Behind the Beer is a series presenting the stories of Long Island’s best beers, as told by the brewers who make them.
The latest installment features Toasted Lager, made by Blue Point Brewing Company. An award-winning brew largely considered to be Long Island’s “first” craft beer—and arguably still most synonymous with the area’s beer scene—Toasted Lager has been Blue Point’s flagship since the pioneering brewery opened in Patchogue in 1998.
Mark Burford (co-founder and brewmaster emeritus of Blue Point Brewing Company): It was ’97 or so. We were building out the brewery here in Patchogue and trying to figure out what direction to go with our first beer. Looking back now, it’s pretty unusual for the first recipe you develop to become the flagship of your brewery, or to remain your most popular beer for almost two decades. But we’re certainly fortunate that it happened that way.
At the time, lagers were a good point of differentiation between what was already out and what we were trying to bring to the market, which was something new and different—primarily something more flavorful. Sure there was Sam Adams, and Bass was pouring everywhere especially on Long Island. But for the most part, the lagers available were all pretty bland and one-dimensional. So we thought creating one with more complexity was the way to be viewed by drinkers as unique.
It’s pretty unusual for the first recipe you develop to become the flagship of your brewery, or to remain your most popular beer for almost two decades.
I remember Pete [Cotter, Blue Point’s other founder] and I came up with the name at my kitchen table one night. We wanted the name to convey what the recipe did; that this wasn’t just another “yellow lager.” That there was more to its core, its soul. We threw around names like Blue Point Lager and Lightening Lager until we came to Toasted Lager. We immediately knew to stop there.
The name Toasted Lager was perfect because it accurately described the beer and the brewing process to make it. Our original brewhouse had a direct-fire 25-barrel kettle that came from the Wild Goose Brewery in Maryland. A cool thing was that you could literally see the big flame as it hit the kettle bottom. And this direct flame imparted a very slight caramelization to the beer adding a layer of complexity that I really liked. The name fit perfect.
I would define Toasted Lager as an amber lager with more character. We use six different grains—a lot of them are German and English speciality malts—and a lot of American hops, Mt. Hood and crystal are some of the major varieties. When we were developing the brewery, we had the idea to be somewhat of a hybrid of American and European brewing styles and this recipe fit right into that concept.
There’s a lot of hop flavor in the beer, but it’s not an IPA, so don’t expect hoppiness to steer the ship here. The hops—and the northwestern herbal, citrus character they give—are really there to balance the malt complexity: the toasted and caramel notes, the breadiness. We ferment it slightly warmer than you typically would with a lager, so you also get some nice esters kicked off from the yeast. And it finishes dry, so you’ll want to take another sip. When you add all the pieces together, you have a beer with a lot of complexity. I think that’s what has kept it compelling over the years.
When Toasted first came out—it was our first beer and we had already been on such a journey up to that point with building out the brewery and installing the equipment—we were honestly just astonished that we had an actual liquid that you could drink in kegs. I’ll never forget the day that first batch was ready. We’re located in somewhat of an industrial lot that we share with other local businesses, so we rolled a kegerator out in the middle of the parking lot, knocked on all the doors and we all drank it. I think the people around us probably thought we were crazy. Here were these two dudes, they’re building a brewery of all things, they must be pretty far out.
That feeling of being outcasts certainly followed us around in those early years. We rode around in a station wagon going door to door to local bars and restaurants with samples. It’s hard to believe with craft beer being so big now; you say you’re a local brewery and you get the business right away. But in the ’90s, people were astonished that you had a brewery. It was an uphill battle, an educational process. I remember people asking us if our beer would make them sick. But we kept sampling every day, and if we were lucky every day we’d get one new account. We always felt that as long as we could get them to try the beer, we would win them over. And luckily we did that fairly often.
The great beer writer Michael Jackson once said that Toasted Lager was the type of beer that he could drink every day for the rest of his life. And that’s exactly what we’re going for.
Toasted is largely a malt-driven beer, and that’s certainly not the rage at the moment in a growing industry where interests seem to change every nine seconds. We’ve had people ask if we would ever update the recipe or “modernize” its profile like some other breweries are doing now. But we don’t feel the need to do so. While tastes have changed, in our minds we came out with different beers to address that. We believe there are a high percentage of drinkers that just want to enjoy a well-balanced pint. The great beer writer Michael Jackson once said that Toasted Lager was the type of beer that he could drink every day for the rest of his life. And that’s exactly what we’re going for.
Toasted Lager is easily the most important recipe we developed at Blue Point, from just the standpoint of how much it’s driven the business since 1998; it’s always been half the sales we’ve done or more. Don’t get me wrong, certainly every new recipe is a fun project and you always put your all into its development. Like they say, no one has an ugly baby. But Toasted has driven the ship from the beginning, and still continues to do so today. It’s sometimes hard to believe that it’s now sold in 10 countries. In China, in Germany, people are toasting with Toasted. And, on the flip side, we still have our regulars walking into the tasting room on River Avenue to grab a pint after work. In a way I think the beer represents not only where we’ve been as a company, but where we’re going. It’s very special to us.
Featured photo of Mark Burford by Matt Furman.