In New York, new experiences and stories are around every corner. Walking down the street, you’ll discover the most interesting people and places. Walk down enough streets in Williamsburg, in north Brooklyn, and you’ll eventually run across Brooklyn Brewery. I wandered in there a few months ago and was impressed by the venue and production taking place there. I then had the opportunity to sit down with the owner and founder, Steve Hindy, to discuss how he built such an iconic brand in Brooklyn in the 1980s.
Steve’s brewing background
I was a correspondent for the Associated Press, living in Cairo, when I met American diplomats who had worked in Saudi Arabia, where they have Islamic Law. No alcoholic beverages allowed, and these guys were avid home brewers in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis banned alcoholic beverages formally in 1954, when all of the Americans were coming in developing the oil fields, and when they did, the Arab-American oil company issued a pamphlet to all its employees telling them how to make their own beer, wine, whiskey at home.
I met them in Cairo, and they continued to home brew, because their home brew was superior to the beer available in Cairo at that time. Then my wife got fed up with this, after about six years. She said she was coming back to New York, and taking the kids, and so I gave it up and came with her, and went to work for Newsday here in New York doing foreign news, and I was kind of bored with that, but I was making beer at home, and I got carried away with the whole thing, and started Brooklyn Brewery.
Well, I always had a dream of starting my own company, and I read about these small breweries that were starting up. There were only about 20 of them in like 1984 or even less, and the idea of starting a brewery just seemed like this incredible dream, and I realized that people were doing it, and I could do it too. Brooklyn has an incredible history of brewing. When Brooklyn became part of New York City in 1898, there were 48 breweries operating in Brooklyn, and it was a major brewing center. Then the last two big breweries, Schaeffer and Reingold closed in Brooklyn in 1976, so there was a vacuum. The idea was to bring brewing back to Brooklyn.
The beginnings of the brand
Really, I think, in retrospect, the most important decision we made early on was naming the company. I wanted to call it “Brooklyn Eagle Beer,” after the Brooklyn Eagle newspaper, which had been edited by Walt Whitman, only because of my newspaper background, but I interviewed like 30 different design firms when we were looking and thinking about an identity for the company, and they were all smaller firms. None of them really was telling me anything.
My wife, one night, she said, “Why don’t you call the best designers in New York. They’re probably the best in the world,” so I did. They had us in for catered lunch, and they showed us all their work. We didn’t have any money at all, but they were all kind of fascinated by the idea of starting a brewery in Brooklyn. The only one that I couldn’t get a meeting with was Milton Glaser, who was really the only designer I knew anything about it, because of the “I Love New York” logo, and New York magazine.
Creating the brand with Milton Glaser
When I was in college, Milton designed the covers of the Penguin Shakespeare Series, the Herman Hess novels, and some Bob Dylan albums, so I knew who Milton was. I told him all about Brooklyn Eagle Beer, and I told him that I wanted the Brooklyn Dodgers in this label, and I want the Brooklyn Bridge, and he said, “Hey, save something for me to do.” Then, two days later, he unveiled a bottle with the logo.
I was totally underwhelmed. It was like, “So that’s it?” And he said, “Look, don’t say a word. Take it home. Put it on your kitchen table. Show it to your wife. Don’t show it to a lot of people. Just live with it a little.” And I did, and eventually it sunk it in, the beauty and simplicity, and kind of evocative nature of that logo he did.
Also at that first meeting, Milton said, “Look, we got Brooklyn here. Let’s claim Brooklyn. Forget about the bird. You don’t need the eagle.” So we dropped the eagle, and we just called it Brooklyn, and a lot of people in 1986, a lot of people questioned that name. Even lifelong Brooklyn people.
Milton also pointed out that the Anheuser-Busch corporate logo has an eagle, and he said, “You’ll definitely be sued,” so I said, “Well, that could be cool.” He said, “Not if you lose.”
Milton is just an amazing man. He’s had so much experience in New York, as a designer, but also as a businessperson. He really kept us focused on the brand, and kept us committed to Brooklyn Brewery. There was one point in the early 90s where we were really struggling. Actually, we didn’t pay ourselves for a few months. We paid our people, but we didn’t pay ourselves.
I remember going to Milton once and I said, “You know, Milton, maybe we need a new name. Maybe instead of calling this beer we’re planning ‘Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout,’ maybe it should be ‘Hindy’s Chocolate Stout,’ because I used to make that kind of beer at home.” Milton said, “Oh, no. No going back. You’ve got to stick with Brooklyn here.” He kept us on brand, and there were many times where we had kooky ideas.
Most of the year-round beers are very similar, just different colors, but the seasonal beers have different kind of labels, and then the special beers we do, have some very, very different labels.
The power of storytelling
We’ve never done traditional advertising. From the beginning, I realized, in New York City, you can spend a lot of money on advertising and get nothing in return, and so I said, “We’re not going to advertise.”
TV came to us, radio, everyone came to us — but instead, we took our meager marketing budget, and we gave away beer to not-for-profits, through arts organizations, to causes we believed in, and we gave beer to people for their charity events, and they were able to turn it into money by offering the beer at a fundraiser for a couple of bucks or something.
I wrote a book called Beer School. It tells the whole story of the Brooklyn Brewery, and a lot of business schools use that. Actually, I’m very proud. Columbia University’s business school, for I think 30 years, their case study that they do with all the entering students was a Harvard Business School study of Ben & Jerry’s. Last year, they did an independent study of Brooklyn Brewery on their own, and that’s now their entry course.
Community is core
In the first 15 years of our business, there were 30 other breweries that started up in New York and failed, so New York was kind of a tough place to get established. You know, it’s a big import town. It’s not the kind of town that’s big on the local hero. New Yorkers want the best of everything. They don’t care where it’s from, so it wasn’t like Vermont, or Michigan, or Oregon, where they’re really avid about their local brands. It was tough getting going here and succeeding. Distributing your own beer was very unusual.
I would say the core value that we try to express is a sense of community. Being part of the community, and giving back to the community. From day one, when we opened the brewery here, we offered it to organizations to have their meetings, and when they did the re-zoning here in north Brooklyn, a lot of the public hearings were held at the brewery. Years ago, there were efforts to put a garbage transfer station on the waterfront here, and then later a big power plant, and the protesters against those things used the brewery as like a staging point.
We try to connect with what we call, “the creative community” in Brooklyn. As you know, Brooklyn is one big frigging creative community, and so when we do events, we try to connect with the Brooklyn-esque community in London, or in Paris, or in Stockholm, or in Austin, or in Chicago. Those community values are kind of at the core of our marketing.
We do a lot of event promotion. We do videos. Social media has totally magnified that whole effort on our part. I think one of the reasons why craft beer has taken off in the last 10 years, is because of social media. They’re so many beer nuts out there. You can open a brewery in the middle of nowhere and people will flock to it, just because they’re so passionate about exploring the craft beer world.
Notes to young entrepreneurs
You’ve got to stay focused on your brand, and you’ve got to stay focused on your plan, and you have to have a mission statement and some values that are going to guide you. Because there are all kinds of temptations that happen when you start a company. At a certain point — you know how in cartoons where the wolf looks at the little chicken or the pig and in the bubble over his head, you see the chicken or the pig roasting? — early on, I had a feeling so many distributors and salesmen were looking at us in that way. You know, like how much money do these guys have, and how can I get it? You need to have a good mission and core values to guide you.
When we were first starting out, we happened to meet one of our neighbors in Brooklyn one day who had started a beverage company. She told us that she was selling the company to Seagram’s for 25 million bucks, so we were kind of impressed by her. She gave us a piece of advice. She said, “This is a great logo. The beer is really unique. It’s very different than mainstream beer.” But she also said, “This is not going to work unless you guys distribute your own beer.”
We’re like, “Distribute beer in New York? What about parking tickets? What about the Mafia?” She said, “Well, yeah, there’s a lot of problems,” but she told us about starting out with her company and trying to sell it through health-food distributors, soda distributors, beer distributors, and it failed. All three said, “Your stuff doesn’t sell,” and she said she didn’t get established until she bought a van, put a logo on the van, and went out there and sold it herself. So we changed our plan. We started brewing the beer upstate in an existing brewery, trucking it to New York, and we went out there with a van and peddled the beer door-to-door.
What’s next for Brooklyn Brewery
Milton just did a refresh of all of our packaging. It’s just rolling out. It’s very cool. See the way the logos are on the corners? It means when it goes on the shelf, any way you put it, it aligns with the box next to it. Milton will be 87 this year, and he still goes to work every day, and I swear, he’s done his best work for us in the last five years.
On Monday, we had a news conference at the Navy Yard, and we announced that we’re building a new brewery next year. Headquarters on the ninth floor of Building 77, the new building they’re doing, and a beer garden on the roof on the 16th floor. Incredible views of Manhattan, a beer garden, and restaurant.