A visit to Flagship Brewing Co.

SI Ferry ManhattanStaten Island Ferry

 

New York City, a big consumer of craft beer, has gone through something of a late-stage explosion recently in actually producing the stuff.  Home to a “Class of ‘88” elder in Brooklyn Brewery, it’s only been lately that breweries such as Sixpoint, Kelso and Captain Lawrence have hit their stride, and the past couple of years that a few small breweries already making waves like Bronx and Transmitter opened their doors.

In May of this year NYC finally had a brewery per borough when Flagship Brewing Co. opened its doors in Staten Island’s North Shore.  Founded by three natives of the Forgotten Borough – Jay Sykes, Principal and COO; Matt McGinley, VP of Sales and John Gordon, CEO & CFO – it is an operation decidedly rooted in its locale.  Its colors are orange and blue to match the City’s flag and the Staten Island Ferry.  The brewery’s icon is a stag’s head because, as Sykes points out when I had the pleasure of visiting, Staten Island is the only borough that has a sizeable deer population, a piece of trivia that helps it seem like this brewery just grew out of the ground on the island in response to the growing demand for great beer.

Apart from representing Staten Island Pride in an increasingly vibrant market, Flagship’s simple mission is “To make really good beer” McGinley, an old colleague of mine from Guinness, tells me.  “We landed on the name Flagship because we want to focus on a few beers and make them as well as possible.  We didn’t want a single “house beer” and a bunch of side projects and seasonals, we want all our beers to be our flagship.”

Sykes chips in, “I believe that in this age beer should be judged by its taste, its quality.  We obviously want to grow Flagship and get our beers out there, but our core will always be making the most drinkable, enjoyable beers we can.”

The company’s slogan – “Unforgettable Beers From The Forgotten Borough” – is festooned around the spacious and welcoming tap room.  The founders have created, semi-intentionally, a destination for a tourist looking for a taste of Staten Island.  “I’ve crossed the bay on that ferry thousands of times in my life. Most people take it to see the views, wait in the terminal, then get right back on and return to Manhattan.” reflects McGinley.  “We’d love people to make the 10 minute walk to come see us here.  After all, how better to make a connection with a place than by trying the local beer?”

View of taproomMerch

The story of the brewery is also something of a flagship for the hundreds of well-funded start-ups that have taken their cue from the growth of craft in the past decade.  The three founders grew up literally next door to one another (“John’s place was across the street and Matt’s and my backyards were separated by a fence” recalls Sykes) and got to know beer at their local Irish pub.  Harboring a passion for home-brewing and with two of the three working in beer (both McGinley and Sykes used to work at Phoenix/Beehive, their distributor) the idea of starting a brewery in their home town has “always been in the back of our minds” according to Sykes. “It was just a question of when.”

“Because we wanted the quality of the beer at the forefront from the outset we needed a great master brewer right at the start.”  Sykes states, matter-of-factly.  They managed to recruit Harpoon and Kelso graduate Patrick Morse as head brewer, and more recently Noah DeMaris (also ex-Kelso) as assistant brewer.  McGinley believes this is their advantage. “We’re so lucky to have these guys.  They come up with a ton of great ideas and work really well with us to turn them into reality.  We have a lot of great beers in the pipeline.  But more importantly they share our standards for our existing range.  They never stop working to finesse each brew.”

At the moment they employ a simple formula: three core beers and a rotating seasonal.  Right now that’s their American Pale Ale, Wit, Dark American Mild and Wee Heavy, a Scottish style winter ale.  All very balanced and drinkable, and the Wee Heavy is on trend as a very British tasting British style beer.  (Take it from a Brit!)  Brewing takes place in a clean, well-organized brewery and the output is either served in the tap room (about 30% of their volume currently, according to McGinley) or sold in one of circa 100 NYC bars.  A move to bottled beers is scheduled for February 2015 and they would like to open New Jersey, which of course is physically nearer to them than Manhattan.

Here’s to wishing the neighbors from Staten Island some plain sailing as they chart their course for the next couple of years.  I’m sure New York City will appreciate it.

Manhattan from street

A view of Manhattan from Staten Island’s North Shore

 

10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes with Matt McGinley and Jay Sykes.

  1. Can you describe what your company does in one sentence?

Sykes: Not easily!  I’d say it boils down to “Make fantastic craft beer for Staten Island and New York City”.

  1. How long have you worked here?

Sykes: As my full time job, since January 2013.

McGinley: For me it was February 2013.  We incorporated in May 2013 and opened almost exactly a year later.

  1. How and why did you come to be here?

McGinley: We both saw the opportunity for a viable brewery on Staten Island, and we all share a passion for craft beer and for the industry, so it made sense to start something up.  We have the experience and we believed there would be demand for what we could make, so we all made the decision to go for it.

Sykes: I think ever since I started homebrewing and experienced the smell of the steeped grains, the magic of making beer, I knew I wanted to make as well as sell beer for a living.  I really enjoyed selling beer, but for a lot of people, like us, the dream is to be able to have other people enjoy the beer you create.  Being able to do it where you grew up is the icing on the cake.

  1. What is your daily routine?

McGinley: A mixture of admin at the brewery or being out in trade.  I’ll typically start the day pretty early at the brewery, although two days a week I go straight to the distributor, and then get out into the City.  My main responsibilities are tracking our inventory and getting it out to bars, so I have to focus on those two things every day.  I spend a lot of time working on our target list of accounts with our distributor, then I just grab some growlers and get out there, either with sales reps or on my own.  The rest of the team helps me out as much as they can.  We also all help out staffing and running the tap room in the evenings and at weekends.

Sykes: No day is like the last, so it’s really whatever needs to be done on any given day.  My core task is managing the operation of the brewery to the forecast demand that Matt provides me.  At the moment we’re doing so much for the first time – you know, this is our first fall, our first winter, we’re looking at bottling for the first time – so there’s no real rhythm.  The demands on the brewery dictate my daily schedule.

  1. What is the hardest thing about your job?

McGinley: Apart from the hours, which we expected, it’s the work you have to put in to stay top of mind.  As a niche brewer it’s hard getting distributor focus, and it’s almost impossible to keep distribution in an account.  Here on Staten Island we have a lot more credibility as a permanent handle, but in the rest of the City we’ll average about 30 days on tap before we get rotated out.  You just have to be persistent to get in new accounts and to get put back in old accounts.

Sykes: For me it’s managing the sense of responsibility of running a small business and trying to manage for growth in the long term.  I make so many decisions, even pretty small decisions, which are so vital to our long term prospects. And it’s not just me who’s put his career on the line for this project.  We’ve all rolled the dice.  There are the three of us – my two partners are also two of my best friends – and our families, my children, our employees.  A lot of people are depending on me making the right calls every day.

  1. In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?

Sykes: The number one thing is to have a great product.  It’s the foundation.  There are a LOT of great beers in America right now, and people know a bad one when they drink it.  I also think you need to be able to manage relationships well, especially with your distributor.  Matt and I have sales experience, and that’s been critical in getting us off to a fast start.  We’ve never acted on the belief that “If You Make It They Will Come”. We know how much work goes into motivating other people to push your product.

McGinley: Put simply, it’s passion and the ability to work hard.  The three of us said at the outset that all we could do is make the best beer we can and work our asses off, and everything else should fall into place.  You have to realize that you have to do everything: you can’t assume someone else will take care of it.

  1. What is success for you?

McGinley: Success for us in the short term would be establishing ourselves as a well respected local NYC brewery that makes consistently good quality beer. If we do that we believe the sales will naturally follow.  The first year or two as a new business are typically the hardest, but we all trust that we can get this thing rolling.  Future success for me would be if I’m able to consume a Flagship product while on vacation in another part of this beautiful country.  Then I will know we made the right choice and some really good decisions along the way.

  1. If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?

Sykes: I happen to think that too much beer isn’t sold on the quality of the actual product.  The craft revolution is changing that, and you can see the effects.  It’s a game changer. But there’s a long way to go, and beer has traditionally been sold on price, which favors the bigger brewer, not necessarily the better brewer.  In my ideal world, retailers would push the beer that they think tastes the best, not the one that makes them the best margin.

McGinley: I’d second that.  There’s always going to be this under-the-table, pay-to-play stuff happening and it’s not favorable to a new business.  We make great beer – as do a lot of other small breweries – and it’s frustrating to see tap handles being bought instead of earned on merit.

  1. Apart from your own, what are your three favorite beers, and why?

Sykes:

  1. Anchor Steam Liberty Ale. To me it’s the original West Coast beer, and everything about it, from the label to the story to the taste is just top-notch.
  2. I love Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. I think it’s almost perfect for what it is.
  3. Kilkenny, which Matt introduced me to a while back. It’s funny now to see ales coming out on nitro – and we’ve been toying with the idea ourselves – when Kilkenny has been doing it so well for so long.

McGinley:

  1. You know me – Guinness will always be my number one. A good pint of Guinness can’t be beat.
  2. I’m going to steal Bell’s Two Hearted Ale from Jay – it’s really everything a good craft should be.
  3. My final one is a new one, Gangster Duck by Radiant Pig. It’s a gypsy brewer operating in New York; we met the guys at Beer & Bacon at Citi Field recently.  Great beer.

 

  1. Apart from this tap room, where’s the best place to get a beer on Staten Island?

McGinley: You know we can’t answer that!  I mean, there are lots of great bars here, and we especially love the ones who have been kind enough to pour Flagship.  I would maybe suggest Adobe Blues, one of the oldest craft bars in the city; or Killmeyer’s, an old-school German bar.

Sykes: Liberty Tavern does a great job too, and two of the gang’s favorite watering holes are Jody’s and Randall Manor Tavern, very good friends of ours.  But really you should come to the Flagship Brewery on a Saturday in my view!

Matt and Jay

Matt McGinley (L) and Jay Sykes (R) of Flagship Brewing Co.

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