Friday, June 22, 2012

Another Brooklyn Distillery, But With a Difference (Well, Several)

The founders of Industry City Distillers are five young guys with beards and a lot of toys, but no background in liquor. Yet they have created what is without a doubt the most unique distillery in Brooklyn, a borough that is collected a new liquor-maker every few months.

Like the specialists gathered together in a glossy heist films, the quintet partition themselves into areas of expertise. Peter Simon, a former yoga instructor, handles the marketing and administration. Rich Watts is in charge of design, copywriting and printing. Watts' corner of Sunset Park industrial building ICD calls home is dominated by a printing press. Zac Bruner is the resident machinist. His area resembles the room where you reported for shop class in high school. Zac designs anything made of glass or metal that the other guys ask for. If you need a custom gizmo for the still, or a special gimcrack for the fermentation tank, he's your man. Dave Kyrejko is what any conventional distillery would call the master distiller. He devised the company's original fermentation and distillation processes. Max Haimes, assistant distiller and jack of all trades, helps Dave turn out the distillery's initial product.

That product is vodka. ICD began distributing its spirit to New York liquor stores in April. That would seem like an end game to most businessmen. Not these guys. As I write these words, the bottle was called "No. 2." But by the time this article hits the street, however, it's probably sailing under the name of "No. 3" or "No. 4." You see, Industry City vodka—like everything at Industry City—is a work in progress.

"None of us are authorities on vodka," said Watts. "It was just a logical extension of the process here, which is just continual experimentation and refinement. We didn't want to have an inconsistent product. But we wanted to try new things with the product as we went along." The public has a say in this. On the back label, there's information on how customers can contract ICD. You see such invites on many products. ("Questions? Call us!") But Industry City means it. "We're trying to figure out what people respond well to. The whole point is the feedback."

Once a formula that both the team and the public enjoy is settled on, the bottle numbers will stop, and the distillery will have its vodka.

If there's a Danny Ocean in this group, it's Kyrejko. He brought everyone else together. He went to school at Cooper Union with Watts, who had a design studio and small fabrication shop in Gowanus. He met Zach Bruner, who had a machine shop in Providence, at summer camp in 2002. Max Hames came to the project fresh from salmon fishing in Alaska.

"The idea for an research and development shop came first; a combination of laboratory, workshop and production space where ideas and products could be conceived, prototyped, tested, developed, refined, and manufactured," told Simon. "The only way to bring together a critical mass of people and resources to achieve that, though, was with a massive, unifying project."

But it wasn't a matter of "Eureka! Vodka!" The boys weren't after alcohol. They were after CO2, to better feed their fish. Seriously. Kyrejko was experimenting with biotopic ecosystems (self-contained and largely self-sustaining fish tanks with more plants than fish), and was searching for a way of producing carbon dioxide to supplement these habitats. Fermentation provided an answer, as it naturally produces CO2. But it also has an interesting byproduct: alcohol.

For their raw material, the team went with sugar beets grown in upstate New York and processed in Pennsylvania. "Trucking in grain has way more of an impact on the environment and is more expensive than working with something more refined," said Watts. "It keeps our process cleaner and more efficient."

Aside from the beets, Industry City produces almost everything in-house, including the still. They could have bought a still from Portugal or German, as most craft distillers do, but, said Peter Simon, "That would have taken our entire budget."

Instead, the created two tiny custom stills which, between then, comprise a single distillation. The first is a steam-powered continuous stripping still, which operates using about as much power as a coffee maker. The juice dripping out of that is then loaded into a high-separation fractional distillation column, which allows the team to separate all the chemical components of their liquor and selectively remove or include them one by one. Together, the two contraptions look like something MacGyver might have assembled out of spare parts.

As for the fermentation process, it's right out of a James Whale film.

Most distilleries ferment their wash in large wooden or metal tanks, where the mixture roils and burbles like molten oatmeal. The tanks take up a lot of space. ICD's are housed in a long, thin, elevated wooden room about the size of a small trailer home. Or course, they not really fermentation tanks. They're bio-reactors—tall, glass and rounded at each end, like huge test tubes. Inside tumble thousands of little tan beads. The balls are made out of algae. Inside each is embedded a grain of yeast. Splashing all around them is a sugar solution derived from the beets.

"Our yeasts don't get into our boiler," explained Dave. "When you put yeast into a boiler and heat them up, they actually explode. They release compounds that are insidious and hard to remove from flavor of alcohol. That's why you have to distill is three, five, six times." These yeasts, trapped as they are in algae balls, don't get into the liquid. "The algae is permeable, like a sponge. The liquid is able to go in, the yeast is able to eat it [and thus convert the sugar into alcohol], and the alcohol able to leave. It's almost like breathing."

Where do these guys get these ideas? "I read a lot of scientific papers," said Dave. "And we have a machine shop and a lab. Between coming up with an idea and being able to execute the idea, not a lot of time goes by."

The way Industry City does business changes every day. Dave will hatch a new notion; Zac will fashion a new part; Rich will change the label design. "Prototype" is a word that's thrown around a lot, because no piece of equipment stays the same for long.

The vodka, meanwhile, will soon have company on the shelf. ICD plans to release a high-proof vodka. It will be geared toward bartenders and home enthusiasts keen on making tinters and infusions. And they'll be other products.

"We'll make anything," said Dave. "The idea of making a fractionally distilled whiskey is blasphemous. But I've done it. I've made a very nice rye whiskey with this machine." No doubt it was late at night, with lightening cracking just outside the windows.

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