PHOTOS: Inside the Caves of Brooklyn’s Brewing History — A Tour with Joshua M. Bernstein

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My wake-up routine is always… routine.

I disarm my alarm. I confirm my still-slumbering girlfriend’s pulse. I scroll Facebook on my iPhone. I walk to Bedford Hill for coffee.

Every. Morning.

After confirming her aliveness on November 16, 2013, however, a photograph from Joshua M. Bernstein, author of The Complete Beer Course: Boot Camp for Beer Geeks: From Novice to Expert in Twelve Tasting Classesdisrupted the endless yawn of early-Saturday statuses on Facebook. 

This wasn’t routine:

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The caption stated, “This morning’s grocery-store run turned into an impromptu tour of the lagering caves at the old Nassau brewery, a few blocks from my apartment…”

I was intrigued. Bernstein had, somehow, discovered a portal to a remnant of Nassau Brewing Company—now defunct, but one of 38 breweries in Brooklyn in 1884—while searching for Cookie Crisp. I was jealous, now, too.

His exploration was a tease, undoubtedly, but now, a similiar opportunity is available on March 1, during New York City Beer WeekCold Comfort: Lagers in the Historic Nassau Brewery Lagering Caves is a Bernstein-hosted visit beneath the former site of Nassau Brewing Company for cave-exploring and a sampling of lagers from Brooklyn BreweryKelSo Beer CompanySingleCut Beersmiths, and more. [Note: The location will remain undisclosed.]

Awesome. I chatted with Joshua about the cave and the event. Here’s what he had to say:

Niko Krommydas: How did you discover the cave? Your picture on Facebook made it seem like you fell down a hole, or…

Joshua M. Bernstein: I’ve been living in Crown Heights for 11 years now, and not long after I moved into the neighborhood, I was walking around and noticed these old, giant, beautiful buildings. That was Nassau Brewing Company. I ended up meeting the two owners, Benton Brown and Susan Boyle, and they were turning the brewery’s old icehouse into green-focused lofts. I actually wrote a story about them for an old magazine, Punk Planet. So they owned the two buildings—the icehouse and the brewery, which are connected underground with tunnels—and over the next 10 years, they also turned the brewery into a space for small manufacturing and businesses. Now the last piece of the puzzle was the lagering cave. They weren’t any stairs or any real way to get down there, but they really made an effort into opening that up. [Benton] told me about the cave when I ran into him on the streetback in 2012, and I brought up the idea of doing an event down there. Fast forward to last November, and me and my wife, two days before she ended up having our first child,were walking with groceries. I said, “Let’s just walk down that street.” You know, when you’ve lived in the same neighborhood for a while, you’re always looking to break up your routine. He was outside and offered us a tour. We went in, put down our groceries and went underground.

NK: What did you see?

JMB: It’s like an underground brick vault or tunnel. It’s a really spectacular space. Part of it is going to be a cheese-aging facility, so they built a separate staircase for that. So one staircase goes to the cheese facility, and one will go tothe lagering caves. They’re working on finishing that up now. But the goal is to also rent out the cave to breweries interested in aging lagers. We went down there on a 15-degree day, and it was 50 degrees down there, which is a great temperature to ferment lagers. That just shows you that they built these things to last, and even 140 years later, it’s still working.

NK: Why were caves used for lagering?

JMB: The two main styles of beers are ales and lagers, and lagers ferment at colder temperatures. It was really tough to get beer to ferment at colder temperatures, however, during the summer. This was before the advent of refrigeration. In medieval times, some breweries stored beer inside caves,which evolved into breweries building their own caves. This ensured that they could make lagers.

NK: What do you know about Nassau Brewing Company?

JMB: It actually had several different names. It was actually named Budweiser at one time, before the actual Budweiser brewery made them stop. Nassau was the last name. It wasn’t a small brewery, either. They were pumping out 90,000 barrels of beer in 1884, actually. That’s a lot of beer. It stayed until operation in 1914.

NK: Tell me about the event.

JMB: Oftentimes in America, craft beer drinkers tend to think about lagers as a bad four-letter word, or something fizzy and bland, but in many ways, they were such a revolutionary style. America was once an ale-drinking nation, and lagers came along, and here was this clear, sparkling, refreshing beverage. It really changed the world. Unfortunately, when craft beer took off in the ’80s and ’90s, breweries strayed away from lagers as a way to differentiate themselves from the larger macro breweries. But I really want to show that the lager can be a thing of beauty. It’s a style with depth and complexity.

I’m bringing local guys that make lagers now, like Brooklyn Brewery, KelSo Beer Company, and SingleCut BeerSmiths, and also Bunker Brewing Company from Portland, Maine. This is actually going to be their first time pouring in New York. We’ll have everything from a sour lager, to KelSo’s Recessionator, which is a big, chewy, warming dopplebock, to a nice crisp, prickly pilsner. We’ll have a tour, which includes the history of the brewery, and you’ll be able to try a bunch of different lagers. Most people haven’t set foot in this space for more than a century. It’ll be a lot of fun.   

Tickets for Joshua M. Bernstein’s Cold Comfort: Lagers in the Historic Nassau Brewery Lagering Caves go on sale on Friday, January 17.

Katherine Hernandez

Katherine Hernandez is an Afro-Latina chef and multimedia journalist. Her work has been published on NPR Food, PRI's The World, Edible Manhattan, Feet in 2 Worlds, Gothamist and more.

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