The migratory patterns of fin whales—also known as finback or razorback whales—draw the gray behemoths across the oceans, from the icy waters of Antarctica to the coasts of the northeastern United States. In late 2012, one finback in particular found itself a little too close to the U.S. shore and became stranded on Breezy Point, a beach in Queens, New York. Tragic as the whale’s situation was, its timing was auspicious. After months of searching for a space for their new brewery, homebrew buddies Basil Lee and Kevin Stafford had just landed on a location a few blocks away. The pair—both of whom grew up in coastal states and wanted a nautical or marine-based moniker for their brand—adopted the beached whale’s name and image for their brewery.
The first Finback beer crossed the bar in January 2014, and in a time span that also saw the openings of New York beer darlings Other Half, Threes and Big Alice, Finback made its mark not by honing in on a particular beer or style, but by being reliably unreliable in terms of what it put into the world. One release may feature an imperial stout or black gose aged in the brewery’s platoon of 300 oak bourbon and wine barrels; the next could be a cherrywood- smoked English mild or an IPA made solely with melony Meridian hops. Lee and Stafford may brew the same beer twice, but don’t count on it.
“Variety is the thing that’s our trademark,” says Lee. “A lot of breweries now brew a lot of different things, but the focus might be on farmhouse ales or something like that. We’re not necessarily focused on one style, but we want to do a lot of rotating things that are interesting.”
This imaginative approach stems from the founders’ homebrew backgrounds as well as their former careers: Lee was an architect; Stafford, a graphic designer. It also leads to impressive diversity, even in beers of the same style. Blind-taste three Finback IPAs side by side and you’d likely have a hard time believing they all came from the same brewery.
“For us, it’s not about this idea of honing in on beers,” Lee says. “It’s much more about creativity, and using the brewery as an outlet for that.”
Case in point: Oscillation, Finback’s series of rotating IPAs, features experimental hop varieties, novel hop combinations—and, sometimes, different malts—with each new release.
But distinctive as each version may be from the other, the 60-barrel batch generally sells out in days, with crowds gathering at Finback each weekend. The large, industrial, shabby-chic taproom has become a focal point in Queens, as integral to its history as the whale that beached itself years ago.
Lee’s 3 Finback beers to try
“This is the imperial stout we make with chocolate and coffee and age in bourbon barrels. The name references the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, so we always try to get locally processed coffee from Brooklyn and chocolate from Queens, or vice versa. It’s very balanced; the bourbon character is there but not over the top; the dark fruit, aged character is there but not over the top. A lot of times people respond to things that are just super-bold. We try to get a little bit of boldness, but also some elegance.”
“The idea for Red Shift was a winter sour. We did this one with cranberry and yuzu—I always associate cranberry with the holidays. A lot of our sours have names with sci-fi connections; redshift is the phenomenon that happens when a star moves away from you.”
“This is our rotating IPA series, which we make with different hops, and sometimes different malts. We try to do a new Oscillation every few months, and each time we reference the recipe of the last batch, so there’s a lineage between them.”