Q&A with Finback Brewery co-owner, Basil Lee

A long long time ago, I was lucky enough to sit with Basil Lee, one of the owners of Finback Brewery located in Glendale, Queens NY. It was a great chat and I got to spend a bit more time exploring the spacious taproom and I got to hang in the back with all the cool tanks and barrels. I had every intention of putting this up earlier but then I got married and then Christmas and more holidays kept happening. In a way, it worked out. NYC Craft Beer week starts this Friday February 24th . NYC Beer Week is a great way to explore many beers that you may not often find in bars. Finback will actually be at the NYC BEER WEEK OPENING BASH INVITATIONAL on Saturday the 25th. The $55 general admission ticket gets you unlimited beer samples. The event will be held  in the Brooklyn EXPO Center 72 Noble Street Brooklyn, NY 11222. If big beer events aren't your speed then I suggest you make the trip to Glendale and visit the brewery itself. They will be have a can release celebration at 12PM that same Saturday. What are they releasing? this quote from their Facebook page should answer all questions. 

EDG: What made you decide to name the brewery ‘Finback’?

Finback: Long story short, we really wanted to have something nautical. I grew up in Rhode Island, Kevin, my partner, grew up in Massachusetts. We all kind of lived in ocean coastline states so we wanted something nautical. Finally, when we decided that we were coming to Queens, there was a Finback whale beached at Breezy Point and took that as the name. We thought it was an interesting local connection.

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?

Finback: I think it's a great time for craft beer in general. For both on our side, brewing beer and making beer and on the consumer side. There's just a huge amount of really quality offerings that are really interesting. I think it's a great time to be a craft beer drinker. I'm excited about things from other breweries, friends and colleagues. Certainly, there are ‘beer snobs’ or something like that but I believe that's true of any art form. Whether it's art or food, there will be certain people with certain opinions about things. Ultimately, I think the conversation is good and I think people want to talk about what they're tasting and learning about beer. The consumer is curious. They want to taste things and analyze things and that's all good. In terms of the ‘bubble’, I think there will be a bubble at some point to the extent that at some point you have too many breweries. There's so much debate about what that means. There's so many breweries but a lot of the breweries are really small. I don't believe it'll pop to the extent that we'll go backwards. I think it might not grow as quickly. I think people are gonna like good beer and I think craft is good beer. People will appreciate quality in general. I don't

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

Finback: When you look at the industry as a whole, it is really unique. It's very cordial There's a lot of camaraderie. We know nearly all of the Queens breweries. We are all part of a city guild. That's all the boroughs. We meet together and see each other socially and professionally. I think everyone is really busy but I also think it's really great. The more breweries you have in a city the better, especially  if everyone is constantly working towards making the best beers out there.

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

Finback: For us, it's very fluid. It's evolving and always changing. We don't really have a specific prices. We are still small enough so we can focus on making something that is unique rather than trying to perfect a classic style or something like that. We are always trying to look at ingredients and combinations of flavors. We are trying to be more creative. We still brew consistently different beers. There'd only a few beers that we brew all the time and a handful of beers that we brew more than a few times. Everything else is maybe once a year or just once and that's it. We have a small team but we are always talking. We don't necessarily schedule out a long time. If we are good, we'll schedule out a month and a half. If we are bad and things get pushed we make the recipe a week or two weeks before. A lot of times we know where we want to be and we'll say ‘let's make an IPA that does this and had these hops.’ That's mainly the process. We just brainstorm with the teams.

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

Finback: Yea….probably about a million of things (laughs). On the one hand, I think we would have done things differently because of different contexts. If we had more money; then this or whatever. Now we have more confidence about everything. In the beginning we were worried about everything which I think is true of any new business. We were very worried, we had a very tight budget. We made decisions that were very conservative, which I think is the right thing to do. If we could've, we would have invested in more things and gotten potentially more equipment. There are other things that are like nitty gritty practical things. We couldn't afford to change the floors, so we didn't do it but had to pay more to do it later. At that point it's a little easier to get it done. Fundamentally, I don't think I would change that much about it.

EDG: What advice can you offer to home brewers?

Finback: Keep enjoying what you do. Be positive about it. I think most home brewers are all about that. It's about the wonder or realization of being able to make your own beer. It's one of those things, it's kind of crazy, just like I don't make my own bread. Beer is even one step further than that. It's such a thing that you buy. There’s something about  ability to make it and not only make it but to make it well. It leads to this flexibility and understanding of how many different kinds of beers are out there. For a period of time, you couldn't get them unless you searched them out. You weren't getting a ton of variety. In home brewing, if you wanted a style, you could learn about it, read about it and do it.

EDG: What advice can you give for those seeking to break out from the hobby and brew professionally?

Finback: Get a sense of what you like about home brewing and why you want to get into the industry. People sometimes have the romantic notion that working in a brewery is all of the creative parts of recipe formation and being a part of all the fun parts if tasting beer. When in fact it's just manufacturing essentially. At our scale, which is pretty small with very little automation, everything is done by hand. You're talking about a lot of cleaning, plumbing type things, moving liquids around, scrubbing floors, scrubbing kegs, moving heavy kegs. If you look at what we do in a day, it's mostly manual labor. It's a lot of fun and you have too enjoy that aspect of it. My advice is to make sure that's what you want, it's not some kind of notion of ‘oh, wouldn't it be fun to just make beer?’ If you want to get a job at a brewery then you need to be open hard work and understanding that you'll likely be cleaning a lot and slowly moving up.

EDG: What's the best selling beer that Finback makes?

Finback: We brew Finback IPA and our Wit beer which is called Double Sess(ion) the most, so by virtue of that I think they also sell the most. We brew those continuously. Also, I would say Oscillation, which is our rotating IPA series, is a pretty big seller. Each beer is different in the series, but they are all related. As a series, it’s a big seller. Starchild which is sour ale that we make with grapefruit peel. We do that relatively often.

EDG: What's your favorite type of beer?

Finback: That’s always a funny question for me. There’s so many, I hate playing favorites. There are a lot of beers that I’ve had that were unremarkable but that I’m really happy to drink. Then there are some beers that I’ve had that were remarkable but I like variety. There’s usually not any beers that I always want to drink. As a drinker, my favorite is to have variety. This may be too easy of an answer, but I’d say local IPAs, as just a go-to thing that you can have very often. Not necessarily doubles but just a good hoppy local IPA that’s super fresh, I’d say that’s my favorite. I feel that people that like IPAs should appreciate drinking locally made IPAs because freshness is such a critical part of a good IPA. There’s so many breweries in NYC that are now making really good IPAs. For me, we made a beer called Matter and Memory, it was a lightly dry hopped saison and Knoll, a 5.5% IPA, all mosaic. I really liked them because they were so drinkable. I would say my favorite beers are flavorful, 5-6% and kind of nice but not over the top type of beers.

EDG: If money and space weren’t an issue, what beer would you make?

Finback: We actually have, not money, but a fair amount of space. Out of all the New York breweries, we are probably the luckiest ones. If I had to chose one style, I would have to say barrel-aged sour beers.

EDG: It’s unusual for a child to say ‘I wanna be a brewer when I grow up.’ When you were growing up, what did you want to be?

Finback: I don’t think I ever necessarily had a thing that I wanted to be when I grew up. I think I always knew that I wanted to have fun. As a child I wanted to have fun when I grew up. I wanted to do something that I enjoyed. I did enjoy drinking beer growing up for sure. When I realized what I really wanted to do, I was an architect. I still enjoy it and I went to art school so I know I wanted to do something creative. That kind of transitioned into brewing which I also think is an art. It’s a very creative kind of thing.  

EDG: During the summer you collaborated with J Wakefield and made one of my favorite beers, Smooth Beats Miami, how did this collaboration come to be?

Finback: They came and just visited us at the brewery. We knew their beers. Whenever we travel for work or for fun we visit other brewers, meet people, and drink beers. We liked the beers they were doing. They were doing really cool kettle sours, nicely tart lower ABV beers. We just kind of hit it off. For collaborations we would talk just talk back and forth about something we wanted to do. We wanted to do something hoppy. We wanted to integrate something that was warm weather Florida-ish, So we thought about coconut. I think they do a coconut wheat beer down there. It was kind of an experiment. The coconut IPA, especially at the time, I don’t know f we were the first ones to do it but there aren’t many. It was one of those things where I was confident that it would work well but we weren’t sure. I think that’s how we do a lot of our beers. We talk through and try to imagine what it’d be like but you’re never sure. I think it worked really well. It became almost like a pina colada-ish beer but not like sweet or over the top. I really enjoyed it too. I think it’s summery, fun and different.

EDG: What are your hopes and aspirations for the future of Finback?

Finback: My ultimate aspirations are always very simple like always getting the opportunity to continue doing what we do. I hope we can keep making the best beer we can possibly make. Hopefully people will continue to like it and buy it and that allows us to grow and and be creative. I see Finback as an opportunity to continue exploring our fascination with beer. We want to continue to expand our barrel program, get new pieces of equipment, brew different styles or use different techniques and really just keep funding our fascination with beer.

EDG: Queens is fast becoming NYC’s beer capital. Why do you think this is? What does Queens offer emerging breweries?

Finback: I think there’s a lot of things. One very simple thing is that there are still a lot of opportunities in Queens to find real estate. That’s already still changing. Brewing is high capitally intensive, relatively low market margin business. It’s not like if you were a bar. You’re not selling the same margins that a bar would. We are in the tap room for a little bit but it’s really about manufacturing. You need to find spaces that are big enough and ceiling heights that aren’t too expensive and Queens still has opportunities for spaces like that. Queens is also super diverse. There’s really a lot of great neighborhoods. Now I’d say between most of the breweries in NYC are pretty much Brooklyn and Queens, then in the Bronx but still not quite as many and I think there’s two in Staten Island. I think now it will remain the same between Brooklyn and Queens and I think a lot of it is real estate. I actually live in Brooklyn and commute here. Originally we were looking in Brooklyn but when we found this space it was just the perfect space. It gave us so much opportunity to grow and mostly, we really wanted to have a barrel aging program. That was one of our initial things we just wanted to have. Having the space to do that where you are essentially leaving or allowing a lot of barrels to just take up space, sitting there for months, a year or a year and a half, it just takes space. That is why we really like this space. It’s also a beautiful neighborhood. Queens is continuing to be competitive in that sense  

EDG: What separates Finback from other breweries?

Finback: I like to think that what makes us different is that we don’t have a real signature taste. There’s so many breweries out there. There’s so many different ways people do their interpretation of what brewery they want to create. For us, we never wanted to necessarily focus on one thing. We got a creativity we want to push forward and we are all a little bit schizophrenic in that we like to do many things and many things at once. We weren’t like ‘Let’s make the best IPA we can possibly make!’ or ‘Make the best Belgian styled beers.’ For us, it was more about using beer as a medium to really play with styles and ingredients. I think we have kind of achieved that. We continue to push. For us, it's about being the best brewery we can be that makes a wide range of beers that aren’t necessarily crazy but are unique and different.  

Finback Brewery is located on 7801 77th Queens, NY 11385. Their hours are 

Wednesday 5-10pm

Thursday 5-10pm

Friday 5-10pm

Saturday 1-10pm

Sunday 1-7pm

You can stay in contact with the Brewery through TwitterInstagram, and the aforementioned Facebook