Ken Srubinski, who spent two years building a brewery and taproom in his hometown of West Islip, its first, says he expected to draw good crowds when he opened Secatogue Brewing Co. in early May.
“We heard everyone’s enthusiasm, we knew there was some excitement around us finally getting to that point,” he says. “People would drive by all the time, pop their head in to say hi. We had a ‘coming soon’ sign up for a long time.”
But what happened was even better than what he imagined. After just three weekends, he was almost sold out of beer. “It was really crazy. The lines were out the door and it never really stopped.”
Secatogue is named for the Native American tribe that originally inhabited the area and occupies a 4,300-square-foot brick building with white columns at 375 Union Boulevard. Srubinski runs the business with his wife, Katie, and other members of his family. With the remaining beers running low, and several new batches not yet ready, they decided to close for Memorial Day weekend, avoiding any chance of disappointing a likely large holiday crowd. “We were down to four beers and, at that point, you don’t really have options if you get a flight,” Srubinski says. “It was better to reset and focus on replenishing the supplies.”
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It seems you all really like our beers, so much so that we are almost out of it! We have been busy brewing during the week but as you know this process takes time. Because of this we have made the decision to close this Memorial Day Weekend in order for our supplies to replenish. We want to say a big thank you to the overwhelming support over these last 3 weeks! It’s been so incredible to see you all and this has definitely been better than we could have imagined & we appreciate it. We will re-open Friday May 31 at 3 PM with a full board of beers. We’ve heard your feedback so get ready to see some of your favorites back as well as some newbies. Let us know in the comments which beers you loved and what you’d like to see from us. Also, be sure to check us out at Bay Fest on Saturday June 1st at @greatsouthbay
It didn’t take long for the brewery to find its footing. The following weekend, it reopened with a full lineup, serving beers such as Cosmic Berry Blast, a blonde ale with raspberries and strawberries (“It smells just like Sprite Remix,” he says with a laugh), and The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, a double dry hopped New England-style IPA. It also participated in its first event that Saturday, Great South Bay Brewery’s BayFest, pouring samples to a steady line of thirsty attendees. “We met a lot of great people,” he says.
On my first recent visit to the sun-filled taproom, where light-toned wood and floral wallpaper suggest the coziness of a living room, it was bustling with young families, cheerful groups of friends, and solo imbibers. It should come as no surprise, then, that Srubinski’s first beers, many of which are the kinds of hazy IPAs that beer enthusiasts are eager to track down, have received positive reviews on social media and elsewhere online. And based on what I’ve tasted so far, it’s well deserved.
In a chat over pours of Screaming Space Cowboy—a hazy double IPA laced with lactose, offering a delightfully creamy mouthfeel, perky flavors of tropical fruit, and a slight sweetness, with bitterness barely there—Srubinski spoke about the excitement surrounding his fledgling brewery, the beers that inspired him to pursue a career in brewing, and Long Island’s emerging IPA scene. Our chat has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Edible Long Island: It’s not often that one hears about a new brewery selling out of all its beer pretty soon after it opens to the public. As someone without a previous connection to a professional brewery, how did you get the word out about your new business, and did you expect such a great turnout?
Ken Srubinski: The expectation was to be busy but there was absolutely no way we could have predicted the crowds we had the first three weeks. We did no traditional advertising, just strictly posting on Instagram and on Facebook, with no sponsored posts. It was purely organic. It didn’t hurt that we had been building the space for two years so that definitely helped build anticipation.
ELI: You were homebrewing during that time, and before. How did you first get interested in brewing?
KS: My first experience with brewing was a kit I got for my 21st birthday. I don’t remember what style it was, but it didn’t taste all that great. Once I started getting into craft beer and a spark of inspiration from a question my mother-in-law posed, I decided to give it another shot and took it seriously.
ELI: What was the question?
KS: “Have you ever thought about making your own beer? You seem to know a lot about it.”
ELI: What are some of the beers that influenced you, that helped educate you, when you were starting out?
KS: I remember being immediately drawn to Blue Point Toasted Lager and Blueberry Ale. I thought it was so cool that craft beer was being brewed right here on Long Island. Years later the ones that really influenced me were Heady Topper from Alchemist, Sip of Sunshine from Lawson’s, and whatever hyped hazy IPA cans I could get my hands on.
ELI: The brewing scene on Long Island has grown significantly in recent years, especially on the South Shore. How does it feel to open West Islip’s first brewery, as a native of the town?
KS: We feel unbelievably lucky to have found a suitable spot in the town we were raised in. My wife Katie and I met in high school here, and when it was time to start looking for a place to raise our children, four-year-old triplets, we couldn’t have pictured living anywhere else. I’ve always felt that this town deserved to have more places to go. West Islip lacks a proper Main Street or village, like many of the surrounding towns have, and people here have been looking for something new that isn’t a doctor’s office. Being lifelong West Islip residents, my wife and I know how tight knit and supportive this community can be. One of the biggest reasons for the turnout is the community here has welcomed us with open arms. The support could not have been clearer on opening day.
ELI: Were you open to other areas West Islip didn’t pan out, maybe one with established breweries?
KS: We did turn our sights elsewhere for a time. We had always hoped we could open here but suitable real estate that could meet all the requirements for a brewery was basically nonexistent. We looked for about two and a half years, from Amityville to Bay Shore, Bethpage and Farmingdale. But a stroke of luck came when this building, a prime location, fell into our lap. We knew we couldn’t pass it up. That was two years ago. Then we went through all of the local, state, and federal processes.
ELI: What’s the brewery ethos, and what sort of experience do you want to give people that come visit?
KS: Our main goal as a brewery is to take beer less seriously. There can be a lot of dissection and over-analyzing. When you get too bogged down in that stuff, you take the fun and creativity out of the process which is what attracts people to brewing and craft beer in the first place. Our secondary focus is to attract new craft beer drinkers by changing the perceptions of not only craft beer, but beer in general. When people tell me they don’t like beer, it usually means they just haven’t had one they like yet. The biggest compliment we can receive is, “I don’t normally like IPAs or I don’t like beer but I love this.” We want people to come in, relax, and try something new, and hopefully they leave with a new outlook on the beer world.
ELI: Collaborations are commonplace in craft brewing. Do you have any coming up? Any brewers in particular that you’d like to work with on a beer?
KS: Currently we don’t have any collaborations on the schedule but we’re always open to working with other brewers. The brewing community is unlike any other profession. Nobody is out to put anyone else out of business. We support and help each other however we can. I think that’s one of the biggest selling points for supporting small local breweries. What’s good for one of us is good for all of us.
ELI: You launched with several double dry hopped New England-style IPAs, which continue to be extraordinarily popular. Tell us more about the beers you’ll be making. Will you be primarily producing hazy IPAs, or is there a plan to offer a wide range of styles?
KS: The style is so popular right now, and for good reason. It’s changing the way people think about IPAs. From a brewer’s standpoint there’s so much room for experimentation and variation within the style. There’s a lot to play with there to keep it interesting. We plan on offering an ever-changing selection of styles but will tend to lean towards the light and hoppy beers.
ELI: What’s been your favorite of your beers so far?
KS: That’s like asking to pick my favorite child! [Laughs.] I’ll give you two. The first is the beer we made after receiving our license, a double dry hopped New England-style IPA we named This Is Heavy Doc, a reference to ”Back to the Future.” For being the first brew that really counted I couldn’t have been happier with how it came out. The other favorite so far has been Screaming Cowboy, a double dry hopped hazy double IPA made with Idaho 7 hops and hop hash, and lactose. The combination of the hops with just a little bit of lactose created an unbelievable pineapple aroma. The beer clocked in at 8.1 percent ABV and you would never know it. We actually had to drop that one down to eight-ounce pours only because it was going down way too smooth for the alcohol content. Both beers we actually just recently rebrewed but had to slightly tweak due to ingredient availability so be on the lookout for them as The Grasshopper Lies Heavy and Screaming Space Cowboy.
ELI: With local brewers like Sand City, Root + Branch, Destination Unknown, and now you making desired hoppy beers, we’re seeing Long Island becoming somewhat of an IPA destination. Do you agree?
KS: I think Long Island is already a serious IPA destination. The more breweries that pop up on the local radar, the more it makes people pay attention to what’s going on here. On top of those breweries you’ve got places all over the island like Barrier in Oceanside who are also cranking out absolutely stellar IPAs of all kinds. The market is growing for these high-quality IPAs that aren’t that bitterness assault on your palette that was once associated with the style. People are really starting to take notice and I know I’m not the only place where those styles are the top seller.
ELI: It’s virtually impossible to think of any small American brewer making NEIPAs and not putting them in 16-ounce cans. Is there a plan to can at some point?
KS: Of course. It’s tough right now having just started out and needing all of our beer for tasting-room sales. We’ve even had to hold off on allowing Crowler and growler fills just so that we have enough for all of our customers coming in to try our beers. But we’re aiming to have at least one can release before the end of the summer.
ELI: How often are you brewing?
KS: We’re maxing out production with two beers per week. Sometimes we can get a third in, if we’re lucky. We’re using a five-barrel, two-vessel brewhouse with four fermenters and two brite tanks, with plans for a 10-barrel unitank in the near future.
ELI: How many barrels are you aiming to brew in the first year?
KS: Our original goal was at least 500 barrels but at the current rate we’re going to exceed that, especially once we start canning.
ELI: Will you be distributing any beer to retail locations, or will you focus on own-premise sales and deal directly with customers, a model that an increasing number of craft brewers are using with great success?
KS: Our goal, especially for the first few months, is to sell as much in-house as possible. There’s no better way to control our customers’ experiences with our product then right under our own roof. But once we have some kegs to spare we’ll begin distributing locally.
ELI: One last question: Where do you hope to see your business in, say, the next year or two?
KS: We’re hoping to have a steady stream of can releases as well as increased capacity if it’s right for us. We always want to continue to produce a high-quality, accessible product and we never want to lose sight of that, no matter the production scale.