Widgets Magazine

Q&A With Rich Vandenburgh, Co-Founder Greenport Harbor Brewery

(Rich is the guy on the right; head brewer DJ Swanson is in the middle, and co-founder John Liegey is on the left.) 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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