Brewers Andrew Bronstein and Shane Welch know their history. They know that after World War II, Brooklyn was a national brewing capital, boasting more than 55 individual breweries. The former college buddies also know that about 15 craft breweries have opened and closed in New York City since 1980.
But these entrepreneurs, who launched Sixpoint Craft Ales in Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood a little more than a year ago, are hoping to buck that trend by surviving as the only beer brewed entirely in New York City.
Sixpoint beers are now served in more than 100 bars and restaurants in New York, from Greenwich Village bars like Kettle of Fish and Burp Castle to upscale Manhattan restaurants like Gramercy Tavern, City Hall, and Tabla.
Brant Stead, the beverage director of an acclaimed West Village gastro-pub, the Spotted Pig, said that Sixpoint is "doing something unique. They are creating something that is far better than what is now on the market. It's a more complex flavor."
After visiting the brewery and hearing their philosophy over a couple of pints, Mr. Stead said that the founders of Sixpoint are brewing with "their hearts and their brains."
Mr. Welch, 26, considers himself the executive chef of Sixpoint: He designs the beer. The Wisconsin native started out as a home brewer. While attending the University of Wisconsin, he earned a 4.0 grade point average, but realized that brewing was his calling. He took a semester off to brew "all the time," entering his beer into local competitions.
His partner, Mr. Bronstein, 26, is a Manhattan native who grew up on the Upper East Side and attended Horace Mann High School in Riverdale before heading to the University of Wisconsin. He moved to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in 2003.
"I rarely came to Brooklyn as a kid, but there is cool stuff happening out here. I took notice, and I wanted to be a part of it," he said.
In June 2004, Mr. Bronstein stumbled on a brewer's ghost town in a building behind the Liberty Heights Tap Room in Red Hook, where he went to hear a friend's band play. Several large stainless steel fermenting tanks sat empty, the ruins of a defunct brewing company.
Soon after, he and Mr. Welch signed a lease on the brewery and incorporated Mad Scientists Brewing Partners. They spent two months cleaning and tinkering with the equipment, and on Thanksgiving Day a year ago, they brewed their first beer.
"My mother came by with a turkey," Mr. Bronstein said.
Now the brewery bubbles, hisses, and smells like a chemistry classroom. It is tended by the brewer's apprentice, Aaron Stumpf, another University of Wisconsin grad who sleeps on Mr. Welch's couch.
Sixpoint makes seven year-round products and some seasonal brews. The brewers admit that they're hop-lovers, and they make a strong brew with high alcoholic contents. Their best-selling beer is Brownstone Ale, a dark brew with a hint of chocolate and nuts. "It smells like fresh baked bread," Mr. Bronstein said.
Other favorites are Sweet Action, a cream ale; SMP, a smoky, mild porter; Bengali Tiger, an India pale ale; and Diesel Stout, a fossil fuel colored brew with an alcohol content of about 8.5%. Budweiser's alcohol content is 4.3%.
"We don't use fruit, extract, or spices in any of our beer. It's barley, hops, water, and yeast. Our water supply is 100% New York City tap water," Mr. Bronstein said.
Even in their choice of logo, this duo is serious about the trade. The Sixpoint logo, a six-pointed star, is derived from a symbol from the Middle Ages that signified purity and excellence in brewing. "The American marketplace wants a dumbed-down, watery product. Sixpoint disagrees with that," Mr. Bronstein said. "Anybody can make one good beer. It's a matter of making all your beer good. That's the struggle, not to pigeonhole yourself."
Because brewing bottles requires a lot more space, Sixpoint only makes keg beer, served as drafts from taps across the city. It takes two people about 10 hours to brew a batch of beer, which yields 30 kegs. One 50-liter keg is good for 110 pints and sells wholesale for about $125. Since Sixpoint brews only ales at this point, a batch of beer must sit in the fermenting tanks for about three weeks. If they were to brew lagers, the beer would have to ferment for three months.
"Right now, New York City is consuming 30 kegs of Sixpoint every two weeks," Mr. Bronstein said.
Since launching the business with 100-hour workweeks, the partners have hired two full-time employees and an intern. They plan to supplement their sales force next month.
"I don't get drunk a lot," said Mr. Bronstein. "I drink a lot of beer. But very rarely am I fully inebriated. I don't exactly have the time."
According to Forbes, there are nearly 400 microbrewers in America accounting for 3.9% of American beer production. Mr. Welch would not disclose how much their launch cost, or where the partners got their initial funding, but he said they may eventually seek outside funding. He said Sixpoint is now brewing beer for 25% of what a brewery engineer told them it would cost.
"Half of the genius of why this business is succeeding is really good beer. The other half is the creative way we put the business together," he said.
Mr. Welch said that part of what keeps his hobby-turned-business from becoming stale is not getting bogged down in a plan. But he said the partners would like to max out production in their current location and move to a larger facility in about a year. The "light at the end of the tunnel," Mr. Welch said, is to install a bottling line. A used bottling line can cost $250,000, and a new system costs more than $1 million. Last month, the brewers and six friends spent about 30 hours bottling a special offering of 120 cases of seasonal beer, one bottle at a time.
Venturing into the highly regulated industry of alcohol manufacturing, the entrepreneurs have had to cope with a big league level of red tape. "Home-brewing was illegal in this country until Jimmy Carter made it legal toward the end of his presidency in 1979," Mr. Bronstein said.
Even today the start-up brewers had to first apply for and acquire a micro-brewing license from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. The partners hit a snag when the font they used on a label that contains the surgeon general's warning fell a half a millimeter short of federal guidelines. After six weeks of waiting, the label was rejected. They had to redo it and pay a fee to expedite their new application.
After approval, the partners applied for a license from the state Liquor Authority, which required an on-site inspection. They now pay a beer tax of $7 a barrel that they ship, and must file biweekly reports to an off shoot agency of the ATF that determines the tax rate that they are charged. The greater the volume, the higher the tax rate. In October, Sixpoint paid $660 in beer tax.
The partners also described the challenge of marketing their beers with a microscopic marketing budget. "The educated consumers who drink craft beer aren't swayed by big budget ad campaigns, or most media in general. It's a challenge to come up with unique ways to get our product and message out to people without doing with things that go against our nature," Mr. Bronstein said.
But the word is out, and the partners say that each Saturday about two dozen Sixpoint groupies trek out to Red Hook to tour their humble facility. Before the crowds come, or they move elsewhere, the partners are reveling in their backwoods Brooklyn locale.
It's a rarity. Brooklyn Brewery, which has an outpost in Williamsburg and is known for its Brooklyn lager and its Brooklyn Pennant Ale, a homage to the 1955 Dodgers, brews only 20% of its beer in New York City. And Rheingold, a recent revival of an old New York beer name, is made upstate.