Our column “Know Your Local Beer Store“ launched recently, and quite earnestly, with the East Village’s ABC Beer Co. We hope Zach Mack’s candid and informative manner sets the tone for the new series, which aims to spotlight our favorite local beer stores through interviews with their owners.
The second installment sends us a few blocks northeast of Prospect Park in Crown Heights to Covenhoven. A slim shop offering 16 frequently rotating drafts and a thoughtful selection of bottles and cans, Covenhoven is owned by Molly Bradford and Bill Pace. It’s named after a Colonial-era family farm from the area. In New York time, it seems like an appropriate designation since the couple has owned the store’s building and lived upstairs with their children for over a decade.
On a recent sunny afternoon, we chatted with Pace and Bradford in Covenhoven’s somewhat bucolic (aka grassy) backyard. They were in the midst of assembling the tap list for tonight’s second-anniversary event. They had just sent their new manager to Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co. earlier that day to make a beer for the birthday soirée.
Edible Brooklyn: What are you brewing with Greenpoint for the party?
Bill Pace: A session IPA. The beer should have a really low alcohol percentage, just under 4 percent. It won’t slow down your Lego game.
Molly Bradford: [Laughs.] The anniversary is going to have a Lego theme. We’re going to have Legos at every table and prizes for the best builders.
BP: We had pony rides for our first anniversary. We actually brought in a pony and had it out front on Classon.
EB: I remember that.
MB: We’re naming the beer “Everything Is Awesome,” after The Lego Movie song. We’re excited to see what Robert and the Greenpoint guys come up with.
EB: Robert—is that your new manager?
MB: Yeah. Robert Sherrill, you know him. He’s been a customer and friend from the day we opened. He’s also an avid homebrewer and organized the two pro-am brewing events that we did. It’s fitting one of the first things he’s doing is making this beer.
EB: You’ve owned this building and lived upstairs for over a decade. What inspired you to open Covenhoven on the ground floor two years ago?
BP: Molly being an art major in college, we ran a gallery downstairs at one point and we would give beer away at the openings. The idea of trying to sell beer in some capacity had been in the back of our minds from early on.
EB: Why not open a traditional bar?
MB: We’ve always gravitated to casual places, and you can’t get more casual than a bottle shop. Also, when our kids were small, bottle shops with on-site drinking always seemed less intrusive than a bar. We could bring our kids there and relax.
BP: For the record, we were the family with the well-behaved kids.
Five brewers likely to be found here: Other Half, Rodenbach, Schneider Weisse, Grimm Artisanal Ales, Westbrook
EB: What was your initial vision for the downstairs space, 10 years ago? The gallery?
BP: Not at first. We figured we’d fix up the storefront and turn it residential. But after a year and a half of living upstairs and renovating the downstairs as we could afford it, we had our daughter. So it became pretty impractical and too expensive really fast. Then we decided to put up a “for rent” sign to attract a retail business. That got responses from a Chinese takeout, a Pentecostal church, a laundromat…
MB: Which the downstairs had been before we got the building. There had been a fire in the laundromat and the property sat vacant for three years before us. A fire sale, that’s how we originally bought it.
BP: Then we figured, living upstairs, owning the business was probably best. So the gallery followed and that was open for two years, until 2008, when Molly had a major illness and we decided to close it to concentrate on her recovery, in addition to raising the kids and working our day jobs. Molly was working in television at the time. I’m a high school music teacher.
MB: But then the economy had tanked and we were facing the financial reality that we really couldn’t let the space sit vacant any longer without any money coming in.
EB: Enter Covenhoven.
EB: Every beer store is presented differently, which is one of the things we’re hoping to show with this series. What did you want for yours?
MB: Atmosphere wise, the kind of place that we would want to drink at, but also the kind of business we could feel comfortable operating, especially living upstairs. For the actual stock, we spent a lot of time comparing how different shops balanced the amount of beer on their shelves with the amount in their refrigerators and on tap. James Case, our former beer manager and buyer, he was instrumental in so many ways; he really helped us reach our unique vision.
EB: How is Covenhoven’s beer menu composed?
BP: The drafts are focused on seasonals and one-offs from smaller breweries that usually aren’t available in cans or bottles. Those rotate the most, as fast as we can.
MB: We don’t have a big space, so we decided that all the beer would be cold and ready to drink. We went with 20 feet of coolers that run parallel to the bar of the same length. Our entire bottle selection is in those fridges. About half of it is American breweries that constantly changes with the season and as new beers are released. The rest of the fridge space is divided between European beers and ciders. If you see it, it’s ready to drink here or at home.
EB: How is pricing set for each?
MB: No one wants to pay bar pricing for, say, four bottles of beer to drink at home. But we can’t stay in business selling a can of beer to drink here for a couple of bucks either. So we decided to have both “for here” and “to go” pricing. The “to go” price is as competitive as any bottle shop in the city. And the “for here” price is that price, plus tax and $2, and then rounded to the next dollar. So, if a bottle is $5.25 plus tax “to go,” it’s an even $8 to drink here. The even dollar amount is more of a traditional bar transaction, which makes it faster on busy nights.
BP: And that formula applies across the price range, too, so as the bottle price increases the percentage of capping fee becomes less. That makes sharing a pricier or large-format bottle with a group a nice way to sample something without feeling like you just bought Dom Pérignon on New Year’s.
EB: You also fill growlers. Are those set at two prices?
MB: One. Those are “to go” only.
BP: It doesn’t make sense to go through the extra time and effort to fill a growler with CO2 only to drink it here and now. For that, it would be better to do pitchers off the regular lines. But pitchers don’t always work with craft beer considering the high cost per ounce or ABV. That’s when sharing larger bottles comes into play. And that keeps the focus on our refrigerators.
EB: You mentioned filling a growler with CO2 . Can you tell us why you do that, and about your growler-fill system?
BP: Most places fill growlers right off the draft line, but that likely means it goes flat in a day or so. Counter-pressure growler filling is essentially a bottling process where the CO2, which is heavier than air, it fills the growler from a special cap with a tube that extends to the bottom of the glass. Then, while still sealed and under pressure, the beer is also filled from the bottom up. At this point the growler can be capped and stored for weeks.
MB: It was Ben Granger who made our system. He’s now the operations manager at Other Half, and had previously built the growler filler at Bierkraft (now closed), where he was the manager for years.
BP: I love that Ben designed our system. Bierkraft was one of the first true beer stores in the city. It’s almost like we were ushered in.
EB: What have you learned about the beer business in the two years since opening?
MB: When we started we loved the bottle shop-bar hybrid idea and still do; the bottles are what hooked us and our focus was on the beer store part of it, probably more so than the bar and food service part of it.
MB: Food is a big thing, we’ve noticed. We started just with soft pretzels, which are really nice right out of the oven. We still have those, but we’ve added three different grilled cheese sandwiches and a dedicated refrigerator with meats and cheeses that can be taken with your beer to go or had here as a DIY plate.
BP: And we’re working on expanding it further from here. One of the goals is to open earlier on weekdays and offer more food.
MB: It’s better for the bottom line and that’s what we need. We’re doing it the “old New York” lifestyle, living above the family store and trying to make a good life for our family.
EB: How is the noise level from upstairs?
MB: I remember one night, when I was checking in on our son as he was falling asleep, he said, “Mommy, it sounds like we’re having a good night.” But really, it’s not really noticeable from upstairs. And when it is, we really can’t complain.
EB: What do you like most about being based in Crown Heights?
MB: We truly feel that we’re a neighborhood shop. Most of our customers live a short walk or bike ride away. When we take our kids to school in the morning or we’re out later in the day, we see them walking their dog, with their family or jogging off their beer from the night before. It’s nice.
BP: Likewise, it’s also nice being one small part of the larger fabric of beer shops, bars and breweries in the city. It’s a great, tight community.