Jesse Ferguson, Interboro Spirits and Ales
We sat down with Jesse from Interboro Spirits and Ales to ask him some questions about his recently opened brewery/ distillery. They opened in Williamsburg a few months ago and are already gaining acclaim for their hop-forward beers and unique spirits. Currently Interboro features a full lineup of beers as well as un-aged whiskey, apple brandy, and gin with plenty more to come in the future. Enjoy the interview and hop on a subway from any borough to check out the awesome stuff happening at Interboro.
BBR: How did you decide to do beer and spirits?
Jesse Ferguson: Laura Dierks (co-founder and owner) had a background working in distilleries and I had a background working in beer so I really wanted to do beer and Laura really wanted to do spirits.
Basically Laura and I spent a year figuring out if we liked each other enough to do business together. I don’t have a background in spirits at all, and she doesn’t have a background in the production side of spirits. It took us a year to figure out we could indeed use the same equipment for both, which is totally what we do. Also, Laura had a contact that is now one of our partners who is an attorney who deals with the state liquor authority who figured out that we could do this at the regulatory level. So at this point I was like, Let’s do this because for me as a brewer, being able to produce a beer product, and distilled spirits is a whole now project, a whole new flavor frontier of opportunities that we get to explore, which is what makes this fun, to try new things. We get to make cool stuff that people really like. Also a lot of the lines between beer and spirits were really arbitrary post Prohibition such as taxation and different segments were seen in different ways morally, socially, and politically. Beer was seen as sustenance, whereas spirits were seen as, if you were into whiskey you were a drunk. In terms of taxation there is less of a burden on the beer side. They try to keep track of you pretty closely on the spirit side. Our mission is to create alcoholic beverages that appeal to everyone regardless of if they are spirits or beers. We have hoppy gins coming down the pipeline, we have canned cocktails, some stuff that will open up the world of alcoholic beverages.
BBR: So you’re interweaving those two worlds?
JF: To whatever extent possible. You’re not allowed to put the word beer on a distilled spirit product. If you put beer on a label for gin or something else they kick it back. We’re pushing it more on the flavor side, trying to create spirits and spirit products that appeal to palates of the beer drinkers and vice versa. Most simple is barrel-aging beer. We have virgin oak that we’re aging our whiskey in and when we’re done in four years I am going to take it out and put beer in there. I’m maybe not the first, but one of the first brewers to create his own barrel-aged stout using barrels that he created whiskey with. The barrel-aged program creates mountains of opportunities. I’m barrel-aging some gin, and barrel-aging some apple brandy that might not stay in that long. Whiskey has to be in for four years or you have to say otherwise. There isn’t really a regulatory stance on the apple brandy, so if it’s ready in a year I’ll take it out and put beer in it and have apple brandy aged beer. Another benefit is if the beer goes bad, instead of having to serve it and be like, “It’s supposed to taste this way,” which I would never do, you can just distill it and get the alcohol and put it in something else in. You can put gin or something, and in terms of loss it’s a way of reclaiming that loss. Beer always goes bad, there is always something that goes wrong for somebody. Having a still there is a cool thing too. Distilling beer actually is something I want to experiment with, hoppy beers and stuff. I don’t like the stuff I’ve had, really, but I do want to explore it.
BBR: How do you come up with your recipes and ideas for blending beer and spirits?
JF: Beer is driving everything so far. For the most part that is based on 2017 hops. Recipes now are just for the most part stuff that’s solid, stuff that people will want to drink. I want to have a pilsner, the Bushburg will stick around for a while, it’s a nice product to have here, and it’s a good piece to be able to show people. It’s a clean beer, as a brewer it’s what I want to drink half the time. Also, the hoppy stuff, I’m trying to DO? more saisons, and stouts and porters. The reality of it is the hoppy stuff just sells. On the spirit side we knew we were going to start with whiskey and gin, and the apple brandy just sort of fell into our laps. In the sense that one of our partners, the guys that do the cider, it’s called Indian Ladder Farmstead. We sell their cider but they also send me tons of it, 300 gallons at a time that I can distill. That really came from wanting to have a more diverse distillate base. The unaged apple brandy works really well as a cocktail mixer. We have it in our old-fashioned, we put it in a screwdriver, we also mix it with an IPA. As an aged product I find it really cool. I’m really interested down the road in experimenting with the barrels. Plus it’s a New York State product. There’s a ton of apples here so it’s a way to keep things local. We brewed a beer with the Indian Ladder Farmstead guys called “Tastes like Upstate.” We’re brewing another beer together for New York City Beer Week, coming up at the end of the month. It’s a way to work with local agricultural products. The mission here being to show people there’s not this huge difference between the two things, working with local ingredients is a way to tie in so people understand what we’re doing on some level.
BBR: How important is local to you?
JF: My hops are not definitely local. I use a lot of English malt, German malt, and Czech malt. Locally produced stuff, my position is I’ll use local, based on my experience as a brewer, but I’m not going to sacrifice the taste or quality of my product in order to have local. There are a lot of local hop producers that haven’t been around long enough to have really solid growth. New York grain is good, it’s all growing, and as a small business owner I want the highest quality stuff I can get. And when that is possible with a local producer, I am totally going to do it, but I am not going to go for something that I don’t believe in quality wise just because it’s local. I’m not trying to badmouth anybody. The great thing about American brewers and what’s driven the American brewing scene has been access to the best ingredients from all over the world all along. The German and English Maltsters have been doing their work for years and we have access to all that stuff. The hops that are grown in the Pacific Northwest are what are driving the hop revolution. Now the hops that are being grown in New Zealand and Australia are adding to that. From my point of view, cutting myself off from any one ingredient would be the same thing as opening a brewery and serving only English-style ales. You’re going to walk in and try six of them and say “Okay, but where is the one that tastes like the best beer I ever had?” I’m just trying to make the best beer for the consumers that I can. I’m not going to tie myself down to one locality or one producer for production.
BBR: And we don’t see that as a bad thing.
JF: Of course! We want New York. We work with New York hops and New York grains, we work with a local yeast producer who is New Jersey-based, trying to source Long Island wine barrels. When possible we do want local.
BBR: Are there other breweries in the area that you admire or want to collaborate with?
JF: Oh yeah, there are a lot of great breweries. KCBC and Suarez and Industrial Arts are all people who have opened within two months of us who I am totally impressed by. I’ve already collaborated with KCBC; I’m looking to collaborate with all these guys. Other New York brewers like Threes and Other Half are guys who have been part of my community and I’m friends with and have worked with and hope to work with again. Carton in New Jersey, where I was before, those are my buddies. So the great thing about the brewing scene is there is definitely a sense that most brewers share that a rising tide raises all ships. We’re not competing with each other for market share. We’re competing with the hearts and minds of beer drinkers in New York City who may have never had a craft beer, or may have never had a local beer. Whether they have Other Half or they have Interboro for the first time, or Greenpoint or KCBC, and they get turned onto this network of small breweries that is building up and becoming so prevalent, then they’re going to get turned onto the taste and want to try everything hopefully. No one goes from being a full time Miller or Bud drinker and then goes to fulltime Other Half, it just doesn’t happen like that. It’s the same thing with food. You don’t just say all I ever had was industrial pork and now I’ve had Berkshire pork so I’m only eating Berkshire pork. All the sudden you’re like I want to try good stuff. There are people that will only drink Bud and that’s fine. Working with the New York City beer community is awesome, though.
Coming up for New York City Beer Week we’ve got events with Other Half, Carton, KCBC, Grimm, Pipeworks, and more. It’s just really fun. (NYC Beer Week runs from February 24th to March 5th. Be sure to check out all the great events: http://nycbeerweek.com/2017-beer-week/)
(Side note- We had to pause here because Laura brought us pretzel bites with beer cheese. They were delicious and if they are in the menu when you go, order them. )
BBR: When people think of Interboro is there a style of beer or something you want them to think about?
JF: Obviously the spirits and the beer is our big differentiator. The fact that you can come here and have cocktails and beer is big. The cocktail program and spirit program are nascent and growing will be big for us. My main thing across the board is quality and that’s what I hope comes to peoples minds; that we make quality stuff that people want to drink.