In terms of its elevation above the surrounding terrain, Birreria might be the highest brew pub in the nation.
The 3 1/2-barrel brew house and adjacent beer garden occupy the top of a highrise at Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street, catercorner from the famous Flatiron Building, in New York. An express elevator shuttles patrons between the brew pub and the rest of Eataly, the buzzy ground-floor emporium of prepared and imported Italian foods, produce and restaurants.
“Dante Alighieri put the gluttonous in the third circle of hell,” reads the poster on the elevator. “We put the gluttonous on the fifteenth floor rooftop in heaven.”
I don’t how many of the seven deadly sins Sam Calagione has committed, but the president of Dogfish Head Craft Brewery is doing penance in the cramped brew house, helping resident brewer Brooks Carretta tote grain sacks and stir a mixture that resembles Grape Nuts.
“We’ll be adding eye of newt in another few minutes,” jokes Calagione, who’s brewing an ale he calls Sofia that’s flavored with crushed peppercorns and coriander. Calagione is one of the “Birreria Brothers,” a partnership that includes two Italian microbrewers: Teo Musso of the Birrificio le Baladin in Piozzo and Leonardo Di Vincenzo of Birra del Borgo in Borgorose. They opened Birreria on June 3 and served their first house beer a month later.
Another of their efforts, Gina (a pale ale seasoned with Italian thyme), is percolating in a nearby fermenter. The lone house-brewed beer on tap right now is Wanda, a dark mild ale with a light roastiness and a nutty, earthy flavor from the addition of hammer-milled Italian chestnuts. It goes superbly with a bowl of fried shiitake mushrooms. “The first thing we think of when we brew a new beer is, what food are we going to pair it with?” says Allen Arthur, assistant general manager.
Calagione’s plan is to brew lower-alcohol (4.5 to 5 percent by volume), “sessionable” beers, all served naturally carbonated from hand pumps. Basically, these are English-style cask ales with an Italian flair. The little brew house can’t slake the thirst of Eataly’s customers by itself, so the menu offers 10 other draft selections and two dozen bottled beers, mostly from the partners’ home breweries.
The house beers cost $10 a pint, while the guest beers range from $6 to $8. That is the reverse of the pricing at most brew pubs. “It’s partially a quality thing, shipping in ingredients from Italy,” explains Calagione. It’s also to cover the construction and utility costs of operating a brew pub in Midtown Manhattan, where the workforce is fully unionized and prime real estate can cost hundreds per square foot. (Indeed, Manhattan’s 1.6 million residents are served by only one other brew pub, Chelsea Brewing Co. on Pier 59.)
Birreria’s brew house is a showpiece, visible through glass, and employees periodically dart in to polish the copper-clad vessels to a high gloss. Mashing has filled the air with a sweet, porridge-like aroma. Some of the spent grain from the brew house, notes Calagione, will be incorporated into fresh-baked bread. What the kitchen staff can’t use will be trucked to a farm in rural New York and fed to livestock. In this sense, beer is an ingredient in the fatty but delicious meats that include pork shoulder and an assortment of highly spiced sausages.
In the midst of a July heat wave, the temperature is at least 10 degrees below what the mercury registers on the street. A dozen whirring fans create a cross breeze that periodically sends menus flying. An awning keeps the marble bar from heating up like the asphalt 15 stories below. During the winter, a retractable glass ceiling (“like you see in sports arenas”) will keep diners warm while preserving the view.
Calagione, as usual, is multi-tasking. In between brewing and plotting the beer menu for the upcoming weeks, he’s preparing for a book signing party that afternoon. Wiley recently published the second updated edition of his “Brewing Up a Business,” a hybrid autobiography and how-to-succeed-in-business textbook. Calagione also is nervously awaiting the arrival of a keg of experimental beer that two friends are driving up from his Rehoboth Beach brew pub. Manhattan traffic being what it is, this could be a cliffhanger.
But the beer does arrive: Tweasonale, a strawberry and sorghum beer with a dash of buckwheat honey. “We asked regulars at our pub, What beer would you like to see that we don’t make now?” recounts Calagione. “The answer came resoundingly back: a gluten-free beer.” The turbid, pale orange brew has a fruity aroma and a tart flavor with an unusually dry, acerbic finish that Calagione attributes to the suspended yeast. A slightly tweaked version will appear in four-packs this November, he promises.
No one, however, is releasing details about an upcoming branch of Eataly that restaurateurs Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich have announced for Washington, D.C. When will it open and where? Will it make its own beer? “We’re working on it,” is the terse comment of partner and general manager Alex Saper. Calagione and his Birreria brothers plan to open a brew pub in Eataly’s Rome branch, but the D.C. project is too embryonic to commit to.
No matter; there’s plenty happening in the meantime, including a re-creation of an ancient Etruscan beer that Calagione says he plans to release this coming spring. Traditionally, breweries have rewarded brand loyalty. Modern craft breweries cultivate brand disloyalty. Their customers expect new beers in novel settings, and as Birreria proves, they generally get their wish.