On an afternoon this September, Dan Acosta sat behind the bar of his recently opened craft brewery, LIC Beer Project, and peered into a microscope. He clicked away at a tally counter in his right hand, occasionally glancing up to talk to his partner, Damon Oscarson.
“What time is it?” asked Oscarson. “Not that it matters. I’m just kind of curious.”
“It’s 11:40,” said Acosta.
“Okay, good. So it’s not too early for a beer.”
While Oscarson filled a couple of glasses with a saison, a style of pale ale Belgian beer, Acosta continued to study the contents of his petri dish. He was examining yeast — the ingredient that Acosta, 35, and Oscarson, 40, said defines their beer and sets their brewery apart from the three others trying to make it in Long Island City.
For the first time since the 1870s, there are more than 4,000 small, local and independent craft breweries in the U.S., according to a September report by the Brewers Association, a national organization for craft brewers. A total of 699 craft breweries — of which LIC Beer Project is one — have opened across the country in just the last year, from June 2014 to June 2015, according to another report by the Brewers Association. And the trend shows no signs of fizzling out. More and more breweries are spilling into the market. The question now is whether competition will wipe them away.
Oscarson, who’s part of a rapidly growing craft beer scene in Long Island City, doesn’t seem to think that it will. He said that the culture is collaborative rather than competitive, pushing craft brewers to determine the thing that makes their product unique. “It’s the way the craft beer community works,” Oscarson said.
For LIC Beer Project, that thing is yeast-driven Belgian and French beers. For each of the other breweries in Long Island City, though, it’s something different. Transmitter Brewing focuses on farmhouse ales; Big Alice Brewing on complex, garnished flavors and Rockaway Brewing Company — the first of the neighborhood’s four breweries to open in the last three years — on simple, laid-back styles.
This kind of diversity among craft breweries is what’s keeping the market from getting tapped out, said Julia Herz, the program director for the Brewers Association. “Brewers are learning how to better present what they have in their glass,” she said. “As long as they differentiate themselves, there’s plenty of room to double the number of breweries.”
LIC Beer Project takes its identity as a Belgian-style brewery seriously, building on traditional recipes and drawing from ancient methods. It’s one of a handful of breweries in the country, and maybe the only one in the city, that has a coolship — a wide and shallow metal pool that Belgian brewers used in the medieval era to make sour beers without fermenting tanks. The coolship, Oscarson said, allows him and Acosta to experiment with wild yeast and to create the kinds of bold, Belgian beers that inspired their business.
Ardent Core is Oscarson’s favorite LIC Beer Project beer. It’s a Belgian pale ale that’s got a kick of cardamom pepper and a bit of lemon for zing. One of the brewery’s mainstay flavors, Ardent Core is easy to drink but hard to make, said Oscarson. He said that he and Acosta had to brew it several times to completely nail it, after scaling the pilot batch up from 10 gallons to a larger system of 640 gallons. “Ardent Core is a really good beer to showcase what this brewery is mostly about — getting the flavor components out of yeast,” Oscarson said.
In a way, LIC Beer Project was born in Belgium. When Acosta, a mechanical engineer, was backpacking throughout Europe in 2004, he was instantly drawn to the beer culture there. After his trip, he took brewing classes at the Siebel Institute in Chicago and at Doemens Academy in Germany. He then started to attend homebrew clubs in Westchester, which is how he met Oscarson, who was an ecologist at the time. The two bonded, downed some brews at TAP New York — a beer festival about three hours north of Manhattan at the base of Hunter Mountain — and came up with a mutual vision to shape their craft beer brewery.
Oscarson and Acosta pitched their idea to investors about two years ago, selling them on their plan to start up a brand new brewery rooted in old-school Belgian style. Although Oscarson couldn’t disclose how much money was initially invested in LIC Beer Project, he did say that starting a brewery could be expensive — sometimes costing upwards of a million dollars.
“We could have pitched IPAs and pilsners, but those aren’t the beers we want to brew,” Oscarson said. “Funky, experimental and complex beers are the ones that excite us.”
LIC Beer Project’s brewery, a 5,500-square-foot space on 23rd Street, took about a year to build. Oscarson and Acosta did a lot of the renovations themselves. With a rustic, wooden taproom in the front, a collection of fermenting barrels on the sidewall, and a bright, graffiti mural across from the coolship, the space looks the way Oscarson and Acosta want their beers to taste: cool and classic.
The brewery made its debut at Queens Beer Week on May 8, joining Long Island City’s three other breweries as well as seven more from the whole borough. Oscarson said that seeing the community enjoying LIC Beer Project’s beers right in front of him was exhilarating. He said they sold out of their pilot brown ale, DK Bruin, in a couple of hours. “People still ask for it,” Oscarson said.
After about six months in the business, LIC Beer Project has its beers in almost 90 bars and restaurants around New York, including in one of Oscarson’s favorite Manhattan spots, The Pony Bar in Hell’s Kitchen. “I used to go there when I first got into craft beer,” Oscarson said. “I never thought that this would happen five years ago.”
Now, the company is looking to grow. It’s looking to up its four-man band — including Oscarson, Acosta, Sam Speer, the sales manager, and Kaitlyn Acosta, the taproom manager and Acosta’s sister — and to expand its reach regionally. Although Julia Herz from the Brewers Association said that most craft breweries don’t distribute outside their states of origin (except for big breweries like Sierra Nevada, which has its beer on both coasts), Oscarson said that he and Acosta are determined. “We built this brewery big so that we could grow … and get our beers in different places,” Oscarson said.
As craft beer culture continues to rise in the U.S., it’s becoming more and more essential for independent, local breweries to discover and market what makes them distinct among the 4,000 other breweries in the country. “You have to be creative, passionate, and driven to make a manufacturing business [like craft brewing] thrive,” said Kelly Taylor, the president of NYC Brewers Guild.
Oscarson said that LIC Beer Project has what it takes to make it in the craft beer scene: “We can, and we will, and the market really demands it.”