Dividing the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Carroll Gardens and Park Slope lies a stretch of water known as the Gowanus Canal. Originally a tidal inlet explored by both Henry Hudson and Giovanni de Verrazzano, years of industry and pollution have left it one of least attractive places in Brooklyn — a Superfund site recognized as “one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States.” But something unexpected started happening a few years ago. I’ve called Brooklyn home for a brief nine years, and in that span of time, despite the area's notorious reputation, the streets buffering the canal started transforming.
Once an area I actively avoided, it’s now teeming with activity. At first it was a slow trickle — a coffee shop here, a restaurant there. Vacant buildings became homes to pie shops and BBQ joints. And then, in November of 2013, a proverbial anchor for the area arrived in the form of Brooklyn’s first Whole Foods, rising at the edge of the Gowanus, the gleaming new building reflecting in the still polluted waters. There are now condos filled with tenants, warehouses being converted, areas cleared awaiting new construction and a seemingly steady flow of foot traffic. With this rebirth of sorts, it came as no great surprise to learn of a new brewery moving in.
The story of Brooklyn’s Other Half started on the other coast. Sam Richardson, the more bearded/less talkative of the two, studied Fermentation Science at Oregon State University. After college, he got his start in craft beer at places like The Ram in Seattle and Pyramid in Portland. While visiting his wife’s family on the east coast, he happened to come across a job posting looking for a brewer and decided to go for it. They soon found themselves moving some 3000 miles to New York so he could take on the role of head brewer at Greenpoint Beerworks. It was there that he met Other Half co-founder Matt Monahan, the more tattooed/less bearded of the duo. Initially starting in the food industry, Monahan was looking to make a switch due to the birth of his daughter.
“I didn’t want that lifestyle, those hours, for the rest of my life....I figured I’d be a much better dad on a brewer’s schedule.” Which, of course, has a downside. “I went from a chef’s salary to making nothing.” He took a job at Greenpoint as well, and it was there that he and Richardson hatched the idea of Other Half.
Out of interest and curiosity, Monahan inquired about brewing on Greenpoint’s pilot system, which got the attention of Richardson. A friendship followed, and with it, the opportunity to begin collaborating. Through Monahan’s food connections, an opportunity arose to do a pop-up restaurant with Andrew Burman (the third partner of Other Half). He thought it would be a great idea to create some one-off beers to pair with the food. Richardson brewed four beers for the event, which garnered a lot of positive feedback including some beverage directors asking for custom beers for their restaurants.
“We kind of looked at each other and said, 'We can do this,’” he remembers.
But that’s where things get interesting. Anyone with even the most superficial understanding of New York City real estate can deduce that space — enough to house a brewery — is quite a financial burden when starting a business in one of the five boroughs. So it’s no small coincidence that New York City has its fair share of breweries just beyond the edges of the city. “It’s absolutely financially driven,” Monahan says.
Undeterred, they moved ahead with their plan, and nearly two years after initially conceiving their idea, Other Half opened its doors on an unassuming side street in Carroll Gardens, draped in the shadow of the elevated Brooklyn Queens Expressway.
Other Half saw the benefits of being within the very city consuming most of its beer: absolute freshness. “We have hundreds of accounts that are within five to ten miles of us," Monahan says. "We can hit ten accounts in less than hour.” This translates to some of the freshest beers available at the hundreds of bars scattered throughout the city. “Most bars could tap a beer that was in one of our tanks that morning,” he says.
This is no small point as both Monahan and Richardson consider their IPAs fragile. They want customers to taste their beers as they themselves want to drink them. It becomes evident that these two are absolutely committed to high standards, even if it comes at a cost to their margins. “We know there’s a top to what we can charge. But if we want to make it and that’s how we want it to taste, we’re not going to cut back on quality or ingredients just to meet a price point, we’ll take the hit,” Monahan says.
Mention top food cities and New York is usually in the conversation. Foodies can rattle off the names Per Se, Le Bernardin and Eleven Madison Park as quickly as beer geeks can rattle off Cantillon, Hill Farmstead and Jester King. With Monahan’s culinary background, how Other Half navigates and works with the restaurant scene is always a consideration. Truth is, wine has always dominated fine dining, but that tide is shifting with more and more restaurants pairing interesting beers with meals. The challenge, however, is volume. Bars can burn through kegs in no time, but not necessarily so in restaurants. People don’t go to restaurants because of the tap list. But that hasn’t stopped Other Half from pursuing this angle. “We’ve really wanted to be in some of the nicer spots...we’re in the Andrew Carmellini restaurants, Danny Meyer, we’re going to have some stuff in Per Se.”
If volume consumption is a concern at restaurants, one place that isn’t an issue is in a brewery tasting room. Other Half was never supposed to have a tap room. When their lease was signed, it wasn’t possible for breweries to sell their beer for consumption on premise. But thanks to a law change, the pair knew they’d need to carve out at least a small nook in order to interface with their customers. On any given day, particularly weekends, their tiny room is bustling with a healthy din of conversation and the clink of glasses. It’s not the largest tap room in the country, but that hasn’t prevented crowds from testing its capacity.
“People complain about the size of it, but we can’t control that; we never anticipated having it,” Monahan says. And while this might be taken for granted in other cities, the fact that it wasn’t possible until very recently dramatically changes New York City in terms of a destination for beer folk. “I feel like, in New York City, you could spend an entire weekend going to breweries, you couldn’t do that ten years ago.”
Other Half’s rise is not that dissimilar from your favorite rising indie band. Word of mouth has been their greatest, if not their only, form of marketing. For a small brewery, profits are often necessarily funneled back into equipment and raw materials, leaving very little for any sort of formal marketing budget. And that’s exactly why making a quality product is crucial to an upstart brewery. Produce a good beer and you can pretty much anticipate the chatter. Beer folk have a way of getting the word out. It’s the perfect model. Conversely, brew a bad beer and, well, best of luck. From the outset, Other Half relied solely one word-of-mouth. Conversations with local buyers at craft bars led to a tap handle here and there from “that new brewery in Brooklyn.” Jump forward some 18 months later and you can anticipate standing in line on a release day to score some of their coveted cans of Green Diamonds, All Green Everything, and their very popular single hop series of IPAs.
Luckily for me, it’s not a release day, and it’s before tap room hours, so without difficulty, I enjoy a bit from the most recent of the single hop IPAs, Mosaic. I thought it would be impossible to top the Nelson and Citra they canned, but something about the Mosaic is just plain working. Sparkling gold in color, with tons of tropical fruit notes wafting out of the top of the tulip glass, it’s an infinitely drinkable seven percent ABV brew. While offerings like Green Diamonds and All Green Everything are their huge hop bombs and the ones that get folks talking, it’s the single hop versions that I feel really showcase the expertise Other Half brings to the table.
In roughly two years, Other Half has risen from upstart to frequently being pegged as the best brewery in New York, and are often in the conversation for best new brewery, period, in the country. It’s a pretty meteoric rise, one that’s all the more impressive when you consider the pace at which new breweries open, crowding the field and all clamoring for that sort of notoriety. Not bad for a relatively small place, housed behind an unadorned facade, surrounded by the monstrosity that is New York City. In an unforgiving city that can easily choke the life out of a new business, Other Half has thrived, and has done so on merit. Oh, and about that “green” naming convention...All Green Everything, Green Diamonds, G Is For Green, etc...I couldn’t resist asking the meaning. There must be some well-conceived marketing thrust, labored over in small room lit by only a single desk lamp. Richardson allays this notion with a succinct reply; “It’s simple. Hops are green.” And in a way, that sums up Other Half. No elaborate plot, just the simple, earnest goal of making great beer.