Inside the East End Craft Beer Craze

By Matthew Wexler | June 30, 2016 | Food & Drink Feature

Drink local is taking on a whole new meaning as Hamptons-based breweries are tapping into the East End’s expanding interest in craft beer and Long Island-grown ingredients.

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Something big is brewing on the East End. The craft beer movement has arrived in full force, and local brewers are obliging with regional ingredients that impart as much terroir as you might expect from the area’s wineries. While overall national beer sales stayed virtually stagnant in 2015, craft beer rose nearly 13 percent to stake its claim in an overall market that hit nearly $106 billion in sales. New York alone is home to 208 craft breweries, each clamoring to find a niche in an increasingly saturated market. “When we opened, we couldn’t get the time of day from regional wholesalers; now all they want to do is sell craft beer,” says Don Sullivan, owner of Southampton Publick House. At 20 years old, it’s Long Island’s oldest brewery and has stood the test of time while competitors like Blue Point Brewing Company have sold to beer conglomerates such as Anheuser-Busch.

Sullivan offers a historical understanding of the rise of these mega producers, citing President Eisenhower’s 1956 Interstate Highway System and the infrastructure that allowed wholesalers and a robust distribution system to come into power the following decades. Making beer is one thing, but getting it to beer drinkers is quite another. Jump ahead 50 years and Sullivan says craft beers are in sync with the “buy local” movement. “From a cultural standpoint, there’s a return to basics in the food and beverage industry,” he says. “Consumers want a better-quality beer—one with real flavor.”

From the onset, Southampton Publick House’s philosophy has been one of staying true to style rather than reinventing the wheel. Expect authentic flavor profiles as if you were drinking a beer from its origin. “An [American] West Coast India Pale Ale (IPA) is highly hopped, but if you’re in the north of England, you’d get a true English IPA,” says Sullivan, a 35-year resident of Southampton who goes so far as to add minerals to his water to replicate the beer’s inspiration from the English town of Burton-on-Trent.

Is all of that effort worth it? Yes, according to Sullivan, who says his international clientele constantly comments that his brews taste “just like home.” “I’m proud of being a Long Islander,” he says. “There aren’t many businesses left that are solely owned and going for more than 20 years. We’re proud of that and hold it dear.”

Across the Peconic on Shelter Island, another longtime East Ender is giving his own spin to craft beer. James Hull’s Shelter Island Craft Brewery has set up shop in the town’s epicenter and has quickly garnered attention since opening last year. “Food and flavors are my life,” says Hull, who is a self-described want-to-be chef. “I see beer as a canvas for that, and at 65, I’m frankly just too old to open a restaurant.”

Hull has lived the American dream several times over, helping to erect the original World Trade Center as a sheet metal apprentice, followed by a 25-year stint as a jeweler in the Diamond District. Finally, he settled on Shelter Island as a charter boat captain, where he would take guests out on the local waters to go fly fishing, before turning his sights to making craft beer.

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Greenport Harbor Brewing Company produces limitededition beers as well as barrel-aged products, sours, and hops-forward ales.

The Farm Brewery License (part of legislation signed in July 2012 to support and strengthen New York craft breweries) enables brewers like Hull to produce beer that’s made from at least 20 percent locally grown farm products. That percentage will increase over time, and by 2024, beer produced under these guidelines will be made from no less than 90 percent of ingredients grown or produced in New York State.

Food and flavors are my life. I see beer as a canvas for that.” —James Hull

It was the perfect fit for Hull, who figures his operation is probably one of the smallest in the country. He rotates upwards of 25 different beers—handcrafted and gravity-fed—based on the availability of ingredients and seasonality. “The island has a lot of resources available,” says Hull. “If I was larger and became automated, there’s no way that I could source the things I do.”

Those resources include a range of local ingredients, such as honey from Kilb Apiary and five varieties of hops grown on the island by Michael Clark, as well as lemon thyme, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, beach plums—even lavender from Hull’s own garden. And while it’s not a get-rich-quick business model, Hull says it’s still possible to make a profit using the very best ingredients.

Business savvy and a genuine passion for the product have helped other brewers stay afloat during turbulent times. A lifelong friendship doesn’t hurt, either. John Liegey and Rich Vandenburgh have been best friends since college and had always dreamt of opening their own brewery. They both settled down on Long Island, and after spotting an abandoned firehouse in Greenport, the pair revisited a pipe dream to brew beers.

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Cofounders John Liegey and Richard Vandenburgh.

Vandenburgh described the location as “a diamond in the rough,” but its 12-foot ceilings beckoned a rebirth, and the town’s long history as a working harbor seemed like the perfect fit. But of course timing is everything. The day they closed on the purchase—September 15, 2008—also happened to coincide with the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Perhaps not the best time to launch a business, but within a year, Greenport Harbor Brewing Company opened its doors.

Entering the market with a couple of styles that were solid, well balanced, and representative of the category, Greenport Harbor Brewing Company continues to experiment and is rolling out an additional line of limited-edition beers, barrel-aged products, sours, and Project Hoppines—an initiative to showcase hop-forward ales. It also opened a second brewery in Peconic in 2014 to keep up with the demand and improve functionality and efficiency. A new addition will include a brewpub, beer garden, and outdoor fireplace.

“There’s a lot of momentum in the industry, but you don’t have a business without a quality product.” —Vaughan Cutillo

But with growth comes responsibility. Vandenburgh sits on the board of the New York State Brewers Association and is keenly aware of how challenging it is to stay relevant in a booming market, especially when the definition of “craft beer” can mean the production of up to 6 million barrels per year. “As an industry, how many options can we put into the marketplace without overwhelming the consumer?” he wonders, noting that it’s increasingly important for independently owned craft brewers to be precise and smart in their objectives.

Three minds are better than one in the case of Montauk Brewing Company. Partners Eric Moss, Vaughan Cutillo, and Joe Sullivan grew up together on the East End and spent about a decade as ocean lifeguards. They began experimenting with home brews in Cutillo’s basement with Moss at the helm, and after tapping the result with a home kegerator, discovered they had a knack for it.

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Montauk Brewing Company.

It took three years to secure building permits, and although the town was supportive, there was local, county, and state red tape to cut through. The trio eventually converted an old woodworking shop into a full-scale brewery, and by the summer of 2012 they were delivering around town out of a jerry-rigged trailer attached to a beach cruiser bicycle.

“It’s all in the timing,” says Cutillo, who leads the company’s marketing efforts. “We all had regular day jobs and took the plunge. There was no other way but to go all in.” This meant investing in top-of-the-line, stainless-steel equipment to produce beers to complement Montauk’s seafood-driven cuisine. It is also a celebration of what makes the Hamptons so unique. Says Cutillo, “You won’t find televisions in our tasting room. It’s a place to meet each other, communicate, and celebrate—a casual beach vibe where our motto is ‘Come as you are.’”

But don’t mistake those sun-kissed faces for beach bums. Like the East End’s other craft breweries, Montauk Brewing Company is dedicated to the “craft” part of brewing beers. “There’s a lot of momentum in the industry out here,” says Cutillo, “but you don’t have a business without a quality product.”

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photography by Joff Lee/getty Images; opposIte page: heLen CathCart/getty Images

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