Widgets Magazine

As Greenport Harbor Brewing Turns 7, We Check Back in with Co-Founder Rich Vandenburgh

(Rich is the guy on the right; head brewer DJ Swanson is in the middle, and co-founder John Liegey is on the left.) Back in June, 2014, when Greenport Harbor Brewing was expanding to its Peconic Beer Garden location, we chatted with Co-Founder Rich Vandenburgh on his journey from beer-as-high-school-science-project to lawyer to brewer, and how it all came to be headquartered in Greenport. Now that Greenport Harbor is turning seven, throwing a party at its wildly popular, and now freshly expanded Peconic location, we checked back in with Rich. After the update, the original interview follows.

Q: What have you most enjoyed about the brewery/tasting room business over your seven years? Any lessons learned?

A: The excitement of being able to explore new ideas and styles of beer that we have not brewed before is really exciting. It is a bit like Christmas day when we get to try a new beer right off the fermenter. But it is also really rewarding and fun to share and discover beer with our guests who come to the tasting rooms and have a great time just relaxing and experiencing what real craft beer is all about.

We have learned that each day poses new challenges that we did not see coming the day before. The lesson learned is you have to be flexible and resilient to navigate through whatever they may be. Having a clear vision and always remembering to stay focused on the ultimate goal is part of our mantra and the one of the pillars of our business ethos: "Make the Best Beer in the World".

Q: When we last spoke, you were opening the Peconic location. This summer you've expanded it substantially. Tell me about that expansion, and what drove it?

A: We are doubling our Peconic Tasting Room space and adding a rear area that is covered by an awning. The addition will be a restaurant with associated beer garden and is a culmination of our vision that the craft beer experience is made even greater when we can offer a food option to follow the beer. It also allows us to respond to and accommodate the multitude of requests we get about hosting private parties, rehearsal dinners, graduations, weddings, etc, etc. By creating separate but connected spaces, it allows us to be even more flexible in offering options to those groups while at the same time making sure our regular guests have a place to enjoy a well made craft beer.

Q: You guys make so many varieties. Do you have a favorite? Do you have any idea how many different brews you've sold over the years?

A: We have brewed about 60 different styles of beer in our seven years. It has been tons of fun wandering the trails of different style categories and creating twists or turns in what the conventional thought of beer might be. Everyone in the brewery would laugh if you asked them what my favorite is because it is pretty likely you would find me with an Otherside IPA in my hand. I simply love the super well balanced flavor of our hop additions matched up with the malty backbone of that beer. I am an IPA lover (like most of the country) and in addition to our Hopnami and Little Park 2XIPA, I am loving our new OG Series, that includes our Berliner Weisse Fruit (a kettle sour made with strawberries and blueberries) and Fork and Beans Stout (made with local coffee beans). So many styles and so little time!

Q: Well, you're consistent. Two years ago Otherside IPA was also your favorite. Do you have any more expansion plans coming soon?

A: Hopefully we are approaching the end of what seems like our ongoing expansion phase. Space is always critical and we will probably have to add on to our dry storage area of the brewery in the coming year. But for now we are trying to wrap up the tasting room expansion and take a breath.

Q: This weekend you're going to throw a party to celebrate the seven years. What are the details?

A: We are indeed celebrating our 7th Anniversary on Saturday the 16th. Well, for bands, we have "Noiz" which is a Motown cover band that will play from 3pm to 7pm and then a local alternative rock band called "The Glazzies" who will play from 7pm to 8pm. We'll also have lots of food and beer options. For those concerned about driving, note  both the Hampton Jitney and Suffolk County Bus stop in front of the brewery.

Q: What's the menu and ambience of the expansion like? Are we talking white tablecloth, full-service, multi-course dining, or burgers on picnic tables?

A: So we have always tried to maintain an authentic and down to earth vibe in our tasting rooms. We plan to keep it very simple and it definitely won't be a white table cloth experience. We are continuing to move toward a single serve format that will allow a simple ordering process that will result in our guest getting their food by runner or with the help of a personalized buzzer that alerts the guest that their food is ready. We plan to source as much of our ingredients within an 11 mile radius of our brewery. The menu will feature familiar food with unique and specialized preparation that looks to compliment our beer.

Here's the original interview, from June 2014:

Q: How did you get into the brewery business?

A:  Funny story is in seventh grade I talked my science teacher into brewing beer with me after school as a science project. Almost got him fired and me suspended. But it all worked out fortunately. I didn’t know I wanted a brewery then, but it shows how deep my interest in beer ran.

Q: So, the next step after seventh grade science?

A: Fast forward to college where I met my business partner and best friend John Liegey. We drank a lot of bad beer because we had no money. We talked about how wouldn’t it be cool if we owned a brewery. We’d never have to buy another beer again.

Fast forward some more; we graduated, pursued careers—John was quite successful in advertising, I became an attorney; we both got married, had kids, vacationed together, drank better beer together.

Q: Sounds fun. But how did you guys get from advertising and law to being brewers?

A: In 2008 I spotted an old firehouse in Greenport, and called John and said hey, remember how we talked about opening a brewery, I found this cool old building that’s perfect for it. We closed on it the day that Shearson Lehman went under—pretty much beginning of the financial meltdown.

Q: That’s quite a marker from one era to the next.

A: Yeah. We renovated the firehouse ourselves—before law school I’d been in construction. We spent weekends, holidays, vacations doing the work.

We have very very understanding wives. They’re closet wine drinkers but they enjoy a good beer.

Then we hired our head brewer D.J. Swanson and started brewing.  We opened July 12, 2009 serving two or three beers.  We only brewed about 300 kegs in those first six months.

Q: You’re much bigger than that now—and you’re getting ready to open your new brewhouse in Peconic.

A: When we first started we were getting discovered organically by people coming out from the city. They talked us up and we started getting courted by all the big distributors. We signed with one in 2010 and from then we continued to build the brand. Since then we’ve brewed about 45 different styles of beer.

Q: Why Greenport?

A: I live in Southold—I have for 22 years— and I always liked Greenport. It is just such a great village, harborside town. Greenport has it going on. And when I walked in the place with the broker, saw the fire house had these 12 foot ceilings, I knew it was the place.

Q: When’s the new brewery opening? Tell me about the new place.

A: Well the celebration is going to be on our 5th anniversary, July 12. In that time demand for our beer has greatly outstripped our ability to produce. In Peconic we’re going to be able to brew in 12 hours what it would take us 6 days in Greenport. That’s enough production to meet our demand for the forseeable feature.  But we could’ve increased production at a lot of locations. The whole idea of the Peconic property is all the open space, the ability to have a beer garden.

Q: Is there any limit on how big you’re going to get?

A: Yes. We believe in brewing 100% of our beer. There are business models where a business will contract to have a bigger brewery someplace else make the beer in the brand’s name, but that’s not our thing. We brew every ounce of our beer on the North Fork of Long Island. So we can only brew as much as we can manage to do ourselves.

Q: The firehouse thing is cool and quirky. You’ve got a fire truck now too, right?

A: Yes, we bought the fire truck last year, retrofitted it with six taps. It’s called Signal 8.

Q: Does the fire truck signal that you’re not going to turn your back on the Greenport place when Peconic opens?

A: We’re definitely going to keep Greenport;  it's the heart and soul of who we are. We will continue brew there for specialty beers and as a test kitchen.  We always have a local artist on display, the whole place just has a great feel.

Q: Do you have a favorite beer?

A: My favorite is the IPA series. The Otherside IPA in particular.

Q: What do you like best about the business?

A: The best thing about being in the brewery business is the great camaraderie and collegiality within the beer world. People are always happy to see you, and they’re usually happier when they leave.

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