By David Flaherty, NYC Correspondent
After turning down a rather desolate block of Brooklyn, and not totally sure of my directions, I was greeted by a man wearing a t-shirt that said “Beer Helps.” I knew I was in the right place. I had found Kelso of Brooklyn and I had found Kelly Taylor.
One of the largest breweries in New York State lies in the heart of Brooklyn. It’s right under our noses and much to the surprise of many New Yorkers who stroll by; they stop dead in their tracks at the sight of an army of massive, metallic, fermenters looking back at them. The sight is awe-inspiring. (Especially if you're a wee homebrewer, like myself, who's entire brewery fits in a corner behind my grandfather's Lazy Boy chair–well, "fit" is a relative word, "billowing forth from" is more appropriate).
Taylor is a professional Brewmaster of the highest ilk. He has nearly 20 years of brewing experience and sees to it that taps all over this city are flowing and that an armada of kegs is leaving his doors on a daily basis.
Running 16 fermenters at once is akin to conducting a symphony. In addition to “maestro”, Kelly Taylor holds many titles under the roof of 529 Waverly Avenue. He is the founder and brewmaster of local craft beer favorite, Kelso of Brooklyn, the brewmaster for Heartland Brewery (servicing all seven locations), as well as a contract brewer for many other brands. Now let's stop here for a moment. This is important, because this is where the story gets interesting. "Contract brewing"? What is that, you ask? Well, saddle up, cowpokes; I'm going to tell you a tale.
Many of our favorite beers are brewed hundreds of miles away from the actual breweries, sometimes even in an entirely different state. And this happens more than most people realize. Enjoying a 12-oz. bottle from Brooklyn Brewery? It was brewed in upstate New York. How's that Blue Point Toasted Lager taste? Yep, it’s brewed hours away from Long Island. Six Point Sweet Action? Pennsylvania. Harlem Brewing Company? Fire Island Brewing? Southampton Publick House?
Yep, most of their beer is made many miles from the actually brewery they call home.
Now, this is not to say that no beer is brewed at the home breweries. In the case of Brooklyn Brewery, all large-format bottles and kegs are brewed on-site, and this is the case of many others, as well. But when a brewery finds success in the market, they often simply don't have the operational infrastructure to keep up with demand. Trust me, if you’ve seen Six Point Brewery, you know it's tiny. There is no way they can keep up with the demand. So what do they do? They turn to guys like Kelly Taylor.
I recently visited Kelly at his brewery, got the lowdown on how he juggles it all and was struck by the size of the operation. The brewery has a total capacity of 30-barrels (approximately 60 kegs of beer) with many beers being made at once, and all at different stages of the brewing process.
“I’m all over the place,” Kelly told me. “Some days in the field with customers, some days in the brewery. Brewhouse days start with grinding grain, getting grain into the mash tun with hot water, cleaning kegs, loading outbound deliveries, filtering, kegging and cleaning tanks. Rather involved.”
Along with a team of five employees, Kelly and his crew produce around 14,000 barrels (28,000 kegs) per year. He is fueled by passion and like most brewers, he is not in it for the money or the glory. He is in it because he loves to make beer. And after drinking his beers for years, I was excited to meet him.
A laid-back spirit who exuds an easy demeanor and a quick smile met me at the door. After introducing himself and seeming to shrug off the brewery to get to more important matters, he eagerly led me up a staircase to an industrial, lived-in office. He lit up like a light bulb when he introduced his wife, Sonja (pictured at right), who makes up the second half of the brewery’s name (Kelly + Sonja = Kelso) and also runs the marketing and social media interests for Kelso.
They seemed a close pair who over the years had come into harmony with the ups-and-downs of the brewing business and wore their positions with comfortability and ease. Their young daughter (Gabrielle, 4 1/2 years old) and son (Cameron, 6 1/2 months old) seemed completely relaxed with the searing temperatures in the office. They too, knew the score.
After Sonja and the kids jumped in the car, I followed Kelly to the brewery floor. As with any winery or brewery tour, it is only customary that a glass quickly ends up in your hand, and this was no exception. As we sipped on Kelso Pilsner right from the brew tank, Kelly explained what was looming all around. The brewery had been built to house the beers of the quickly-expanding Heartland Brewery enterprise. There was room to grow and Kelly seized the opportunity to fill the space with even more fermenters, filtering tanks, gizmos and gadgets to meet the demands of Heartland and to take on other clients.
Within a few years, the up-and-coming teams from Sixpoint Brewing and Coney Island Brewing (now familiar names in the craft beer world) were showing up with their recipes and bottles of homebrew that they wished to multiply from small batch to small lake. Kelly was their point-person and helped make their dreams a reality. To take a beer and, with an expert palate and a recipe, know how to produce it on a mass scale is a skill akin to a master chef who sees the roadmap in his mind from raw components to completed dishes. And like a cook that has trained with many chefs and picked up techniques along the way, Kelly, through his many clients, has been exposed to new ingredients and differing approaches to brewing.
Over time, he decided to put his own stamp on the craft beer world. He opened Kelso of Brooklyn in 2006 and has been cranking out top-notch beer ever since. “It was my opportunity to make my own beer, on my own terms, while still maintaining creatively making beers with Heartland.”
I was amazed how he kept it all together. In addition to Kelso’s entire line, the beer for seven busy Heartland brewpubs come out of this location — year-round selections and seasonal beers — as well as any number of clients who’s beers are produced here.
“I like the ‘manufacturing’ side of it,” he says. “Juggling all this can be stressful, sure, but I enjoy it. In the early days of Heartland, we did all the brewing on-site at Union Square, our first location. I had to coordinate with the cooks because if we were brewing when they were using the dishwasher, we’d lose water pressure. It was a constant struggle.”
If he wanted a bigger operation, he certainly got it. I asked him how they kept track of it all and he led me through a maze of equipment until we arrived at the far wall. He pointed to two dry-erase boards.
“This is where the brewmaster leaves notes to the employees on what needs to be done that day”.
The larger dry-erase board tells what beers are where and at what stage of production, be it a Kelso Saison ready for filtration, or a palate of kegs, which needs to be loaded onto a truck. It was nearly comical to see this all kept on a haphazard-looking grid with marker residue that had been applied and wiped so many times that it looked like a teacher’s blackboard with chalk build-up from countless alphabet lessons.
And I was struck by Kelly’s ease with the whole place. He seemed so comfortable in the maze of machinery and endless pipes running in all directions. I guess that would only make sense, considering he designed the place.
“I had them run this pipe over our heads so we wouldn’t have to step over it, and at just this height, so I wouldn’t have to crouch down to pass underneath it all day.” (He’s a tall guy, clocking in somewhere in the ballpark of 6’2”). The brewery seemed more and more like his living room.
He walked me to the far side of the building where a new keg room is under construction. It is massive and will free the team from having to cram keg after keg into the small fridge they have now. We joked about needing to move all the palates out of the way to get to a beer buried in the back; he said this happens all the time. But, never fear, they’ve added yet another dry-erase board to help organize it. We shared a laugh and he told us how the keg room nearly disappeared the previous week.
“I was in the office and heard a loud boom. I ran downstairs to find that one of the guys had clipped the wall of the keg room with the forklift and had taken down the side wall. The boom was the sound of the entire ceiling collapsing.”
But Kelly quickly found a solution, as he does for all the countless problems that pop up in the brewery. They ran massive log beams over the ceiling of the room, which essentially stabilized the whole thing, therefore making it forklift-proof.
It was then that our glasses went dry for what must have been the third or fourth time (we also tried the Kelso Satisfaction, an English-style Bitter). Ever the gracious host, he walked us back to the “lounge” area (a haphazard old table covered with dust and various tools) and we gathered around and shared another pint. It was the Kelso IPA and it was delicious. It was made by one of his team members.
“I’ll let the guys use what ingredients we have left over to get creative with their own recipes and we’ll produce our favorite. This was the winning one from the recent batch”. The hops were so bright and the flavors so fresh that I wished I could drink every beer for the rest of my life right from the source. I had found the Fountain of Youth.
Kelly is an eager soul and always looking to take on more challenges. His eyes burn with focus as he talks about helping new breweries find their feet and the ways in which he wants to expand the outreach of Kelso. He believes passionately in supporting the community and is constantly juggling events and hosting fundraisers. His motto since day one has been “Brew local and drink fresh.”
While he is clearly proud of his beer, his employees and his business, he comes across as a grounded man who is in it for the long haul. He’s not in a rush for the latest, greatest fad or the flashiest marketing campaign. He is a solid force. And his beers speak for themselves. “I love beer. It’s a remarkable, complex beverage. I brew for subtle flavors most of the time. I'm not a big 'hammer over the head' kind of brewer.”
And the t-shirt that greeted me at the beginning of the night? Well, the term “Beer Helps” sums it up for him. Be it a charitable cause or a local organization, his goal is “to help, as much as we can, those that share our hope for improving the world one small step at a time. And, fortunately, beer helps raise money. We try to improve every day and we challenge others to do the same, at home and at work”. He cares about his environmental impact. He cares about community and family. And he cares about beer. Not a shabby list, if you ask me…
In addition to this story for NYCR, I also put together this short video for my blog Grapes & Grains. In it, you can get a look at the facility and the dry-erase boards I mention above.