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For brewer Billy Martin, taking the reins of the Shelter Island Brewery is coming back home. (Photo credit: Eleanor P. Labrozzi)

The pilsner was smooth and the stout was toasty on a recent open mic night in the tap room at Shelter Island Craft Brewery. Heather Reylek and Penny Kerr, cousins from the Clark side of their island families, were digging into a blues tune, written by Reylek, called “Lonely as a Three-Dollar Bill” and their harmony chased any loneliness right out the door and into a cold, wet night. 

The toe-and beer-tapping scene might seem like the kind you’ll find in many a small town around America — locals hanging at a neighborhood brewery for a little community socializing and sipping. But for Shelter Island Craft Brewery’s Billy Martin, it’s a full-circle moment in the very place that started his sudsy career, smack in the center of the place where he not only makes his home, but which holds his heart and ignited his creative craft.

Finding the right recipe

When the Shelter Island brewery became the island’s first and only craft brewery in 2015 it was a hit, but since the pandemic, business at 55 North Ferry Road has been slow, even as its best-sellers have flourished. After a couple of years, during which the hours of operation and the small-batch brews made on site were equally spotty, Martin is back as head brewer, and teaming with new brewery manager Steve Pisacano to bring the Shelter Island Craft Brewery back to its place as the island’s one and only craft brewery, where you can bring your dog and your kid and not-so-sure-about-IPA friends to sit at the picnic tables that dot the brewery’s small  yard and watch Shelter Island life roll by, while sipping something truly local. 

“Whiskey Wind was my grandfather’s bar; my other grandfather hung out at the Dory,” Martin says of two of the East End’s mainstay watering holes, whose recent closings (with a recent revival in the case of the Whiskey Wind) have left a social hole on the island and Greenport communities. To Martin, an islander from birth, it’s made the need for the camaraderie of a local tap room ever greater. “I want this to be a place to go hang out,” he says. “I feel like everybody needs that.”

In addition to the open mic nights, he and Pisacano have a slew of other come-together plans for the brewery, like the dad’s night Martin organized this past December and an upcoming dedicated darts evening in the works. 

More important, though, it’s Martin’s renowned brews that are at the heart of it all, which Pisacano knew was key to successfully reviving the brewery and became a key focus when he was tasked with finding a new brewer. “I wanted a local guy. He was there at the beginning, and he cares,” says Pisacano “and he’s a genius brewer.” 

Return of the native 

When Shelter Island got its very first (and still its only) brewery in 2015, it quickly became one of the island’s under-the-radar gems. Owned by James Hull, a home brewer-turned-semi-pro, it was a neighborhood place, but one that embraced small-batch experimentation, earning him an off-island reputation for innovative beers that drew on the local grains, flowers and fruits. 

The names, too, were evocative and yet proudly touted proximity, like Liquid Sunshine, 114 and Dune Cottage. Some of them became so popular that restaurants and bars all over the East End carried them, including Demarchelier and Claudio’s, where Pisacano says that 114, the brewery’s signature beer, is the most-ordered item at Claudio’s Waterfront, right behind the lobster roll.

Martin made the transition from home brewer to commercial brewing in 2016, after 10 years working for the Sag Harbor-based artist Sylvia Hommert as a personal assistant and gallery manager and touring with a rock band. Shelter Island Craft Brewery became his base for mastering an art that began in his kitchen. 

For two years, he worked at perfecting the recipes and honing his skills. Martin knew he was finally on to something when, one day, he encountered a summer visitor sitting in front waiting for the brewery to open so he could get his favorite beer to take home with him. On another pivotal night, a customer praised his Hefeweizen — a compliment that came from a man who brewed for the famed Sierra Nevada Brewing Company (founded in 1979 by homebrewers in Chico, Calif.) and who had won a coveted gold medal at the Great American Brewfest.

Martin left the Shelter Island brewery in 2018 for a four-year stint at Long Ireland Beer Company in Riverhead. A year brewing part-time at Greenport Harbor Brewing Company further deepened his experience.  

Breweries often share space and equipment, and brewers work alongside each other, learning techniques, discussing flavors and sources for ingredients. “The East End craft brewing community is pretty small and, for the most part, there is respect and cooperation between breweries,” says Martin. “When I was at Long Ireland, I’d hang out with Jamesport and Greenport Harbor brewers.” 

During this time, Martin also worked with former Shelter Island resident Rory McEvoy, founder of Kidd Squid Brewing Co., on what they hoped would be brews for a new Shelter Island-based craft brewery. But McEvoy decided to locate in Sag Harbor, a town that lacked a craft brewery of its own. Martin, who was his young son’s primary caretaker, wanted to stay closer to home. “I invited Billy along to Sag Harbor,” McEvoy says. “He’s an artist. I’m happy that Billy is brewing again with Shelter Island Craft Brewery, he knows what he’s doing.”

Shelter Island Craft Brewery (Photo credit: Eleanor P. Labrozzi)

Keg full of dreams 

By 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing, the Shelter Island Craft Brewery tap room was in decline. Best-sellers like the 114 IPA sold well to restaurants and taverns, but the small-batch beers it had been known for were gone, and its hours of operation became increasingly erratic. 

Pisacano, a veteran of the hospitality industry whose family owns Roanoke Vineyards, decided to step in when he realized that the supplier of some of the East End’s most popular local beers needed new management. Since Pisacano wanted to bring back the innovative, onsite, small-batch brewing that distinguished the place in the years that Martin brewed there — and there was nobody better for the job than Billy Martin himself. 

In March, Martin brewed his first beers for the Shelter Island Craft Brewery revival, and there are now four taps dedicated to his artisan brews, which change with the seasons and his artistic vision.   

Today, the 9-year-old brewery is undergoing a renaissance under the careful but creative watch of Martin and Pisacano, with the most important hyper-local ingredient being Martin and the beers he creates. 

“I am born and bred here, went to the Shelter Island School K-12 and graduated in ’97,” he says. “My dad is still here; I have a brother here.” Martin’s wife, Kristina Majdisova, is a longtime employee of the Town of Shelter Island and currently serves as a legal aide. Their 4-year old son, Marcus, started pre-K this year at the island school. 

Pisacano says the key to the plan is serving absolutely delicious beer: “It’s all about the taste.”  The tap room also serves a couple of local wines from Roanoke and Wölffer and you can even order a rum and Coke made with the drink’s signature spirit from Montauk Distillers. The brewery falls under a New York State farm brewery license, which requires them to serve locally grown and made products, including Greenport Jerky’s 114, a beefy snack flavored with the brewery’s own IPA. 

Martin is an ambitious brewer, developing recipes that stand out for their non-trendiness and historical past. It’s a philosophy in keeping with the tone he sets for the tap room. “I like to keep it simple,” he says. Still, he works in some surprises here and there. 

Impressed by the light, refreshing beers of the Czech Republic and his wife’s native Slovakia, Martin set about learning to make beers of a similar style. “Their lagers are so delicate and so good,” he says. “The craft is still there.”  

And then there’s his work with local ingredients, like the time he made a horseradish pilsner — a radical concept for his wife, who is steeped in Slovakian food culture. “Kristina was doubtful,” he says. “But even she admitted it was good. And we used the local horseradish.” 

Martin plans to do a traditional German Gose, a very bubbly, lemony, herbal brew with a low abv (3.5-4 %). He’ll make a Kentucky common, a little-known American beer closely identified with Louisville, Ky., that is a bubbly, slightly sweet ale, with an amber to light brown hue. He tasted it while visiting the Bluegrass State and loved it, in part because it’s “an old beer that no one really brews anymore.” He’s also looking to do an Octoberfest beer called Märzen; a dark, not too hoppy, high alcohol beer brewed in Germany and the Czech Republic.

It’s all a bit of a homecoming for this new season of the Shelter Island Craft Brewery, where the arts of music and camaraderie — and the joy of fine small batch ales and lagers brewed in house with skill and artistry — fuel the spirit of the tap room. “I loved the art world and that’s how I got into music,” says Martin. “Then I fell in love with brewing.”