There is one thing newborn businesses have in common with teenage garage bands: picking a name can be even harder than getting started. (Also bad hair, increasingly.) You want something that leaves an impression, something distinctive, but nine times out of ten you come up with something derivative. You doodle pages and pages of logos in a notebook — clever names, edgy names, simple names. You want something that’s honest, but you also want people to choose you out of throngs of others.
In no private business sector does this similarity ring truer than in the craft beer industry, because unlike, say, a health insurance company, a brewery’s name can be anything. Left Hand. Sly Fox. Rogue. Clever, edgy, simple — but most importantly, unique, and now especially, that’s where it really gets hard. More than 3,000 craft breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs make for an improbably crowded Battle of the Brands. And then there’s the entirely separate question of whether or not you can slam.
Perhaps that’s why many are taking a simple approach: naming their brand after their street, their neighborhood, or their city. That’s what’s done in New York, anyway; that’s why there’s a new Brooklyn-related brand every day. In the past five years, eight of the 19 newly founded New York-based beer producers — breweries, brewpubs, microbreweries and contract brewers — named themselves after a New York City locale.
Save for the Queens Brewery — which uses simple, modern brand language, as opposed to something overtly “diverse” in celebration of what they acknowledge is “the city’s most diverse borough” — each leans on traditional perceptions of its home: a grinning clown on each bottle of Coney Island Lager, a silhouetted surfer adorning all of Rockaway‘s brand language, and throwback Harlem Renaissance imagery spread over most of Harlem Brewery’s merchandise. It’s a godsend to have over a century of neighborhood history from which to pick out your brand identity, while your competitors try to decide between a mascot and an ink stamp. But falling back on the broad strokes of tradition — jazzy “Harlem Renaissance” Harlem, kitschy classic Coney Island, paradisiacal Rockaway Beach — risks limiting a brand and constricting consumers’ expectations to whatever that tradition entails. Familiarity sells; but does it short sell the brewer and its neighbors? Do broad strokes put the brand before the beer, or are they an afterthought to brewers and drinkers alike?
“What’s important is that I’ve given this neighborhood a beer they can call their own.” – Juan Camillo
For the Bronx Brewery and Dyckman Beer Company, two brewers that receive a good deal of attention in uptown Manhattan and, increasingly, the rest of the city, the answer is to paint with as few strokes possible, at least initially. Both take little more than a name and some select iconography from their surroundings — Bronx merchandise used to feature industrial distress and Gothic lettering, though their more recent brand language is more simplified; Dyckman’s six-pack bears the Dominican phrase “Una Vaina Bien” (“good stuff”, essentially), and the company logo is an image of the iconic Henry Hudson Bridge connecting Manhattan and the Bronx. One brewery takes after the city’s geographically largest borough, while the other is fixed on a single street. Dyckman street itself is home to a bright commercial strip where several Dominican-owned businesses thrive, along with the newly opened Tryon Public House — owned by one of the Bronx Brewery’s founding members, it’s a pub where Bronx and Dyckman beers share space on the tap.
What they share in tap space, they share in philosophy as well: to both the Bronx Brewery’s general manager Chris Gallant and Dyckman Beer Company’s founder Juan Camillo, a name is mostly a jumping-off point. For Gallant, “It’s about simplicity. There are no cutesy names; we don’t name the beers, like, Yellow Tree or Funky Banana… People in the Bronx are pretty straightforward, right? And that’s what our beers are like; so if you go to the store, you know exactly what you are getting. You’re getting pale ale from the Bronx Brewery, or you’re getting a session IPA, or the Belgian pale.” Likewise, Camillo contends that while “craft beer itself is inspired by people, by culture, and by flavor”, when it comes to the question of holding to some notion of the street’s identity, he feels no pressure. “I control the company. The only pressure comes from me”, he says.
There’s a reason the Bronx Brewery never named a beer after hip hop or salsa or J-Lo or Yankee Stadium, and why Dyckman Beer Company nods to its heritage without bowing to it: the beer means more than the name.
It would be alarming to find that either brewer feels no affinity for their namesakes whatsoever, and thankfully this isn’t the case. Both founders of the Bronx Brewery, Niall Henry and Steve O’Sullivan, are born-and-raised Bronxites, while Camillo was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up bouncing between northern Manhattan and the Bronx, where he now resides, near Yankee Stadium — a story familiar to anyone who knows either area. And both acknowledge the significance of a name: Camillo says his beers “tell the story of the people of Dyckman”, while Gallant notes that “A lot of the folks that buy beer take a lot of pride in the fact that it’s a brewery in their borough. [They’re] definitely New Yorkers, but they’re first and foremost Bronxites… When you talk to someone from the Bronx, they identify themselves like, ‘Hey, I’m from the Bronx’ — it’s not ‘Hey, I’m from New York.'”
Accordingly, while the Bronx Brewery “doesn’t try to be everything for everyone”, in Gallant’s words, the company does make a continuous effort to give back to the borough by donating to charities like South Bronx United, a soccer-based after-school program that supports mostly first-generation South Bronx children up through high school and into college prep, along with donating beer to events at local museums and lowering prices in the taproom for locals on certain weeknights.
For Camillo, who’s working his way through the contract brewing phase, “What’s important is that I’ve given this neighborhood [Washington Heights and Inwood] a beer they can call their own.” And with his six first-ever seasonals on the way — including a Belgian tripel ale and a “Café con Leche” milk stout brewed with Cafe Bustelo coffee, a staple both in bodegas and Latin households all across the country — that’ll mean very much to very many. These two brewers prove that beyond branding and name recognition, breweries can do right by their communities by simply continuing to be a part of them.
As for how that translates beyond the breweries and their neighborhoods: that’s more complicated. Starting out, Gallant says Bronx Brewery drew comparisons to the Brooklyn Brewery “because we were one of the first breweries to open with a geographic name in the city… comparisons that I will take gladly because Brooklyn Brewery is a great brewery.” He and his partners went door to door delivering the beer themselves, till the brewery finally expanded and developed a reputation; but now, “Everyone has heard of us, and so when there are always new breweries coming up, we’re three and a half years old, and we’re old news in some circles.” Out of necessity this has led the brewery to diversify their offerings beyond their flagship pale ale, which benefited from the sustained IPA boom of recent years, into more versatile styles, such as their new tequila-barrel-aged dark ale and continuing spring hopback series, an ongoing collaboration with farms in the state of New York.
Meanwhile, Camillo faces the challenge of type casting, as news outlets covering his business tend toward fixating on his Latin-ness a little more than his beer. But he doesn’t think much of it. “It is what it is”, he says. “People will brand you right away with that, but it’s the truth: I am Dominican… it is a big factor with my recipes, and my recipe development. But it doesn’t define me at all. If I was that adamant about making a Hispanic beer company, that’s what I’d have called it: Hispanic Beer Company. But I think once people see the different styles that are rolling out, they’ll see that it’s not just a Hispanic beer company, so to speak.” Indeed, while the Café con Leche stout was warmly received at New York Beer Week and the flagship pilsner is widely drunk abroad in the Dominican Republic, his upcoming seasonals include a sour and a witbier, which should appease beer geeks along with the tripel. Overall, Camillo believes people are just excited to see something different. Being a Latin brewery gets people through the door, but having good beer is what makes them stay. In other words: shut up and play the hits, but include some deeper cuts for the fans.
Like garage bands, brewers start out replicating what they know and like, and therein lies a brewer’s most earnest period, which can stretch anywhere between the homebrewing phase to getting a first tap at a local bar. For Camillo, the inspiration was Allagash White; Gallant maintains that “Our beers are beers that we like to drink” — that is, pale ales. Both breweries have their styles, but they’re moving beyond them. The necessary challenge is that tricky act of crossing the familiar with the unfamiliar — a milk stout brewed with a beloved Latin coffee, or a dark ale aged in tequila barrels. It’s like saying you’re into Nirvana: you’re in good company there, but no one really wants to hear another “Come As You Are” cover — unless you’ve got a truly creative spin on it, in which case people are all ears.
Similarly, there’s a reason the Bronx Brewery never named a beer after hip hop or salsa or J-Lo or Yankee Stadium, and why Dyckman Beer Company nods to its heritage without bowing to it: the beer means more than the name. Today the hope is that the beer boosts the name, the name boosts the brand, and the brand boosts the beer; the chain starts and ends with beer, and ultimately falls apart if that one link isn’t strong. Just ask our friends in the Bronx.