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 [email protected].
In this “Next Round” episode, host Zach Geballe speaks to Gage Siegel and Simone Schroeder of Non Sequitur Beer Project. Since its infancy, Non Sequitur has existed as a contract brewery, making it a quasi-nomadic operation. In other words, up until now, Non Sequitur has used other breweries’ facilities to produce its beer, though this is soon about to change.
Perhaps what is most unique about Non Sequitur is the brand’s dedication to philanthropy, as a portion of its sales are always donated to local organizations committed to social justice. Siegel and Schroeder discuss their unorthodox operations throughout the episode, from discovering new types of hops to keeping their business afloat during a pandemic — no small feat, considering the brand’s focus on storytelling and interaction with consumers.
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Zach: From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe, and this is a “VinePair Podcast” “Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these conversations in between our regular podcast episodes in order to focus on a range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today I’m speaking with Gage Siegel and Simone Schroeder of Non Sequitur Beer Project. Gage, Simone, thank you so much for your time.
Gage: For sure. Happy to be here.
Simone: Thank you. So happy to be here.
Z: So let’s start out with: What is Non Sequitur Beer Project? I’m assuming it’s not a tribute to the comic strip in the newspaper that I never understood as a kid.
G: Most people don’t even get that reference. That wasn’t the focus, per se. But I definitely thought about it when the name came up. You can also be mistaken to think it was our love letter to our dog, with how much attention we pay to him. Right?
Z: Fair enough.
G: So, Non Sequitur. We’re a one-and-a-half-year-old contract-based brewery based out of Brooklyn, where we live. We started out making our beer in the Bronx, then moved our production over the summer of last year to Red Hook, Brooklyn, tripling our volume with a focus on what we like to call “thoughtfully hoppy beer,” since we’ve got to make a lot of it, and a focus on charitable giving. We’ve done our fair share of initiative beers, if you will, like All Together, and Black is Beautiful, and People Power. But as well, we donate a portion of our sales every month to various New York-based charities.
Z: Wonderful. I want to get into a little bit more about that aspect of the project and how you get aligned with charities. But I want to just cover for those of our listeners who might not be super familiar with the concept. What does it mean to be a contract brewery? What is that life like, that kind of nomadic existence?
G: We are a little bit unique in that world, where we make all of our beer in one place. Of the duo here, I’m the one who hangs out in the brewery all the time. So it’s good for me to have someone to work with over and over again. By its nature, contract brewing, or gypsy brewing, as you might call it, is making beer at someone else’s facility. Generally, they do it for you, and it’s gotten a bad rap because some people don’t get involved in the process at all. Your average is pretty involved. I’m extremely involved. I’m there on brew days, most of the time. I package all of our beer, and I write all of our recipes as well. You’re living in someone else’s living room is really what it is — it comes with its complications. Our contract partners, it’s always a little bit like we’re in their way, but we’ve made the best of it, and we make a heck of a lot of beer these days.
Z: That’s really cool. And for the breweries, the point is, I guess that you’re using their system that might not otherwise be in use, the same way someone might rent out a spare room on Airbnb.
S: Essentially, as part of their business plan, they may have a contract brewing business on top of it. So they have to do their own beer, and then also have tanks available for anyone who wants to brew beer with their employees. So they would utilize the brewers that are in-house at that brewery. For a lot of breweries, it’s also just an extra source of income, and they can be quite successful with a contract brewing program.
Z: So let’s talk about the concept and how you have executed this. What brought you to launching a beer brand, I guess, if not the way we typically think of a brewery? Along with that, since it sounds like these initiative beers and beers that are based around charitable giving, how do you decide what causes to focus on?
G: At the end of the day, getting into beer was something that I wanted to do for many years. I’ve been working in beer directly for about five years, the last five years prior to this. But I didn’t have a million dollars to spend on making it happen. So the contract brewing model allowed us to get started at a reasonable rate through the business out, and then grow from there. So it was just a thing I always wanted to do, and Simone has been an incredibly supportive partner along the way, I have to say. (Thanks.) And yeah, I mean, that was it — it was a thing I wanted to do. I wanted to do it five years ago, and thought I can contribute something unique, and we’ve had to retool and find our explicit focus as we’ve gone along. Our approach to thoughtfully hoppy beer is utilizing unique, new, or interesting hops in our IPAs, or even in our sours and saisons and other things. I’ll leave the charity aspect to Simone.
S: Something to note too is when Non Sequitur was started it obviously wasn’t during Covid, and the idea was one to really have charity play a factor, but also the idea of the pop of taproom, and bringing beer into these unconventional spaces, really wanting to focus on having these really unique events. So obviously, we’ve had to step lightly at this time, but we really tried to continue to keep the charitable giving as a value of the company. When it came to choosing the charities that we’d like to work with, it was always really important to find organizations that were mostly local, so New York City-focused, to support the local community. We worked with New York Immigration Coalition, Make the Road New York, and then as time has gone on, we’ve expanded it to Planned Parenthood and other organizations for some of the charity beers that we’ve worked with, like the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation. Essentially, even if it was a small portion, we always wanted to make sure that we were giving back to the community at large and focusing on communities that maybe don’t get a voice generally to the larger public.
Z: When you’re coming up with the partnership or pairing of cause and beer, is that just, “Hey, I want to make this beer” and “Hey, we want to give to this cause,” or is there any more sort of interplay between those two components of the beer — what you want to make and who you want to donate to?
G: I would say we are not that organized. We’re brewing a new beer on Wednesday, and I made the decision Tuesday morning on what we would be making, and ordered everything Tuesday afternoon. I don’t want to say there’s not thought to put in, but we’re just not that far ahead to be able to build a partnership. A lot of these organizations are just a little bit too big to get involved. The alcohol aspect complicates things, so we make the decision once or twice a month. If there’s a big event that’s happened, we’re very involved. I think you could center our giving on the idea of social justice, most generally. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, we donated to BLM and the New York Civil Liberties Union, Reclaim the Block, and local-focused [organizations] in other places where things on the ground were happening with the communities. We wanted to support those folks. But we’re just making the call on what’s going on in the world at that time. Sometimes, we’re at a loss to pick, so we go down a list of local charities for things that inspire us.
Z: Very cool. To come back to the beer itself, you talked about working with newer varieties of hops. I’m curious: You guys are in New York, it’s not exactly hop country. How does a brewery in New York get connected to what the up-and- coming-things are in the hop industry? Is it just everyone’s online these days so it’s not a secret, or what?
G: You’d be surprised how secret it ends up being, even though it’s all online. You can log in to just about anywhere. We are really good friends with the folks at Hop Butcher in Chicago, we’re pretty tight with Other Half, Humble Sea out in Santa Cruz, I think that is. I hope he’s not listening.
Z: I hope he is listening! Listen to the podcast, people!
G: So we’re friends with people who have been doing it for many years longer than us. And they’ve clued us into the best ways to get your hands on the cool new hops. For 2020, we signed really big contracts for a brewery of our size. So we bought futures, if you will, in hops. We carry big contracts, and I can call those people up and say, “Hey, I heard about this new hop. Any chance you’ve got some?” And if they do, they’re inclined to toss a little our way. We’re equally lucky during Covid. As much as it is generally bad, a lot of folks are giving up hops they would have otherwise used. So a lot of things became available. But just this week, with the pale ale recipe I wrote for next week, I discovered a handful of new hops that one of our broker-grower partners had released this year that I missed out hearing about. So next week’s beer will have one hop that we’ve never used before and another one that when we used it was just a number, an experimental hop.
Z: But it’s gotten a cool new name that sounds like a strain of weed?
G: Exactly. Altice has a name now.
Z: So I have it on, I think, pretty good information from Cat Wolinski that the two of you are in the process of putting together some sort of actual physical space for Non Sequitur. Is that correct?
S: That’s correct. We’re moving to Bushwick. While it may not have been in the original business plan, as I mentioned, kind of having that pop-up idea as the main focus and really being this nomadic brand, we decided to lay down some roots in Brooklyn here in Bushwick.
Z: You can get into as much detail as you care to — was that a difficult decision, given that it sounds like the sort of pop-up experimental tasting thing didn’t even get a long run before Covid? Was it hard to kind of give up that initial vision, or was it like, “Hey, this is an opportunity that we just can’t pass up?”
G: Well, I mean, it was a bummer. Yeah, it was a hard decision. We were having so much fun with the pop-ups. Right before Covid hit was the New York City Beer Week. We threw an emo night dance party that was wild. I still hear from people, brewers from other states and distributors from other states who popped in and out of that party and said it was the coolest event they’d been to. We were having so much fun with those. But as Covid wore on, we just learned that being an all-distribution brewery just wasn’t going to work. It was really difficult to try to get the beer out when we had to rely on distribution partners as New York City was 50 percent shut down, as you are aware. The taproom becomes an opportunity to have a place to sell our beer. The biggest hurdle that we’ve found in the sales of our beer is that we make slightly weird stuff, if you will. It’s not that the beer tastes weird, we make IPAs like the best of them. Sometimes, we’ll play the hits and make your Mosaic, Nelson Sauvin, Galaxy IPAs. But often we’re using ingredients that people don’t know about, and we want the opportunity to talk about those ingredients and why we chose them, and why they’re interesting to the person drinking the beer.
S: We definitely want storytelling to be a part of our brand. So having that opportunity to either have us, or a beertender that’s working and speaking to the public that can really share about why the hops are cool or special or different is really important to us. So we’re looking forward to that particular experience.
Z: Is there a rough timetable on this, or do you not want to say anything at this point?
G: Listen, we want everybody tuning into this, but I highly doubt anybody from the State Liquor Authority is listening. If they hear us, maybe they’ll delay our application, but our application is in. And by all accounts, we should have a license sometime between the beginning of March and the end of May. That’s a pretty big window. It should be on the earlier side. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that everything takes longer and costs more money than you intended.
Z: Yeah, that does seem to be the rule in beverage alcohol. Obviously being only a year and a half or so into this project, it’s not the same as breweries that may have been around for a long time, but you have gone through this pretty big transformation, similar to everyone who has a business. Have consumer demands changed, or have your own interests in what you’re brewing changed since you started? Do you feel like people are looking for different things in their beer since Covid started? Are you interested in brewing different things, or is it all kind of too close together to say?
G: Well, I think that’s a hard question to answer. On one hand, I think that if the tap room was open, or would have been open this whole time, we would have had an excuse to brew more variety of styles, traditional stuff. We wouldn’t have a hard time selling table beer and a pilsner. But when we are sending out the distribution, what the indicators point to is that folks want hops that they recognize. They want well-priced beers and styles. Making expensive, unique, unusual stuff requires a little bit of handholding. We’ve introduced more variety into our production. We still make a lot of hoppy beer, but we were able to introduce variety through our move to a new production facility. Contract brewing is not kind to wild process experimentation. I’ll say that.
S: I think for us, Gage and I would love to be making a lot more lager, pilsner, right? Some cleaner styles as well. And I think we’re definitely going to get there. I think that the taproom is going to open up a lot of doors for us, as well as when we bring production to house. Eventually, we’ll be able to branch out a bit more from our more hoppy beers that we’re making. But like you said, it’s been tough being a distribution-only brand, and when we did take a lot of fun risks, or tried some things out with some stranger hops or lesser-known hops, it maybe wasn’t getting as much appreciation as we would have liked (especially from a cost perspective) to try to create these beers. So I think it’s definitely coming, and the tap is going to open those doors for us to diversify a bit.
Z: One last question for the two of you: When it comes to finding a more permanent home, as far as the charitable giving side of the of the project goes, will the plan still be more of a rotating set of charities, or do you intend to have some more permanent kind of collaborations with a cause? Maybe there’s a beer and a cause that are kind of always available, or always tied together?
S: That’s a good question. I don’t know if we have an exact plan for that. As we mentioned right now, it’s been kind of what’s going on in the world. I’m certainly open to having a long-term partnership with an organization. We’ve discussed that there are local community organizations in Bushwick, our new home, and we’d love to be long-term partners, but nothing necessarily set in stone at this time.
Z: Gotcha. Well, Gage and Simone, thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it. Interesting to hear about what you’re working on. Best of luck with getting the physical space up and running. I know what kind of a nightmare alcohol permitting is everywhere in the country. It’s not just a New York issue, I promise. I look forward to hearing more about your project as it evolves.
S: Thank you so much.
G: Awesome, thank you so much.
Thanks so much for listening to the VinePair podcast. If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever it is you get your Podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show. Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and Seattle, Washington, by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing, and loves to get the credit.
Also, I would love to give a special shoutout to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who are instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.