Building a Brewery From Scratch

“People want to see hard work, they don’t want to see a new brewery show up. They want to see something that grew from a seed,” says Rich Castagna, founder, owner and brewer of Bridge and Tunnel Brewery in Queens. This philosophy could not be more true in his case. Castagna and his family have built every piece of his new brewery, set to open very soon, and have been sharing every step of the progress with fans.

We hear about breweries opening and expanding all the time, even in New York City where real estate prices are high and the bureaucratic hurdles are many. If you follow established breweries on social media, you’ll often see photos of glittering stainless steel tanks being dropped into a brewery. But brewery construction is more demanding than most of us can imagine. Small brewers without adequate funding to hire workers can face intense physical labor just to get the operation ready for the also physically demanding job of brewing beer we all love. For fans of small breweries, there is a sense of community and excitement when they open or expand.

We’ve had an unusually candid look into this process from Castagna. Those who follow the brewery on Facebook have had a rare glimpse into what building a brewery on your own can look like. Castagna opened Bridge and Tunnel in his garage in 2012 after quietly building a 50-gallon system over a three-year period. He feared the negative opinion that might come from with brewing out of his garage, and even turned down interviews to keep the location of the brewery under wraps. Once the story got out, he was surprised by the positive reaction. He then started posting pictures on Facebook, and a loyal following has grown. “If I post a picture of me digging or being at my worst I’ll get more comments. People love that stuff and seeing the inner workings of things,” Castagna notes.

Over the phone after a brew day in his garage, Castagna tells BeerUnion, “it was a good brew but my spine feels like jelly” and laughs. This is a normal day for Castagna. He and his family run this brewery. There are no assistant brewers. No partners. No investors.

“The brewery isn’t a deep pocketed project, it is just me and my wife. So I have to stretch every dollar. If I have to learn a new skill like jack hammering, whatever it takes, if it means I can save money by doing it myself…I have to do it myself and have my hands in every process.” That means after jack hammering through two layers of concrete for trenches and drains, Castagna had to clear ten thousand pounds of rubble away in milk crates after raking through the stones and dirt in sweltering summer heat.

“My state of mind was tanking,” Castagna recalls. When it came to cementing over the trenches, Castagna mixed two thousand pounds of cement by hand to avoid the expense of a mixer. “I felt like it was hard labor in Siberia or something. I mixed two thousand pounds by hand in a fifteen-hour day. The next three to four days my forearms were totally worn out.”

At low moments, Castagna turns to his loyal fans to help get him through it. Like the positive feedback he gets at a beer festival, the Facebook comments are encouraging. “Facebook comments help a lot. When people go out of the way with a sentence or two it means a lot. I go to bed every day or every other day with a heavy heart. And I’ll wake up the next day with a different attitude. I’ll be back in the ring the next day.”

Why do fans love to see Castagna and his family building brewing equipment or clearing rubble from the brewery? “Craft beer is supposed to be about getting back to craft,” Castagna says. “I feel it is a throwback to the way businesses used to be built. This country was built by a lot of mom and pop businesses.”

The relationships and response that have helped sustain Castagna through the buildout of the brewery are what he looks forward to most about having a taproom. “I love interacting with people and shooting the shit,” says Castagna. “It helps you get back in the ring when you know that people are loving it.”

All photos courtesy of Bridge and Tunnel’s Facebook page

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