Our Town downtown
August 28, 2006
Chelsea Brewing Company is New York City’s only brewpub and Manhattan’s only brewery. Brewer-in-Chief Chris Sheehan has been there for nine of its ten years.
Why aren’t there more breweries and micropubs in New York City?
It’s a difficult question in general, but there have been occasions where there [has] been as many as seven or eight different brewpubs in Manhattan alone. They all have gone belly up for various reasons, which can include exorbitant real estate tax back [then] … you know, that’s told a thousand times in Manhattan of course. But then there are problems. In some cases it’s quality control. In other cases it could just be maybe a poor location, insufficient clientele.
What are the costs associated with brewing beer?
All your overhead is for raw materials – the barley malt, the hops. Yeast is a negligible expense, but at the same time of course you have labor and utilities … And we do brew our beer by what they call the “Reinheitsgebot,” the German beer purity law, which dictates that you make beer using barley malt, yeast and water and nothing else. We don’t use any kind of additives or clarifying agents or anything like that.
What are the criteria for good beer?
Ideally what you’re looking for are complimentary flavors [as opposed to off flavors], like malt flavors and hop characteristics, as well as maybe some fruitiness that would be naturally-created by the yeast and … It is very subjective … Belgian brewers for example, they use special strains of yeast as well as cultures of bacteria that are designed these flavors, and they work well within the beer. But we don’t do that. We’re just much more, straight up at keeping it as pure and clean as possible.
How did you become a brewer?
I used to work at the 20 Tank Brewery in San Francisco. That’s really where I established my career. And that background is reflected in the beers that we brew here. We do have a little bit more of a West Coast approach to brewing beer here, as opposed to many of the other breweries in the region, which are much more East Coast. And by “East Coast,” I mean generally lots of East Coast brewers tend to brew beers that are more closely associated with the styles of Europe. Whereas in California, it’s much more focused on American styles of ales, in which case brewers in California have taken common European styles and just kind of put in American twists. I actually … started off with you know, being home brewing, reading a lot of books. But most of my experience comes from hands on, working in the trade.
Is there an apprenticeship system, or is it more informal?
Yeah, it’s very informal. Different breweries will allow people to come in. I do it here. I invite home brewers to come and spend some time in the brewery with us. Mark [Szmaida, who also works here] and I got into the career through different ways. Mark … went to school at the … [World Brewing Academy, at the Siebel Institute of Technology] in Chicago, and he completed a more comprehensive program there. I … just started off with you know, being home, brewing, reading a lot of books. But most of my experience comes from hands on, working in the trade. I did a one-week intensive course in sanitation and microbiology at University of California at Davis.
Is beer our national drink? Why is it so popular?
I guess you could say it is the blue collar drink. I mean … more white collar people tend to be drinking wines and … maybe fancy liquors and stuff, but I think … the factory worker, when he gets out of work, he’s drinking a beer in most cases …Maybe I’m painting with a very broad brush by saying that. But, beer is much more ingrained in the culture of Germany … or Czech Republic or Belgium for example … It is essentially the same here in the US, but it’s not as ingrained culturally and not to mention the fact that … the huge bulk of the beer consumed in the US is produced by the Big Three breweries, Anheiser Busch, Miller and Coors … they account for like 95 percent of the beer consumed in the United States. And these aren’t beers that are known for having character and flavor … in Germany they drink beer for breakfast and … nobody blinks an eye … whereas if you’re seen drinking beer for breakfast here, people give you a funny look. So it’s kind of a different mentality.
What are some under-recognized beers?
Anybody who hasn’t had Sierra Nevada Pale Ale should try it … The beer drinking public needs to be educated more about what good beer is. And a lot of people are ignorant to that and it’s not their fault. It’s just that the populace has been force-fed all this misinformation in Anheiser Busch ads and stuff … A lot of people think a beer gets skunky because it gets warm, but that’s not true. A beer gets skunky because of light exposure and that’s why Heineken always is skunky – because it comes in a green bottle.
Do you ever drink the cheap stuff on say… a hot day?
Yeah, once in awhile … After mowing the grass or something, I’ll drink a Yuengling … or any kind of light American lager that has a little more character than a Bud, Miller, Coors. I never drink anything from those big guys, but I’ll drink a Yuengling from time to time, or even a Pabst Blue Ribbon once in awhile … And there have been instances where I’ve gone to like a football game at Giants Stadium and I had no choice. If I wanted a beer probably the best choice I had was Miller Genuine Draft. So there I am drinking my MGD, and you know, I’m not happy about it, but I didn’t really have much of a choice to begin with, you know.
What’s next for Chelsea Brewing Company?
Well, in the immediate future we’re going to be heading back to the Great American Beer Festival next month, and that is what I consider our proving ground, you know as long as we come out of there with an award that justifies our existence.
Where do they hold that?
It’s in Denver every year. It’s a nationwide beer competition. It is the nation’s biggest beer festival, and it is the most high profile beer competition in the nation as well. That’s the immediate future. In the long term future, we’re looking at expanding our draft sales. In fact, we have [an] old bottling wine here … and at this point, we’re looking to sell it, get it out of here and install some more … beer tanks to enable us to produce more beer for off-premise sale. We do have plans to try to step it up, step up production and make ourselves more profitable and more productive.
Does the staff have an in-house favorite?
Yeah … I think as a general rule our Standard Ale tends to be the most popular beer among the staff. I mean I get, I know whenever I bring it out in the spring every year (we don’t serve it through the winter), but when we bring it out in the spring, I know I get a lot of comments back from the staff saying ‘oh I’m so glad it’s back on tap’ … I do see them drink all the other beers as well, but that seems to be the one that gets the most feedback.
How is it made? What does it taste like?
We brew it in the style of an English pale ale. And so we use English-imported malts in it and actually there’s some Belgian malts in there as well. But the main character that makes it an English style pale ale is the English hops that we use in there. And the English hops, in this case East Kent Goldings, impart a bit of that character … which is rather cheesy and a rather kind of floral characteristic
(Mark Szmaida: You can’t leave until you’ve had seven beers.)
-- Matt Elzweig