kind of have already gone down all those roads. Maybe some more fruited stuff, or slow sours? But they are hard because of the time frame.
How has the growth of craft beer in NYC changed in the last few years?
RK: There is the nationwide groundswell that eventually hits New York. As forward thinking as New York is with things, beer wasn't one of them. We have access to a world of beer, literally. So in some ways it has been slow on uptake. Opening a brewery in New York City is fucking hard. Space is limited...real estate is expensive.
Is that the biggest hurdle?
AA: Oh yeah, real estate is insane. [Brewing] is manufacturing, but you also want to be close to people. Sure you could be a production brewery in the deep parts of Queens, and there are a couple.
RK: Finback is probably the farthest out in Queens, and they definitely feel it because they don't get the foot traffic through their tasting room. It takes three modes of transportation to get to them.
AA: They do get people. They have a tremendous space, it's huge and beautiful. They have more space they can ever use in exchange for being that far out. You literally have to take a subway to a subway to a bus, and then walk.
RK: We are one stop out of Midtown, one stop out of Grand Central. Every day there are a thousand people who walk by our place [pointing upward], on the Pulaski Bridge.
Where...is your taproom?
RK: You're sitting in it! We move these pallets out of the way on the weekends and put a few more tables in. We are a pretty low-key taproom. We don't have a draft system, we do samples from the bottle. We sell only bottles, and people share them.
How did you land on the format, 750ml cork and cage? Bottle conditioning?
AA: It just goes with the beer we make. Everything we make is bottle- and keg-conditioned. We have never force-carb'd a beer.
What does your distribution look like?
AA: Right now we are self-distro in New York City, because we can be. We have a distributor for upstate New York and a distributor for all of New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Maine as well. We are about to start selling to Connecticut. Probably Washington D.C. after that, because that is the Wild West for beer. There are no laws about it, it's easy. Maybe North Carolina after that.
We found a quote that was pretty interesting about scale and size when it comes to New York. You said, "Transmitter is the smallest you can be in NYC while still being viable."
RK: We have some more beer to make before we are in that sweet spot.
AA: We started at three barrels and 12 barrels of fermentation space. That was way too small. But we were doing it nights and weekends at first, just seeing how things go. Now we are at five barrels and have a lot more fermentation space. We still are not at the right size. We can't do any less the way we are doing it–without selling 100% of it out of the taproom, which never interested us.
Ever have a desire to ship beer overseas?
RK: We talk about that. There is a market for it, but it's just complicated. There are not enough hours in the day as it is now. We're at 700 barrels, so it's not that much beer. We are trying to take care of our distributors, and when they call and want beer, I don't like to say, "We don't have any for you." Even as a small brand, you want to stay on their list.
Do you do any 'limited release' beers?
AA: Some of them end up being once-a-year beers. The barrel beers are slow for us. Finding time to get them out of barrels and packaged. We have done 78 different beers up to now. And we try to add a new one–depending on scheduling and fermentation–once a month, or every six weeks. We do circle back and have made every beer at least twice. We haven't made a perfect beer yet, so there's always tweaking.
So what do you guys do when you are not in the brewery all day?
RK: Um, that's not very much time.
AA: We each work 12 days, then get two days off. We each get every other weekend off essentially.
What will the New York City beer scene look like in a couple years?
RK: It's going to continue to grow somewhat. It felt like, when we opened there were half a dozen breweries that all opened at the same time, around 2014. It slowed up in 2015, but there are definitely breweries opening outside the city and using access to the city as a market.
Expansion. You guys talked about where you want to distribute and plans for the future, but where do you see Transmitter in a couple years?
RK: We won't expand more in this space. There isn't the infrastructure, it's not quite right for the brewery 2.0.
AA: It is a little too small, a little too low. It floods when it rains. For as cool as the space is, if we could swing it, we would like to get a bigger space. Then maybe keep this as a barrel room, or retail tasting room.
So you would like to have more of a public facing space?
AA: I think we are definitely leaving money on the table. I don't want to be a bar owner, but we do need to capture more retail—with bottles and draft.
Would you look to stay in Queens or Brooklyn?
RK: It's New York City, we have no idea!
AA: We would stay in the city. Realistically it would be Brooklyn or Queens. Hopefully close to home–we can both walk here now, from Greenpoint. It's a very vibrant neighborhood-between-neighborhoods: Long Island City, Greenpoint, Williamsburg.
For outsiders, describe the vibe in these neighborhoods.
AA: It's all young professionals. They've built more towers than I can count. All this industrial space [referencing the swath around the brewery, under the Pulaski Bridge] is getting changed over. This is probably one of the last stretches of heavy industrial in this area. If you walk five blocks that way though, it is just row after row of residential towers.
RK: Greenpoint is pretty much the same thing, towers along the water. I've been in Greenpoint now about 12 years now, when we first got there it wasn't much, just a couple restaurants. Now it's turned into a lot of good restaurants and bars. That's both good and bad, depending on how you look at it.
What do you know of the Chicago brewing scene, as a New Yorker?
RK: I feel Chicago is five times more vibrant than New York City—a much more mature beer market. We don't have anything like Revolution or Half Acre here. There is Brooklyn, the sort of godfather of craft beer here. I think in some ways it's real estate dependent, where Chicago is so much more spread out. Getting a large footprint is different than doing it here.
AA: It's interesting. We have eight million people here, so there is clearly a market. In some ways, the problem with New York is it's huge and there's a lot of distraction available here.
Where do you go for a beer in New York?
RK: Brouwerji Lane, it's a beer bar in Greenpoint. It's a five minute walk for me, and a seven minute walk for him. There's something very comfortable about it, like the Map Room in Chicago. A kind of 'neighborhood' bar.
What are you drinking when you're not drinking Transmitter beer?
AA: We drink plenty of beer outside of work. But, I love cider–funky ones.
RK: Greg [Doroski] at Threes [Brewing] is doing really great stuff. Then it's just picking up stuff you haven't had, there is always something new dropping into the city.
We're always looking for inspiration. We're not trying to mimic anything, rather taste something we like and step off from there.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.
Interview by Jack Muldowney & Tom White. Cheers to Rob and Anthony for the hospitality, having us by on a sweltering September Monday afternoon in New York. Next time you find yourself across the East River from Manhattan, be sure to head a stone's throw from Brooklyn, to Long Island City's Transmitter Brewing. If you time it correctly, you just might be able to share a 750mL in their quaint makeshift brewspace-turned-taproom.