Interview with Bobby Gagnon of The Gate – Brooklyn

By: Eric Sturniolo


The Gate 321 5th Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11215 (718) 768-4329


Twitter:      @thegatebrooklyn

unnamed2I visited The Gate in Park Slope during the Bell’s Brewery Launch week. 11 of their 25 taps were Bell’s, and I got a flight (4 pours for $10), then a Two Hearted Ale.

unnamed4The non-Bell’s list was amazing as well, and wish I had the room in my stomach (and the liver function) for Dogfish Head My Antonia, Firestone Walker Double Jack, Victory Dirtwolf, and Captain Lawrence  Smoke From The Oak (Apple Brandy Imperial Version). Just a really outstanding tap list!

unnamed6There are some booths, tables, seats at the bar, and picnic tables outside for the nicer weather. There was a cool mix of locals stopping by for a drink after work, and beer nerds like myself. There’s no kitchen, but they let you bring in outside food.

The owner, Bobby Gagnon is a veteran of the NYC craft beer scene, and he was nice enough to spend some time answering my questions.

Eric Sturniolo: You opened The Gate, one of the first craft beer bars in Park Slope, in 1997. What was the craft beer scene in NYC like back then?

Bobby Gagnon:  We were in the very first wave of dedicated craft beer bars in South Brooklyn. In 1996 when The Gate buildout began, there were at most a handful of craft beer bars in the entire city. NYC was in its craft infancy and American craft breweries numbered maybe 500 nationally. To put that in perspective there will be 6x that many in the near future between those present and those in-planning. In those early days our draught list was 60-70% imported beer! We had Sierra Nevada, Anchor, Rogue, Pyramid, Red Hook from the West and very little from the East. Brooklyn of course and PA’s Stoudts comes to mind for instance.

In the mid-90’s I primarily drank Guinness in the pubs that served the best pints (Ear Inn, Molly’s) and procured the beers I wanted to drink in some of the delis in the East Village that stocked variety. My wife can attest to the wide searches I underwent for Marzens and fests when the season rolled around! There were only a couple of what I would call “serious” beer bars then. Mugs Ale House in Williamsburg, d.b.a. had just opened in lower Manhattan and then shortly after the Blind Tiger. To think about those days against today when you can walk in almost anywhere and find a double IPA or even a sour! The mind reels. Truly those were the darker ages!

When the Tiger opened there was an immediate buzz. Dba in Manhattan had predated the Tiger by a few months but they were not planning to open as a beer bar originally. Dave brought the knowledge and enthusiasm and deservedly the Blind Tiger remains one of the most highly regarded beer bars in NYC. [true of course but in the interest of full disclosure I am a partner in the BTAH]

ES: How did you end up opening a bar? Was it something you’ve always wanted to do?

BG: I had bartended for 5+ years in a beer bar out West that carried a dozen drafts and 250 bottles. It was there I learned the nature of real deal beer. When I moved back East in 1994, I ended up meeting and working with Dave Brodrick and Bryan Delaney. The love of beer discussions ensued. I worked at the original Blind Tiger behind the stick in their 1st year in 1996 (I served Michael Jackson when I had no idea who he was!) and then The Gate became reality in 1997.

I’m a believer in pubs. All comers. We play to no one but our neighbourhood at The Gate. Some of our original regulars are still here 18 years on! Some who have moved away still remain in touch and return when they are back in the area. I will say that after all of this time, I still enjoy it so I can now revise history now and say it’s something I’ve always wanted to do!

ES: Other than the fact there are a lot more beer bars now, what other changes have you noticed over the years, both good and bad?

BG: The good? NYC is now a beer city! In my early days here going out to eat in a restaurant and wanting a good beer with the meal was not even a consideration. The Gramercy Tavern was a go to place for a proper meal and a proper beer (when I could afford it!) The sommelier position there was already well in tune with the possibilities in craft beer. Now it is unusual to see a restaurant open without some attention to craft beer. Hell, even a small sandwich shop will put up a couple lines now!

The bad? Price, Service, Knowledge. These are the big 3. With the proliferation of beer bars there is much inconsistency to be found in these areas. Nothing drives me crazier than a lousy pint of a great beer, a shrug of the shoulders when I ask about a beer and price-gouging.

One of the guys at Bell’s just told me that when they think of pricing the first person they think of is the one sitting in the barstool. I love that. That is also the first person I think of when I arrive at a price for the chalkboards. We started 18 years ago at $4 and $5 for a pint and now we are at $6 and (rarely) $7 for the pricey stuff. It is pretty cool that the brewer and the retailer, the last step in the chain, can be on exactly the same page. Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, Smuttynose, now Bell’s are examples of breweries who have worked to keep pricing fair. They’re under a lot of pressure, rising costs as well but they think of the consumer and that is the key. 

ES: Since there are so many beer bars now, do you see them as competitors or as part of a big beer family?

BG: Everything in NYC is competitive and bar owners are a unique breed. The nightlife lifestyle, the perceived profits, the mythos of easy money, etc. bring a lot of people into the game. Over the years, I have had a number of current craft bar owners as regulars here at The Gate before they set out. Cousins of a sort. It is a big beer family to some degree but that ultimately depends on the family members doesn’t it?

ES: Do you have a philosophy on what kinds of beer you try to have in your bar?

BG: I concentrate largely on American Craft here and balance. Seasonal balance, style balance.  From the outset we have been a local, neighbourhood pub. We stock a few macros for our customers who prefer it and rotate the other 90% of our roster with craft. The power of quality is an essential key. A well tended pour is a primary focus. If you have a customer sitting with a great looking, fresh and tasty pint, what’s better that?    

I also listen to the customer. The great thing about this wave of craft is that the customers are more vocal than ever. Know what they want. Tell you not only what they like but WHY they like it. It’s incredible.

ES: The life of a bar owner is 24/7 fun, parties and groupies, right?

BG: And there you have the most common misperception in the business! Taking absolutely nothing away from the fun factor, I’m 18 years here now and didn’t make it this far by living it up on the Lido deck and neglecting the engine room! I think that’s the best way to balance an answer right?  

Every day as a bar owner you are bringing a couple dozen or 250 people into your living room! Every single day. On paper that looks absolutely crazy. The 24/7 aspect is merely a part of the whole and certainly can distract but at no time do you forget the people who work for you, those at the party or the final bill at the end of each month! 

ES: Since I’m assuming the answer to the previous question is “no”, take us through your typical day.

BG: I got into the bar business as a person who is homicidal if confronted by routine. Every day is different. While that certainly has its drawbacks, what makes this business the best for a person like me is variety. The icing here in craft beer is that the game is constantly interesting and changing. As craft keeps growing I never struggle to find choice.

If there is any “typical day” nature to it, it always involves the kegs. We have a large cold box and the organization of it is a constant puzzle solving game. I have been trapped, injured, hospitalized, you name it. Our old box is like an old friend. Been through a lot together!  

ES: Bell’s Brewery just started distributing in NYC, and you recently had a tap takeover. Which of their beers is your favorite?

BG: Bell’s is great to finally have here. I am a big fan of the stouts. The Double Cream and of course the Expedition were outstanding. The Midwestern Pale was a beer I’d never tried. It became a quick favorite as a ‘have more than one’ brew. Met Larry at The Gate during launch week and he was affable and full of great stories. Another pioneer. 1985. 

ES: Is there a brewery that doesn’t distribute here that you’d love to see?

BG: On the large scale Deschutes out of Bend, Oregon. On a smaller scale, Crux Fermentation, also Bend was a find for me on a recent trip out there, I’m a fan. Prairie Artisanal out of Oklahoma. Surly. Certainly love to see Three Floyds back in NYC. Yes we had them here for a hot minute many years ago! I could go on and on.

I think there are 2 breweries a day now opening in this country, so we will be seeing a lot more “I wish…” breweries!

ES: Do you have any special kegs you’ve been aging or holding on to for occasions?

BG: I age kegs regularly and always have a stash. For most events apart from new launches, we can generally offer an in-house cellared vintage. For NYC Beer Week I have always done a hand picked vintage keg lineup. This year is no different. I’ve got cellared kegs rolling out for NYCBW of Hair of the Dog, Avery, Founders, Hitachino and more.

ES: Any events comings up?

BG: Along with the vintages for NYC Beer Week we will have a book signing and new/local breweries event with Beer Union and their book “Beer Lovers NY”, getting a very special keg sent up to us for Beer Week from Cigar City, then it’s on to Mardi Gras with Abita, a chili cookoff with 11 breweries participating, Peekskill etc etc. Always something going on!

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