One of the reasons the American craft beer industry has exploded in the past decade — jumping from 1,511 breweries in 2007 to 6,372 breweries last year — has been the corresponding rise in the hobby of homebrewing. Similar to how rock bands practice in their garages in hopes of one day recording in a professional studio, a generation of craft brewers started tinkering with cobbled-together equipment and recipe ideas in their kitchens, with dreams of one day owning their own breweries.
For Joe and Lauren Grimm, the husband and wife team behind Brooklyn’s Grimm Artisanal Ales, that dream will come true this Saturday when the couple officially opens the doors of their new brewery and taproom in East Williamsburg. But a funny thing happened on the way from the kitchen to the taproom: Grimm Artisanal Ales became a legendary brewery before the brand even had a brewery to show for it.
The Grimms started their craft beer journey as “gypsy brewers” — a more romanticized way of referring to “contract brewing,” or renting out space in someone else’s brewery to make your beer. Despite the clear cost-saving benefits, contract brewing can have a negative connotation, conjuring up thoughts of absentee brewers letting someone else churn out beer on their behalf with little quality control. But a new generation of gypsy brewers that also includes big names like Evil Twin and Stillwater turned that idea on its head, creating acclaimed brews by using a hands-on, detail-driven approach even in situations that might not be precisely what they would have chosen left up to their own devices.
As the Grimms’ interest in homebrewing grew during the late aughts, they created their own “homebrew CSA,” as they called it, getting friends to chip in money to fund their obsession. “We wanted to brew more beer than we could drink, and we wanted to brew more beer than we could afford to make,” explains Joe. “So we needed to broaden the number of mouths to feed so that we could brew several times a week so we could learn faster.” Interest grew beyond their friends, and in 2013, the couple landed in the first of a few commercial breweries where Grimm temporarily set up shop: Paper City Brewery in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Despite their gratitude for Paper City’s willingness to help get Grimm Artisanal Ales off the ground, the brewery was one of those less-than-perfect setups. “It was really pretty run down. Leaky ceilings,” says Joe. “No PH meter,” Lauren tosses in. “It was pretty rough,” Joe continues. “But we quickly figured out what we needed to do to make quality beer there even though it wasn’t really the ideal spot for us.”
The optimist in Lauren — and speaking with the Grimms, their voices brim with positivity — found the silver lining in this situation: “It taught us to be rigorous and be on top of things and be present,” she explains. “Joe and I have been at almost every single brew day that we’ve ever had until fairly recently… And so at Paper City we actually ended up winning a GABF medal for one of the beers that we produced there which was Double Negative.”
Double Negative — a massive 10-percent ABV imperial stout described as “jet black” and bursting with aromas of “coffee, bitter chocolate, caramel, black currant and blueberry” — was a huge turning point for Grimm Artisanal Ales. Joe and Lauren had already garnered plenty of buzz around Brooklyn dating back to their CSA days, but in 2014, just one year after the brand officially launched, Grimm took home a silver medal for Double Negative in the Imperial Stout category at the Great American Beer Festival. The next year, the same beer took home gold — an unlikely string of success at America’s largest beer competition, but especially one for a “brewery” that didn’t have an official home outside of the couple's apartment. That same year, Grimm took two of the top five spots in one of Paste magazine’s popular blind-tastings of double IPAs with their juicy, New England-style brews Tesseract and Lambo Door. The Grimm cat was out of the bag. As you might expect, around this time, the Grimms began pushing forward with opening their own space.
Grimm Artisanal Ales’ first permanent location — at 990 Metropolitan Ave in Brooklyn — is a long way from those early Paper City days, not just in distance, but in finally actualizing a dream setup as well. Thanks in part to a $4.2 million loan through the New York Business Development Corporation (early success has its advantages), the Grimms have retained complete control of their brand, which included ordering custom-built equipment to fit their specifications. “We designed everything about our brewery to be the best for making our beer, and we’ve learned a lot from working in all these other places about how we would want our place to be,” Joe tells us. “For example, we’re really interested in the complexity that comes from yeast esters, and we have special geometry in our fermenters that brings out the fruity, soft quality of our IPA yeasts…so we were able to dial in all these little details so that our beer will taste better coming out of here than anywhere else.”
Of course, though these details are essentially on display at Grimm’s new taproom — the facility has a minimalist style and an open floorplan with no real demarcation between drinking space and brewing space — most visitors will be worried more about what’s happening in their glass than in the 30-barrel brewhouse. The brewery plans to offer somewhere between ten and 20 of their beers on draft on any given day, with growler fills and some packaged beers available as well. Those looking to mix thing up will also be able to choose from a selection of ciders and wine sourced from New York’s oft-underrated Finger Lakes region. And food comes courtesy of the nearby Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant Samesa.
And yet, the space also tips its hat to the Grimms' early days of brewing in their apartment as well. “As far as design goes, there’s a lot of overlap,” says Lauren. “Our home is also very light-filled and doesn’t have many walls, a kind of open floor plan, and there’s also lots of plants. The shelves that we have in our taproom, when it came to bringing in objects to decorate them with, Joe and I just looked at our bookshelf at home and were like, ‘Okay, want to bring these books and these books?’” To which Joe adds, “And all of our records that we thought would be fun to play during taproom hours.” (For the record, hours are Monday 5pm-10pm; Tuesday-Wednesday closed; Thursday-Friday 5pm-12am; Saturday 10am-12am; Sunday 12pm-10pm.)
But if there’s a larger takeaway from the Grimms’ experience it’s that, from a CSA-style approach to gypsy brewing to finally building out your own facility, this process takes not just dedication to your vision, but dedication to other people as well. “Even though we started as a gypsy brewery and technically only had two people working for this company — me and Joe — we actually are relying on many, many people,” Lauren explains. “It’s a whole community effort to bring our ideas and our beers into reality.”
That reality takes another major step forward this weekend.