The story of Braven Brewing Company is steeped in local history, a fact that surprises many local residents who are new to the namesake New York neighborhood. That history also surprised founders Marshall S. Thompson and Eric Feldman as they were putting together their original business plan.
Bushwick is a revitalized part of the city, one of former manufacturing splendor that later lost its jobs and, consequently, its tenants. As Bushwick’s economy improves, it has captured a new creative set. “I originally moved out here because I liked the cultural scene,” says Thompson, now in his fourth year in the neighborhood. “I liked the independent spirit and the creativity that I saw in a lot of the neighbors, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
Braven isn’t just creating new craft beers like Black Pale Ale and White IPA, though. They have their eye toward those vacant warehouses that dot the neighborhood, and while the city landscape has changed, they’ve integrated that deep industrial history of Bushwick into their own brewery’s story.
Bushwick was home to over two dozen breweries in the late 1800s, though most of the buildings were razed long ago. Due to a wave of German immigration combined with Ridgewood Reservoir, the neighborhood was flush with local beers, including what became known as a Bushwick-style pilsner. When Feldman and Thompson discovered a recipe years ago, they began experimenting on what is now Bushwick Pilsner, a fast success story that has shaped the brand’s identity. Currently contract-brewed at Olde Saratoga Brewing Company, Braven is able to mass-produce the beer in large batches as they raise funds toward their own space back home in New York City.
Braven sold over 2,000 barrels in 2015 and is on pace to more than double that in 2016. Sales figures recently ranked Bushwick Pilsner as the #3 selling American craft beer with their distributor, with under two years’ experience for the brewery.
We talked with Braven’s founders about brewing traditional styles and finding real estate in New York City.
Paste: Is fundraising the primary issue in building a taproom, or is finding the right space a concern?
Feldman: We’ve found a lot of buildings we’ve fallen in love with and had to let go because of funding. It really comes down to having the capital to move forward. Bushwick used to be a huge manufacturing hub back in the day and the neighborhood kind of fell apart, so a few businesses and warehouses sat empty while others kept going. These days a lot of them are turning over. It’s really just a matter of finding one in a good location and that we have enough money to build out.
Paste: Why Bushwick? Does having a specific neighborhood limit your options?
Thompson: Right now it’s experiencing this boom. When you start having more likeminded people in a neighborhood it develops a certain feel and culture that attracted me to it.
A lot of New York City has pretty strict zoning where you can and can’t put a brewery even though years ago breweries were these massive ordeals that would take up a whole city block…We knew we’d be able to find a space here without too much of an issue.
Paste: When did the history start to interest you?
Thompson: That was a discovery we fell into when we started putting the business plan together for Bushwick. It’s really been enlightening because most of this history has been lost to newcomers. Most of the factories have been torn down so there aren’t many physical relics of what was here before. There’s no museum of Bushwick brewing history. We should probably do one now that I think about it.
Feldman: With all that free time that we have, might as well start writing some books. [Laughs.]
Thompson: We wanted to make a beer that honored the breweries that came ahead of us, a traditional style of beer that hasn’t been seen in at least 40 years. We brewed it a number of times at home in Eric’s apartment. It’s kind of hard to home brew a pilsner, it’s a slow process and I wouldn’t recommend it.
It’s become our number one beer. It’s a classic American pilsner. What we do is add flaked maize, which is traditional to the pilsners that were made in Bushwick. It has a residual sweetness to it that I think is really appealing.
Feldman: Our other beers are more hybrid styles that let us get creative and pull in disparate elements, but with the pilsner, we wanted to go true to form.
Paste: Were you expecting this response to the pilsner?
Thompson: We were a little surprised. It’s nothing fancy; it’s classic. People have gotten to the breaking point with IPA and are coming back a little from the too bitter beers. Our other beers do well too.
Feldman: Pilsner, for a long time, was a dirty word and craft breweries avoided it because of the associations you might get with Miller Lite or Budweiser. It was one of those original styles that has always been popular, especially in Germany.
Paste: Is it surviving on its flavor and not just the story behind it?
Thompson: I think you need both these days to really be successful. There are a lot of good stories out there and there’s a lot of beer and I think the ones that have both are the most successful.
Paste: What are you planning for the taproom?
Thompson: We can get more creative or do stuff that has more historical ties to the city of New York. But we brew at a large scale [now]. When you brew 110 bbl at a time you don’t really have the option to be creative like you do in a smaller taproom.
Paste: Does contract brewing allow you to start bigger?
Feldman: We’ve been able to get our beer into a lot of accounts because we can do volume. Mostly we’re able to do packaging too. A lot of small breweries in New York City don’t have a bottling line or canning line to produce a lot of packaged beer. We’re able to do that at a pretty good price point too. We can compete on the shelf with local and national breweries and that helps with distribution a lot.
Paste: Anything you want to add?
Thompson: We heard different things from people about having a pilsner as our flagship beer but it’s really great that it can take a different space in the craft world [than IPA]. It lets us stand out just by doing something different, even though something different is actually traditional.
Three Beers from Braven You Need to Try
White IPA: 5.0 ABV, 47 IBU. Citra hops pop through the aroma with a mild Belgian build at the core of this hybrid IPA. Orange and coriander add depth while Cascade bitterness finishes it off.
Bushwick Pilsner: 5.5% ABV, 35 IBU. Fizzy and light, this beer has an acidic hop character with a bready body and a dry, starch finish due to the corn inclusion. A rounded malt base and categorical everyday beer.
Black Pale Ale: 5.2% ABV, 40 IBU. Light citrus balanced with light roast malts that marries dark and light beers from start to finish.