How Riverhead became the craft beer capital of Long Island

Dan Burke and Greg Martin at Long Ireland Brewing Co. on Pulaski Street. (Credit: David Benthal)

In New York State, 2018 was the year of craft beer.

With 400 breweries now operating across the Empire State, the beer boom hit record proportions this year.

Long Island is home to 44 of those breweries — a drastic jump from the four operating just a decade ago. And in no town is the craft beer explosion more evident than in Riverhead, with five tasting rooms in operation and two more reportedly on the way.

The opening of the North Fork Brewing Co. tasting room on Second Street this past summer gives Riverhead more open tasting rooms than any other ZIP code on the island.

But it wasn’t that long ago that Riverhead, which has long been home to the second most wineries of any Long Island town, had zero tasting rooms. That all began to change in 2010, when Long Ireland Beer Company co-owners Dan Burke and Greg Martin stormed into the office of former Riverhead Town supervisor Sean Walter.

The men had a desire to open a brewery and tasting room in Riverhead and in Walter, they found an elected official with an affinity for IPAs and a strong desire to bolster the downtown area. Less than a year later, Long Ireland opened on Pulaski Street and the groundwork was laid for others to follow.

The vacant Pulaski Street building became Riverhead’s first brewery. (Credit: David Benthal)

But the start of Riverhead’s craft beer revolution didn’t really take place in a government office; it started in a kitchen.  

Martin was a hobby homebrewer whose co-worker at an HVAC company, Burke, began to join him for Friday night brew sessions in fall of 2004. When Martin wanted to invest in bigger and better equipment, Burke didn’t hesitate to chip in. 

“I told him we’d need more equipment and it would cost about $200. He opened up his wallet, put down a $100 bill and said ‘50/50?’ ” Martin recalled. “It started in my kitchen and moved pretty quickly into my garage because Dan wanted to start brewing more right away.”

Brewing five gallons each Friday night grew to 10 gallons and slowly out of the garage and into leased commercial brewing spaces in Connecticut and upstate New York. Martin and Burke acted like gypsy salesmen, going from bar to bar after finishing their regular 9-to-5s to peddle their brews to potential buyers. They sold their first keg in March 2009 and quit their jobs in January 2010. 

Now they just needed a brewery. 

“We knew early on that when we built the actual brewery that we wanted to be in Riverhead,” Martin said. “We saw Patchogue entering a heavy growth stage in its revitalization and we felt that Riverhead had that same potential.” 

Lauri and Matt Spitz at their Hallet Avenue tasting room. (Credit: David Benthal)

The search for buildings was on. Potential locations were eliminated one by one due to zoning restrictions — the town simply did not have comprehensive code to encourage breweries. 

“I angrily walked into the supervisor’s office and flipped out,” Martin said with a laugh. “I said if someone doesn’t help me we’re taking our business to Brookhaven. Sean Walter was in the middle of a meeting — in hindsight, I was very rude — and he stopped the meeting and cleared the room and went over the zoning maps and told us to go to here, here and here.”

The final “here” was the former Riverhead Agway at 817 Pulaski St. The brewers agreed it had enough space to accommodate the necessary equipment and the town green-lighted the locale. 

“We wanted to get them into zoning with enough flexibility — industrial zoning was the zoning you needed at the time because it had the flexibility to allow a craft brewery,” Walter said. 

That later changed when the town enacted special zoning for microbreweries in 2015. 

“We opened up the code in such a way that it allowed for breweries and determined what scale brewery could be built without being offensive to neighbors,” Walter said. 

Peter Barraud and Ian Van Bourgondien opened North Fork Brewing Co. in June. (Credit: David Benthal)

The code change allowed two additional breweries to take over space in the former Second Street firehouse. North Fork Brewing Co. opened there in May and neighboring Long Beard Brewing Co. is under construction.  

“We specifically added the sections to allow for this to happen,” Walter said. 

Riverhead — on the verge of a downtown revitalization and with its pro-business government — also held two other key elements that became a catalyst for the arrival of more breweries. Its infrastructure, for one, made the hamlet attractive to brewers who contend with large amounts of wastewater in the process of brewing. 

“A lot of towns on Long Island don’t have a sewer district and, from a brewery operation standpoint, sewers make life very easy,” Martin said. “The amount of wastewater we put out would cause cesspools to fill very quickly. It is a pain in the ass from a business standpoint if you are not on sewers.”

Long Ireland installed a monitoring device to calculate and regulate the amount of water entering the system at any given time. Those devices are now a part of the model for all breweries in Riverhead.  

The hamlet’s proximity to the Long Island Expressway also makes it ideal for brewers who are looking to move their product to other markets and import ingredients. Easy access to the highway is not only convenient, but keeps transportation costs — such as fuel — down. 

Long Ireland kegs. (Credit: David Benthal)

“When we moved into this location, we were delivering our own product,” Burke said. “We had the expressway right here and that made it easy to truck things to the Nassau/Queens border. It was huge.”

The LIE and the Long Island Rail Road also make it easy for people to travel to Riverhead. And the four breweries currently operating downtown — Moustache Brewing Co. and Crooked Ladder Brewing Company being the other two — also give beer lovers different reasons to visit. 

“Beer is an extension of personality. That is what is cool about it,” Martin said. “What you get from Riverhead is a lot of different personalities represented through the beer.” 

Competition is not an issue for the brewers in town. They liken it to being neighbors, but instead of borrowing a cup of sugar they borrow hops and other ingredients when supplies are running low. In fact, it was Martin and Burke who helped the owners of Riverhead’s third craft brewery, Moustache Brewing Co., find their space in town. 

Husband-and-wife team Matt and Lauri Spitz were looking to open a brewery closer to New York City around 2012, but encountered setback after setback in other Long Island towns due to government restrictions. 

“I came out on Black Friday to go to Long Ireland and when I left Dan [Burke] called me and I thought I forgot something, but he told me to turn around and come right back because the town supervisor was there and wanted to meet me,” Lauri recalled. “When I got back, Sean Walter was there and said, ‘I hear another brewery is coming to town!’ He said the town would be happy to have us.”

The Spitzes signed the lease on their Hallet Avenue operation in February 2013 and opened their doors to the public in April 2014. In October, Moustache Brewing Co. unveiled its newly expanded tasting room. 

The couple had signed the lease to take over the rest of the building that housed their original brewery a year earlier. They worked tirelessly — occasionally putting in 21-hour days — to complete the yearlong renovation, which increased the total footprint from 1,400 square feet to roughly 5,600 square feet.

The larger space not only gives guests more room to enjoy their beer, it gives the brewers flexibility and the ability to increase production.

“We could be in production 24/7 if we wanted now,” Matt said half-jokingly. “This is where we wanted to be for the past five years.”

During the grand opening celebration on Columbus Day weekend, throngs of patrons and beer lovers came out to show their support for Moustache, including other Riverhead brewers — a part of that shared philosophy that a rising tide lifts all boats. 

“We have a lot of people who like to tour all the breweries when they’re in Riverhead,” Matt Spitz said. “And we have people who go to Long Ireland on Thursday and to us on Fridays, then they hit the other breweries. Every one has its own feel and vibe and people gravitate toward that. It is a destination.” 

czaweski@timereview.com