Home Beer Meet NYC’s draft beer whisperer

Meet NYC’s draft beer whisperer

CATEGORIES: Beer   Feature  

In my many years of drinking, few beer shops filled me with so much fear, and so much knowledge, as Brooklyn’s Bierkraft. Initially, it seemed more mom-and-pop than imposing. Bierkraft (now shuttered) encompassed several scrawny aisles, plus a wall of beer fridges, a kitchen, picnic tables and well-chosen drafts and casks sold by the growler to stay or go. But only, as I learned during one mid-aughts visit, in the right jug.

“We can’t fill that,” a staffer sighed, channeling the know-it-all record-store clerks in “High Fidelity.” My cheeks burned red. He pointed to my swing-cap vessel, then a wide-mouth jug sealed with a tight-fitting plastic cap. “We fill our growlers under counter pressure.” Counter what? Counter pressure, he explained, pumps in CO2 and expunges destructive oxygen, ensuring fresh, gassed-up beer for days or weeks. Someone, I realized, gave a damn about good beer. “I put the system together so you drink beer the exact way the brewer intended,” Ben Granger, the man behind that draft setup, says. “It’s out of respect for the brewer.”

It’s tough to find a beer figure more respected or integral to the Big Apple’s daily brew flow than Granger, 38. With hoop earrings, a backward baseball hat, well-worn work pants and blunt honesty, he’s not standing behind a bar, doling out smiles and sours. He’s a behind-the-scenes do-it-all, digging into his toolkit to create Covenhoven’s growler-filling system, fine-tune Threes Brewing’s temperature-specific taps and turn a length of black walnut into Strong Rope Brewery’s draft panel. Or maybe he’ll build Greenpoint Beer Works’ bar, before changing Other Half’s air compressor motors and custom-building jockey boxes. It’s a get-’er-done method dubbed the Granger Way. “You throw a problem at him, and that’s the last you hear about it until the problem is solved,” says Matt Monahan, co-founder of Brooklyn’s Other Half Brewing, later adding, “He took beer seriously way before anyone else did.”

Granger was always good with his hands. Reared in rural Mexico, New York, in apple country some 45 minutes north of Syracuse, he helped his dad, a retired union carpenter who also made sauerkraut, build his childhood home. “I spent my youth working with tools,” says Granger, who moved to Florida at 20, toiling as a short-order cook. Hump-busting kitchen work held instant appeal. “It’s a wonderful marriage between brutally hard, hard labor and very soft, creative thinking,” he says. “At the end of every day, I should be exhausted physically and mentally.”

After a relationship boomeranged him back, Granger cooked at Syracuse’s Empire Brewing, then a fine dining restaurant. On New Year’s Day, 2001, Granger took his knives to NYC, buying a cot and bunking in a buddy’s apartment. Sort of. “I literally lived in that dude’s closet for nine months,” says Granger, who grabbed a gig at an Australian restaurant. Reality hit him like a frying pan. In NYC, “there was no room for a kid from upstate New York to be a sous chef,” he says. While he lacked formal training, Granger’s grit caught the head chef’s attention. To aid his education, she suggested he cook in Europe, and her connections led to a stint at Spain’s molecular gastronomy beacon Arzak.

Back again in NYC, Granger shelved his wanderlust and settled at Town, a fine dining restaurant that specialized in pastry and cheese. He learned. He perfected. He quit. “I was starting to feel stifled,” Granger explains. It took four days to realize that free time was not his friend. “All I did was drink,” Granger says. “For me, it’s really about stimulation. I need problems or a hectic environment.”

Stimulation came calling. It was 2005, and a roommate was working at Bierkraft, then also a specialty grocer. It tapped Granger’s cheese expertise. He planned to work there a few months, tops, when owners Daphne and Richard Scholz offered an ownership stake. (Let’s pause to note that, while later renovating an apartment for his partners, Granger met their daughter, Serena—now his wife.) Soon, Granger suggested filling growlers, letting them sell draft-only breweries such as (at that time) Brooklyn’s Sixpoint. Richard remarked that growlers should be counter-pressure filled. “I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea,’” Granger says. “Then I spent the next six months building the first machine.”

Photo by Matt Furman for DRAFT

Photo by Matt Furman for DRAFT

His contraption launched a local revolution. “When we started selling growlers, we effectively changed how New Yorkers consumed beer,” Granger says, adding that Whole Foods and pharmacies quickly climbed aboard the growler bandwagon. He expanded drafts, complemented by cask pumps concocted from skateboard parts and dairy equipment, and created a portable “hop cannon,” allowing folks to instant-infuse beer with aromatics.

“That crazy draft system was a great learning tool,” says former Bierkraft employee Chris Balla, currently beverage director at Brooklyn’s Grand Army and Mile End, who praises Granger as a great mentor. From learning to break down boxes, clean tap lines or interact with customers, Granger “set an example that you work harder than anyone else,” Balla says. “He taught us to be self-sufficient,” says former employee James Case, now Covenhoven’s cellar manager. If you just started a job and did something wrong, Case explains, most people would tell you that’s OK. “Ben was like, ‘Don’t do that.’ Expectations were raised.”

Under Granger’s watch, Bierkraft became Brooklyn’s nerve center of fermentation, education and culinary experimentation. It hosted weekly beer tastings, meetings for the fermentation-focused Brooklyn Rot group and pickups for an illegal raw-milk club. In the backyard, Granger organized cask ale and oyster fests, grew hops and brewed on a 10-gallon system, inviting customers and coworkers to join. From creating bratwurst to kombucha, kimchee to hot sauce, no undertaking was too daunting. “To quote one of my favorite employees, ‘Let’s just get weird,’” Granger says of his philosophy.

Nothing was weirder than the sandwich specials. You could grab an Italian sub layered with store-roasted ham, but there were also strange birds like Everyone Knows the First Becky Was the Best Becky, inspired by a remark about a “Roseanne” actress who lived nearby. “Creativity would spring from an awkward interaction that would manifest itself in food,” says Granger, who concocted a loose-meat sandwich and nacho-style gooey cheese hewn from double-cream Brie and Gouda stabilized with gueuze and barleywine. “We solved our problems with engineering and mechanics,” Granger says.

After nearly a decade at Bierkraft, Granger faced an unfixable problem: burnout. “I’d grown exhausted with dealing with consumers,” says Granger, by then a dad to sons Kenyon and Raoul. In 2014, Granger left Bierkraft and founded Pearl Black, a one-man shop for back-of-the-house beer needs. “When people have a problem or can’t figure out how to make something work, I get a phone call,” he says. His favorites concern designing and installing draft systems pressure-calibrated to showcase beer styles. “Carbonation is the forgotten ingredient in beer,” Granger says, explaining that a higher pressure intensifies floral aromatics and bitterness, giving the perception of dryness—ideal for many modern IPAs. “We’re the last point of contact before consumption and, in this day and age, the review,” Granger says, adding with a laugh, “It’s a strange thing to be obsessed about.”

Today, his obsession has become his career, installing growler-filling stations and draft systems from Philadelphia to Brooklyn. When not working, he’s creating, tending to his flower garden, making copper jewelry, teaching himself welding or building a gong from a 1970s Belgian keg. “My neighbors will come by, and there will be two children running around, acting crazy, while I’m running an arc welder in the driveway,” Granger says. But when the call comes—and the calls always come—Granger is ready to respond. “When there’s a problem at the brewery, there’s almost always a crisis,” he says. “I operate very well when there’s a crisis. I think, ‘How many ways can we solve this?’”


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


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One Comment

  • Andrew Davis says:

    Great article – I have tried to search Pearl Black but without success; how can I get in touch with Ben Granger?


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