There’s a new nomadic brewer on Long Island, adding to the area’s clutch of itinerant beer makers.
Rob Raffa, who was the head brewer at Moustache in Riverhead for nearly five years, has founded übergeek Brewing Company. For his startup beer business, he has chosen a practice with less financial commitment than the conventional model of opening a brewery, which requires expensive infrastructure. Instead, like something of a WeWork setup for brewing, he will use other breweries’ equipment to produce his beer.
This practice, known as nomadic brewing, or gypsy brewing, has become an increasingly popular way of working for nascent beer makers looking to build a reputation while keeping overhead low. It can also serve as a springboard to getting a brick-and-mortar facility.
Several nomadic brewers are based on Long Island, including one of its most elite practitioners, Root + Branch, which has garnered high praise for its hazy IPAs and, building on that momentum, is currently constructing a brewery and taproom in Copiague. HopWin’s and Twin Fork make its beers at local established breweries while working to open facilities in Bay Shore and Riverhead, respectively. The well-regarded Nightmare Brewing is run by Billy Powell, a former brewer at Northport’s Sand City.
On a recent afternoon, Raffa, who lives in South Jamesport, said that his goal is to build a hometown brewery. By making beer itinerantly, it allows him to test the market’s reaction with minimized risk before he makes that investment. “This way offers proof of concept,” he said. “I can see if people dig my stuff before I decide to dive in.”
There may be uncertainty in the dig and the dive, but your first chance to drink übergeek is definitely now, and I recommend it. Early this month, at a pop-up event at Craft Growler Bar & Bottle Shop in Port Jefferson, Raffa released two solid, enjoyable beers, and they can be found on draft and in 16-ounce cans at select bars and beer stores on the island: space age times, stone age minds, a New England-style IPA with appealing peach and tropical fruit flavors, soft carbonation, and a slightly creamy texture; and dealing with dissonance, a dark sour ale made with tamarind, ginger, and lime. This was my favorite of the two, a fun, interesting offering with well-integrated aromas and flavors.
To produce these beers, Raffa rented time and space at Riverhead’s North Fork Brewing, where we chatted about his background and plans. The conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Edible Long Island: How did you first get interested in brewing?
Rob Raffa: I got home from college and a buddy of mine was really into doing beer tastings at his house. Probably like three sessions in, I was hooked and wanted to know how this stuff was made. And after one terrible attempt at a Mr. Beer kit, I fell down the brewing rabbit hole of trying to figure out what went wrong, which now looking back everything went wrong with it. [Laughs.]
ELI: What are some of the beers that influenced you when you were starting out?
RR: Victory’s Storm King imperial stout, it let me know that breaking the yellow fizz mold is possible. Russian River Consecration was the first wild, sour beer I had, and it blew my mind.
ELI: You were the head brewer at Moustache for nearly five years. What are some of the most important takeaways from your experience, and how have you’ve applied them to your own brewing business?
RR: I was lucky to get into Moustache when the brewery was still young. I think I came onboard when it was only six months old and stayed there for nearly five years. I was able to see a brewery go through the stages of growth, instead of jumping into an already established brewery. I got to see the highs and lows of trying to carve out a piece of the local craft scene. I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t. I had been doing the head brewer job for about a year or so before getting promoted to the title. So three years deep into being a head brewer the biggest lessons I learned were, one, no matter how many times you lie to yourself there is always so much more to learn. I went through this platteau and realization at least five times, and still do. Two, brand identity is absolutely necessary in the current market. And three, networking is everything. This community is full of wonderful people that want to help and engage with what you’re doing.
ELI: You spoke a little bit about this before, but why was nomadic brewing the right path for you?
RR: Honestly, the market is getting real crowded and attempting to make unorthodox beer in a full-scale operation is a risky endeavor, especially if you’re trying to nail your identity from the onset. This model allows me to go absolutely wild and see what sticks without risking the employment and livelihood of a full staff.
ELI: Do you see this way of working continuing to gain popularity among small, startup brewing businesses?
RR: Definitely. It makes sense for a brewer just trying to start out and for an established one that has spare fermenter space.
ELI: Now, one of the very first things you said to me today—completely unprompted, by the way—was that the company and beer names are intentionally lowercase. Why is that?
RR: It kinda just fell out of discovering the brand identity. Originally I was gonna go with “UberGeek”, but then once I saw “übergeek” all lowercase, I knew it needed to be a common theme moving forward.
ELI: What’s the story behind the übergeek name?
RR: It started out as the name of my homebrew operation. “über” because I’m real German and “geek” because I have a love affair with sci-fi. Also, I spent eight years in college studying math, physics, and astrophysics prior to diving into the brewing world.
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It's Friday. Bring your thirst. Draft + Mobile Can Drop at @craftportjeff 3pm-7pm TODAY. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ DDH NEIPA – "space age times, stone age minds" – 8.2% ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ DARK SOUR w/ Tamarind, Lime, and Ginger – "dealing with dissonance" – 8.4% ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #ubergeek #ubergeekbrewing
ELI: How did the opportunity to brew at North Fork present itself?
RR: I had already departed from Moustache and my former assistant Peter Barraud, who owns North Fork, was helping me find a brick and mortar. After a bit of poking around, nothing felt just right, and I knew I just needed to at least get my foot in the door. Peter and I decided that me brewing out of his existing space would work to get me out in the market without feeling forced into a space that didn’t work for me. This is now giving me more time to find the perfect spot while still keeping the ball rolling.
ELI: How is the experience of working on someone else’s equipment? Do you plan to continue making beer at North Fork, or are you open to traveling to different breweries, like some nomadic brewers do?
RR: If I was working on anyone else’s equipment, it would be nerve-wracking as hell. Fortunately, the cleanliness practices at North Fork are almost identical to that of Moustache due to our roots. But it took me maybe two brews to feel comfortable running North Fork’s system alone. I’ll be making beer on it until my facility is found and built. In the meantime, I’ll definitely travel around a bit for some dope collaborations.
ELI: Tell us more about the beers you’ll be making. Will you have a particular focus, or will you offer a wide range of styles? How often will you brew and release beers? Will you package everything you make in cans?
RR: Everything will be canned and dropped monthly. I’m not a fan of beer styles. Sure, they’re a great place to start as a foundation, but if you’re trying to do something different, you need to get away from working within the confines of style. There’s a caveat to this, though, to those new to brewing. Start with styles. Nail them. There are many great examples out there of stylistic beer. Nailing these will hone your brewing chops. Then, you can break the rules. I make beer that forces me to feel uncomfortable. Meaning, that I never want to be in a place where I’m brewing something or doing a technique that I’ve done a hundred times over. If I’m not experimenting with some aspect of each new beer then I’m not exploring the boundaries of myself and the palates of my customers.
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Hey there, space cadets. Landing this Saturday at @northforkbrewingco, is our collaboration beer – in honor of the 50th anniversary of our first lunar visit! We're overjoyed to have our first beer line up so well with this momentous occasion. Also, so stoked that we were able to snag this bombastic collaboration with the @northforkbrewingco crew. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ 🚀🌛🍨 ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ "First Step, First Leap" 3.9% ABV – reminiscent of dehydrated space ice cream, we created a Berliner Weisse with flavors of tart Strawberries and Vanilla. It's light on the palate, refreshing, and sure to satisfy your summer sweet tooth. #ubergeekbrewing #northforkbrewingcompany
ELI: What kind of feedback have you received about your first beers?
RR: Releasing these has been the most humbling experience of my life. I was optimistic that the beers would be received well, but I had no idea that people would be out there hunting for them right out of the gate. This feedback is just fueling my desire to keep pushing and evolving.
I wanted space age times, stone age minds to be an IPA that was bright, juicy, and higher in ABV but also still retain good drinkability. I ended up getting this wonderful stone fruit and tropical character. I just brewed it again the other day and it’s even better than the first batch. For dealing with dissonance, I built this beer base off my love of the oud bruin style. Mixing in elements from some wonderful cocktails that I’ve had gave birth to this tart dark sour. I incorporated tamarind, lime, and ginger. The flavors play off of each other very well, creating many layers of complex flavor.
ELI: One last question: Do you have an idea of when you want to stop brewing nomadically and open your own space, being that’s your objective?
RR: Aiming for a tasting room in less than a year and a brewery in two years.