Dining | Long Island: At Yonkers Brewing Company, Beer Steeped in Local Pride
Until about a year ago, the name most associated with beer in Yonkers was probably that of the notorious racketeer Dutch Schultz, whose criminal domain once included a brewery in the city.
Schultz, born Arthur Flegenheimer, rose to prominence in “the big beer wave during prohibition,” as Meyer Berger put it in The New York Times in October 1935, after Schultz was murdered in a Newark saloon. Before beer, Berger wrote, Schultz was “just an unambitious, sloppy flat-burglar and package thief in the Bronx” and even after “great success,” he “still managed to look like an ill-dressed vagrant.”
A new brewery in Yonkers has a much sunnier story.
Nick Califano and John Rubbo, who opened the Yonkers Brewing Company tasting room in January 2015, certainly know the history of the city where they grew up, and much of it is captured in photographs from the Yonkers Historical Society that line the walls of the handsome, spacious quarters a block from the Hudson River. The building, a former trolley garage, is on the National Register of Historic Places. (The Schultz brewery, Mr. Rubbo pointed out, was in a different part of town, an area known as Chicken Island.)
Mr. Califano and Mr. Rubbo — neighborhood friends who reconnected after college — became home brewers about six years ago. They liked drinking beer (“Once we were 21,” Mr. Rubbo said, prompting a laugh from Mr. Califano) and, after purchasing a recipe book, decided to start brewing it.
“When we brewed the first time, it came out incredible,” Mr. Rubbo, now 33, said. “We brought it to a barbecue and our friends loved it.” He paused. “Progressively, as we brewed, it got worse and worse.”
“We realized consistency is the hardest part of brewing,” Mr. Califano, said.
Still, he added: “We saw an opportunity — we saw how craft beer was really gaining legs in the Midwest and the West and how it was slowly coming here. We said, ‘Let’s throw our hat in the ring and see if we can do something locally.’”
Mr. Rubbo said when he and Mr. Califano started renovations in September 2014, they were “petrified at the amount of work that was required” to move into the old trolley garage.
“The front wall was only studded and it was held up by a set of two-by-fours pinned to the ceiling,” he said. “There was a huge hole in the back wall and a half-finished pool that the original developer of the property had started.”
“The space had nothing,” he added, “we put in underground piping, we built the bathrooms, the kitchen, installed all the electrical systems.”
If Mr. Rubbo and Mr. Califano love Yonkers, the feeling is mutual: A city development grant allowed them to buy some needed equipment, and the mayor, Mike Spano, said: “I love the fact it’s there. I love the fact it says Yonkers. I love the fact that it’s a brewery. They have a tremendous amount of pride in Yonkers and it’s contagious.”
Although Mr. Califano and Mr. Rubbo liked making beer, they determined that they needed a head brewer with more experience, and met with Sharif Taleb, who had studied at the Seibel Institute of Technology in Chicago, which has a well-regarded brewing program.
“We dropped off a sample of ours and said, ‘Could you make something like this?’” Mr. Califano recalled, “and he went home and with his air conditioner as a cooling unit, he made Yonkers Lager in his apartment.”
As the “Seinfeld” version of George Steinbrenner would say, “Hire this man!”
Jackie Rubbo, Mr. Rubbo’s sister, came on board with the title of director of creative, culture and chaos. “Focus on the chaos,” Mr. Rubbo said.
The new brewery offers monthly yoga sessions called Detox & Retox (“It’s an excuse to drink beer in yoga pants,” Ms. Rubbo said); a paint-your-own growler night during which customers decorate 64-ounce jugs (“Sometimes they create their own painting, sometimes they follow the instructor — it gets interesting,” Ms. Rubbo said); and live music on the last Thursday of each month. (In January, a terrific band from Brooklyn, Karikatura, played in front of three stainless steel brewing tanks; a return engagement is anticipated.)
The food can be hit or miss but the kitchen does turn out good cheeseburgers, meaty chicken wings, and lightly battered carrots that are almost impossible to stop eating. For brunch on Saturdays and Sundays, there is a commendable egg-and-sausage sandwich called the Bouncer. (Nice with that: the Bloody Mary XL, with a tray of toppings: chilled shrimp, smoked Gouda, prosciutto and a pickled onion among them.)
And of course there’s the beer. The Yonkers Vienna Lager remains the flagship (“The palate of the Northeast is a lager palate,” Mr. Califano said). But the brewery has a long list of appealing beers served in the taproom, including an I.P.A., a double I.P.A., a porter, a Belgian pale ale, and a vanilla stout. Mr. Taleb has made two beers in collaboration with the DeCicco’s grocery stores, working with Brett Diener, a beer manager at the recently opened Larchmont, N.Y., location. Their latest is Fallen Fruit, a tart apricot ale. Mr. Diener provided the fruit and Mr. Taleb, he said, “played around with the recipe a little bit, which is what he does best.”
“It developed really nicely and was a big hit,” he said.
An afternoon or evening at the brewing company can end well with a rich brownie from Greyston, the community-focused nonprofit bakery, or a cold brew, with stout that picks up a note of root beer sweetness from scoops of creamy gelato.
Or grab a bottle of Yonkers Vienna Lager, with a label that includes a short lesson about Adriaen van der Donck, from whom Yonkers derived its name, and concludes with this wise imperative: “Now stop reading and start enjoying!”