It was a long winter in NYC.
On a surprisingly sunny Sunday afternoon in early March, however, a few days after a nor’easter hit, Brooklyn’s Vanderbilt Avenue was teeming with life. Traffic filled the two-lane thoroughfare, and residents seemed eager to make the most out of the first spring-like day of the year.
Chris Maestro, a 41-year-old with a shaved head and salt-and-pepper facial hair, was on a step stool, arranging vinyl records inside his craft beer and boom bap hip-hop bar, BierWax, near the corner of Dean Street. He wore a gray T-shirt that revealed the tattoos on his back and left bicep.
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He walked to a corner near the front windows and began setting up the booth where a hired DJ would spin tunes for the rest of the afternoon. His wife, Yahaira, and their five-and-a-half-year-old twin daughters, Madison and Mia, happily watched him doing what he loves most.
The bar gets its name from its main elements: beer and vinyl, two of Maestro’s passions. BierWax opened on January 1, 2018, a time of year Maestro says is “always tough” in the bar industry, but it and has already gotten a nice reception.
“I’d like to say it’s 60 percent neighborhood people and 40 percent destination traffic,” Maestro says.
The non-local folks visit from places like the Hudson Valley and New Jersey, drawn there because BierWax is the first bar of its kind in New York City. It was inspired by Japanese jazu kissa, or jazz cafés, where customers enjoy beverages in an environment that revolves around the establishment’s record collection. Maestro used these as a template for the vision he had for the business. “I can curate amazing beer and sounds,” he thought. “I need to bring this to New York.”
Born in Flushing, Maestro has spent his life in New York, save for a short stint in Seville, Spain. He fell in love with craft beer in his late 20s. He started a blog, interviewing brewers as a hobby. Eventually, he got into home brewing. Meanwhile, NYC’s craft beer scene was exploding.
At the time, he was working as director of pregnancy prevention at the Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women in downtown Brooklyn, where he met Yahaira. When the Urban Assembly program lost funding, he took matters into his own hands and committed himself to beer.
He took up part-time positions for a year, working at Greenport Harbor Brewery and at Finback Brewery in Queens, where he managed the taproom. Along the way, he got certified as a level-one cicerone.
“Whether or not BierWax was open, this is what we would be doing on a Friday or Saturday night,” Carlito Taylor, one of the bar’s investors, says of Maestro’s decades-long love of craft beer and vinyl. “We drink beer and play records… It’s authentic.”
Close friends for more than 20 years, Taylor and Maestro met at Nuyorican Poet’s Café, where Taylor worked in the mid-’90s. At the time, aspiring rappers and poets would perform at open mic nights, and the experience had an enormous impact on Maestro’s love affair with hip-hop. Today Maestro says he enjoys producing music, and feels hip-hop culture defines him more than his own cultural identity, which is is half Guyanese and half Dominican.
Although he claims to have an “ever-changing palate,” Maestro enjoys New England double IPAs and imperial stouts. And BierWax is meaningful to him and his family.
“We believe in them seeing their parents do something that makes them happy,” Yahaira, who works at the Young Women’s Leadership Network, says of their daughters. “I don’t want any of us to live a life of ‘We should have done X.’”
To help raise capital to open the bar, Maestro exhaustively researched crowd-funding campaigns, watching webinars and contacting nearly every single one of his social media followers. His Indiegogo campaign met its goal of $30,000 in just four weeks.
He then had to convert the locale from a Korean dumpling restaurant, its previous occupant, to a bar. The former owners left nearly everything — utensils, appliances, even a bottle of whiskey — after a drunk driver crashed into the restaurant. During the three-month renovation, Maestro would sometimes sleep there amidst the sawdust.
Today, BierWax is home to Maestro’s 5,000-volume vinyl collection. The records are organized by genre first, and then alphabetically, and are housed in U-Line shelves Maestro built to surround the beer tap that he installed. The opposite wall is dedicated to artwork, with the intention of having it be a space to showcase local talent.
The bookshelves in the back corner contain books on home brewing near Jay-Z’s “Decoded,” Questlove’s “Mo’ Meta Blues,” and John Lee Anderson’s “Che Guevara.”
“There’s only a handful of books,” Maestro says, “but I want to put those there as a reminder of who I am and my values.”
Maestro lives in Patchogue, Long Island, which makes for an approximately 90-minute commute by car or two hours by train. This makes Maestro’s time with his daughters sacred.
Yahaira describes him as an “old-school Dominican” dad, full of great jokes. “He’s everything I dreamed of,” she says. “To make sure this isn’t a dream, I just touch his ear whenever I’m with him.”
Maestro’s goal with BierWax is longevity; he’s hoping to last at least five years at the current locale. He sees the bar as a way to be involved in the community, and would like to turn it into a place where progressive grassroots and LGBTQ organizations can host events.
After the last election, Maestro questioned whether he was doing the right thing by opening a bar, especially after having been in education. His wife convinced him he could be an agent of change. Maestro has since held fundraisers, such as one dedicated to Educated Little Monsters, a movement that provides artistic outlets for under-resourced youth of color.
“It’s nice working for people of color,” Helen Yin, a bartender at BierWax, says. “The best thing to see is that he’s made craft beer accessible to different walks of people.”
“You can’t beat the combination of beer and music,” says Danny Brookings, an investor and soon-to-be resident DJ. “BierWax is it. That’s the spot.”