John Condzella is standing a few paces from the barn on his family’s sprawling Wading River farm, one of the few on Long Island that produces hops for local brewers. Condzella, a fourth-generation farmer and Cornell grad, basks in the glow of his risky investment. After graduation he went to his father and proposed the hop prospect. “I definitely had to prove to him that it was a good idea,” he says. Condzella, 27, passed up the big bucks of Wall Street and planted his first hops in 2010. An arduous process, he says, but one that he and his father see as the future of the nearly century-old farm. Last year, he sold the hops to five breweries, including Port Jefferson Brewing Company. Condzella has since developed a close relationship with Mike Philbrick, the brewery’s founder, and later learned they share the same birthday. In a few months Philbrick will introduce a new brew using Condzella’s hops.
Mike Philbrick wanted to be his own boss. So the beer lover combined his extensive business knowledge with his home-brewing experience and created the blueprint for Port Jefferson Brewing Company. In 2011, he turned his late-hour brew sessions into a full-fledged brewing operation at an unassuming facility tucked into the heart of Port Jefferson. “I can’t see myself doing anything else,” he says inside the brewery, the aroma of yeast and hops greeting visitors at the front door. In a little less than two years, many of his concoctions—Schooner Ale, Port Jeff Porter, H3—have become instant hits, and he is currently in the process of creating an exclusive beer for a local eatery using hops from Condzella’s Farm in Wading River. Philbrick is constantly making deliveries and seeking new accounts. He’s a busy man. At one point he grabs his cell phone off the bar and appears taken aback. “I just realized I have 15 texts,” he says.
It’s 6 p.m. on a Tuesday in Mineola and the commuter crowd is about to pour into Black Sheep Ale House, the bar’s brick facade offering a cozy invitation for locals. “Can I get you a drink?” asks owner Vince Minutella, snifter in hand with a craft beer foaming to the top. In 2011, Minutella converted what was once an Irish pub to a craft beer establishment with more than 20 beers on tap. “I wanted to feel more connected to the business,” he says. But it wasn’t until Craft Beer Week in May 2012 that Minutella began forging a closer relationship with local brewers, forming a tight-knit bond with some, especially with Mike Philbrick of Port Jefferson Brewing Company. He doesn’t put just any LI beer on tap—it needs to meet his expectations. “I wouldn’t say it’s equally important about whether who’s in your glass versus what’s in your glass,” he says, “but I really like enjoying both.”
Richard Thatcher saunters into Black Sheep Ale House in Mineola and knows immediately what he wants to order. Thatcher, co-founder and Treasurer of Long Island Beer and Malt Enthusiasts, a group of more than 600 beer lovers, orders a Port Jefferson H3 (Triple H) and rests it on the bar. “It’s heavy,” he says, describing one of his favorite craft beers. “It’s alcoholic; heavy blonde ale, that’s my favorite style.” Thatcher is an expert when it comes to Long Island craft beer, and without so much as flinching he can rattle off a litany of local brewery owners. He co-founded the LIBME in 2007, but it was the emergence of Samuel Adams in the late 1980s that first turned him onto craft beers. “It’s a very social thing,” he says of the craft beer scene. The LIBME also played an important role in encouraging local bars and eateries, once accustomed to selling only household names such as Budweiser, Coors and Heineken, to offer craft beers. “The beer brings people together,” he says.