Good Beer Hunting

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Turning Left in a Right World — Suarez Family Brewery in Livingston, NY

Dan Suarez just wants to sell you some tacos. He’ll tell you as much if you drive the two or three hours from Boston or Brooklyn or your New England urban hub of choice, eventually winding along Route 9 toward the sleepy, small, spread-out town of Livingston, sitting down in the gloriously restored former lamp factory where he and his family—wife Taylor, newborn Enzo, and dog Vanah—have established Suarez Family Brewery.

“I think a smart thing to do is to grow horizontally rather than vertically,” Suarez says on a quiet November Saturday morning in his tasting room about an hour before it opens to the public. 

I’d just made the trek—on quiet highways and winding country roads—from Boston to this place, Middle Of Nowhere, NY. There were gorgeous landscapes and tons of farmland, not to mention the kind of country folks that reminded me of my upbringing in rural Illinois much more than any impressions I had of The Empire State previously. (Granted, those had all been informed by the five boroughs, but still.) Driving through New York’s peaceful Hudson Valley, I wondered who lived there, what kind of secrets they held. I’d gotten up a little earlier than I normally do on a Saturday, and was ready to talk about interesting beers.

Instead, this happened:

“I would love to open a taqueria because a) I love tacos and kind of have a dream of being a taqueria proprietor, but also b) because it will make this place that much cooler to come out to. All I know is that if I saw a sign that said ‘tacos and beer,’ I’d be like, ‘We can’t not stop. Let’s tack on another hour, have a beer, get some tacos.’ I also think it’s, like, doable. If we did food here, I’d wanna do it properly. At some point this winter, I have plans to do some R&D sessions. I think we could do it and keep it all in house. We’ll see. That’s an idea.”

Dan Suarez has a lot of ideas, and they’re taking root in an old building in a small town in New York State, an hour away from anything resembling a big city. He’s not in a hurry, though. And he’s not building an empire. He’s just making crispy little beers. And people are taking notice.

In 2007, Suarez was living and homebrewing in Brooklyn when he started bugging people. There are a few dozen breweries in New York now, but at the time, there were four—Brooklyn Brewery, Sixpoint Brewery, Chelsea Craft Brewing Company, and the now-defunct Greenpoint Beer Works. 

“I knocked on the doors of all of them,” Suarez remembers. "‘Are you hiring? Can I scrub the floors? Can I hang out for the day?’ Eventually, I got to poke around at three of the four. At the time, and I hope it’s still like this, Sixpoint had a real culture of taking in homebrewers. They would pull yeast out of the fermenters for you, they’d sell you hops and grains at wholesale. It was great. The policy was that if anybody brought a homebrew, they’d make time to critique it. I’m very thankful that that was the culture there. I showed up and expressed enough psycho enthusiasm that they were like, ‘We should hire this guy.’”

It was during his time at Sixpoint that Suarez met Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead. The latter had been working on setting up his farmhouse brewery in rural Vermont when Suarez reached out in March 2010 because, as Hill remembers it, “he wanted to come up and see what I was getting into… It just so happened that he visited in the days leading up to the first brew, and lent a hand setting up fermenters, milling grain for the first batch of beer, and getting things clean.” 

Suarez stayed at Hill’s house and the pair spent time “sampling beers and getting to know each other.” He left an impression. “I had never met anyone with as much desire to learn and grow as a brewer,” Hill says. “Dan had to get back to work at Sixpoint, but we stayed in touch.”

So when Hill visited New York in November of that year for some Hill Farmstead events at Spuyten Duyvil and the Blind Tiger, he stayed at Suarez’s place in Brooklyn. 

“It was around this time that I began thinking intently about needing an assistant brewer to help me,” Hill remembers. “Dan was looking for an opportunity that would expand his knowledge. I accepted résumés for a period of time, but had formally offered the position to Dan. If he wanted it, it was his. The clinching moment was when he told me something like, ‘Shaun, I just want to work somewhere that I am going to continue to learn, never being stuck or bored, with a new challenge every day.’ I laughed and told him I was fairly certain that Hill Farmstead was the right place for him, and that I've never had [a boring] day in my life.”

Suarez became Hill’s first employee in February 2011. They would work together for nearly three years, and the experience was extremely rewarding for both. What did Suarez learn? “Oh, man, a lot,” he says. “Where to start? An ethos? I feel like, before I worked at Hill Farmstead, my attitude about beers I brewed was like, ‘Yeah, they’re good enough.’ But now I drive myself crazy about quality. My standard for taste has gone up.”

In a 2013 Ask Me Anything Q&A for Reddit, Hill called Suarez his “creative sounding board,” noting that “nearly all [Hill Farmstead] beers for the last two years have been born out of creative discussion/sampling/obsession/interplay with Dan.” Three years later, he elaborates:

“We were great collaborators,” Hill tells GBH. “After Dan arrived, we found focus in pioneering the early phase of the citrus obsession—we brewed Mimosa, Juicy, and citrus-zested IPAs. [We] established the Civil Disobedience series. For the first time, I had a collaborator and sounding board for all the whacky things I’d been dreaming of. Most mornings in the brewery would begin with either Dan or myself saying to the other, ‘So, last night I was reading/thinking about ___ and wondering if we could do ___.’  It was a time when ideas seemed original and every week we were brewing a new beer.”

But more than just the beers and creativity, Hill learned something about himself as a person that sticks with him to this day.

“I caught a glimpse of—and am still working toward—what it is like to have a sense of lightness and spirit while also taking things seriously,” Hill says. “[It’s] a difficult balancing act for someone like me. But someone like Suarez can sing and whistle, laugh at himself for being ridiculous, dream creatively, while also being self-critical and focused on his task at hand. And 12 hours later, [he can] go home and be a fun and loving partner all the while brainstorming the elements of what chaotic experiment [he’ll] try the next morning. I'm sure that I learned a great deal from Suarez, but it’s his inspiration, his enthusiasm and presence, his unquestioning and undying work ethic, and his thirst for knowledge that I smile back upon.”

Taylor Cocalis Suarez remembers the day she met her future husband and business partner, the eventual father of her child. It was January 2007, and she’d just finished a yearlong Food Culture and Communication masters program in Italy. She’d traveled around Europe, seeing, tasting, and experiencing all the food and drink worlds had to offer there—wine, cheese, cured meat, pasta, olive oil, breweries, bakeries, and more. (“It was eye-opening to say the least,” she says. “And set the stage for all of my work and life experience since.”) But for now, she was walking into Murray’s Cheese in New York City’s Greenwich Village for an interview. And it was there that she was greeted by the new guy at the front counter. 

“He was skinny, could barely grow a teen 'stache,” she recalls. “He looked more apt to be riding his skateboard than working a cheese counter. But after a week or so, I recall thinking, ‘Who is this guy that sounds like a stoner but knows so much?’”

She “crushed on him pretty hard for a few months,” but they didn’t start seeing each other until September of that year, about eight months into her new job at Murray’s. They both lived in Brooklyn at the time. A year and a half after that, they were living in Brooklyn together.

Eventually, they’d leave New York for rural Vermont when Dan took a job with Hill Farmstead in early 2011. What might’ve been a shock to the system for a lot of urbanites was “rather magical,” Taylor says. Some friends moved up there before them, so they had a bit of a community. They split a house—including the scant $850 rent—with another couple. And the lifestyle was wonderful in ways they’d never experienced. They’d marry about a year later.

“Essentially, we were doing what we’d do in the city, but there was less time commuting, more time to cook, and it felt socially acceptable to go to bed by 9pm,” Taylor says. “I’d just started up Good Food Jobs [a flexible side gig she splits with a partner to this day], which I could do from anywhere. So it made sense to move my office to our living room, which abutted a few hundred acres of nature preserve and had 60-mile views.”

Now that they’ve settled in New York State, Taylor runs the business side of Suarez Family Brewery.

“Before we opened, I was paralyzed by decisions,” Dan says. “I’m not a natural entrepreneur. I’m just a brewer. Tay is very good at all that other kind of stuff. This place would be in shambles without her. It would be such a chaotic shitshow.”

“I do my best,” Taylor says. “As with any small business, cash flow is key. It’s always a balance of figuring out how to re-invest the revenue. We’re still looking for a good value on a forklift, in case anyone has some leads.”

She says that it’s one thing to keep up with the day-to-day operations—selling beer, coordinating deliveries, invoicing, bookkeeping, stuff like that—of the brewery, but another altogether to look beyond to bigger-picture items, especially with such a small staff.

“I still haven’t launched the website, or written a newsletter to the few thousand people on our email list, or printed up t-shirts, or put a light on our sign outside so people can find us more easily when it’s dark out,” Taylor says. “There’s a never-ending to-do list, but I just always hope that people relish in the fact that we are a super small operation and they can say, ‘I’ve been going to Suarez Family Brewery since before they released their first bottled beers or when they were using bamboo to break up the parking spaces.’”

One thing she’d rather not change, however, is the fact that they deliver all their beer themselves.

“I would stubbornly like to do it forever,” Taylor says. “Even though it's another level of logistics and coordination, there's something special about knowing where the beer is going, and who it's going to. When you become removed from that it somehow loses a bit of its charm. The distribution gives us all an opportunity to learn more. It's easier to understand what the wholesale customers respond to and what their customers respond to, and it allows us to keep slightly tighter reigns on the product and ensure that people are treating it well—that it stays chilled, seeing how it's poured, etc.”

It’s not without its challenges, of course. They’ve all taken turns driving the van down to New York City, which is a solid two hours, even with no traffic. Sometimes they sell a keg to someone and then don’t hear back for weeks. (They could use that keg back, you know.) Sometimes, the van breaks down. And sometimes, well:

“It's hard to have folks that want the beer, but it just doesn't make sense to service them,” Taylor says. “It's in my nature to want to provide the best possible service to people, but I never like when the best possible service is to be honest and say no.”

Enzo Suarez was born on Labor Day—Sept. 5, 2016. “Literally every Saturday since the baby’s been born, he’s been in the tasting room the entire time,” Suarez says. “He holds court. He’s used to being around lots of people, so he just chills.”

He truly does chill, too. There’s Enzo in a woman’s arms while Taylor pours her a beer. There’s Enzo looking blissed out while Dan pours someone else a beer. Here’s Enzo on my lap, happily gnawing and drooling away on my knuckle as Dan tastes us through a bottle of the stunning Triangular Nature, a mixed-fermentation Saison made with buckwheat. Much like Enzo’s the first baby to hang out in the taproom, Triangular Nature will be the first bottle to leave it.

“I tell people this all the time,” Suarez begins. “No one’s gonna be interested in drinking these beers in 18 years. This is gonna be old hat. When [Enzo] turns 16, he can go wherever he wants and work a couple years—Belgium, Germany, a winery—and then come back here and run the place, making new beers. By that time, I’ll be 50, I’ll be tired. ‘Nobody wants these beers anyway, you can run with it.’”

Dan Suarez isn’t the only proud papa around here, either. When our beers are empty and we take a break from chatting so Suarez can get us some more, I hear him regaling a friend with a story about his father. Apparently, he’s been known to deliver this introduction:

“This is my son, Dan. He’s the best brewer in the world.”

Suarez smiles when he says the phrase “crispy little beers.” He calls his Wheat Pale Ale, Crispy Little, the “flagship in that category.” It’s a category he made up, but despite—or perhaps because of—that, it's a thriving category at Suarez Family Brewery.

“People love the name,” Suarez says of Crispy Little. “Even when they’re like, ‘I don’t like hoppy beers,’ they’re like, ‘I love the name, and I love this!’”

But “crispy little beers” has become a tagline of sorts for Suarez Family Brewery, a modus operandi. It’s on their growlers and their Instagram account. It’s both a motto and a mission statement.

“It’s like beers that are pretty clean tasting, simple, moderate alcohol, they’re highly drinkable,” Suarez says, talking through a definition. “They have texture. They smell good, they taste good, and they feel good in your mouth. One of the many things I learned from Shaun Hill was that, yes, I want it to smell good, and, yes, I want it to taste good, but what distinguishes a great beer from a good beer is that it should feel good. If you take a sip of a beer and you let it sit in your mouth for 10 seconds, does it feel good? It should caress the palate, and when you swallow it, it should be a clean finish.”

Suarez seems to have passed along those standards to the company’s first non-Suarez employee as well. Matt Moon started homebrewing at 20, moved to Northern France for a stage at Brasserie Thiriez after college, did some Siebel Institute work when he returned Stateside, then spent four years as the assistant brewer for Fulton Beer Co. in Minneapolis.

Taylor and Moon’s girlfriend, Milli, had been working together on Good Food Jobs and connected Moon and Suarez once they realized they were both brewers. The pair became pen pals, trading emails, then phone calls, then beer, so when the opportunity to make the 1,200-mile trek—not to mention, a major lifestyle shift—to work for Suarez came in early 2016, it wasn't a difficult decision.

Moon says the biggest lesson he’s learned so far is the importance of bringing his full awareness to each tasting, to being fully present when he and Suarez are working on a new batch of crispy little beers.

“Dan has an inspiring knack for tasting and a robust flavor lexicon,” Moon says. “We have a good time tasting, but it needs to be done in a conscious manner. If the goal is delicious beer, then you have to know what you are looking for and ideally be able to communicate what you are tasting in order to collaborate on a blend or to tweak the process. It's more of a continual lesson than a lesson learned.”

When we visited in November, the taproom list included Palatine Pils (an unfiltered classic German Pilsner, 5.2% ABV), Qualify Pils (a hop-accented German Pilsner, 5.5% ABV), Pleasner (an unfiltered hoppy Pale Lager, 5% ABV), Squeaker (a “tiny Pale Ale,” 4.2% ABV), Crispy Little (a hoppy American Pale Ale with wheat, 5% ABV), Believe You Me (an aromatic dry-hopped Pale Ale, 5% ABV), and Round the Bend (a Porter, 5.3% ABV). The cleanness, the mouthfeel, the simplicity, they’re all important. But those consistently low alcohol levels are no accident, either.

“I’m definitely committed to brewing mostly moderate alcohol beers,” Suarez says. “The marketplace is getting a little bit better, but five years ago, going into a beer bar, you’d be like, ‘Damn! Nothing’s under 7%!’ We want to execute a Pilsner so well that someone who drinks a lot of Double IPA says, ‘Wow! This is delightful.’ That’s a goal for me: bring the beer drinker back down to earth. It’s fun to try beers that challenge your palate and challenge the notion of what beer is. Every once in a while, I feel like drinking a Barleywine, but most of the time I wanna drink a Pils or a Pale Ale.”

The first time I visited Jester King Brewery out in the Texas Hill Country, it happened. My wife and I had gone to Austin for a few quiet days off. A cab hauled us the 40 minutes or so west of the city to the farmhouse brewery’s idyllic property, where we spent the rest of the day tasting beautiful beers, eating pizza, and soaking in the scene. I remember having crazy thoughts. Could I live here? I could make myself useful somehow, convince them to give me a job. My wife’s a teacher and an artist—she’d find a gig. That house back in Georgia? Someone would buy it, probably. Someone else would bring us the dogs. It’ll be fine. We live here now. No big deal.

I’ve since referred to it as The Jester King Moment, and while it doesn’t happen often, it was at Suarez Family Brewery where I felt it as strongly as that first time in The Lone Star State. Livingston is a small town, its population not quite reaching 4,000, and it’s spread out and sprinkled amongst farmland. It’s the kind of place where the post office isn’t big enough to do home mail deliveries, so it only hosts PO boxes. (While Suarez is technically located in Livingston, they have a Hudson mailing address.) It’s quaint and it’s charming. It’s unassuming, too, which means it gets no love in a rapturous New York Times piece about Hudson, despite being right next door. 

“The reason why we chose this area is because we lived in Northern Vermont before this,” Suarez says. “It’s a really great lifestyle out there. The quality of life is very high, and we came to really like living in a rural area.”

Suarez fondly remembers the first time he visited Belgium, not to mention how it changed the way he thought breweries could be owned and operated. Hill took him there in 2012, and they visited a bunch of beer makers—De Dolle, Cantillon, Blaugies, Drie Fonteinen, Fantome—that, at the time, seemed “larger than life” to a guy who’d never visited the country. He’d been drinking their beers for a while, but experiencing them in person was revelatory.

“I was surprised upon visiting all of these places that they were all modest, family-run operations making relatively tiny amounts of beer,” Suarez says. “It made me realize how few American breweries have this old-world approach to running and operating breweries—and other businesses in general. The vibe of these breweries struck a chord with me.”

[A quick, semi-related tangent: While in Belgium, Hill and Suarez collaborated on a beer with Dany Prignon, the lively and eccentric mad-scientist-type who’s been running Fantome Brewery in Wallonia, Belgium, since 1988.

“We were, as far as I know, the first brewery to collaborate with Dany,” Hill says. “The beer we brewed had hibiscus, citrus, and wheat. When we returned home, we set to work brewing a more refined/focused version of that beer—which became Convivial Suarez. Dan had a penchant for catchy vocabulary words, and they would somehow work their way into the brewery vernacular. ‘Shaun, this beer is very soigné…’ ‘Convivial’ was yet another one of those Suarez words, and it seemed fitting to name the beer after him.”]

Aside from the Vermontian influence and the Belgian influence, the Suarezes also bought the building because of a familial influence—Dan’s parents live in Connecticut, Taylor’s in New Jersey. Meanwhile, Dan’s brother and wife opened a restaurant, Gaskins, about 10 minutes from the location. Suarez installed the draft system there himself—six lines total. (“We usually have half of them,” he says.) Plus, it’s a not-unreasonable drive to NYC. After moving to the area and driving around, they found themselves thinking about this old building on Route 9.

“It was built in the ‘30s, and this is its fourth life,” Suarez says. “It was a tractor dealership, and then, from the ‘70s-‘90s, it was a lamp factory that actually employed quite a good amount of people. Then there was that dark period where it was a storage space, and this is that fourth life. So there are still people who remember the lamp factory, and they’ll come and say, ‘Oh, wow, I can’t believe someone’s doing something with this building.’ They come in and have a couple beers, but they’re mostly so jazzed that the building’s being used. Then there’s the beer-drinking local, and then there’s the local who’s just very curious that something’s happening.”

Many of these visitors are folks living their lives in rural New York State, folks who remember what the area looked like a long time ago. Perhaps most importantly, they’re people who appreciate a new business in their neighborhood.

“There’s this group of brothers in their seventies who grew up in Red Hook, which is two towns from here,” Suarez says. “They’ve come several times now. They were telling us stories like, 'We remember when Red Hook got its first pizzeria. It was when we were in college and we came home and we were so blown away.' They came in here the first time and said, 'This is what we dreamed about in the ‘70s.'”

Did I mention that Dan Suarez has a lot of ideas? Malt vinegar is one of them. When he starts talking about vinegar, it sounds like one of those things you dream about but never actualize. “Am I a boat guy? Yeah, maybe I’ll get a boat one day. A boat would be cool.” But it's more than that.

“There’s one vinegar company called KATZ that’s based out of Sonoma County in Northern California,” he says. “It’s highly inspirational to me. They make all these single-varietal wine vinegars. They have a honey vinegar and a cider vinegar. It’s made in California, but you can buy it in Boston and New York City. When I have their vinegar, I’m like, ‘Holy shit, I could drink this. I’ve never had a vinegar this amazing.’”

And that’s when you realize he’s actually going to make vinegar one day. “It might be under a different label,” Suarez says. “I think we’re gonna try to call it Old World Vinegar Project. On the back, it’ll say ‘fermented and packaged at Suarez Family Brewery.’ We’ll sell it here. I’m not sure how many units we can sell out of here, but it’s a very stable product and we can find distributors.

There’s something to be said for building a business the way Dan and Taylor are building Suarez Family Brewery. In an age where motivations are increasingly murky—Are you brewing to innovate, break new ground? To win medals? To become famous? To get big as a middle finger to the macros? To become even bigger still so you can get acquired by those macros, maybe get rich? Just because you like doing it?—and the marketplace is more competitive and more extreme and more just completely goddamn ridiculous than ever before, to see someone who’s willing to stick to their vision, to grow horizontally in one place, make the people come to you and have faith that what you’re doing is right—that’s a rare thing.

“Most brewers these days don’t brew the beer that they themselves enjoy drinking,” Hill says. “Instead, they brew what the consumer wants. [Dan’s beers] are soft and refined—and he is hyper-critical of each and every one of them. Self-critical reflection on quality is not something most folks seem to possess these days. I smiled and immediately texted Dan after first tasting his beers. I was proud! They exhibit restraint in an age of excess.”

There are unique challenges to doing it this way, too. You’re not trying to be the biggest or even to just make the best Double IPA. (In fact, Suarez says he has little interest in even touching the hoppy style that now represents 25% of the craft market.) But as you start to get big, temptations will inevitably creep in. Will you change the plan for one reason or another? Or will you stay the course, making the beers you wanna make, doing it your way with your family—a family that depends on you doing it. Even then, nothing’s perfect.

“The biggest challenge of all [is] working with your significant other,” Taylor says. “It is both the most satisfying and most challenging part of the operation. I am working with someone that I inherently trust and consider to be insanely talented. I am dealing with someone with whom I have a close personal relationship. But it's been challenging to get Dan to leave the work in the brewery, and while beer used to be solely a source of pleasure for him, now anxiety often creeps in. It's not uncommon for me to find him awake in the middle of the night—being nervous about the fermentation on [a beer], or not totally sure about his recipe for the brew the next day. As his life partner, it's hard to witness that. And hard to know what to do and where to push. Or to feel like I had a not-so-small part of inflicting pain on him or reducing the pleasure he gets from making beer. I try to always remind him that we did this precisely so that we could be able to bend and shape the experience and create a life that is enjoyable. Sometimes that gets through, sometimes it doesn’t.”

For now, six months in, it seems like it’s working—at least from the outside. The future will bring what the future brings. More beer, family, challenges? Probably some of all three, if we’re being honest. At least there’ll be snacks.

“This is a special place to drink a beer. It is currently my favorite place to drink a beer,” Dan says toward the end of our conversation, before taking a pause. “For now. Until we build the crazy, mixed-up taqueria out back.”

Words by Austin L. Ray
Photos by Blake Tyers