Long Island’s Newest Gypsy Brewer Dreams Up A Nightmare

The lead brewer of one of Long Island’s most highly-regarded beer makers has started his own brewing business, called Nightmare Brewing.

The lead brewer of one of Long Island’s most highly-regarded beer makers has started his own brewing business, called Nightmare Brewing.

There’s a nightmare brewing, but it ain’t on Elm Street. In fact, it’s not at all set in a frightening dream world fraught with the fear tactics of Freddy Kruger and his knifelike finger nails, but at the rlly rlly real site of Great South Bay Brewery in Bay Shore.

It’s here that the lead brewer of one of Long Island’s most highly-regarded beer makers has started his own brewing business, called Nightmare Brewing.

For the last two years, Billy Powell has helmed brewing operations at Northport’s Sand City Brewing Company, which is known for producing some of the most sought-after hazy, juicy IPAs in the country. Powell, who has a sharp Mohawk and a long black beard, has no plans to relinquish his key role at Sand City as he pursues his dream—or rather, his nightmare—of opening a brewery. Quite uniquely, he is brewing the candle at both ends, continuing to work full-time at Sand City while making beers under his new Nightmare label. Even more interesting is that his new company is operating out of another established Long Island brewery, via a practice known as phantom brewing, or gypsy brewing.

To produce his beers, Powell is using Great South Bay in Bay Shore, where he started his brewing career, and which is also “home” to another nascent itinerant brewer, Root + Branch Brewing. 

Popularized by thriving international brands like Mikkeller and Evil Twin Brewing of Copenhagen and Stillwater Artisanal of Baltimore, all of which have leveraged the business model into existing or soon-to-be-built physical locations, phantom brewing is a way of working that requires no expensive infrastructure. Rather than immediately invest in a facility, an endeavor that can cost close to a million dollars, these beer makers keep their costs low and realize their recipes rootless, producing and packaging at borrowed plants, building their brand and reputation before their brick and mortar. To produce his beers, Powell is using Great South Bay in Bay Shore, where he started his brewing career, and which is also “home” to another nascent itinerant brewer, Root + Branch Brewing.

Thus far Nightmare has released three beers, all of which can be found on tap and in 16-ounce cans at select bars and retail shops on Long Island and in New York City: Windlass of Erasmus, a sour ale flavored with blackberry, black currants, and black sea salt; Scaphism, an imperial stout brewed with lactose and honey and conditioned on Tahitian vanilla beans and organic cacao nibs; and Drawn & Quartered, a quadruple dry hopped double IPA. The brews were first served together last Friday at Torst, a bar in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for the company’s launch party. (The trio will be showcased at Hoptron Brewtique in Patchogue tomorrow.)

“I’m also sick of the ‘unicorn and rainbow beers’ out there,” he added with a wry smile. “I want to make beer that reflects my soul.”

Now, you might be asking yourself, “What’s up with the unabashedly macabre and gruesome beer names and label design?” Well, outside of beer, Powell’s passions are death metal and horror movies. “I love their aesthetics and want to apply them in every way I can here, and cohesively,” he told me from one of the bar’s back tables a few hours before the event. “I’m also sick of the ‘unicorn and rainbow beers’ out there,” he added with a wry smile. “I want to make beer that reflects my soul.”

Windlass of Erasmus, with its striking blood-red color and named for the apparatus employed to disembowel Saint Erasmus of Formia as is depicted in paintings of the Christian saint’s martyrdom (the label also shows the grisly act, drawn by the horror artist Defame), seems to be a worthy mirror for Powell. Over cans of the very refreshing sour ale, offering a keen balance of tart and fruity flavors, he spoke about using his passions to create a brand identity, Sand City’s support of his new project and the possibility of a collaboration between the two companies, and the physical location he envisions opening. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Edible Long Island: You’re the lead brewer at Sand City, so why brew your own beers at another facility?
Billy Powell: I don’t look at Great South Bay as just “another facility”; it’s where I got my start in the beer industry. I wanted to work at a brewery by any means necessary, so I got a job making six-pack carriers and boxes. When I started, I walked up to everyone in production at their stations and asked what, how, and why they were doing their tasks. A few weeks later, I was helping rack and filter beers, and then pretty quickly I was working on the brewhouse, which is where I really wanted to be in the first place. I was a floating helper on production for a while and that was some of the best hands-on experience I’d ever received.

There’s also the fact that Great South Bay has opened its equipment up to have gypsy brewers use it. Anthony at Root + Branch is here often. And logistically, Great South Bay’s brewhouse is three times the size of ours, and efficiency is something I definitely have to consider for some of the more monstrous beers I brew. When the alcohol level is high, you need to start with as many potential fermentables to convert into sugar as you can, and Great South Bay’s larger system better allows that.

ELI: Presumably, you have a great deal of input and guidance in your role at Sand City as far as recipe development is concerned.
BP: Yes and no. At the end of the day, all Sand City beers are Kevin [Sihler, brewmaster and co-owner]’s recipes. Even when I’m given full control, I still have to brew from a Sand City perspective, or with the Sand City aesthetic in mind. Which is fine, of course. But Nightmare is very much from my own mind. They’re personal. I’ve had some crazy ideas for beers and Nightmare is my way of brewing off my leash.

ELI: Has Sand City ownership been supportive of their lead brewer starting a side project? I would think they prefer that to the alternative of you leaving entirely. But, at the same time, it’s pretty uncommon for a head brewer to launch his own label and remain. How long do you see yourself realistically working for two different brewing businesses?
BP: They actually knew I was starting my own brewery before hiring me. I was looking to fund my start and brewing beer was how I wanted to earn it. They’ve always been very supportive. They’re family to me. And to have helped build the brewery to where it is today, I don’t see myself walking away from that. Ideally I’d love to continue brewing for both.

ELI: So will there be a Sand City/Nightmare collaboration sometime?
BP: It’s definitely a future possibility. But I’m looking to make a name for myself first.

ELI: Sand City has made its name on hoppy beers. Given that you’ve launched with two non-IPAs out of three, how much will you focus on hoppy beers under Nightmare?
BP: I’ll make some hoppy beers, but I’ll be more focused on unique ingredients, high alcohol content, traditional beers, and bringing back some “dead styles.” Pun maybe intended.

These first three beers have been some of the most challenging beers I’ve had to brew, and I plan on continuing to push the limits of the equipment and especially the yeast I use.

ELI:  Can you give a few examples of beers you want to make?
BP: I’ll leave it at “dead styles,” or the styles that I’ve always enjoyed that I thought weren’t being executed properly. I’m sure you’ve enjoyed beers that you wished you could’ve altered. I just want to reinvigorate drinkers’ passion for them.

ELI: Earlier, you noted your aversion to what you call “unicorn and rainbow beers.” What do you designate as such?
BP: You’ll know them when you see them by the lack of imagination and the butterflies and fairies that come floating into your mind. I’ll leave it at that. I’m hoping Nightmare stirs something a little deeper in people.

ELI: It doesn’t seem to matter to beer fans much anymore, but how do you feel about the previous stigma attached to beer brewed under a contract basis, and that gypsy brewers have “no real skin in the game” if they don’t have major capital at risk through the ownership of space and equipment? Also, what is it about gypsy brewing that appeals to you?
BP: Whilst contract brewers may not have as much overhead as a brick-and-mortar brewery, they have just as much to lose based on reputation. I feel that people are even harsher critics of gypsy brewers because of the fact that they don’t have a local following to fall back on. If you have a brewery, you can get away with a bad beer and sell it through your tasting room. If you contract a bad beer you dump it. Well at least the brewers with integrity do. There’s also the variables of equipment and water profiles. Even with the same exact recipe brewed at different locations, there are subtle, and sometimes noticeable differences between batches. The idea of different brewing equipment is a challenge, but I find the potential more rewarding. For example I could brew a lager with different equipment and get completely different tasting beers. Style, shape, dimension and especially the orientation (horizontal vs. vertical) of equipment effect everything from aromatics to flavor speed of fermentation and even clarity. The idea of not being tied down and able to use others equipment to your advantage is far more rewarding than I think people realize.

ELI: Most phantom brewers launch with the goal of one day owning a physical location, you included. How do you envision your brewery?
BP: I like the idea of being able to have a palate-pushing beer at a place blasting death metal; an interior with a Vincent Price-Addams Family vibe; phenomenal food; and a bar like the one from “The Shining.”

ELI: We’ve seen other breweries carry a heavy-metal aesthetic: Holy Mountain, TRVE, Surly, Brash. But you go much, much darker than them. For example, your first three beers bear names of gruesome, barbaric execution methods. Do you have any concerns about excluding certain potential fans who might be intimidated or put off by such a brand identity?
BP: I’m looking for open-minded people, and people who aren’t afraid. That’s why my labels are so minimal with writing. If the art and beer capture your attention and draw you in, try it and research what it’s about. I meticulously go over the historical accuracy, ingredients, and the music to try and tie it all together into a cohesive experience. As for the art, it feeds that ghoulish part of human nature that you aren’t getting from a beer that has had no thought put into it. Again, the people that can’t handle human history can drink the “unicorn and rainbow beers.”

ELI: We’re drinking Windlass of Erasmus right now. How do the ingredients connect with the name?
BP: This is one of my bloodier labels, and with that I wanted the drinker to have the experience of consuming blood; the look, the viscosity. That’s where the blackberries and black currants come in, giving jammy, earthy notes as well. And since Saint Erasmus was the patron saint of sailors, I added sea salt. It gives a light brininess.

ELI: A little depraved, but delicious.
BP: [Laughs.] I’m glad you like it. The connection is more notable with Scaphism and Drawn & Quartered. Scaphism was an ancient method of torture that involved force-feeding the victim milk and honey while also luring insects to devour the body. It took the first person 17 days to expire. Hence the beer is brewed with milk sugar and honey, and clocks in at 17 percent ABV.

For Drawn & Quartered I went numerically. I threw hops in at all four stages of brewing: mash, kettle, fermentor, and brite. I used four different varietals of hops: Nelson Sauvin, Galaxy, Enigma, and Citra. And finally I dry hopped it four different times. It really expands the dimensions of flavor possibilities with each hop. As for the label, the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are featured.

ELI: Give us a few death-metal songs on your brewing playlist.
BP: A Night in Texas, “War Born”; Rings of Saturn, “Shards of Scorched Flesh”; Hollow Prophet, “Black Communion”; I, Valiance, “The Pillars of Ruin.”

ELI: Last question: What’s your favorite horror movie?
BP: “The Shining.” One of the first horror novels my father ever recommended and the movie is a classic. I can’t go a winter without being snowed in and watching it with a great beer in hand. And this winter, it’s going to be mine.

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Niko Krommydas has written for Tasting Table, BeerAdvocate, Munchies, and First We Feast. He is editor of Craft Beer New York, an app for the iPhone, and a columnist for Yankee Brew News. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.