What’s Brewing: Third Rail Beer
By Eric Sturniolo
I had my first taste of Third Rail beer at the Brooklyn Local Craft Beer Fest, and I’ve been hooked since. Third Rail Beer is an NYC-based brewery owned by a trio of native New Yorkers — Brewmaster Loren Taylor-Raymond and co-owner Larry Koestler grew up in Manhattan’s East Village; and Head of Sales Kate Haubrich was raised in College Point, Queens Since launching in New York City almost six months ago, they’ve released three well-regarded beers — Bodega American Pale Ale, Field 2 Farmhouse Ale and Innate IPA — with an Imperial Stout, Alternate Side, on the way. Third Rail currently operates as a tenant brewer at Rhode Island’s Coastal Extreme, traveling to Newport to brew each batch, but plans to open its own facility within the five boroughs as soon as it is able to do so.
We sat down with the trio to find out more about how they came to be, their current state of affairs, and what the future holds.
Where’s The Beer NY: How did the three of you meet?
Larry Koestler: Loren and I have known each other for almost 20 years. We grew up in adjacent buildings in Stuyvesant Town in the East Village, but Loren is a few years younger than me, and so he was primarily my younger brother Craig’s friend when we were growing up. But we all hung out together in the neighborhood as we attempted to skateboard rather poorly (it was the mid-1990s and the long-haired, hugely baggy jeans look had taken our age group by storm) around Stuy Town. Many years later, I went to see Craig play in a softball game at Central Park, on a team that he had joined that was organized by Loren and Kaitlyn. I was sitting on the dugout bench watching the game and immediately after it ended I heard a voice call out “hey, who wants some Double IPA I brewed?” Being beyond obsessed with craft beer, my ears obviously perked up and I turned around to discover that the voice belonged to Loren, who I probably hadn’t seen in 10 years. I was blown away that Loren was homebrewing at this level and we quickly discovered a mutual love for all things good beer — before anyone realized it, he, Kaitlyn and I became very fast friends. Every beer I’ve ever had from Loren has been exceptional, and as things progressed, we started kicking around the idea of going pro. The three of us each bring dynamic perspectives and distinct skill sets to the table, and before long we knew we had to go for it. As an aside, Field 2, our Farmhouse Ale, actually got its name from the fact that it’s the location that ultimately led to the existence of Third Rail Beer.
Loren Taylor-Raymond: Kaitlyn and I met in college where I was studying Molecular Biology and she was an Arts Management major. At the time she worked in a beer and liquor store that had one of the better craft beer selections in the area. Through her employee discount we were able to work our way through a huge variety of great beer that would have otherwise been out of the college beer fund budget. Every week we would excitedly try new breweries and styles together. Somewhere along the way a light bulb went off when I was rambling about a microbiology lab that had focused on fermentation, and we got brewing! Larry tried one of those brews early on, a DIPA that we had obsessed over, and was on board right away.
Kaitlyn Haubrich: I first met Loren in college, ironically across a beer pong table! Luckily, during my senior year, our beer focus shifted from quantity to quality. Every summer since college we’ve run a co-ed softball team that plays in Central Park. Craig, Larry’s brother and Loren’s childhood friend, played a few seasons with us and that’s how I met Larry.
WTBNY: What’s the biggest challenge of gypsy brewing? Biggest benefit?
LTR: The biggest challenges are a lack of control and additional cost. Not being at the facility every day makes it harder to adjust when you brew or how you package on the fly if one of your beers has a great response. A good host is critical, and we found one who understands our overall mission and obsession with quality. In return we try not to surprise them too often with the word Brettanomyces. While it takes some extra planning, gypsy brewing has proven to have some terrific benefits. The biggest of which is the ability to scale and collaborate without capacity constraints, and the safety of having an experienced brewing team to help us out without having to bring on a full staff right away.
WTBNY: : As a new brewery, how do you get bars to carry your beer?
KH: Being the new kid on the block, some bars were really excited about supporting us right off the bat, others, rightfully so, wanted to wait to see what we were really about. I was pretty nervous jumping into my first week of sales having no previous experience in the beer industry. Loren brewed a product I’m really passionate about and having an honest story bars can stand behind quickly built my confident. Not to mention I’ve got the mentality of a work horse, persistence of a New Yorker, and can shoot the shit with anyone. I also used to work in Radio Promotions at Atlantic Records, where we worked to get our artists airplay on the radio in a very competitive market. It was a crazy “make it happen” environment with a lot of energy and comparisons to sales in the beer industry.
LK: Kaitlyn is head of our sales — she’s actually Third Rail’s only full-time employee — and has been otherwordly in opening up new accounts. Her hard work helped us win notice from a few of the regional craft beer distributors, and we actually recently signed with Remarkable Liquids to help us with logistics and sales. We also had an already deep set of relationships with a lot of the bar owners at establishments we love across the city, which helped get us on tap in the early going.
LTR: I often wonder that myself. I’ll see our beer on tap at somewhere with a fairly exclusive beer list like The Blind Tiger or Nomad Hotel and ask Kaitlyn how she pulled that off. She never tells.
WTBNY: What are some of your favorite breweries?
LTR: Since entering the industry I have somehow gained even more respect for breweries who make textbook examples of classic styles (and don’t get enough love), and those who are good people and don’t take themselves too seriously. There are so many, but right now I could go for an Alesmith Speedway, Prairie Ale, or anything from Jack’s Abby. Jester King’s barrel program is also running away with my heart at the moment.
KH: I am so thankful for everyone currently making thought-provoking beers. The breweries that obsess over ingredients and techniques are the ones that have my support and get me excited. To name a few, Cantillon, Cascade, Lost Abbey, New England Brewing Co., Westbrook, Jack’s Abby, Drie Fonteinen, Maine, Barrier, Finback, Other Half.
LK: One of the things that blows me away about the current New York City beer scene is that a little over two years ago something like half of the names people are getting really excited about didn’t even exist. I’ve had this conversation frequently of late, but there has never been a better time to be a New York-area beer lover than right now. When you think about the sheer volume of NYC-based breweries that have opened just since SingleCut opened its doors — Big Alice, Radiant Pig, Grimm, Other Half, Finback, Gun Hill, Flagship, Transmitter, Dirck, Keg & Lantern, Third Rail, Threes and now Braven — and the fact that many very well-regarded, oft-discussed and sought-after beers are already being brewed by this cohort (in some cases right out of the gate!), it’s pretty incredible.And that’s on top of some outstanding work being done in the greater NYC area, including by Barrier, Rushing Duck, Peekskill, NEBCO, Carton, Kane and others. As for non-NYC-area breweries, Lawson’s, Toppling Goliath, The Alchemist, Hill Farmstead, Maine, Tree House and Trillium have basically rewritten the playbook on how to make exceptional beer. Three Floyds is one of my favorite all-time breweries, and at a larger scale Ballast Point routinely crushes it.
WTBNY: What are some of your favorite NYC bars?
LTR: During our first few months we self-distributed our beer and it really opened our eyes to how many bars and restaurants in New York are curating outstanding beer lists on a weekly basis. One Mile House and Alewife is where we spent much time hashing out the plan and have been our biggest supporters. We are also tremendous fans of Malt & Mold, Hops Hill, Pine Box Rock Shop, and don’t mind a slice of pie and the New York tap list at Bubby’s.
KH: We spent countless nights working through our business plan at One Mile House, and Alewife, so they have a super-special place in our hearts. The beautiful thing about NY is there is a place for any mood you’re in. Good Beer, Top Hops, and Malt & Mold are vital to the off-premise scene – yes, I’d love to have a pint while I pick out some beers for home! The Jeffrey, Fool’s Gold, Pine Box Rock Shop, Cooper’s, and The Owl Farm always have a friendly crowd (which is not easy in these parts) and an even better beer list. Torst, Proletariat, Cannibal are my go-tos for feeling a little more fancy and intimate.
LK: One Mile House has been on board with what we were hoping to do since the very beginning — and also curates one of the best taplists in the city — so special shoutout to our friends at OMH. Pony Bar UES and HK both have special places in my heart, as do The Jeffrey, Hops Hill, Fool’s Gold, Malt & Mold, Alewife, Good Beer, Pine Box Rock Shop, ABC Beer Co., City Swiggers, Top Hops and way too many others to list here.
WTBNY: Is it hard to keep the same high quality when moving from small homebrewing to large scale gypsy brewing?
LTR: We have found the quality of ingredients and effect of scaling actually contributed to a greater quality than when we homebrewed. Having now opened several hundred pounds of Citra, Centennial, Simcoe, and Amarillo hops at the brewery it seems like the hop lots that go to commercial packaging are a few tiers above what goes to homebrew. On our first brew day the aroma coming off our bucket of whirlpool Citra drew everyone in the facility to that spot. Malts are also more consistent since you know they haven’t been sitting in a stock room for 2 years, and efficiency tends to be better. With that said there is a learning and adjustment process when scaling up and it is unreasonable to expect an exact clone of your homebrewed pilot without having scaled a few similar styles. We scaled our recipes and showed them to the head brewer at our host along with a sample of the pilot batches. He knows his equipment well and we were able to fine tune a little based on things like how long heat exchange takes on his system vs. ours. I think the perception that brewing on a larger scale means lower quality comes from the likelihood for massive producers to value cost, risk minimization, and consistency over all else.
KH: To add to what Loren said, the first time we brewed Bodega I cracked open a 44LB bag of Centennial and sat with my head in it for about an hour and it was glorious. It’s impossible to compare to 1oz homebrew pellets.
WTBNY: How does your science background help in brewing?
LTR: It helps more than I ever would have imagined. For a long time I wished I had gone to UC Davis brewing school, but after jumping into the industry I learned that I was well prepared because I could speak a lot of the language. I didn’t have a professional aspiration in mind when I decided to be a biology major, and fortunately gravitated towards molecular & microbiology out of interest. You certainly don’t need that background to be a great brewer, but it helps most in fermentation schedules and yeast growth calculations, understanding enzymatic activity in starch conversion and fermentation, and the impact of water chemistry on each step and final flavor.
WTBNY: Tell us about your beer!
LK: Bodega is our American Pale Ale brewed with copious amounts of Citra, and Centennial for bittering. We wanted to make an APA that you could drink a lot of — it checks in at 5.6% — but that also had tons of flavor and might end up being mistaken for an IPA.
Field 2 is our Farmhouse Ale that pays tribute to the unique flavors of rustic yeast one might find from a farm brewery on the French-Belgian border.
Innate is our first IPA (6.3%), brewed primarily with Simcoe and a handful of supporting hops that give it a pine-forward, yet still very citrusy flavor throughout, and a pleasant lingering bitterness on the back end.
And Alternate Side Imperial Stout is coming out in February and will be our first bottle release in bombers. This beer was brewed with a blend of specialty dark malts that deliver a full body and rich flavors of strong coffee, dark caramel, and spicy rye, along with Guajillo and Chipotle peppers and Mexican Cinnamon.
WTBNY: Sours and barrel-aged beers have become popular. Any plans for those?
LTR:A barrel program is something of an end game for me. I would love to spend half of my time running a small yeast lab at our eventual facility, collecting and isolating cultures from all over. I always have a Berliner or Gose in the fridge, and could see us doing something kettle lacto in the near future, but it’s lambic-style base beers that are my biggest interest. When we do get to that point we will have a lot of learning to do in the art of blending. Hopefully Tommy Arthur, Jean Van Roy, or Armand Debelder will pick up the phone.
LK: We are huge fans of sour ales and BA stouts, and would love to do both. Pulling off a sour-style beer is a tricky proposition for a gypsy brewer for any number of reasons, and so anything in that category will likely have to wait until we get our own facility. Those who know me know I am crazy about hops, but I’d love for Third Rail to become known as a brewery that can produce a wide range of styles at a high level. From a historical perspective, American breweries are really just getting started when it comes to spontaneous fermentation and blended beer — though there are an impressive number already doing it quite well — and I’m excited to see the envelope continue to be pushed even further and hopefully be a part of that.
KH: Starting a barrel program has been a goal since the early phases of planning our business. As soon as we can financially and operationally give the project the attention and care it needs, we’re going to make it happen.