Rockaway Brewing Company Co-founder Marcus Burnett Discusses Their Successful Kickstarter Campaign and All Things Beer

RBC_Beer Flght

In 2010, homebrewers Marcus Burnett and Ethan Long created an extra strong bitter ale, later named Rockaway ESB. This beer would go on to become their flagship brew and the inspiration for an entire company. In 2012 the two homebrewers turned pros and began brewing commercially and created Rockaway Brewing Company. In July 2014, they successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign to begin plans to start canning their beer. I first visited the brewery after aimlessly strolling through the LIC Flea. Their sign promised fresh beer and that was literally all the advertisement I needed. Back then, their space was limited but their selection was not. I walked out with my first growler ever and swore to return. Fast forward to the now time and I was  lucky enough to stand in their expanded tap room to interview Marcus about his company.  I was greeted by Justine Yeung, whose business card read ‘Beer Lady”; a peculiar title indeed but she certainly seemed well versed in all aspects of the company. While I wasn’t able to speak with the whole crew, it was clear that this company is staffed with passionate individuals. Marcus poured me some samples and we began discussing the company, the beer and all that lies therein.

EDG: The brewery was classified as a "nanobrewery". Do you feel that your limited production abilities have an effect on the types of beers that you make?

Marcus: Nanobrewery classification, just to clarify, means that you’re brewing on a system which has a brew kettle which is 3 barrels or less. We had a 2 barrel electric fired system until January 2014 and therefore we moved onto the microbrewery level, which means we have 5 barrels. 5 barrels is still very very small. In fact when you start talking to people about starting a brewery "Don't try to start a microbrewery under 5 barrels." They say "Anything below 7-10 barrels is only commercially viable if you're gonna do a brew pub."

EDG: Now, just to be clear, in terms of barrels, how many gallons of beer are produced from each barrel?

Marcus: So, 1 barrel equals 33 US gallons. Basically a 5 barrel system yields 155 gallons per brew. A brewery does not consist of the brew house or the brew kettle size necessarily; it's more about the fermentation space. So we have an assortment of 5 barrel, 10 barrel and one 15 barrel fermenters, which means, generally speaking, our main production beers are going to go into a 10 barrel, which means we brew twice in a day. A 5 barrel brew house can produce a 10 barrel result in one day. Instead of coming in for 8 hours to brew, we come in for 12 hours, bang out 2 brews, put them into 1 fermenter which is the 10 barrel fermenter, which puts us just at the very beginning of the the idea that you can do a production brewery on 10 barrels. So Ethan (Co-founder of the brewery) and John (brewer) do that.

EDG: So were there any beers that you wanted to make?

Marcus: So as far as production wise...to answer the question. "Is there anything we can't make?" No. We like big malty beers, ales specifically. I think that if you want a really great pilsner or a lager; there's lots of great beers out there. I've never really worried about that. I think that, you know, if you look at the tree of beers, there's two parts. Pilsners and lagers on one side and all the rest of the ales on the other. Ales really encompass like 75% of what I want to make. I think that in this market, what we are doing, we like heavy ale styles. We've made some really light ales, kolsch, summer ale and those have been very popular. I think that if you want a pilsner or a lager, the market is flooded with those beers, so why compete with that?

EDG: With craft beer becoming more popular there has been a rise in beer culture. Some passionate fans are thus labeled "beer snobs". What are your thoughts on current beer culture, the fans and the potential of the craft beer bubble to eventually pop?

Marcus: The thing about beer and now is that it's like what wine was in the 80's or 90's. Everybody wants to think they know about the beer, want to bring in the latest style, want to educate their friends, they want to turn them on to new things. I think that we are in a good place. I don't think there is  bubble that is going to pop. American craft beer in NY is going to catch up with what's been happening in the West coast and the Midwest. We are going to have a lot of different styles, a lot of different breweries who do different kinds of beers. If you look at the history of beer in America, before the 1960's there was great beer everywhere, small breweries everywhere and then the big 3 took over in the 70's and bought up a lot of the small companies. Now we are seeing the reverse. Now we are seeing the big 3 losing traction in the market a little bit. All of the small breweries are bringing forth their visions about craft beer. I don't think its a bubble, I think its going to extend and expand out. There will be a limit where the market just maxes out but i think it will just further diversify.

EDG: With the Kickstarter completed, can you explain the upcoming steps in the canning operation?

Marcus: ...Yea(laughs gently) The canning operation... The Kickstarter was educational. We completed our $30,000 in the month that we set out to do. It was a lot of work, it was a lot of education about social media and what we are supposed to be doing. The plan is a third of the money will go back to prizes and what we promised our donors. Another third will go towards the first canning print, the printing of the first can set. Most of the large can printing companies require minimum of 155,000 units, which is about $30,000 so its a little more than what we raised after our giveaways. So we are designing and finishing up the can concept. We are printing the first batch of cans then we will have a mobile canning unit come in an o 1 or 2 batches of canning at our brewery and we will understand better how the machines work. Then we will start shopping for the actual machine and putting it in the brewery.

EDG: Are you planning on canning all of your beers or just starting off with maybe just the ESB?

Marcus: Just one beer, one can. The ESB, our flagship ale. It's a crazy style, no one understands ESB. It's hard to market but that's the beer we started with, that's the beer we'll lead with.

EDG: What is your relationship with the other breweries in NYC, especially those located in Queens?

Marcus: The relationship with other breweries in NYC is complex. There are some big ones, lots of small ones. We’re not the first brewers in NY, we aren't the last brewers in NY. We are solidly in the middle of the new craft brewer movement. Therefore, we can claim that we made every drop of beer ourselves, we started on a 15 gallon system in this space with just a couple of cut-off kegs and a stereo. We built that from just the money in our pockets to the current state of an actual microbrewery. There's a lot of contention about contracting beer. It's like the biggest conversation. Contracting beer is about having someone else make the beer.

The real source of contention about local brewers is whether you make your own beer. We happen to make all of our own beer. We always have and that has been our ethos from the beginning. We'll never, well I'm not going to say that we'll never deviate from that but we hope that we'll always be able to make our own beer to satisfy the market in which we are participating. However, you find that beer is a rather big business, its huge and therefore, other beer companies who have started small and local and one their own beer have moved on to making their beer either out of state or with contract with other breweries where the beer taste the same to the consumer but they're not making it themselves. The demand for their beer is so high that they had to have someone else just make it. Which is okay. The recipe is the same and they are able to make much more beer and work with distributor and you can flood the market with the beer.

So the relationship between breweries in NYC is generally good. There are people who make their own beer; there are people who don't make their own beer. That's most of the conversation on part of the Brewer's Guild (16 breweries make up the NYC guild). We honor the fact that everyone needs to make a living and make their own beer, but not everybody has the space in NYC to make their own beer. Maybe you can't afford a brewery in Long Island City or in Downtown Brooklyn, so you go out to Yonkers, Westchester or Jersey, or Long Island and you make your own beer, great! You're still making your own beer, that's what we respect but there are other people who have other people make their beer and that's the conversation we mainly have. We decide to make every drop here, it costs us a hell of a lot of money. Our overhead is huge, we have a very small profit margin on our beer but that’s why we are doing it.

EDG: What do you make of the desire that some breweries have to make beers with a very high alcohol content?

Marcus: High alcohol content with beers is really effective if you can't refrigerate your beer. It means that the beer will not spoil if not refrigerated. Beyond that, I don't really understand why people go for high alcohol beers. They cost more to produce. I mean our beers are pretty high in alcohol; they're usually around the high 5 to the low 6% mark. High alcohol beers, I think, are just a trend in the market. I think it's a little showy, but you know, we produce two beers that are above 8%, so we can't really say that we don't do it. It's a way to differentiate beer. So Budweiser, Bud light and Modelo might be 4-5% and we do 6-6.5% beers, you know once you get around to 8% you are kind of showing off a little bit.

The styles, like Imperial IPAs and Imperial stouts, Belgian beers, they are often above 8%. I think it's just a matter of differentiating. When you have a small system like this you can make a high alcohol beer and Budweiser and Heineken they're just going to stay with the standard 4-5%. I think it's a way of saying "Hey! We're craft beer and we're having fun!" I mean, I don't know, we don't usually get too extravagant with the high alcohols.

EDG: Can you describe your brewing process? What goes on during the R&D stage?

Marcus: Research and development is very simple for us.  Usually, me and Ethan will sit down and talk about the next beer we're going to make. I'll reference  two or three beers within that style, we'll talk about it for a little bit. Ethan is actually a very talented recipe maker. He'll usually come up with something and brew it on a large scale. We don't do a lot of research or small batch of beers. He usually comes up with something that is 10-20% within the realm of what we are talking about. Then in the first stage, we'll take that beer and market it, we'll give it a name which is usually something like completely random. We'll put it out on the market and test it. Me and Ethan and John, Flint, all people at the brewery will taste it and weigh in about malt structure, the grain structure, hop additions and dry hops and while sitting around and talking about it for a bit, tweak it usually like 10% and then the next phase we do it again. Ethan will tweak the recipe and usually hit it right on the head the second time. We haven't wasted any...I don't think we've ever poured out a, production beer out because of lack of design. We've poured out beer because of yeast going off from contamination and so forth, but never like "oh the beer just didn't make it.

Ethan has always designed a beer that was totally drinkable and interesting. Now, you tweak it from there and push it into the market, change it  little bit and since we are such a small brewery and able to do that; the consumer is says "Okay, well it's a very small brewery. Tasted like this last month, this month it tastes a little different, call it the same beer, we are okay with that." That's the luxury of being a small brewery. We don't have to say "Oh our beer is going to be the exact same beer every single time"

EDG: I've heard someone once say that the main thing about artisanal food and drinks is inconsistency. The fact that it’s hand crafted it gives the element of surprise or it could be different.

Marcus: Right and that's something we've never made excuses about. We started with a 2 barrel system which is unjacketed fermenters which means that throughout the year the temperature inside the brewspace changed and therefore the fermentation of  each beer changed just from the temperature in the room. That is actually really beautiful because we never made any excuses about it. We've always said "Look, we are a small brewery, we can't control our beer, the yeast does what the yeast does in the Winter and the Summer and Fall and Spring." You're gonna taste the difference and enjoy it. It's a little dryer in the Winter, a little maltier and kind of sweeter-fruitier in the Summer. I think people appreciate that. It's artisanal. We try, even though we are a larger production facility, we try to have that same feel. We don't filter our beer, we don't heat pasteurize our beer. A lot of the yeast and the particulate matter, the proteins are still in there so the mouth feel is different than filtered beers. It just feels alive it's a meal.

EDG: What does a standard work day at the brewery entail?

Marcus: A standard work day at the brewery on the production end starts with weighing out the grains. We put a lot of grains in our beer, then we put all of that into the grinder, we take the whole malted barley, grind it up and transfer it into the mash tun. A lot of cleaning going on. 80% of the day is spent cleaning vessels with  antibacterial options. Getting everything super clean so that when the brew is ready we transfer it into the fermenters so that the only thing that is going to grow inside that fermenter is beer. You are creating a perfect environment for mold, bacteria and viruses. 70° in an environment with mostly sugar you could grow anything. You set that out for a day and it'll grow like a million molds, yeasts and all kinds of shit. So you come in, grind a bunch of grains, put it in the mash tun, hot water, clean some vessels, clean the fermenters, clean the floors, clean some kegs, clean everything, get the beer out of the mash tun and into the kettle, add some hops, clean some more lines, transfer the beer into the fermenters and pitch the yeast; the yeast that you harvested that morning. Hopefully everything goes well.

We have a hot composter where we compost 75% of our grains. We are trying to figure out a way to keep from filling landfills with rotting grains so we partnered with a Danish company to actually compost 75% of our waste, the byproduct is actually a fertilizer. You can either feed it to the chickens or live stock, you could put it in landfills which just creates methane gas. In this case we dehydrate it and compost it.

We also set up our double brew process so we recuperate. We pre filter our water so that we can recuperate the hot water from the first brew and reset things the second. It means that in the heat exchange process we aren't wasting the water into the waste management system, we are actually recapturing it and putting it back into the hot liquor tank and reusing it again; saving perhaps 300 gallons of water per brew as well as the kinetic energy it takes to heat that water. We actually recapture 130°F. So then we don't have to use that energy to reheat the water again. It's almost fully heated because our strike temperature is around 160°F.

EDG: In hindsight, what would you have done differently regarding the formation of the brewery?

Marcus: Personally, in hindsight, I wouldn't have done anything differently. Except, maybe starting my business plan about a year earlier. Business plans are not to be discounted. We did this project basically as a garage band, DIY, you know..."just go for it" situation. We did it and then when we got into the financing, we did the business plan and we really had to scramble to get that together. My advice to any entrepreneurs starting any business of scale is to take it seriously, do a business plan, talk to people who know about business plans and go over and over and over what the means because everybody tells you "Get a business plan and follow it." They're serious and it makes a lot of sense. Now we have a business plan and we are following it and it's delivering.

EDG: Are there any plans to expand your growler room into a tap room with food?

Marcus: Absolutely not. We will never produce any food in this facility. We will always rely on other people to produce food and partner with us. However we are expanding our tap room and we plan to, in the next month, open our tap room to our clients. We will be serving many more beers; up to 8 different flavors at once as samplers that go along with our tour of our brewery. We are hoping that the Governor signs into law that we are actually able to serve pints on the premises but we are waiting to see that.

EDG: Just to clarify, the current law is that you can't serve pints. You have to make an exchange in a sense. Give a tour, which is what the money is being paid for.

Marcus: Right, currently we have a license to sell beer off premise and we do have growlers, Anything that we can out into a bottle and put a cap on; we can sell. We also do a small tour which we charge for and after that tour, people come in and have a taste and sample some of our beers afterwards for free.

EDG: What's your favorite type of beer?

Marcus: My favorite type of beer is Rockaway ESB. I fell in love with that beer like 5 years ago and we made a brewery based on that. I'm not going to say that I don't like other beers. If you try 4 of our beers, you'll find a consistency within it. It's a malt forward ale so you have a lot of  malt in the beer. For us, malt forward English style ales, that"s what we do. You know, I'll go for a Corona or a great German pilsner, Belgium beer but basically our beer is what we like to drink. They all have  very similar characteristic. We put a lot of grain in the beer. Malt forward, usually very balanced, not over hopped.

EDG: What advice can you offer to homebrewers?

Marcus: My advice to homebrewers is to get 6 gallon glass fermenters and enjoy the process. That's where we started. It was great. We still do it like homebrewers. If you want to start your own business as a homebrewer going to a nanobrewery or a microbrewery, just save like $6,000 and get a lawyer. Simple. That's how we started.

Rockaway Brewing Company is located on 46-01 5th ST in Queens NYC. Go visit them, say hi, get a drink and support a local small business. They offer growler fills as well as tours paired with tastings, as an added bonus, their beer is really good. The brewery is also participating in the Brooklyn Local Craft Beer Festival on October 5th 2014. Find out more info and how to get tickets by clicking HERE.  If breweries and festivals aren’t your speed; you can find their beer at local bars and restaurants listed HERE. As usual,it's recommended to like/follow them on Facebook and Instagram to stay alert regarding updates.