Rich Castagna Of Bridge And Tunnel Brewery Talks To Us About Building His Dream
Rich Castagna has been a busy man. He works a full time job, he has a wife and 3 girls- Oh and he has a brewery...A brewery that he built himself. Rich is the co-owner( his wife Lisa plays an active role in the business) of Bridge and Tunnel Brewery located in 15-35 DECATUR STREET Ridgewood, NY 11385
After years of brewing in a self built garage set-up, Rich is finally ready to open his self built tasting room on Saturday November 14th. His schedule was hectic but he was willing to do a phone interview. Read on and get into the head of a man that some may consider crazy but s truthfully one of the most passionate individuals around.
EGG: What sets B&T apart from other breweries?
Rich: The brewery is from bottom to top self built. It's a mom and pop operation which translates into us doing all the tasks that are necessary for the brewery to operate as well as the entire build out of the new space. We had our hands in every aspect of it. It's a self built brewery, it’s independently run, literally a family operation and for the most part it's built on reclaimed and re-purposed equipment; partly because that’s how we did it in the garage when we were a nanobrewery and we had a lot of success like that and party because we are not partnered people with deep pockets that are able to invest in big ticket items.
I felt from the success that we had in the garage, I had learned enough that i will feel confident enough to go and build a bigger system again using all equipment that i was able to rustle from a variety of sources. All second hand equipment, most not made for brewing and we turned it into a brewery. I think we are the only brewery that’s done that in NYC. And our beer has been getting a lot of good reviews over the past 3 years. In 2014 we were named by Business Insider “Top 10 Breweries in New York State.” There’s over 200 in New York state.
EDG: Your wife works as your business partner. How else has your family impacted the success of the brewery?
Rich: I don’t know if they’ve impacted the success of the brewery but they've supported it. By ‘my family’ I mean my wife and three kids. I have three little ones. My twins are turning seven this week. We are going to have a family party for them on Sunday and I’ll be opening the brewery on Saturday. It's kind of like their birthday weekend but the whole family is just totally behind us getting this brewery open. My wife used some points on our credit card that we’ve been accumulating for eight years and we are using them to buy a laptop for the cash register in the brewery. She took the kids to Best Buy to buy a laptop and my daughter comes into the kitchen and says “Dad, I searched the computers in Best Buy and looked up Bridge and Tunnel Brewery and I saw pictures of us” To know that they feel this way about it pushes me forward, and by me being able to push forward consistently everyday has made this possible. Plus I work a full time job( shipping company out in Jersey). I’ve had a business once in the past and I’ve lost it partly out of not being insured. It was one of those lessons that you can’t tax out a growing business
EDG: Set us up, what can we expect in the tap room?
Rich: We're gonna have 16 tap draft systems, that's also second hand. They came from one of my accounts that went out of business during the summer. We were good friends as it was and they felt it would be a good contribution. On those 16 lines, 8 lines are clean and operational. I'll have 6 beers on tap. One of them is a new beer, the rest are beers that I've cycled through when I was in the garage.
I've already tested a couple accounts over the summer but I'll also be serving a kombucha. The tasting room is all self built there's a seating area with farmhouse style tables that I’ve built from reclaimed wood that came from a ceiling joint in a tenant building in Brooklyn. I was observing these guys pulling beams out of the building. I was picking up grains from Brooklyn Homebrewery, my old supplier when we were a nanobrewery and I immediately thought I could build tables with them so I ran home and got a Home Depot truck and loaded it with over 2000 lbs of 12ft beams and turned them into tables, benches and a whole overhead lighting system with 12ft beams hanging from the ceiling
EDG: How is your relationship with the other breweries in NYC, especially those located in Queens?
Rich: My relationship is good. I’ll admit that I don't really get to hang out with the other breweries often. It's primarily because of my work schedule. I’m up every day at 4:00 to get to my job at 6:00. my job is out in Jersey. I’m there until 3:00. By the time I get back I’m straight at the brewery. I’ll be there until 7-7:30, come home, have dinner with the family, hang out with them for an hour or an hour and a half and then right to bed. Right now the breweries have and industry night every month and I literally just emailed one of the guys and said ‘Thanks, you’ve been sending me consistent invites but I don’t think I’ll attend until I’m finally working just the brewery.” The guy totally understands and maybe someday I’ll go with my wife but it goes for everything. My wife and I, until we had kids, it was just us so we don’t have a big support system. I think over the past 10 years, we’ve gotten away maybe less than ten times. It’s hard to get three kids over to someone else’s house...you know what I mean, they are kinda active. We don’t wanna do that to the babysitters or whoever would be watching them.
EDG: Can you describe your brewing process? What goes on during the R&D stage?
Rich: Sometimes I keep batches to the side and I’ll experiment. Let’s say I brew a batch and I get a certain number of kegs from the batch. Sometimes I’ll have beer that’s maybe filled a portion of a keg for myself and I kinda experiment with some of those beers and see if I can manipulate them in ways. Every now and then I’ll bring bottle samples home. There’s a couple of good beer shops that I go to and I’ll bring stuff home for me and my wife, we just kinda brain storm. I do a fair number of beers that are spiced with different ingredients. We get small portions and see how we can manipulate the spices and see what they taste like isolated and not mixed with beer. I don’t have a set process, frankly, a lot of recipes...I got 13 years experience brewing so some of them come back from when I was a home brewer and a lot of them are recipes that I know work for me and I’ll tweak them a little on the edges here and there. Often I’ll put a style out and they’ll get received well and I don’t tweak with them too much after that. If people like it and it’s the way I see it, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
EDG:You were brewing for 10 years before starting B&T, was that you honing your craft or were you apprehensive about starting your own business?
Rich: I've always wanted to have my own business ever since I was 17/18 years old. I studied business management, business operations management at Baruch College when I was younger. At one point I was signed up to go to a chef school in Arizona. I worked in kitchens. Back then, I couldn’t pay my rent no matter what job I had they just wanted to pay below minimum wage to work in a kitchen. I got so frustrated with it. In retrospect, I probably should have pursued brewing back then. Then I would have had 25 years in as a brewer. When I finally started brewing 13 years ago there was this guy. I started a job where we both had these terrible days off. We both had Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the week and he was a brewer and he said he hadn’t brewed in a little while and said ‘Why don’t you get a kit and I’ll dust off my kit and we’ll brew beer on our days off we’ll bring them in for each other, we’ll trade them.’ That weekend, I finally got my first brew kit. Very soon after that I tried to think if this was a business that I would be able to do. I’ve had a couple of businesses in the past. It was the first thing that came to my mind since it was similar to what I had done with other things.
We started having kids, we had my one daughter and then my younger daughters are twins. There was a time when my wife was working and I was watching the kids a lot, then there was a time when she was in school. The brewing became something to keep dad sane. At the time I was brewing in little apartments in LIC and Woodside. Really tight spaces and at first I was brewing 2.5 gallon batches and then I was brewing 4 gallon batches, not even 5 gallon batches because of space constraints. I started building this system for the garage in the basement of my mom’s house where there was a workroom in the basement. I started building that and that was a 50 gallon system. I started building that with this big dream to one day brew professionally but it was a really cathartic experience. That went on for a full three years until I even attempted to cross the line of approaching the federal or state agencies for licensing. The kettle I had in my garage became this woodworking project and building the stands became a metal project and it literally went for three years with no direction than just to divert me from raising twins.
EDG: In hindsight, that would you have done differently regarding the formation of the brewery?
Rich: The only thing I can say that I wish I had done differently was I tread very carefully… Being in the garage was a really positive thing and I don’t feel I should have done that differently in anyway. It was a difficult experience because it was tight and small in there. I was partially exposed to the elements, I went through injuries and pneumonia. I feel like it kinda hardened me because when I transitioned to the 10 barrel system it was a smooth transition. That’s when I realized I learned a lot. It took 3 years to finally fire up the bigger system.
I’m from Maspeth and Ridgewood, these are the neighborhoods where I grew up. The one thing I wish I had done was possibly bought a property in Ridgewood 3 years ago. Now, you can't get near it. You can’t get near a property in Ridgewood, you can’t get near a property anywhere. Even 3 years ago it was possible to maybe take out a loan and have a reasonable mortgage for a warehouse and now it's like forget it, totally off the table. I don’t want this brewery to disappear because the work has been...it’s just too hard to do it and for one day your landlord to just say ‘well, your lease is up, you’re gone.’ So, at the same time I really had to get out of the garage. That’s my only regret. My landlord has been a good guy to me for the most part but you never know what’s gonna happen in the future.
EDG: You literally built this brewery. Was that your ideal decision or a way to cut costs?
Rich: When I was in the garage, it was a way to cut on costs, without a doubt. I wasn’t initially proud of it. I was proud of the way the kettles came out but originally, I actually had turned down a handful of interviews because I was afraid people were going to reveal that I was in a garage and then finally somebody did and it turned out to be a positive instead of a negative for me and for the brewery. initially I built it myself because I had to. I had no choice, There was no other way to build a 1.5 tile system and not drop $20-40,000 on equipment. I knew another brewery that dropped $40,000 on the same scale and I built mine on under $4000 and it was over time so it was spread out.
When it finally got revealed and I realized that shit, every corner of this brewery I could tell people exactly where the equipment came from, how I built it and what state it was in before I got my hands on it. One of my kettles was crushed . A guy at a Chinese food restaurant backed into it with his vehicle and I had to straighten it out. It cost me all of $30 and it's fantastic. I straightened it out and turned it into my Hot Liquor Tank and it kicks ass. After I started realizing that this wasn’t something I was supposed to be ashamed of, I guess the pride of doing it myself took hold. I just kept doing it like that. I made alterations to the garage, I posted them on Facebook. I made it a point to show people how you build yourself if you need to build yourself. This is one of the ways to do it. I posted a lot of photos. The first or second year anniversary of the brewery i did this retrospective barrage of pictures when the garage was nothing to then when it was finally a brewery. People appreciated that because it wasn't what i originally showed. On the flip side, the brewery builds really good beer and I’m trying to duplicate that with this new system. I have to work with this new system, it’s bigger.
That whole experience gave me the confidence and pride to go out and build this other brewery. This other brewery makes what I did in the garage look like a walk in the park. What I did in this other space was full on. It wasn’t just building brew kettles, which is what I did, my kettles now look just like the ones in the garage except they are 6 times bigger, they are clad out in oak wood flooring. the bat is the same oak wood flooring. I had to do a lot of other stuff also, the space had no drainage. the guy who was going to install my boiler, my boiler is a secondhand boiler from up in New Hampshire that came out of a laundromat and before that it was in a carwash I hauled it down during a snowstorm, found a boiler guy and he just shook his head. Between the boiler, he didn't even know if it would fire up and the kettles, these vintage steam kettles one has a date on it of 1973. He said to me ‘I don't know what I'm getting into but I feel like I'm supposed to help you.’ so he became my boiler guy and he installed the boiler. You can’t mess with that stuff, it's gotta be by a licensed guy. He installed the boiler itself and attached it to my steam kettles then he gave me whatever work I could do that wouldn't jeopardize his license.. I ended up jack-hammering myself 70ft of 7 layer concrete to trench out. I ended up pulling out literally 10,000 lbs of stone and cement blocks that I ended up pulling out of there myself because I was too hardheaded to get a dumpster. I loaded, at a time 30-40 stones loaded into Home Depot trucks driven down myself. These trucks even had a weight limit if you were too heavy. Instead of taking weight off, i just put more on and drove them down to the recycler guy with the alarm going off in the neighborhood.
It's been hard. I deal with some really low moments especially in the heat of the summer. I was in there alone, for the most part I had a couple of guys who came in for a few build out sessions. One guy just stopped, like cold stopped. I was like ‘shit, i wonder if I pissed him off or if he was mad at me.’ Then a few weeks ago he had a heart attack. He had an artery that was like 100% blocked. He was probably fuming and here I was pushing him and he just stopped. In retrospect, I probably wouldn’t have believed him. It was a clean space but there was no drainage i had to demo the bathroom and I tore out all the plumbing and the trenching for the new plumbing and the floor drain for the bar. I built the entire bar myself. The whole tasting area; I built myself. If people walked in they might say ‘eh looks alright. I’ve seen this in this place.’ Someone already said that to me actually. Okay, I’ve never seen it because I don't get out because I’m working all the time and raising kids. I don’t know what people have in their places. I just know that these are the materials I had and this is how I wanted to put them together. For anybody who says ‘this looks like this or this looks like that.’ all i can say is that for all those other places that mine may look like or there is a similarity, only thing I can say is that maybe they contracted some good guys to build that but I built this thing myself as well as the brewery in the back, plus all the recipes that all these beers are coming out of. I strategized the whole thing. Top to bottom. As I did in the garage but now it’s way over the top.
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?
Rich: I love the beer fans. I think it's been a long time coming, it shows the evolving, more sophisticated palette that people are developing. They are making a point to develop opinions on what they like. I try to cater to them. I’m not making beers that I feel like will be my cash cow or my beer that will get into most bars that give a damn if it’s craft beer or not. All my beers have a twist because I am shooting for stuff that, I guess the “beer snobs” would appreciate. The idea of a beer bubble is a really strange situation. I didn’t see what's going on now, I didn’t see it coming. So many breweries coming into the scene. I was technically the second brewery in Queens to open up. I was behind Rockaway. I had no idea so many breweries were in the works. I had no clue, I had my nose down and was doing my own thing.
It's hard to speculate what the future is going to be but I think if anything is going to pop it's going to be something outside of beer, something in the economy. Breweries that are maybe over extended may have a hard time. That might be a shake up that might come up at some point. There are a lot of. people throwing crazy money at breweries that are not even tested. There’s very aggressive tactics going on by the big breweries/ O hear it a lot because there's a guy I work with whose son works for Anheuser-Busch and he is always telling me ‘there are doing this…’ There’s no reason there should be a pop of anything so long as people understand what we are really doing as craft breweries. We are taking back the market and bringing it back to a craft. Beer made by people who love to make beer, not necessarily just love to make money. People understand that and whatever gains we make could also be gains in other industries. Like the local hop growers. It's a snowball effect, kinda taking back markets.
I feel if people understand that the craft brewers don't have to be crowded among each other, we just have to more and more of the market back and do it in an organized manner where we not all a bunch of happy go lucky people who don't wanna think about impending doom. there's a lot of cooperation attitude amongst breweries but there doesn’t seem to be a cooperative direction towards taking the market back, defining what we are doing. We can all get stomped out very easily. we only made these gains in the past decade, anything can get turned around. we are doing something that can be a snowball effect for many industries and we are kinda leading by example now. If people understand that and breweries understand that we can just keep going forward until there is a day when this country really comes back to smaller business. The more of these businesses that are out there, the more opportunities there are for everybody.
EDG: If money was no object, you didn’t need to product test this beer and had unlimited resources what kind of beer would you make?
Rich: If I had unlimited resources, and this is probably humble dream because I’m limited by what I have so I don’t dream too far but I think...right now I haven't done any barrel aged beers because I don't have space for the barrels. Traditionally I haven't had space for the barrels. I’m hoping maybe this tasting room will change that dynamic. I think I would like to do a really good whiskey barrel aged amber ale. That would be fun and if money was no object I would do it on a somewhat reasonable scale and still have some extra money left to buy some stainless steel fermentors or whatever the hell I want. I would really love to get on a regular schedule of making that and being known for that whiskey beer, that amber whiskey ale.
EDG: Some breweries offer food and some have food vendor pop ups, do you foresee anything similar occurring in the future?
Rich: Yea. It’s funny, again, I’ll admit I’m kinda like a cave dweller. I made jokes on Facebook just this past week that I’m reluctantly crawling out of the garage. There was a guy who came in last Friday who’s an artist who has a gallery a few blocks away in Ridgewood and he came in and said ‘I wanna come in and see the brewery.’ and I said ‘If you’re gonna come in, it's a Friday, I’m filling kegs. The only way you’ll come in is if you help me fill kegs.’ So he did, he came in and helped me fill kegs, we knocked them out in three hours and retired back to the bar. I poured him a flight and poured him whatever was his favorite and when we got talking he had mentioned just that. Pop-up. I can’t even wrap my head around food. I’m supposed to have a tasting room, I’m supposed to supply snacks, which I intend to do but I don’t have a kitchen in this space. He had mentioned pop-up kitchens. I’ll admit that when he said it I was like “really?! I haven’t seen that.’ Maybe that sounds completely absurd but again, I don’t get out much but when he said that, it got me thinking that I would be totally willing to do that and maybe it’s something I’ll explore if somebody out there that maybe reads your article that does this, I’m more than willing to talk to them about it because that would be fantastic. I got some pretty cool double doors that open up, if that somehow better accommodates a pop-up kitchen. I’m on the one floor. He was saying that this would be a great spot for a pop-up kitchen
EDG: What advice can you offer to home brewers?
Rich: work with what you have and don't take no for an answer. By that I mean the biggest thing homebrewers deal with in the NYC area is space. I know now that they sell these one gallon kits. I’ve never seen a one gallon kit but to me it seems a little discouraging. You are putting in a fair amount of time. Get creative. If you can get second or third uses out of particular equipment that also function in the kitchen. I went for a while brewing 2.5 gallon batches because my carboy just fit in the closet. I didn’t even have room for a 5 gallon carboy. I used to have one pot that was my boil kettle that also doubled as my mash tun because I used to put the pot in the oven. I would mix my mash and put the pot into oven on warm and it would retain the temperature. A lot of people give up their equipment because they don’t have the room but if you like how it feels to make beer then get creative, don’t take no for an answer and work with what you have. Take good notes.
EDG: What would you describe as your target audience?
Rich: Ridgewood is a mixed neighborhood. There’s an older crowd, locals. I can relate to them because I grew up in the neighborhood. I lived my whole life in the area. These are people who some of them are my age, some are older, some are younger. They are like Ridgewood-Glendale-Maspeth personalities. They are different from people that are from Astoria. There’s also a whole wave of new people that are coming. I don't know if I have a target. The name of the brewery Bridge and Tunnel. Some people say ‘Why would you name this brewery Bridge and Tunnel, it’s negative.’ I named it that because I don’t like the idea of people being separated or being alienated.
When I was growing up in Queens, I hung out in The city from when i was 14 years old, I went to Baruch college. Young people were actually able to live in Manhattan and the people who lived in Manhattan looked down on anybody else who didn’t live in Manhattan. So you were automatically labeled as Bridge and Tunnel people. I named the brewery as a means to say that now is our time. The original Bridge and Tunnel crowd- we are raising our flag. I didn’t originally come up with this slogan, it's evolved as I thought more and more of when people ask my why I named the brewery. I’ve come up with Bridge and Tunnel Brewery because it's the bridges and tunnels that unite this city not divide it. The idea that we are all one. I have this mentality for the brewery as well. I don’t know if I want a TV in this brewery because I want people to talk to each other. I built the farmhouse tables and I was going to build even more but then people were telling me that I’d want a standing area too. I was going to have the whole floor as farmhouse tables so people will be forced to sit next to each other. I don’t have a target audience. I want to bring everybody together in this collage of what New York is.