Last Saturday, New York beer enthusiasts were offered free 4-ounce pours of 11 beers and a five-pour flight in the new tasting room of an up-and-coming microbrewer in Oceanside, a neighborhood on Long Island's south shore.
Tastings of fancy brews have become more commonplace as craft brewers act with all the deliberation and discrimination of Napa vintners. This tasting event was different, though. There was an air of relief and amazement at something that might never have been because of the havoc Superstorm Sandy wrought on Oceanside.
The tasting room was a longtime dream of Barrier Brewing co-owners Craig Frymark, 29, and Evan Klein, 33, and it came to fruition in a bittersweet way that echoes the mixed emotions of owners who experienced Sandy's devastation firsthand. Though they resurrected the business, the tasting space was provided when a next-door neighbor vacated his lease after Sandy.
"It would never have happened if it wasn't for the storm, so I guess it was a blessing in disguise," Klein said.
The tasting room marked Barrier's full recovery from Sandy, an almost yearlong process during which the microbrewery went from unexpected success to unimaginable loss—then back to rejoin the rising tide of the craft beer industry.
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Everything was going right for Frymark and Klein In the summer of 2012. After only two years in business, they were receiving accolades from the beer community and expanding operations. They moved from a 1,000-square-foot basement to a 5,000-square-foot customized facility and hired more staff. They tripled brewing capacity.
Four months later, Sandy blew in.
"The day we walked in and saw the damage, it was overwhelming," Frymark recalled. "We didn't know where to begin."
"A stench of low tide and gasoline," Klein said. "It just smelled horrible," Frymark added.
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Four feet of stormwater submerged their forklift, delivery trucks, grain mill, pumps, motors and half of the grain and hop inventory. The keg washer, boiler and three tanks sustained major damage. Heat and electricity was out. The saltwater corroded electrical wiring and plugs. In possibly the worst moment, the partners lost the five-year warranty on all the equipment they had just bought for the bigger brewery.
In all, Barrier Brewing's damages totaled $100,000. With applications for state and federal aid rejected, and insurance covering only a minute portion of their losses, the future was doubtful.
Barrier's loyal clients among area bars and restaurants promised to keep a tap line open for them, but without power and equipment, owners weren't sure how they could ever get brewing again.
Enter the New York state craft beer community. A fortuitous email from Brewery Ommegang was the first sign of hope for Klein and Frymark. The Cooperstown, NY, brewery, known for its Belgian-style beers, invited Barrier's owners to make one of their beers as a stopgap revenue generator. The result was Barrier Relief, an ale that Ommegang began distributing last December and that got Barrier on the road to recovery.
The following month, eight Long Island brewers banded together to help, launching another limited-release ale called Surge Protector. Brewed with ingredients donated from the participating breweries and made at Blue Point Brewing, the proceeds were split between Barrier and a local charity, Long Island Cares. Barrier's portion, $30,000, made up almost one-third of its Sandy losses.
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"It is really a testament to the uniqueness that is the craft beer industry," Frymark said. "It is more of a community than a competition."
Barrier's loyal customer base of pubs, including Alewife in Long Island City, Queens, and The Ploughman in Park Slope, Brooklyn, also held fundraisers.
"One of the main things that got us through this was all the support," Klein said.
The very first step back to Oceanside, though, was Klein and Frymark's salvaging some of the beer that had weathered the storm in one of their surviving tanks. While they were unable to transfer it to a keg, they took the opportunity to create their first bottled offering, Submersion Double IPA. Hand-bottled and wax-sealed, Submersion sold out when it was released in January.
It was not how they envisioned introducing their first bottled beer, but it kick-started Barrier's line of limited release bottlings, a program that the owners hope to expand.
Barrier reopened this spring. It was back to its full operating capacity by May, reinstating its wholesale and on-site retail operations, with consumers stopping by to buy growlers ($12 to $16). The owners recently bought larger new tanks to increase capacity even further.
Re-establishing the momentum Barrier Brewing had before the storm took longer and culminated in the tasting room.
"It's been a crazy three years," Klein said. "But even with the storm, we are leaps and bounds above what my original business plan was."
—By Mary E. Keefe, Special to CNBC.com