When major brands like MillerCoors go all out to produce craft brew lookalikes (I'm looking at you, Blue Moon), it's safe to say that craft beer has completed its transition from counterculture to mainstream. True craft breweries (with less than 25% ownership by a macro brewer) have a major impact on local economies ($3.5 billion annually in New York State alone). Craft beer supports local job creation, and brewpubs have long served as community meeting spaces, but what does it mean to open a craft beer shop or bar in a neighborhood that's historically been served by liquor stores and bodegas? Who decides what's best for a community? Are more liquor licenses a good thing? We spoke to two business owners and a business gatekeeper about craft brew shops, and their place in changing neighborhoods.
Michael Lambert is the Executive Director of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Gateway Business Improvement District (BID). His job places him at the intersection of community and business interests, and city government. The BID's goal is to support economic development by ensuring that the neighborhood is clean, safe, and well-marketed. "The conversation of gentrification gets visceral. Bed-Stuy may be changing," Lambert says, "but it hasn't changed. The north side of Bed-Stuy still has a lot of economic development challenges, a lot of vacancies, a lot of social issues." By supporting locally-owned businesses, the BID strives to create good jobs and encourage money to recirculate, while protecting the neighborhood's heritage.
Craft beer can play a role in community building, but it may not appeal to everyone. These preferences are not just due to price- Lambert points out that levels of familiarity with craft beer and specialty wine differ between neighborhoods. "Sometimes you might not get the hyper-local guys from the neighborhood because they've never been exposed to it. It doesn't mean that they're not able to afford it. It boils down to stereotype, because Bed-Stuy has some of the richest people of color, but you'd never know it, because they ride the A train and walk around dressed like everybody else." Interest in craft beer is growing, however, as evidenced by the addition of growler-filling stations at mainstream grocery stores like Associated Supermarkets. Lambert says there are high-end and low-end taps with different beer styles, so there's something for everyone. As neighborhood real estate prices go up, the BID is dedicated to supporting long-time residents. If they do decide to "cash out," Lambert helps them get the best price for their property. As he puts it, "When people offer you a bag of money to buy your house, they're not just trying to buy your home. They're trying to buy your legacy. That's why the conversation gets so emotional."
Michael Brooks owns Bed-Vyne Brew (as well as neighboring Bed-Vyne Wine and Bed-Vyne Cocktail), in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He's prioritized listening to the community to make sure his shop fits the bill of what people actually want. "The original idea was to be a bottle shop, to be retail. We allowed people to come in and give feedback while we were constructing the space, and every time I would say 'a bottle shop,' people looked at me like I was crazy." Brooks responded to their rallying cry, "We want a place to drink!" and Bed-Vyne Brew became a bar. "The shelving where we were going to put these high-price bottles turned into a DJ booth." They have live music and dancing and offer frequent tastings and events. They also do community outreach and make donations to support local groups. "When you shop at Bed-Vyne, it's not like the money goes into a black hole, like when you buy from a bulletproof [liquor store]. The money that's spent here gets recycled in the community." As for his clientele, "I would say it's a good mix. The people that have been there for a while, they support us a lot- we have our die-hards that come there every day, for a pint or two after work. And the people that are new in the neighborhood come in and realize, oh, I can bring my dog here... It's a place for everybody." Brooks offers a theory on why rap artists from Bed-Stuy name-drop spirits brands, commonly French cognac like Hennessey: "Bulletproof liquor stores carry commercial brands." And people associate brand names with spending power, or at least, they used to. Bed-Vyne Brew proves that "the craft beer movement is real. People are tired of the corporate game."
Across the East River, Zachary Mack co-owns ABC Beer Co., a bottle shop and bar on Avenue C. Mack was drawn to the neighborhood, known as Alphabet City for its lettered avenues, because of the strong sense of community. "We're not really easily accessible by subway," Mack points out. "The rest of the East Village, west of Avenue A, seems to have developed at a pretty rapid rate, but Avenues B, C, and D have maintained this sense of community that has kept me living there the entire time I've been in New York. I'm not throwing shade on other neighborhoods, but we're pretty lucky." Mack is thoughtful when selecting his inventory. "We're very present owners; we like being familiar with customers, and getting to know the people who come in every day looking for something to eat or drink. Our mantra is: know your neighborhood and know what you're doing."
According to Mack, ABC Beer Co.'s prices are often cheaper than neighboring bodegas, and the owners will sometimes tweak their margins to offer the right range of prices. The important thing for them is to offer plenty of options. "You can spend a lot of money on beer; there are bottles on my shelf of bourbon barrel-aged imperial stouts that cost $26 for a 750-mL bottle, but we also have 99-cent Narragensett." Beer is for everyone, he says, and "craft beer is about enjoying beer for its flavor qualities instead of just getting drunk. I hope that in the next few years, more people realize that beer doesn't just taste like one thing," especially as craft beer offerings grow more diverse. It's not just over-hopped IPAs anymore! Mack has another vision for the future: "I hope that guys stop walking into my shop and asking for something 'girly' for their girlfriend. 'Girly' is not a descriptor for a beverage. Beer isn't just made for fat bearded white dudes by fat bearded white dudes. Everyone can appreciate it."
To learn more, listen to a panel discussion featuring Brooks, Mack, and Lambert on Heritage Radio Network.