Airing between regular episodes of the VinePair Podcast, “Next Round” explores the ideas and innovations that are helping drinks businesses adapt in a time of unprecedented change. As the coronavirus crisis continues and new challenges arise, VP Pro is in your corner, supporting the drinks community for all the rounds to come. If you have a story or perspective to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this “Next Round,” VinePair Podcast host Zach Geballe talks with Finback Brewery co-founders Basil Lee and Kevin Stafford about managing their New York City taprooms — located in Brooklyn and Queens — throughout the coronavirus crisis. Lee and Stafford also discuss their new Breathing Conversations series, which they hope will open up further discussion around racial inequality in the beer industry and beyond.
Finback first opened in Queens six years ago, and in February, Lee and Stafford opened a second taproom in Brooklyn. As many restaurants and bars were forced to close due to the ongoing pandemic, the taprooms had to pivot their strategy, focusing on to-go beers and direct-to-consumer shipping and delivery in the early months of the pandemic. Since reopening for outdoor seating, both the Queens and Brooklyn locations have adapted to social distancing restrictions. Heading into the colder months in New York, the pair is now strategizing about how to keep their taprooms open.
Following recent racial injustices and violence, Finback launched its Breathing Conversations series in June. Inspired by Marcus Baskerville’s Black is Beautiful initiative, Lee and Stafford launched the series by partnering with other breweries to release special cans that address racism and social injustice, as well as using Instagram to promote further conversation around race.
Or check out the conversation here
Zach: From Seattle Washington. I’m Zach Geballe. And this is a Next Round VinePair Podcast conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations between our regular podcast episodes in order to examine how we move forward as a drinks business during the Covid-19 crisis. Today, I’m talking with Basil Lee and Kevin Stafford, the co-founders of Finback Brewing in Brooklyn, New York. Thanks so much for joining me. Let’s start off with talking a little bit about Finback. How did you both get started and what brought it into the world?
Basil: Yeah, so I’ll start. Kevin and I have been friends for ages and we’ve always been passionate about beer, and I’d say we opened the brewery just about six years ago now. And at the time was very much the same story. It was a passion for beer, homebrewing, and brewing, things that were fun and experimental. And then we wanted to take the next step. And in New York City, there was an evolution of the craft beer bar, but not so many breweries at the time. And so we kind of got together. We were doing a lot of competitions and homebrew events together, and we wanted to open a brewery, so we just dove in.
Z: Kevin, as far as the decisions you guys made in the early days, I think one thing that I read when I was doing a little bit of research and heard from Cat Wolinski, who is our beer maven at VinePair, is that you’re a little more off the beaten path. Was that a conscious decision, or is that kind of silly? Because, after all, you’re in New York City — you’re not really off the beaten path in any way, shape, or form.
Kevin: Well, actually we are. We started off in the neighborhood of Glendale, Queens. It’s underserved by public transportation, and we didn’t really choose that location, that location chose us. I was looking for a space for almost two years, and I saw everything on the market, and nothing was right. And then when we finally found a place in Glendale, it was just a perfect fit.
Z: And then you’ve recently opened a new location, is that right?
K: Yeah. Over in Gowanus, Brooklyn. It’s more of a centrally located neighborhood. Trains everywhere, people everywhere.
Z: When did you open that? And if it was during this period of a pandemic, how has that been going?
K: We got the space back in October of 2018. So that was pre-pandemic. And then construction moved slow, and I think Basil could probably talk more about that.
B: It was crazy. We thought we were open, even before we knew anything about coronavirus, and then we ended up preparing to open around February, still a little delayed, and the coronavirus hit, and everything changed. I think if you asked me that question around March, April, we thought it was going to be a catastrophe. The world was ending, and we were already so delayed, and it was so gut wrenching. But looking back, I think it ended up — I try to see everything with a little bit of positivity — it ended up giving us a real long soft opening in a way. It forced us just to make decisions and take things really slowly. And, in some ways, I think we benefited from that. We were really able to slowly get the space ready and slowly figure out what we’re trying to do there. And then in some ways, because we had to pivot and do to-go beers and outdoor dining, it kind of just allowed us to open in a way that I feel most businesses don’t get the opportunity to do, right? You’re thrown in the flames on opening night, everything’s crazy and terrible, and then you just have to sort it out. Whereas for us here, we got the chance to really take it slow, for better and for worse.
Z: Well, let’s talk a little bit about the impact that Covid has had on the business in terms of what you guys are making, or how you’re interacting with your customers. What have been some things that have changed, if anything has changed, in this time?
B: Yeah. I think that it was definitely really different than what we thought, or what we intended, when we opened. Because our main production facility is in Queens, and the new Brooklyn space has a five-barrel system, and the idea was to treat it as our creative studio — we’re doing spirits, we’re doing gin, we’re doing coffee, and we’re doing some food. What we really did, though, was put a lot of those projects on the back burner and really allow ourselves to do a lot of pilot stuff, especially on the spirits side, small batch stuff. But we really kept all the beer coming from Queens, and at that point it was really just about, in the beginning, the early days, we didn’t do production, it was really a new place to sell to-go beers in the beginning of the pandemic. And then, when they allowed outdoor dining, we did that in Brooklyn first rather than in Queens, because like you said, the Queens location is a bit off the beaten path. It gave us a little bit of experimentation to see how things worked before we rolled it out in Queens. It changed a lot of things, but gave us a chance to learn about how to deal with the pandemic and operating in the pandemic.
Z: Whether it was in the purely to-go period or when you were able to have some outdoor seating, is what people are wanting still the same? Is the same kind of beer still popular? Or have you noticed any kind of shift in what your customers are asking for?
K: I would say, from a beer style standpoint, it hasn’t changed that much. I think one thing that happened in the early days was just a degree of people being home and not working, and a little bit of this hoarding mentality in the beginning. So maybe we saw a touch of more low-ABV pilsners moving quicker. But in general, I would say, not a huge change there. I think in terms of just what people want, I think that people have definitely, after a few weeks of being locked down, just wanted to somehow find connection. In the beginning, people were buying beers and doing a lot of Zoom calls and hanging out that way. And once we could open outdoor dining, it was interesting to see how people really did crave finding ways of being together.
Z: Let’s talk a little bit about something that you guys have launched during the pandemic, although it’s much more tied to social justice movements. Can you talk a little bit about the Breathing Conversation series and what that is and how it came to be?
B: If I go a little bit back before George Floyd and all of the events that happened earlier this year, we were talking as a team in terms of trying to figure out how we could engage our communities and shape our ethos a bit more consciously and directly. I think it was topics like social justice, and having a more diverse team, were being had at the company. And then when George Floyd happened, it definitely refocused us in terms of really wanting to do something about that. We spoke to Marcus, in the early days when he launched Black is Beautiful, and we thought that was a wonderful project that has had a really big impact, and we wanted to do something ourselves, as well. We wanted to really think about how we could engage in a long term way. And so Breathing Conversations, the concept is that we want to have conversations ourselves, internally and externally, but also to encourage other people to have conversations. So the idea is, in some ways, very simple. On the producer and brewery side, we’ve invited breweries to essentially have a conversation about social justice and race issues, and then somehow take that and commemorate it on the beer can or on the label. The thought is that hopefully, that beer can go out into the world and encourages some kind of discussion. And hopefully friends will look at it and ask a question, talk about it, and maybe bring about some change and some action. That was the idea. We’ve brewed the beer twice now, I want to say we’ve got about 50 breweries who have said that they will be brewing the beer. We’ve had a bunch of breweries already brew the beer. So it’s interesting to see how it’ll evolve.
Z: I think this idea of fostering conversation is great. I’m also wondering, if things are changing in the world of beer, I think that an ongoing conversation has been about inclusion, both on the production side and for guests as well. It’s obviously a huge topic and you can be as granular or as broad as you want, but I would imagine that’s something you’re both thinking of and the business is thinking about, how do you try and be as inclusive as you can be?
B: Definitely, as you’ve said, it touches on so many different levels. And I feel, for us, we have a good starting point because New York City has naturally become more diverse, in general, but also in the beer industry. There are definitely times in the past few years I’ve noticed like, “Wow, the beer drinking community in general is much more diverse here.” And so I think there’s a little bit more access to addressing these issues here. At our brewery, I would say, we are relatively diverse, and for the most part. I feel we actually are more diverse, and have more work, in a way, to do in terms of inclusion on a gender basis rather than on a racial basis at our brewery. We’re always looking, and it is an odd thing, on the one hand, I think we can definitely do a better job in terms of how we can engage and attract more diverse people. We try to reach out in our networks and try to put the word out that we want more diversity, and sometimes it’s just a question of timing and finding the right candidates. At least looking at our recent hires, sometimes it’s just one of these things where you try and it works, and sometimes it doesn’t work and there’s not a connection. But I do think that in this community, in New York City, it’s probably a lot easier than in other communities. When we started Breathing Conversations, we had a lot of our friends reach out and we had conversations with them where they were saying, “Hey, we actually have zero people of color at our brewery.” And at first, I was really surprised, but then some of that is just reflective of the community that they’re in, that it’s just less diverse to begin with. And we were talking to them in terms of how potentially they could attract more diversity. I think Garrett Oliver is doing really interesting work. He started a foundation to really bring people of color, through education and scholarships, into the industry. I think that’ll help greatly. And then also one more thing, on that level. Working with the New York City Brewers Guild, we have created essentially a scholarship to bring interns into the New York City brewing community. It’ll be interns at the guild we’ll essentially select and then they’ll be assigned to various breweries in the city. That will hopefully bring more people, especially early in their careers, into the industry.
Z: Those certainly all sound like noble pursuits and goals. And I’m certainly curious to hear over time how that evolves. I want to come back to something that’s maybe somewhat related, but also is I think is just a beer question, in general. You sort of touched on it, but I’m curious. You talked about how, when Covid started and everyone was at home, there were a lot of attempts to connect with people via Zoom or other kinds of virtual outreach. And then with beer gardens or outdoor dining and seating, you’ve been able to have some of that come back. But we’re entering fall, winter in New York City. I used to live there, it’s not the best place to hang out outside in the middle of winter. How do you envision keeping what I think is essential to any craft brewery, which is that sense of community? What are you doing now? And what do you envision doing in the months to come to keep that alive with your customers?
B: Yeah, I think that’s the million dollar question in terms of things that we, as a team, have been thinking about daily. On the one hand, all the seats in our outdoor area, which is relatively small, are full, it’s great. And it’s great to see people coming out and supporting and enjoying themselves. But there’s also a little bit of trepidation in that also our staff has to manage mask wearing and social distancing, which adds a level of challenges to running a place where people do want to have a good time and be together. So I think it is a balance and it’s challenging. Some things we are trying to think about, especially as we transition into some indoor dining — and we haven’t done that yet — is maybe doing a pod drinking reservation system. But curating it so that it might be a little bit of a tasting, and people stay at their tables and don’t move around, and just have their groups that come in together. In some ways, trying to just manage and control groups a little bit so that people can enjoy themselves and have community. But to manage it a bit better so that it’s not as dangerous when it comes to social distancing issues. On the one hand, it seems conflicting, this idea of social distancing and creating community. But I think we have to figure out how that works because, ultimately, we want to stay open until we find a vaccine. And certainly, if people are not good and the virus spreads, we certainly expect that things will close down again. It really is this kind of balancing act for everyone.
Z: I have a couple of last, hopefully lighter, questions. The first is, can each of you share what your favorite beer is right now that you guys are making? Or I guess someone else’s, but I assume you would probably prefer to mention your own beer.
K: Right now we’ve been working on a series of lightly dry-hopped pilsners called Wellspring. One of our brewers, Alex, has really spearheaded that direction of dry-hopped pilsners, and they’ve been turning out really good. They’re all single-hopped, but they’re tasting fantastic right now.
Z: And are those available at the moment?
K: Yes they are. Currently, we have one of the Wellsprings dry-hopped with Meridian.
Z: Basil, how about you?
B: Yeah, I have to say I agree with that. I’ll stick with our beers as well, but we’ve been releasing a lot more beers out of our wood program — it’s mixed fermentation barrel-aged sour beers. We just did a beer called Reaching Skyward, and it’s all New York State peaches, a house culture, and it’s just super peachy, nicely tart. We’ve got a few more of those coming out in the next couple of weeks. They’re fruited with local fruit and relatively tart, and kind of complex, and nice barrel character, brett character.
Z: And then one last question, which is maybe a little bit more complicated to answer. For people who are interested in your beers, how do they get their hands on them? Besides specifically going to the brewery, which obviously is an answer if you happen to be in that part of New York City or willing to travel. But are you in other parts of the city, the state, the region, et cetera?
B: Yeah. Especially after Covid, we’ve definitely, even more focused on direct-to-consumer. The taprooms for sure. But a great change to the laws from Covid to help the industry out was that we could start shipping beer within the state and delivering beer. So we now ship beer in all of New York State. We deliver beer in the five boroughs in New York City, as well as our taprooms. We have a great distributor relationship in Massachusetts, so we get some beer up to New England through them. We also ship beer to D.C., and we’re looking at shipping beer into a couple of other markets that have a little bit of easier rules to allow you to ship direct-to-consumer. And we’re always looking, especially during this period where we haven’t been doing festivals and traveling much, we’ll always try to do some special drops with friends or with breweries out of state where we might release some cans. We’ve done a drop in California at some point in the past few months. So every so often, we’ll send some beer out just to kind of keep it fun.
Z: Well, maybe you can send some my way up in the Pacific Northwest one of these months.
K: For sure. We’d love to.
Z: Well guys, thank you so much for your time. Really appreciate it. Best of luck with everything, both in terms of the brewery and the Breathing Conversations series. I look forward to seeing what comes next. And of course, I look forward to one day being able to go back to New York City and having a beer. That would be a delight for me. So thanks again so much for your time. Really appreciate it.
B: Thank you.
K: Thank you.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair Podcast. If you enjoy listening to us every week, please leave us a review or rating on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever it is that you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and hosted by Zach Geballe, Erica Duecy, and me: Adam Teeter. Our engineer is Nick Patri and Keith Beavers. I’d also like to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, and the rest of the VinePair team for their support. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again right here next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.