Saturdays in New York City’s thriving craft beer scene are like a weekly Christmas morning. In pursuit of the latest can releases, enthusiasts often engage in something akin to a brewery crawl. It starts in the morning near Brooklyn’s western edge, home to Other Half, and finishes in the afternoon in the northern neighborhoods of the borough, where Grimm, Interboro, and KCBC are headquartered.
On Harrison Place, almost at the midpoint on the walk or rideshare between Interboro and KCBC, lies a conspicuously dormant space. It formerly belonged to Braven Brewing.
Like many others, Braven was part of the Gotham craft beer explosion that transformed New York from a craft beer backwater with three local production breweries in 2012, to a goldmine with more than 30 now. That number doubles when you factor in the extraordinary brewing going on in surrounding areas in Long Island, the Hudson Valley, and northern New Jersey.
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Most of these breweries followed the conventional narrative of craft beer. Young enthusiasts bonded at a local homebrewing guild. They honed their brewing skills and began dreaming of abandoning their day jobs for full-time work in the world of malt and hops. After years of business plans and fundraising endeavors, the dream progresses to reality. Facilities open, and photos of smiling young (mostly) men next to fermentation tanks begin to proliferate on social media. The music swells in triumphant harmonies as the new brewers toast in the sunset while profits pile up in their bank accounts.
In 2013, Eric Feldman and Marshall Thompson were young beer enthusiasts who began dreaming big. In the following six years, they started a brand, Braven, brewed beer under the Braven label via a contract with Saratoga Brewing, then, in 2018, they opened a brewery and taproom in northern Brooklyn.
Yet, just six months later, in March 2019, the taproom shuttered and Thompson has left New York. They sold the rights to their brand to Newport Craft and the pair are looking for a buyer for their lease.
This is not how the story is supposed to go. What went wrong? How do you go bust in the middle of a boom? The answers say a lot about how the beer scene has changed in a short period of time.
“I think it was a bit of a perfect storm,” says Chris O’Leary of BrewYork New York, an 11-year-old blog that chronicles the local craft beer scene. “They had issues with their contract brewer going out of business with virtually no warning last winter, plus a high rent [$11,330 a month] for a space that was mostly used for beer production.” Frequent L train shutdowns and nearby competition were also significant drawbacks, he says.
The nearby competition was one of several aspects that Braven’s owners didn’t accurately forecast as they plotted their brewery. As they told VinePair in 2016, they thought that they would have the area to themselves. Instead, Interboro opened in late 2016, when that part of Bushwick was now called East Williamsburg. Then, KCBC opened in 2017, and Grimm opened just north of Interboro in 2018.
All three of these breweries focused on weekly releases of 16-ounce cans, which revealed another flaw in Braven’s plan. A key component of Thompson and Feldman’s research and development occurred on a trip to Colorado in 2013, back during New York’s backwater days. They planned on producing beers in 6-packs, the industry norm then and for decades prior. Their aesthetic? A seemingly cutting-edge, post-millennial spin on Milton Glaser’s iconic Brooklyn Brewery labels.
In November 2014, however, Gov. Cuomo signed the Craft New York Act, and selling beers at breweries became legal. Within months, the Christmas-Day-every-Saturday phenomenon became a thing, with lines outside of Other Half resembling college football tailgated. Suddenly, Braven’s 6-packs looked archaic next to the idiosyncratic art of, say, Grimm’s Lambo Door or KCBC’s This is Your Brain on Hops.
Zack Kinney, a co-founder of KCBC, said “can label art is really important, especially with the market becoming more and more crowded. We constantly hear from people saying they first tried our beer because the can labels looked so cool. On that front, we lucked out in that our label artist, Earl Holloway, is a long-time friend of Pete (Lengyel, KCBC Co-founder), so we were all aware of his work. He has this super-cool comic book aesthetic that we feel sets our labels apart — it’s fun, funky, retro, and a bit edgy, and seems particularly appropriate given our brewery is located in Bushwick where the street-art scene is really happening.”
Kinney also said that weekly releases were essential, “given the general obsession in craft beer for ‘whatever is new,’ the weekly can releases seem pretty mandatory these days.” He continued: “We brew a ton of variety (like a lot of other breweries), and we usually sell the vast majority of each batch the week that the beer comes out. It’s a key part of our planning and production.”
Another issue was style. “It’s very hard to lead with a pilsner,” says Josh Bernstein, author of the recent “The Complete Beer Course” (Sterling Epicure) and the forthcoming “Drink Better Beer: Discover the Secrets of Brewing Experts” (Sterling Epicure).
In the double-dry-hopped climate of the craft beer community, he says, it can seem like 90 percent of new beers are India Pale Ales.
By the time Braven opened its facility in September 2018, the founders were aware they were playing catch up. They issued a steady stream of cans into the craft beer marketplace, including two New England IPAs, Moon Froot and Flashy Ways, and Skrrt!, a double IPA. On Feb. 2, 2019, they did their first brewery-only release of three cans. The brewery was active during New York Craft Beer Week, Feb. 23 to March 3; then on March 4, Bushwick Daily reported the brewery’s closing.
The community was floored. Some industry insiders cited Thompson’s move to upstate New York early this year as a warning sign. Others noted that the Harrison Place’s brewing capacity simply wasn’t enough to support profitability. One local brewer who preferred anonymity was considerably harsher, citing a lack of ambition.
VinePair reached out to Thompson and Feldman for comment on this story. Although initially receptive, both failed to respond to repeated inquiries over three weeks. The sale to Newport was announced on social media on April 19. The Harrison Place space is still listed as available.
O’Leary was philosophical about the situation. “It’s kind of amazing that it took this long for a brewery or brewpub in New York City to close in such a short amount of time,” he says. “One in three restaurants fail in their first year. It’s surprising that a brewery — which requires a lot more space and outlay for equipment — hadn’t experienced a failure in that timespan before even in this wave of brewery expansion in the city.”