Critical Drinking

Critical Drinking with Transmitter Brewing’s Rob Kolb and Anthony Accardi

A lot can change in a couple years. In April 2014, Good Beer Hunting founder Michael Kiser was in New York to speak at an event. He and I took the opportunity to go on one of Joshua M. Bernstein’s always-fun homebrew tours. The theme of this particular tour was homebrewers who had recently “gone pro” and opened a brewery. It was on the tour that I first met Rob Kolb and Anthony Accardi. The pair had just opened Transmitter Brewing in Long Island City at the edge of the Newtown Creek. They set up shop right below the Pulaski Bridge, which loomed above and cast a long shadow over their new digs. The two were old friends, ex-bike racers, and avid homebrewers before they went into business together.

Now, with just a couple years under their belt, and the New York City brew scene continuing its expansion, they’ve also expanded, upping their production and sending their Belgian-inspired farmhouse beers all over the city. Almost two years to the day from our homebrew tour introduction, I sat down with Kolb and Accardi to see how things are progressing.

Are you keeping up with demand?

No. [laughs] I mean, in some ways, because we do bottles, we’re very liquid as far as what goes, as long as we have cooperage. We can decide more in kegs, less in bottles. Kegs go right away, bottles we might have to sit on for a little while.

We move between them pretty fluidly. We can decide today, “Oh, let’s bottle most of that,” or, “We need more kegs. Let’s keg half of it instead of 25% of it.”

It seems like NYC, in terms of brewing, has an added layer of financial complexity that perhaps a lot of places don’t have.

Signing a commercial lease in New York City is probably the number one hardest thing to do when opening a brewery.

Was it tough to find this space?

Serendipitous. We both live right by here and we walked by this space, drove by this space, all the time. Anthony’s wife saw it walking over the bridge—saw the sign for it.

There was literally a sign on the side of the building. We came in, it was all wide open, they said, “Here’s what we’re proposing.”

The decision to set up your brewery in the city versus outside is an important one. Why here instead of Westchester County or out on Long Island?

No. We started small and built it all ourselves, so once you add a commute to a full-time job that you already have for another job, it becomes way less interesting.

It gets super hard. I mean, even being in a place like Red Hook would have been onerous because literally we were coming here at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., working until 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. during build out, but also during the first year of making beer.

Yeah, we’d come here at 6:30 p.m. and be bottling until 10:00 p.m.

You chose Long Island City, which, to non-New Yorkers, is a bit off the beaten path. With craft beer tourism becoming a real market where consumers are spending dollars, did you consider that perhaps being a deterrent to visitation, at least for tourists?

We didn’t even realize what it was going to be. Two years ago, three years ago, it wasn’t even a thing for New York because there were no breweries here. No one was giving that a thought. Now, people are. We had no idea what to expect. And arguably we lucked out because we’re one stop out of midtown. We get tons of out-of-towners, they show up on the train. They’ve looked us up, and they’re staying in midtown and they’re here in five minutes.

New York City already has unusual financial burdens in the form of real estate and overhead costs. What was your strategy at the outset to become and remain financially viable?

We started with a CSB program that helped a lot early on. Early on that was a huge part of our income. Because it’s the opposite of wholesale, where you know, you deliver beer today and get paid in 30 days, hopefully. The CSB works that people pay up front for six months worth of beer, so all of the sudden you get this influx of capital that you can spend on ingredients...it makes it subtly more sustainable, just having that as a small brewery. It brings loyal people in, they often bring friends, it definitely has some sort of novelty factor to it.

This city, like many others, seems to be an IPA town yet you guys don’t brew one. What’s at the heart of that decision? And what are the financial implications of that decision?

Well, we do make what we like, for sure. That’s the start of it. I think we’re still so small that we don’t feel the IPA thing the way a much bigger brewery would.

Or a brand new brewery that’s funded, that answers to people. Another huge part of it is it’s all bottle conditioned. Bottle conditioning hoppy beers, it’s not the most ideal thing. But, to get back to the monetary part of it, we talk about it all the time. We see that IPAs outsell every other beer two and three to one. So, it’s always in our thoughts in some way. We’re running a business, not just making beers for Anthony and I to drink… Like Anthony said, we’re so small that we don’t need to sell 5000 BBLs of beer to make a profit, where [bigger breweries] do. So, they’ll pump out fast IPAs, mediocre [ones] maybe, because the hop contracts they don’t have and won’t get because they’re a brand new brewery. Are they going to be getting handles everywhere? I don’t know. It’s going to be interesting.

We’re giving up more than we’re getting by not making IPAs, but I think long term, it’ll be a much more interesting brewery if we stay focused.

Yeah, I think about oversaturation, and I think about your singular focus and how that’s a differentiator.

Yeah, us being early-ish in the New York scene and spending the next five years perfecting our beer as opposed to making the hoppiest beer will hopefully pay dividends. We keep telling ourselves that at least. [laughs] You gotta believe in something!

Reputation out in the world is important, beyond the local brewery. We’re thinking we don’t have to be a huge regional brewery. In fact, that would probably work against us. Our goal is to make great beer first, to share it with people who want this kind of beer, and not worry about serving it at every bar and every restaurant. It’s not right for everyone, and that’s okay.

That said, you’ve made a Stout or two, including a barrel-aged one, which seems out of step with your portfolio. Are those outliers or evidence of expanding your offerings?

I mean, we do want to play for sure, but we still look at them as being Belgian in shape and intent, at least the bones of it. We haven’t done a wedding cake stout. While we do focus on this Belgian and French tradition, I’d say we’re not mimicking those beers, we’re just using those as a jumping off point. That gives us a lot of leeway in how we interpret that.

Transmitter came along during a period of mass expansion in terms of breweries in the city. It was fun to watch it develop as a consumer, but as a business person, on the other side of the tap, what did you want to do to stand out from the crowd, to not get lost in the shuffle? Were you concerned about competitors?

In the beginning, we were going to do what we were going to do. We were going to make the beer we wanted to make. I think we’re still doing that. We haven’t caved yet. But, you know, you open a business in New York… Anthony ran a business in New York for 25 years, I’ve been in advertising worrying about other people’s business. If you’re not aware of it, then you’re not in business—it’s a hobby.

We didn’t choose what we do so much because we thought there was room for us and what we wanted to do.

It wasn’t calculated?

When we homebrewed, we never made an IPA. We only made Saisons, Belgian Dubbels, Quads and then Brett stuff. We never made an IPA as a homebrewer.

For better or for worse, the intent is pure. We really do make what we like to drink. A lot of times, I don’t know it lends anything good to the business except that you’re making stuff that you’re proud of, that you’re interested in, and I think that can add a sense of quality to the beer that you can’t otherwise get. You know, we listen to people and want to hear what they like—we’re not working in a bubble.

We are making a Gose now. [laughs]

I hear people like those.

We have to keep the lights on. But we also don’t make weird beers. We’re not purists. But like Anthony said, no weird Stouts or anything. It’s all going to take some inspiration from Belgium.

It seems as though you take these very traditional approaches and just tweak here and there, a nuanced thing.

Yeah, balance is critical in our beer, so we try to not go too far off the reservation with additions. We want to keep them balanced, keep them nuanced, keep them drinkable. I think it allows us to aim for a pretty tight target, but I think we can make beers that have some subtle flavor additions that won’t put people off.

New York is a town for foodies, and wine tends to go hand-in-hand with that. Do you focus on getting your beer into food establishments in the city?

It’s a huge consideration. I think the biggest change that’s happened in the last few years is the Cicerone program, and that’s opened the door in many ways.

Are you finding restaurants opening up more and being more curious, trying to get their beer programs going?

Certainly craft beer in restaurants has exploded. Great restaurants are moving to having a matching high-quality beer program to a traditional wine program. Arguably beer pairs with some foods much more easily than some wines, so it’s an obvious addition to a great program. Again, without trying to work into that market, our bottles are often treated like wine. They can be handled like wine. We have a few restaurants that are cellaring our beer because of the bottle conditioning and the styles we make. We didn’t know that would be something that was available to us as a brewery, but it certainly is, and we capitalize on it as best we can.

I think we’re just scratching the surface, with so many restaurants in New York City. Every time you turn around there’s a Cicerone at a restaurant—there’s not just a wine director, but also a beer director. It’s one of our focuses, for sure. It’s one way we talk about growing the business.

Some of those places don’t have a draft system, or maybe a very small draft system, so the bottles fit in without any friction at all. So they’re just allocating space to a beer bottle instead of a wine bottle.

Yeah, I was tasting with Michael [Greeson, Wine Director] at Del Posto, and he said, “I love this particular Saison.” It might have been S4. He said, “I drink a lot of champagne and this is right there.”

What’s Transmitter’s focus for 2016?

Even as small as we are, the first two years, the beer sold itself to the top beer bars. We didn’t have to do any outreach. They came to us, they asked for beer, it sort of grew organically. I feel like now, we’re trying to go one step deeper, beyond the people that read the beer blogs in terms of buyers at the wholesale level. Maybe they’ve heard of us, maybe they haven’t, maybe they’ve had the beer once. Those people certainly haven’t emailed us directly whereas all of those first tier beer bars did.

I think there’s some style growth—some cold side sour aged stuff that we’re working on.

Yeah, slower beers. Even as slow as we’re making them, there are things we want to do that are slower still. We just haven’t been around long enough, so now it’s time to add that to the mix for a couple of years out.

But there’s no major plans. I mean, we talked about it—raise capital and build a 30 BBL brewhouse. But the more we talk about it, the less interesting it is to us. I think staying tight in what we’re doing and slowly growing to a certain point is going to make us a lot more happy than me standing in front of a 30 BBL brewhouse wondering what I’m going to do with 12 pallets of saisons. 

Critical Drinking™

Beer is so much more than what's in the bottle for the men and women who make it and sell it. There are real livelihoods at stake, and they spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the industry they serve. These are their forward-looking thoughts, and their critical thinking on what's happening now.

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