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Meet Brooklyn’s most accomplished hip-hop record label manager turned brewer

Having ridden freight trains and managed a record label, Brooklyn’s spirited Jesse Ferguson faces his newest adventure: running NYC’s next great brewery and distillery.
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Interboro's Jesse Ferguson

Jesse Ferguson | Photo by Matt Furman

On a recent weekday morning in Brooklyn’s anything-goes East Williamsburg neighborhood, where delivery trucks commandeer bike lanes and forklifts skitter down sidewalks, a potpourri of auto exhaust mingles with steamy corn emanating from a tortilla factory, welding’s metallic tang and … is that apple cider?

The scent wafts from Interboro Spirits & Ales’ stubby brick warehouse, where brewer-distiller Jesse Ferguson— wearing shorts, New Balance sneakers, a hole-pocked Other Half–Trillium T-shirt and the kind of gray-speckled beard you grow when you’re working start-up hours—is Spider-Manning around a copper still, twisting knobs and taking measurements and filling glass jugs with clear distillate. Cider’s excursion into brandy is soundtracked by the still’s hiss and the muddied thump of … what’s that hip-hop track?

“It’s Bushwick Bill and the Geto Boys, ‘Mind Playing Tricks on Me,’” says the 40-year-old Ferguson, lamenting, “I don’t have a real solid sound system yet.”

A killer sound system might seemingly rate low on a brewer’s wish list. Then again, not every brewer ran record labels’ guerrilla promotions, hustled hip-hop mix tapes, hosted a raucous radio show at a punk squat and managed influential underground hip-hop label Definitive Jux. That was before Ferguson swapped beats for beer, becoming founding brewer at New Jersey’s cultish Carton, dialing up Other Half IPAs, and finally going solo with Interboro, delivering flavor-bombed IPAs like La Dee Da Dee (named after the Slick Rick song), punchy pilsners and herbaceous gins. “He has a reputation that precedes him,” says Interboro co-founder Laura Dierks. “He is very good at what he does.”

No matter how massive the speakers, Ferguson’s actions will always speak louder than any song.

Jesse Ferguson

Photo by Matt Furman

 

The Backstory

Ferguson’s parents split when he was young, and he bounced around Colorado’s Front Range, settling in Fort Collins, home to Odell and New Belgium. “Odell 90 Shilling was my dad’s favorite beer,” says Ferguson, whose early taste leaned toward malt liquor.

“My buddy and I would send his older brother to the liquor store to get forties of Olde E. And he’d come out with tall boys of bottle-conditioned Fat Tire and be like, ‘Drink this, it’s better,’” Ferguson recalls. In simpler narratives, the amber ale could kindle a blazing beer career. But not here. “I was 14 or 15 and became a punk,” says Ferguson, his lip bearing a closed piercing’s telltale scar.

He applied to Chicago colleges, but his applications were rejected. “I was like, ‘Screw it, I don’t want to go to college,’” he says. He left to live with his sister in NYC’s nervy mid-1990s East Village, oddjobbing it unloading trucks, skateboarding in anarchist Tompkins Square Park and learning about riding freight trains. Ferguson flew to Europe and rode rails for three months before returning to Denver, where his dad lived. “After about three months I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to go ride freight trains,’” he says.

Interboro Spirits & Ales

Interboro Spirits & Ales | Photo by Matt Furman

He wielded “Crew Change Guide,” a photocopied hobo holy grail that detailed routes and schedules when trains stopped to switch crews. “You could just climb on a train and you’d know where it was going,” he says. Six months of travel freaked out his family. “I’m pretty sure my parents convinced my sister to offer me a place in her apartment if I moved to New York,” Ferguson recalls. He hunkered down in her apartment’s breezeway for about $100 a month, spending a year in college before absconding to travel South America.

The yearlong adventure’s end brought him back to NYC, college and hip-hop. DJ Ese, as Ferguson was known, hosted Droppin’ It on pirate station Steal This Radio, housed in a punk squat until the FCC cut power. “We would basically get high or drunk and have all these crazy emcee kids come in,” he says. He headed street promotions for record labels and made beats and mix tapes, inviting rappers like Aesop Rock to lay original rhymes. “We’d have exclusive tracks on our mix tape that no one else would have,” says Ferguson, who cut tape covers with his now-wife, Sarah, a criminal defense attorney.

Around 1999, he met hip-hop artist El-P and helped launch record label Definitive Jux. He finished school via night classes, graduated in 2004 and rose to general manager, working with wordsmiths like Aesop Rock and Del the Funky Homosapien. Hip-hop was his heartbeat. Beer was in his blood.

“I loved Sixpoint so much,” Ferguson says, name-checking the Brooklyn brewery’s Bengali IPA and Sweet Action cream ale. Beer and music aligned in 2007 when Junk Science— signed to Ferguson’s side label, Embedded—collaborated with Sixpoint on an imperial red ale to celebrate their album, “Gran’dad’s Nerve Tonic.” The brew day spurred Ferguson’s homebrew hobby, facilitated by hops, grain and yeast strains from Sixpoint. “I’d come home and make these great beers. It was like instant fermentation.”

Definitive Jux folded in 2009. Ferguson and his wife shared a brownstone with Sarah’s mom and built a fermentation chamber in the basement. Ferguson found another record label job, but it felt like just that—a job. He dreamed about opening a brewpub with his homebrewing partner, but the hiccup was capital, especially now that they had a son, Will, to support.

Cue Augie Carton. His wife was best friends with Ferguson’s wife. “We ended up in each other’s company a lot, and our common language was a love of hip-hop and cooking,” says Carton, who gifted Ferguson a homebrew kit. “Whenever he’d visit, he’d bring a beer or two along.” Carton worked in film production and also had fallen under beer’s spell. This led to questions, including this one: Why can’t low-alcohol beers be as flavorful as a full-strength IPA? At that time, session IPAs had yet to be codified, so Carton and Ferguson devised an aroma- mobbed daylong drinker, crushable and crazy fragrant.

“Once a week I was brewing pilot batches of Boat [kölsch yeast, German malts, heroic amounts of American hops] on my kitchen stove,” Ferguson recalls. Carton and his cousin decided to open a namesake brewery in New Jersey, tapping Ferguson as head brewer. He apprenticed at Georgia’s Terrapin Beer Co. with brother-in-law Bob Weckback for a crash course in forklifts and carbonation. Back in Brooklyn, Ferguson cleaned kegs at Greenpoint Beer Works, where he met head brewer and future Other Half co-founder Sam Richardson.

“Sam’s deal was that every day I cleaned kegs, I’d get to shadow a brewer,” Ferguson says. The knowledge proved instrumental in summer 2011, when Carton debuted the sessionable Boat and dank 077XX double IPA, joined by culinary experiments like G.O.R.P., modeled after the peanut-chocolate trail mix. “The conception and the figuring out of solutions was what made Jesse a strong collaborative partner,” Carton says.

The hours and commute were long, and Ferguson occasionally curled up in a sleeping bag at Carton after brewery events. The workload was manageable until 2013 and the birth of their daughter, Stella, now 3. “I couldn’t see my family,” he says. So he quit, with a loose strategy to start a brewery.

Interboro Spirits & Ales

Photo by Matt Furman

To pay bills, he brewed pungent double IPAs at Other Half while ironing out a business plan with family acquaintance Dierks, who harbored distillery dreams. Ferguson learned the trade by taking a distilling course in Kentucky.

Blending a brewery and distillery into one business would demonstrate to drinkers that beer and whiskey—long separated by history and regulation—both begin as grain, yeast and water. Moreover, it would mean that Jesse could indulge his passion for making beer while the whiskey aged.

Interboro, named after a bygone Brooklyn brewery, took root in a former wood flooring company. The brewery’s taproom opened last September, its lineup mixing house gin and tonics with hazy, fruit-drenched IPAs like Here Come the Drums—a nod to Public Enemy’s “Can’t Truss It”—and The Next Episode, referencing Dr. Dre.

Ferguson’s beer resonates like a bass line. “His output thus far has been topnotch,” says Beer Street general manager Cory Bonfiglio. “I’m looking forward to more examples of his creativity as they grow into their new home.” Credit goes to his calm, selfassured control of brewing, says Threes head brewer Greg Doroski. “Something that’s striking is his understated confidence. He clearly knows what he’s talking about, but he doesn’t need to prove it to you. That’s refreshing.”

As a pedigreed Northeast brewery, it would be easy to can cloudy IPAs and call it a day. But Interboro also excels at saisons, pilsners and wild ales, with canned cocktails eyeballed for the future. Flavors are huge, batches small, the tasting room’s turntables loaded with choice LPs. “I don’t want to be the proprietor of a place that’s pumping out that serious volume,” Ferguson says. It’s the same DIY ditty he’s spun for decades; the latest remix is really not too different.

“People defined their lives with niche, underground hip-hop or punk,” he says. “It wasn’t just what you listened to; it became who you were. It’s happening in beer.”

 

Author
Joshua M. Bernstein is the author of “The Complete Beer Course” and runs homebrew tours in New York City.

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