Is your refrain borrowed from this online site: “Ninety-nine bottles of blah beer in your fridge, all of which hold zip appeal. You take one out, put it back with a pout, ninety-nine bottles of blah beer in your fridge?” The well-versed upstarts at the Yonkers Brewing Company have made it possible to change your drinking tune. Hopped up on turning micro brewing on its head, John Rubbo, 31, and Nick Califano, 29, launched into craft beer light. After perfecting recipes with the help of a master brewer at home tasting parties and getting area restaurants to tap in, the local boys received a small business loan of $50,000 from Community Capital NY to open a brewery in their hometown of Yonkers, the first since prohibition.
Their small batch debuts—Summer Wit with pear juice, a honey-tinged amber ale, and a hoppy vanilla Belgian—use ingredients in heretically light and delicious drafts. They source as many ingredients as possible from local micro outfits like Hummingbird Honey and from another Community Capital NY loan client, hops farmer Westtown Brew Works. Find Yonkers Lager on tap at almost 40 bars and restaurants, including Modern Barn in Armonk and the Fish and the Farmer in North Salem, and their own Yonkers location at 92 Main Street: www.yonkersbrewing.com.
How did you get into the craft beer business?
John: Nick and I come from Italian families, both of us born and raised in Yonkers. We used to yell at each other in rival kid groups. We bumped into each other, and, having lost track of who our ‘enemies’ were, found out that we both grew up crunching grapes and making wine in our basements with our grandfathers. But we drank beer. So we tried to clone a Sam Adams and it sort of sparked something for us. There are so many craft breweries in the Midwest, and there were in Yonkers, too until prohibition. Back then Doug Shultz ran lines of beer into Yonkers through the sewer systems, piping it into speak easies using gravity. We liked the idea of reviving the tradition of Yonkers beer.
Nick: It’s still early in the craft brewery business and the palette is not really as developed. Midwestern craft brews really punch you in the mouth. We wanted to bring craft beer to everyday beer drinkers, to bridge the gap between highbrow craft beer and macro beers like Anheuser-Busch and Coors Light.
How did you get your business off the ground?
John: We approached the business as consumers. We wanted a beer dark in color but light on the palette, a very approachable beer that was a transition to craft beers not yet in the market. We brought in a professionally-trained brewer to create the color, taste and profile we wanted.
Nick: A beer that doesn’t linger with you too long, especially if you are used to drinking Main Street beers.
John: We built a brand, bringing in a mindset and ideas to create these very cool recipes and did it on a shoestring budget. We’re still small. We still make deliveries and brew out of a shop in Connecticut while we gear up in Yonkers.
Nick: We’re self-distributing, going from Poughkeepsie to Queens and into Rockland County.
How did your business evolve?
John: It was surprisingly easy and comforting to borrow money from Community Capital NY. A month and a half. That was a great experience.
Nick: Holly (Perlowitz, Small Business Loan Manager) emails every week just checking in. It’s the kind of support you would never get from any bank. We got a $50,000 loan from Community Capital, a loan from Hudson River Ventures, and are working with the City of Yonkers economic development funds to open a brewery, making draft beer with a retail component featuring a tasting room and bar, creating an experience. We’re in it to bring craft beer to the community, and help the city with jobs and bring people back to Yonkers and bring Yonkers back to the greatness it had in the day.
John: Our first name was the Hudson Brewing Company, encompassing a bigger footprint. Then we felt we were losing where we came from. We believe in Yonkers. Yonkers is a brand and there’s nothing really attached to it.
What’s the best advice you got along the way?
Nick: It’s very easy to be an entrepreneur and give your dream away to someone with deep pockets and come out with 10-15% of your business. We opted to keep it instead.
John: ‘Don’t do it.’ When people told us that it just motivated us to prove them wrong. And to go with your gut and trust our decisions. You get to look back and reevaluate your decisions, but for the business to work, they have to be ours.
What would you do differently in hindsight?
Nick: We didn’t realize how much work there was in opening a brewery. Learning everything along the way is part of it. You think you know business until you start your own. Business is really the nitty gritty. It’s part of the experience.
When did you know you’d arrived?
John: Finding Yonkers Lager on tap at a New York City bar.
Nick: Seeing Yonkers Lager on a chalkboard in a midtown bar around the corner from where I used to work in finance and thinking ‘Oh my god, I built something.’ But I’ll feel like I’ve made it when I’m on a beach one day and someone opens a cooler and pulls out one of my beers.
John: Bottling. We’re working on the labels.