Chris Cuzme has two life goals: to make beer and play music.
“I’ll never, ever be or feel like a complete person if I’m not doing both at the very least,” he says, sitting at a communal table in the taproom of Fifth Hammer Brewing Company in Long Island City, Queens. Cuzme, the brewer and co-owner at Fifth Hammer, is also a professional saxophonist.
“Getting a beer from concept to glass is equally as necessary for me as bringing a melody into the ether,” he says. Overhead, a pair of giant, scowling inflatable sharks, hung in celebration of Shark Week, swayed and circled in the breeze coming from the open garage door.
Cuzme is 41 and often wears a black T-shirt bearing his last name. Most of his nearly decade-long career as a brewer has been in New York, where he has elevated the beer scene through his past roles as president of the New York City Homebrewers Guild and the Malted Barley Appreciation Society, and as a founding member of NYC Beer Week.
Last fall, he decided to open his own brewery with David Scharfstein, who Cuzme calls a “recovering lawyer.” Fifth Hammer, whose name comes from a tale about the Greek philosopher Pythagoras, quickly struck a chord with the beer world: Open just a few months, BeerAdvocate named it one of the 50 best new breweries in the U.S.
Cuzme’s personal collection of more than 300 vintage hammers serve as handles for the taps that dispense a range of impressive beers: rotating IPAs like Wonderful Nonsense and Always the Aardvark; Neighborbraü Pilsner; and the Giggle Gaggle series of Berliner weisses.
The taproom fuses Cuzme’s two loves at its weekly “Beers For Ears” events, where musicians improvise music inspired by the draft lift. “We get 2-ounce pours every 10 or so minutes and the music goes in a new direction based on the beer served,” he says. “It’s totally fun and different every week, a way we can celebrate flavors of beer and life.”
Cuzme’s love of music and beer are intertwined. We caught up with Cuzme to find out how he balances his two great passions.
1. What’s your desert-island beer?
I dream often of being stuck on a desert island with nothing but John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” and an Orval. Complexity and depth with skill of execution makes for a fresh and inspiring experience every single time. Put me on this island already!
2. What’s the beer that made you fall in love with beer?
A gift for Christmas many a yesteryear was my first saxophone CD, a best of Coleman Hawkins album. The performance of “Body and Soul” immediately captured my flavor. The next time I felt this profundity was with my first sip of a Stoudt’s Honey Porter, a one-off the Pennsylvania brewery made many moons ago that I was fortunate enough to grab a keg of for a birthday party.
3. FMK three beer types: IPA, pilsner, sour?
Interesting question… I’d kiss Sidney Bechet with an IPA in my hand (thanks for all the high notes!), fornicate with Dexter Gordon while sipping pilsner (thanks for the consistent gratification!), and ultimately marry Duke Ellington with a sour beer in my hand.
4. You’re on death row. What’s your last-supper beer?
I’m not at all a religious man, but I am a spiritual being. If listening to Pharoah Sanders’ “The Creator Has a Master Plan” while sipping on a Thomas Hardy’s Ale barley wine was the last thing I do in this life, I would definitely die happy. Or at least in a profoundly contemplative thinking man’s pose.
5. You can only drink one beer for the rest of your life. What is it?
There are many saxophonists and beers that I could never tire of, but to top them all (in the right now) is John Coltrane and Thiriez Extra.
6. What’s the best and worst beer in your fridge right now?
This one time while in line at the Blue Note, a dude came off the street and sold me a bootleg mixtape —yes, an actual tape, it was a while ago! — of him apparently playing alongside some notable avant-garde musicians. But it turned out to be a pretty bad recording of a home jam session. I still have it, and it’s akin to some of the confused homebrew in one of my refrigerators. These are beers left over from competitions that didn’t quite make it to the “best of show” round.
But I have great stuff, too. I’m quite proud of my Dexter Gordon discography and I’ve listened to “Long Tall Dexter” for so long that every song invokes magnificent memories whilst creating amazing new moments. I have some rare remaining bottles from 508 GastroBrewery that do the same thing for me and are still delicious. For example, the 2014 Old Salty Barleywine collaboration with Bill Coleman, creator of the “Salty Dog” comic strip in the Ale Street News!
7. If you could no longer drink beer, what would be your beverage of choice?
I guess if the world all of sudden rid itself of both jazz saxophone and beer, I’d be listening exclusively to R&B and soul and sippin’ on Champipple. I’ve never had it and they don’t make Ripple anymore, but a guy can dream, eh?