A crooked ladder has connected three North Forkers to beer.
Stephen Wirth, owner of Digger’s in Riverhead, often “kicked around the idea of starting a brewery” with his brother, David Wirth, and Duffy Griffiths, owner of Duffy’s Deli in Riverhead and Jamesport. Their conversations eventually spurred three years of renovations, and Digger’s neighboring 1,600-square-foot building, which was “just sitting there,” says Wirth, opened in July as Crooked Ladder Brewing Company. The appellation’s origin was a photograph, but David, who owns a construction company, and Griffiths, chief of Jamesport Fire Department, are also ladder-linked.
“We found a picture of a ladder on this pyramid in Cairo. The ladder is straight, but the shadow is crooked,” says Stephen Wirth. “We thought it was a cool way to present the brewery, but the ladder was also meaningful to my brother and Duff.”
Griffiths, the brewmaster, is no stranger to beer. A brewer at John Harvard’s Brewery & Ale House in Lake Grove from 1997 to 2001, he was admittedly nervous to return to beer following a 12-year absence, but received encouragement from DJ Swanson and Evan Addario, brewmasters at Greenport Harbor Brewing Company and Southampton Publick House, respectively. Long Ireland Beer Company’s co-owner, Greg Martin, also attended Crooked Ladder’s launch. Their support exemplifies beer’s colleague-not-competitor spirit.
“The guys were always there to ask questions and give advice,” says Griffiths. “It’s been a long time, but once the first batches tasted right, I knew we were onto something.”
That “something” is evident in Crooked Ladder’s initial seven beers, including Peconic Bay Pilsner (a crisp, straw-colored lager), Gypsy Red (a sweet and mildly hoppy amber ale) and Ponquogue Porter (a smooth pour of chocolate with a dry finish). The recipes are inviting, not brash, which is Griffiths’ intention until “more time is under my belt.” His current objective, brewing two days per week within a copper-shelled, seven-barrel brewhouse, is a drinkable portfolio to showcase the nuances between each style, from pilsner to porter. He’s observed a shift, however, since his stint at John Harvard’s —
consumers are now more adventurous, and palates have evolved.
“I brewed only one or two IPAs back at John Harvard’s and they didn’t really sell well,” says Griffiths. “Now
everyone is making insane beers with all crazy hop additions. We’re definitely going to get to a Black IPA and experiment really soon.”
The response to Crooked Ladder’s first conservatively created releases has been positive. Wirth initially targeted 50 accounts by December, but may reach that goal in October, prompting a search for a second location. The brewery’s primary focus will remain Digger’s and the neighboring businesses in Riverhead, to support the town’s ongoing revitalization.
“The town has been desolate for 10 years, but we’ve been here through thick and thin,” says Wirth, who resides above Digger’s. ”I was the third owner of Digger’s and I worked as a teenager for the previous two.
We’re dedicated to building things here.”
Check out the full Long Island Wine Press cover story “Craft Beer Makes Home in Wine Country,” which includes articles on Greenport Harbor Brewing Company, Long Ireland Beer Company, Crooked Ladder Brewing Company and Moustache Brewing Company.