Gun Hill Brewing Company: Embracing History in the Bronx

From the Source by | Feb 2017 | Issue #121
Photo by Matt Coats

Dave Lopez and Kieran Farrell are optimistic about getting tickets to Hamilton. “Two would be great. But one, I’d be more than happy with one,” Lopez laughs. “If we only get one, though, who would take it?” asks Farrell.

Gun Hill Brewing Company’s two founders are jokingly contemplating this hypothetical situation in the taproom of their Bronx, New York-based brewery while splitting a can of Rise Up Rye. It’s an appropriate choice of beer given that this Saison was brewed here in collaboration with Hamilton, the critically acclaimed bio-musical about Alexander Hamilton. (Though it opened on Broadway 18 months ago, tickets remain extraordinarily high in demand.)

Rise Up Rye is the brainchild of James “Jimmy” Ludwig and Mark Aldrich, Broadway actors and creators of The Happy Hour Guys, a web series on beer, wine, and spirits. As the first release in the duo’s Broadway Brews Project, several members of the hip-hop-infused musical’s cast visited Gun Hill Brewing in April 2016 to help make the beer. Originally conceived as a one-off, high demand prompted several subsequent batches—today cans of Rise Up are even sold at Hamilton’s venue, the Richard Rodgers Theatre.

“[Gun Hill was] the first brewery we approached to really understand what we were trying to do for our project,” Ludwig says. “But it’s no surprise; they’re a brewery built on a first.”

When Farrell and Lopez opened Gun Hill in February 2014, it was the Bronx’s first production brewery in over 50 years—since the Rheingold facility closed in the 1960s. But the decision to headquarter their new business in the city’s northernmost (and perhaps most rapidly changing) borough was influenced as much by honoring the founders’ personal ties as reviving brewing tradition.

“The love they have for the community, the pride they have in what they do, it’s big,” says James Langstine, co-owner of the Bronx Alehouse. “Getting our first local brewery was great, but being [as] it was the work of two local guys made it that much greater. Plus the beer’s good! Every time they walk through the door with a keg I know it’s gonna be a home run.”

Field of Beers
The New York Yankees may be the Bronx’s best-known baseball team, but the borough is also home to the New York City Thunderdogs of the Westchester Rockland Wood Bat League. As Thunderdogs teammates (a name that would later inspire Gun Hill’s Thunder Dog Stout), Lopez and Farrell bonded over a mutual love of baseball and, as the latter describes it, “wanting a bigger occupational challenge.”

Tasting a teammate’s homebrewed beer sparked the idea of starting a brewery. “I told him, ‘If you ever wanted to do something with this, let us know,’” Lopez recalls. “By this point Kieran and I both wanted to switch careers—I’m in finance, Kieran was in consulting—and do something that brought joy to people. Beer does that.”

While discussions with their teammate fizzled, Lopez and Farrell, neither of whom had any brewing experience, were undeterred. They connected with veteran brewer Chris Sheehan, whose career included a decade-long stint at Chelsea Craft Brewing Company (which coincidently relocated to the Bronx from Manhattan in 2015), to helm a 30-barrel brewhouse and architect a diverse portfolio of beers. They also secured a warehouse one block off of Gun Hill Road, named for high ground nearby where colonists fired a canon at advancing British soldiers during the American Revolution. “We designed our branding, logo, and a lot of our beer names to pay homage to that history,” Lopez says.

Farrell adds, “The colonists were promoting a revolution at the time and we wanted to promote a craft brewing revolution here in the Bronx.” Fortunately for the two partners, their liquid revolution instantly gained credibility: A few months after opening, Gun Hill’s Void of Light was awarded a gold medal in the Foreign-Style Stout category at the 2014 Great American Beer Festival. “That set the tone. It really made people take us seriously right away,” says Farrell.

A New Chris

Despite Void of Light’s early success and the two years of increasing production that followed, Gun Hill’s owners decided to split from Sheehan. “I think both sides reached a point where things needed to change,” Lopez explains. “There’s a lot more communication and collaboration here now with New Chris,” Farrell adds.

“New Chris” is Chris Prout, formerly of Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co. Prout’s arrival in April 2016, a few months after the brewery began canning, immediately established a new phase in production marked by thoughtful creativity and experimentation. In addition to revamping core beers like Gun Hill IPA to “reflect a more modern palate,” Prout introduced Roll Call, a series of limited rotating IPAs; a Brettanomyces-laced Belgian-style Pale Ale named Original Punks; and a foursome of Berliner Weisses collectively known as Hessian Weisse that showcase different infusions, like lime (Hessian in Paradise) and locally roasted coffee (Wired Hessian).

Prout is particularly proud of Rise Up Rye, his first recipe as Gun Hill’s head brewer, which features locally grown rye, an acknowledgement of the grain’s Colonial-era prevalence. “I love working with New York state malts and hops, that’s something we’ll be focusing more on now,” he says.

As part of his experimental ethos, Prout hopes to make new beers regularly, some of which will only be available in Gun Hill’s recently expanded 14-draft taproom. Storyteller Kentucky Common, for example, reflects the brewery’s growing barrel-aging program, much of which is sourced from the Bronx’s Port Morris Distillery. The friendship between the local alcoholic-beverage producers also blossomed into Gun Hill Tavern, a pub and distillery that opened next to Port Morris last November. “We have a small still and a taproom with 10 of our beers and 10 beers from across New York state, along with Port Morris’ spirits and other [regional] spirits,” Lopez says. “We’re already playing around with the idea of distilling different versions of our beer and adding it to their empty barrels—a real collaboration project.”

“And it’s not as far of a trek for people coming from Manhattan or Brooklyn compared to the brewery,” Farrell adds. “It’ll help spread the word about the great things happening in the Bronx.”

30-barrel brewhouse
2 60-barrel fermentors
2 30-barrel fermentors
2 60-barrel bright tanks
4 8-barrel Grundy tanks

Void of Light: This foreign-style Stout’s iron-like intensity belies smooth, simple flavors of chocolate, coffee, and tobacco. 8.1% ABV

Gun Hill IPA: Recently revamped, this pleasantly assertive IPA is made with English base malts, late additions of Simcoe, Citra, and Mosaic hops, and brewing salts for a drier finish. 7.0% ABV

Rise Up Rye: A collaboration with Hamilton, this Saison features Wai-iti hops for a floral aroma and flavors of pear and apricot plus a smidgen of spiciness from New York-grown rye. 4.8% ABV

Storyteller Kentucky Common: Prout’s interpretation of this regional, pre-Prohibition style starts with kettle souring a grist of barley, rye, and corn before aging two months in whiskey barrels. 5.5% ABV

Spirit 76: Built primarily from New York ingredients, this easy drinking American-style Pilsner is effervescent, dry, and bready. 4.8% ABV

Roll Call: EC4: The fourth in a series of limited IPAs varying in influence and hop character, Prout describes EC4 as a “juicy, fruity, and dankalicious joint.” 7.5% ABV 

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