Thursday, June 28, 2012

Interview with Christopher Basso of Newburgh Brewing

I always like hearing news of production breweries doing session beers, and that’s why it was great to get an email from Dave Pollack at The Diamond in Brooklyn — a true friend of session beer — introducing me to Christopher Basso, CEO and brewmaster at Newburgh Brewing, founded a few months ago in Newburgh, New York.

Newburgh’s up the Hudson from NYC, the historic town where Washington set up his headquarters in the last years of the Revolutionary War, and where he received the momentous news of victory. I do not compare Basso to Washington, but he’s clearly a friend of the Session Beer revolution! He quickly agreed to be interviewed, and had some great stuff to say. It's long, but it's interesting.

When did you start up NBC, and how long was it in the planning?
We started our actual brewing operations in early April of 2012 and our taproom opened up the first week of June 2012. In addition to myself, there are three other full time NBC staff. Paul Halayko (COO and President), Charlie Benedetti (Head of Sales) and Melisa Basso (my sister, the Taproom Manager). 

I had the idea for a brewery in Newburgh for many years. I was working at Brooklyn Brewery starting in 2004 or 05…I think (ha ha, a ‘long time’ ago), and trying to learn as much about brewing as possible, always knowing that I wanted my own thing. The idea really started to take shape about 3 years ago. It was a lot of research and planning just to see if this was an actual possibility. Things took off in January of 2011 when we purchased our building; there was pretty much no turning back after that point.

Brooklyn was really supportive; they knew of my plans for over a year and were gracious enough not to kick me out the door. I left there in May of 2011 and it was 24/7 getting up and running. It was a lot of hard work and continues to be so every day, but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

What kind and size of system are you using?
We have a new 20 barrel DME system. It is a three vessel system with 5 x 20 bbl. fermenters and 2 x 40 bbl. I estimate we should be able to get up to about 3,000 barrels production without any expansion, but the building allows us some room to grow in the future. 

Are you a production brewery, a brewpub, both?
We are primarily a production brewery distributing in the Hudson Valley and the five Boroughs (of NYC) right now. We have a really nice "beer hall-esque” taproom that is open on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with a kitchen serving a small menu of locally sourced and homemade food. My sister and I both have culinary backgrounds and so really great food is just as important to me as really great beer.

Tell me about what you’re brewing.
I am a fan of what you are doing for session beers. We have four session beers right now (cream ale 4.3%, brown ale 4.3%, saison 3.9%, peat smoked stout 4.0%) out of five, with a fifth one on the way (bitter 3.3%). The last beer is an IPA at 7.0% and I really only brewed it to shut the beer geeks up. Now when they ask when am I going to brew an IPA I can say I already did and they missed it.

Is your dedication to lower ABV going to continue? What originally got you going on that?
I think I brew session beers mostly because it is what I personally love to drink, not because of some marketing research or anything. I do think people want it, but that was never the driving force. I always hope that people drink craft beer for the taste, so I set out to make full-flavored beers that were low in alcohol. I also think it’s more of a test of my skills as a brewer and I like that. Things have been going really well in our two short months of existence.

Craft beer has gotten a bit out of control with the wacky and weird just for the sake of having a gimmick to sell your beer. Coming from the food world, I saw and still do see the same idea of doing weird things just to get noticed, when the best damn food you are ever going to have is some really great ingredients that haven't been messed with too much.

I hate to use the word ‘simple’ to describe my beers, because in this "bigger and weirder is better" world that has become a negative. ‘Honest’ is a better term. Like my view on food, I think a real honest to goodness beer is becoming hard to come by. A beer doesn't need the strangest ingredient or highest ABV to be a really enjoyable experience. A lot of beer doesn't taste like beer anymore. Beer has become a vehicle just to carry other flavors like getting a bag of potato chips that tastes like thanksgiving dinner. What's wrong with just a really great potato that is fried perfectly and salted just right? That is what gets me really excited. I hope I am making any sense, I tend to ramble.

Back to where my session bent views came from. When I first got into brewing, I was enamored with all the weird and wonderful flavors that beer has to offer. But I quickly tired of all the analyzing and searching for the rarest and most esoteric beers. I know that all the guys I worked with felt the same way, and we would always lament the fact that our Brewmaster's Reserve series always had to be higher ABV, because people had been conditioned to think something wasn't special if it didn't have at least 7% ABV. That constant battle against the salesmen and the brewing team helped to shape what I would do when I was the only one making the decisions about the beer. So I will be brewing session beers on a very regular basis. I hope that anything that becomes a real year-round offering will fall into that, with the more occasional higher ABV offering when it is essential to the vision of the beer I am making, not just to help sell beer.

What do bar accounts say when you show up with low ABV beers to sell? What do you tell them?
Not one bar or person has mentioned the lower ABV in anything but a positive way. We don't even post our ABV in the taproom and we don't necessarily go into bars selling "session" beer either. We go in selling interesting and high quality beer; if the topic of ABV comes up, then we address it with all the great reasons why session beer is a wonderful thing. Up here in the Hudson Valley, bar and restaurant owners are happy that it helps their customers be more responsible. Where we are located everyone has to drive everywhere, so session beer is a good thing for that.

We have also been seeing that the bar owners are happy because people may have two of my session beers at a more reasonable price point [rather] than one higher ABV beer at what seems like a real steep investment on the customer’s part. Even with that, there are some that don't buy into the lower ABV thing and I always ask people why they drink craft beer. The response is always something along the lines of "because I like the way it tastes and all the interesting flavors." The answer is rarely anything to do with the alcohol content, and that usually gets them to see where I am coming from. I drink craft beer for the flavor and I think my session beers are just as interesting and flavorful as any higher ABV stuff out there.

Bars that I never would have thought would sell our beer are selling a lot; some real craft places aren't even ordering because we aren't special enough; because everyone around has our beer. (Those people don't get what it's all about.) Good beer stands on its own regardless of the ABV. People aren't going to drink something that doesn't taste good just because it's lower ABV. I try just to make good quality beer that people like, and hopefully they will figure out the session thing along the way.

Do you think a bar should have a low ABV craft ‘alternative,’ or should there be a selection of them, just as there are selections of DIPAs, IPAs, stouts, pilsners, and others?
Like I was saying earlier, up here where everyone drives I think it is an absolute necessity for bars and restaurants. Other than that, I don't know that there needs to be a session strength beer in a bar just because of that. I want my beers to stand on their own merit as a quality beer, not just getting a place on the taps because it is a session beer. We just opened, so I will take any handles I can get, but eventually some of the really great session beers out there will just be seen as great beer and the session thing is just a bonus for the people who understand about session beer.

What’s the atmosphere like for a session beer brewer? Do you think it’s more receptive than it was five years ago? Care to speculate on the reasons why or why not?
In all my time at Brooklyn, the brewing team wanted to brew all kinds of great session beers. But whenever we got a chance, it would be the one beer that the salesmen had trouble selling. The notion that high alcohol is somehow harder to make and more special was very strong, but I think it is slowly fading. I remember starting to see articles on session beer and people talking about it more and that really excited me. It has given us something unique to talk about, but for each bar that thinks that is great, there are an equal number that see my beer as not being special enough in some way.

Overall it is probably a wash, and as long as I am making high quality beer it will all work itself out. Session or high ABV doesn't matter if the beer is no good. That is one of the main reasons we don't post our ABV's in the taproom. There are still many people that go for the strongest beer to get the most bang for their buck, but I just want people to order what sounds tasty to them. When I tell them the ABV, I enjoy the look of surprise on their face. Hopefully that is one more person who has had that “ah ha!” moment about ABV and the quality and flavor of beer.

Session beer has become a small trend, and that's showing in the number of beers that are tagging themselves as session beers or "sessionable"...even when they're over 5% or even over 6%. What's your reaction when you see a beer like that?
That really frustrates me when beers of that strength are trying to capitalize on the popularity of session beer just to sell their product. Trying to say that a beer is ‘sessionable’ at 6% just because everything else you make is 8% is not the right way to go about it. And acting like a tough guy, and claiming that you are able to have a session with Imperial Stout is just someone who probably has some growing up to do and a lot more to learn about beer.

That makes me think of the arc of your typical craft beer drinker. When people first get into beer, they are mesmerized and amazed by all the weird and wonderful and higher ABV. Then as you move on in your beer education you begin to be able to appreciate the nuance and real craft that goes into brewing. A session beer lover is someone who can appreciate the beauty of a 3.5% perfectly clean and balanced bitter. They are really more advanced and sophisticated beer lovers in my opinion.  

Making a beer taste like vanilla or coffee or anything else is easy; making that perfect bitter with nothing to hide your flaws as a brewer is the real work of art.

Do you think session beers will sell outside a brewery’s local area? Should they?
This is a microcosm of what I see as a problem in the industry as a whole. Great beer will sell wherever it is available in general, whether sessionable or not. The real question is should they, and to my mind that is an emphatic NO. Not just session beer, but shipping beer all over the country is kind of sad. I see so many beers from all over the country in our little corner of NY and it’s not to say that they aren't great beers but it always makes me think "what is the point?" There are plenty of breweries in the northeast and at least the east coast to fill all the taphandles around here with hugely varied and wonderful beers. So why do we need to ship kegs of beer across the country?

I am always amazed at the way the craft beer industry has never seen any backlash from the environmental and locavore communities. Kegs of beer are heavy stuff and the carbon footprint to be constantly shipping them all over the country must be enormous. I have a theory that the reason there is no backlash is because the same community of environmentalists and locavores are the most loyal and supportive members of the craft beer community. Somewhat odd that the same people that have a farm to table restaurant will often times have a great beer list that ships things in from the four corners of the globe.

I personally have no desire whatsoever to ever ship my beer too far from home. Granted, we are very lucky in that we are in one of the most densely populated parts of the country, and so there will not be a shortage of customers for us any time soon. But I just don't think it is good for my product or the environment for me to be shipping beer all over the place. We try to use all local products in our taproom. As much as possible, we will keep Newburgh Brewing pretty close to home.

Well, that is my rants and thoughts on session beer. Would love for you to take a visit to Newburgh and have a beer together. We eagerly await next year’s Session Beer Day as our launch narrowly missed it this year.


  1. Daniel TerwilligerJune 28, 2012 at 10:09 AM

    Great set of questions Lew and well put responses by Chris. I really enjoy the beers they are working on and cant wait for the Bitter.

    1. Indeed! I also can't wait for the bitter! I am going to try cooking with the stout. Perhaps a meat pie!

  2. always noticed the same thing about craft beer geeks, they just do not factor in the environmental aspects of distance into their choices. They will talk up locavore topics and eat local and some even work in environmental areas but then they will continually choose left coast or belgium or any beer other than those nearby. I dont get it.

  3. Let's face it, many beer geeks are addicted. Their addiction to alcohol and to trying new beers/brands (which may be a justification of their addiction) will always trump their sense of doing the right thing w/r/t environmentalism and localism. For an addict, protecting the addiction is always paramount, hence they talk a good game, and perhaps live it in other areas of their lives, but not when it comes to their beer.

  4. That's not just ridiculous, it's offensive. Thanks for putting the "warning, Bullshit ahead" indicator of "Let's face it..." at the very beginning.

  5. Not sure why it is taboo to talk about alcohol addiction on beer geek sites, but it is a reality, whether or not you think it's bullshit or offensive or ridiculous. And, yes, in addition to being addictive (pyschologically and physically) it can also make you obese. That's a reality many dont want to address but it is the truth.

  6. You're bringing up an argument that doesn't exist. Alcohol addiction as an excuse for not being a locavore? Go away, troll.


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