Profile: Brooklyns King of Suds
On an afternoon in Williamsburg, a missionary walks the streets. He spreads the word at taverns and storefronts along the sparse midday avenues and alleys. As he leaves one of his stops, a bar and restaurant full of believers, the woman tending the counter shouts after him, “We love your beer!”
This man is a preacher of pilsners and ales, and his name is Steve Hindy, a former war correspondent who is the co-founder and now president of the Brooklyn Brewery. In its relatively short existence, his company and its locale, a poorly marked series of buildings consuming a block on N. 11th Street, have already become a Williamsburg institution. It is a smallish operation, employing a staff of 70 and selling 600,000 cases a year, yet it still draws between 200 and 300 visitors per week. Additionally, major distributors have spotted the relatively upstart brewery, and Hindy, along with compatriots Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster, and CEO Tom Potter, foresee a not-too-distant day when the Brooklyn Brewery will be propelled to national prominence.
Aside from the quality of the product, this success is due entirely to the brewery’s unorthodox marketing, of which Hindy’s current mission is part. Yet as he treks through the neighborhood, stopping at places where he knows the owners personally, he doesn’t deliver advertisements for the Brewery or brochures for display at the local shops. Instead he hands out invitations to a fundraiser for City Councilman David Yassky’s re-election campaign that would be held at the brewery a few weeks later.
Hindy considers the Brooklyn Brewery’s community involvement to be its most effective marketing technique. “Brooklyn needs and wants a sense of community,” Hindy says. “We’ve been able to tap into that.” It remains unclear whether that pun was intentional, but what is obvious is that Hindy’s conception of product awareness goes well beyond billboards and print ads, of which Brooklyn Brewery has few. Every Friday the Brewery holds free tastings, at which patrons can sample the numerous varieties of beer offered by the brewery while seated in a German beer hall-style room where picnic benches are the only available seats. “Picnic tables are very sociable,” explains Hindy. “You can’t help but meet people.”
It’s fitting that such “alternative marketing,” as Hindy calls it, comes from such an unconventional businessman. A West Virginia native who grew up partially in Ohio and partially in upstate New York, Hindy left Cornell University with a degree in English and proceeded to work his way through several small upstate newspapers before finally getting picked up as reporter for the Associated Press in 1976. Seeking to become a foreign correspondent, he learned Arabic and was assigned to Beirut just as Lebanon was overwhelmed with violent conflict.
During his tenure as an AP writer, Hindy was based in Beirut and Cairo, from which he reported on the turmoil the Middle East was embroiled in during the late ’70s and early ’80s. Hindy was on the dais when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat was assassinated. And he was in Iran for its revolution and was ejected from the country when the Ayatollah Khomeini took power, only to return with invading Iraqi troops a year later.
Though constantly risking life and limb to cover some of the most dangerous events in a perilous region, Hindy and his wife Ellen still managed a somewhat normal life. They had their two children, a boy named Sam and a girl named Lily, right in the thick of his assignments, though it was quite difficult to raise kids in the war-torn environments.
“When Ellen and I had to go to work,” Hindy explains, “we’d leave [Sam] with the maid. When we got home, the maid would tell us about rockets landing right next to the house.” Still, he and Ellen persevered, living through “a lot of crazy nights,” witnessing massacres and heavy fighting. It was only when he was offered a position in Manila covering Marcos’s ouster that he decided to return to the States.
As Hindy recounts, “Ellen said ‘No way I’m going to the Philippines.’ I took a look around at colleagues, and there were very few correspondents over 50 I respected. They all had screwed-up personal lives and bad habits, and I knew that when war correspondents came home, papers didn’t know what to do with them.”
Hindy returned to New York, with family and mind intact, to take an assistant editor post at Newsday. He also brought something else back with him, a hobby that would soon be transformed into something much greater. The Islamic countries he’d been living in for 10 years were dry due to Muslim law, and among Westerners working in Middle Eastern countries, home brewing was a popular solution to their booze-free environs. During the 1950s, when American oil workers first went to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the Arabian American Oil Co. handed out home brewing pamphlets. The practice of self-manufacturing beer was thus well established by the time Hindy arrived in the mid-’70s. He quickly caught the bug, engaging in home brewing all throughout his tenure in the Middle East, and continuing with it after returning stateside.
Hindy didn’t stay with Newsday very long, and shortly after leaving his editorial job he hooked up with a banker named Tom Potter, another home brewing aficionado. They discussed ways of turning a pastime into a business. Together they started the Brooklyn Brewery in 1987. When it began they were turning out only a handful of cases a week, affixing the labels by hand. Those days are now a distant memory.
Steve Hindy goes into the Pierogi 2000 art gallery to give an invitation for Yassky’s fundraiser to the gallery’s owner, Joe Amrhein. Hindy inquires about the new show set to open there, and asks after the people he knows from Pierogi.
“What’s this?” Amrhein says when Hindy hands him the envelope. Hindy explains about Yassky’s re-election drive. “Always so political,” Amrhein says with a smile.
Hindy rejects the notion that his company has any political ties—on any side— though he personally is an unabashed fan of David Rees’s Get Your War On. “I wouldn’t say we’re trying to sell beer to lefties,” Hindy states carefully. And he is quick to point out that Rudy Giuliani cut the ribbon on the Brewery when it opened its Brooklyn manufactory. “We’ll give a platform to any group in Brooklyn that has something to say," says Hindy. “Unless all their followers are teetotalers,” he adds.
Far more than politics, Hindy is interested in beer and Brooklyn, a natural match in his mind. There were once 48 breweries in Brooklyn, but that number decreased steadily throughout the 20th century. The last holdout, Rheingold, closed its Brooklyn operation in 1978, leaving the borough without a single brewery. For a transplant, Hindy, who resides in Park Slope, is a great believer in Brooklyn, and proud of reintroducing brewing to it.
“Brooklyn is a sort of undervalued place,” he admits, “but there is a cultural community and an art community developing here that is significant. It’s fun being part of that community.” In fact, the beer hall room of the Brewery, in addition to being part civic center and part bar, also periodically hosts Brooklyn-themed photographic and historical exhibits.
Hindy is generous in handing out credit to others for the success of the Brooklyn Brewery. Much of it goes to Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster.
“The brewer is at the center of any serious operation,” asserts Hindy. For good reason, he holds high esteem for the brewery’s resident beer expert, and Hindy takes personal satisfaction in the fact that Oliver’s book, The Brewmaster’s Table, has just been published by HarperCollins. Hindy also cites Tom Potter’s business acumen as an important factor, and gives great praise to fellow New York entrepreneur Sophia Collier of SoHo Natural Soda for her counsel. She advised Hindy and Potter to distribute their beer themselves, which turned out to be sage advice indeed. Craft Brewer’s Guild, the arm they created for that purpose, now carries not only Brooklyn brands but also Sierra Nevada and a score of others including beers from Britain, Germany, and Belgium.
The main credit for the Brewery’s growth, however, goes to Hindy, whose business success flows from his continued immersion in the world around him. During the Iraq War, when two Newsday reporters went missing in Iraq while en route to Jordan, it was to Steve Hindy that Newsday turned for help.
“I told them to call Prince Hassan in Jordan and the Syrian foreign minister,” Hindy says. “I also referred them to Ed Abington, who had been an American diplomat but now is the PR guy for the Palestinian Authority in D.C. I shared a few nights of drinking whiskey with him in Damascus a while back.”
They did as he instructed, and two days later the reporters were in the custody of Iraqi intelligence and safe. The following day they showed up at the Jordanian border. Here is another illustration of conventional wisdom, and a vindication of Steve Hindy’s and the Brooklyn Brewery’s philosophy: it always pays to have a few good drinking buddies.
Evan Brown is a writer based in Manhattan.