Rules were made to be broken—or at least bended—according to Joe and Lauren Grimm, Gowanus’ newest pair of craft microbrewers. It’s evident as we scurry across Grand Army Plaza, six pack in tow for an impromptu (albeit illegal) tasting in Prospect Park of their soon-to-launch craft brew line.
“I know how much the ticket is—it’s twenty-five dollars. It’s worth it! Just think about all the times you had beer in a bar and paid twenty-five dollars.” It’s this healthy skepticism of rules and ends-justifies-the-means mentality that has defined the past eight years for the couple as they honed their craft of small-batch, Belgian style brewing.
It all started about eight years ago in Providence, Rhode Island. They picked up a copy of Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz and began experimenting with this natural black art of transformation, with some wickedly gone-wrong batches of mead and more successful goes at sauerkraut, kombucha, and finally beer. As artists by trade—Lauren is a sculptor, and Joe is a musician—they came to realize that beer making was the perfect outlet for their creative impulses. When Joe came home from touring in Belgium, the couple was inspired to learn everything they could about beer, from sampling every available variety to voraciously reading up on home brewing.
Their years in Providence was a time of discovery and experimentation, but when the couple moved to Chicago they were ready to start showcasing their creations to the public. Joe recalls: “One of the great things about Chicago is it’s filled with these do-it-yourself gallery spaces and art shows. So we would talk to our friends and say we just made five gallons of this [beer], serve it at the art show, and people were really into it. We got a lot of great feedback from people who said we should start a brewery, and eventually we listened to it.”
They made their first sale at “Nightmarket”—an informal pop-up marketplace where people could sell what they made in their kitchens—away from the prying eyes of the FDA. Nightmarket reached a whole new level of illegality when Joe and Lauren showed up with a batch of their homebrew and started slinging it for three dollars a pop. While it’s one thing to sell homemade pickles and cupcakes without a license, it’s entirely another to peddle homemade booze. No one at the market wanted ATF agents pounding down the door, so eventually the Grimms found a loophole by selling four-dollar Oreos that came with a free beer.
The operation has come a long way since those days—both figuratively and geographically—when the couple moved and settled into their home in Gowanus. As I sit with them in Prospect Park, I am one of lucky ones to get a preview.
Our informal tasting starts with From the Hip, their debut beer slated to release this July. It’s a Belgian blonde with a lively spiciness and a citrusy, slightly floral undertone resulting from the addition of organic rose hips. It’s light, clean, and packs a bit of a punch at 8 percent alcohol. But unlike many American interpretations of Belgian brews, this one has crisp finish. Joe and Lauren point out the unfortunate, prevailing trend of making overly-spiced and cloying ales. According to Joe, the addition of sugar and sweetener are often confused: “It’s like getting a shot of hazelnut syrup in your coffee. It doesn’t make it more complex. It’s sweet and fake and tastes disgusting!” Paradoxically, the Grimms found that adding more sugar during fermentation will result in a higher alcohol content and drier finish. It’s something they’ve picked up straight from the Belgians and make them unique in style here in the States.
When it comes to their favorite style, though, saisons get the Grimms really excited. As Joe explains, it’s a process-driven brew. While saisons characteristically exhibit spiciness and complexity, these flavors are usually entirely derived from the alchemy that takes place between the yeast and its food. Lauren bashfully confesses: “We actually have about six saisons brewing at home right now. They are all identical, except for the yeast. We’re tying to isolate which one is the best, and there’s definitely an early contender.”
This hands-off brewing philosophy reflects the personality of the two Grimms. Joe and Lauren have done things their own way from the get-go. Apparently, starting your own brewery isn’t as easy as strolling up to the Small Business Administration and saying, “Hey, people like our beer, give us a million dollars”—although that’s almost exactly how they started off.
Originally, they thought they could get a loan and set up a brewery in Brooklyn. They began working with a non-profit affiliated with the SBA, but according to Joe, “All they did was shatter our hopes and dreams.” Undeterred, the couple explored a new way to launch their line: contract brewing. “We realized we didn’t need a million dollars in stainless steel brewing equipment to start a line,” explains Lauren.
They watched other microbrewers invest in the expensive equipment and facilities and dig themselves deeper and deeper into debt. After a little research, however, they realized there was a way around it all. They could lease space from another brewer and instruct them on how to carry out the fermentation according to their recipes, and in the meantime, save themselves a lot of money. This practice is actually quite common in the world of craft beer; even bigwigs like Sixpoint and Brooklyn Brewery have outsourced some of their production due to the exorbitant cost of real estate in the borough.
Joe and Lauren are taking the concept and running with it. Every batch of Grimm beer will be unique. As Joe puts it, it’s kind of like putting out an album: “We’re the band, the brewery is our recording studio, and the beer is our album.” Just like every recording studio produces it’s own unique sound, every brewing facility has its own nuance. All brewing equipment is different and requires the brewer’s finesse to a certain point. No matter how precise the recipe, there will always be slightly different results depending on where the beer is made.
The couple plans to coordinate the release of each beer with the every new season, each batch being a one-off, limited edition. Think saisons in the summer, ryes in autumn, and rich, soul-warming porters in the winter. Grimm Artisanal Ales will retail in twenty-two ounce bottles for around twelve to thirteen dollars, and you will also be able to find them on tap lists throughout the borough, beginning July 19th with their launch at The Double Windsor in South Slope.
While the couple undoubtedly is a little run and gun, like any good artists or craftsmen, they still believe that there are certain rules that exist for a reason. While some of the best beer bars still serve their drafts in straight-walled, chilled pint glasses, Joe and Lauren earnestly make a case for a room-temperature goblets.
As I quaff the final beer, a black IPA, I understand. It would be a loss to anyone drinking this unique treasure in a frosted glass at a freezing temperature. It’s peaty and earthy—smells kind of like Prospect Park did right before the sky opened up and rained out our beer tasting.