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Holy Hops, the Dynamic Brewmaster Duo of DJ Swanson & Joe Hayes Team Up at Greenport Harbor Brewing Company

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The North Fork of Long Island fixture Greenport Harbor Brewing Company will be hosting the grand opening of their new Peconic brewery on July 12, 2014. While this massive brewery growth (which will eventually include a restaurant) is big news, there’s an expansion going on behind the scenes too. DJ Swanson, head brewer since Greenport’s inception 5 years ago, is being joined on the island’s east end by Joe Hayes, former brewmaster at Black Forest Brew Haus in Farmingdale. To say the pair is happy about the union might be a bit of an understatement.

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Recently we stopped by both the new GHBC Peconic location and the original downtown Greenport outpost. The goal was two-fold for us-check out the new brewery and have a chance to talk with two of the most entertaining people brewing on Long Island: DJ and Joe. Listening back to our “tape”, there was an obvious air of excitement in the brewery. In fact, the majority of our recording was filled with Swanson and Hayes telling stories, laughing and tossing playful sarcastic barbs toward each other. We knew getting to talk to these two pillars of the Long Island brewing scene would be educational as we traced their paths from start to joined finish, but the sheer joy these two exude makes us extremely excited for what Greenport Harbor Brewing Company has ahead of them.

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Our interview started with Hayes introducing himself as Swanson’s boss and later joking that he would be reprimanded “off the air” for the assertion (all in good fun of course). The two became fast friends after meeting saying, “we both hated everything and everybody and it just clicked.” So like Will Farrell and John C. Reilly’s characters in the 2008 epic “Step Brothers” the pair quickly bonded over a common interest, hate. The chemistry is evident even if you spend a short time around these two established brewmasters whose pasts followed parallel tracks to Greenport Harbor Brewing Company. DJ Swanson says,

“I never had one of those epiphany moments. I always liked beer”

of his brewing history. A Boy Scout trip in 5th grade took young Swanson to the Merrimack Anheuser Busch plant. This was framed as a trip “to see the clydesdales” by the boy’s fathers but today Swanson knows why they were in Merrimack: beer. He was captivated by the smell of the brewing process, starch being extracted from grain and converted into sugar. This was a memory that would stick with him.

Years later, Swanson visited Boston Beer Works before a Red Sox game with his father and was again hit with the aroma of beer being crafted, the mash steeping. These experiences grabbed a hold of him and soon after he bought a homebrew kit and was hooked. Eventually Swanson started his professional career as an assistant brewer at Union Station in Providence, Rhode Island. He spent only a year there before being offered the job of brewmaster at another part of the John Harvard’s brew pub chain, in Lake Grove, New York which he accepted.

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Laughing, Hayes says his brewing history was “nothing as regal as that”. He got to a point in his life, after the realization he was not going to be a professional drummer, where he either had to get a real job to afford beer or start making it himself. He chose the latter. “I wish I could say I was doing it for the palate in the beginning,” says Hayes recounting a trip with his brother and friends to a beer and vodka festival. What was to be a bonding moment ended with him being carried home (which sounds like bonding to us). Originally Hayes was on a quest to make the next Pabst Blue Ribbon, but fate intervened leading him to work in the tasting room of a winery/brewery near Yosemite in his home state of California.

After working there for a time, Hayes unknowingly chatted up the owner about beer and impressed him with both his knowledge and jovial personality. “You know so much why aren’t you making it?” was the question the proprietor had before he promoted Hayes on the spot to head brewer. While maybe not “regal”, Joe’s rapid accession through sheer knowledge and like ability is impressive. Even after this promotion his he was challenged by a girlfriend at the time who asked,

“If you love beer so much why don’t you do that for a living?”

Hayes met that question with a spiteful, life altering “challenge accepted.” To bring this goal to fruition he went on to study at nearby UC Davis, graduatng from the brewmaster program and working with nearby Sudworks Brewery. Shortly after, he was offered a job at the German owned Black Forest Brew Haus in Farmingdale, New York. This brought Hayes both to Long Island and eventually to Swanson.

Once on Long Island, Swanson & Hayes met almost immediately. Swanson recalled, “every festival was basically the same 6 guys pouring beer,” with the brewing community of the early 2000’s being tight-knit. Events and festivals were sometimes hosted as an excuse for brewers to gather and share their beer. Though they were not directly working together, the close friendship they formed (over hate) was maintained and occasionally a collaborative beer or two was produced. Swanson & Hayes both spent the next several years chugging away in their individual corporate brew pub settings, brewing in different methods and styles and gathering knowledge. As time passed both men yearned for a change, feeling they had done all they could in their current situations.

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Swanson moved on first and briefly spent time in pharmaceutical manufacturing in Massachusetts. Hayes told a more colorful tale of that period saying, “don’t let him sugar coat it-he was making drugs.” Unable to sell his home on Long Island, DJ moved back to New York and was put in touch with people who were opening a vodka distillery. Swanson was able to secure employment despite the fact he had never distilled vodka in his life. He did that for a time but missed brewing beer and was put in contact with Rich Vandenburgh and John Liegey of Greenport Harbor Brewing Company by Donovan Hall (of rocky Point Artisan Brewers fame). In the beginning, DJ was a sounding board, an unofficial consultant, answering Liegey and Vandenburgh’s questions. This eventually lead to Liegey and Vandenburgh hiring Swanson as their first and only head brewer. DJ was it from the jump, cleaning and filling kegs, brewing and selling his beer (they did not have a sales guy at that point). Over the next few years staff was brought on and brewer Greg Doroski came and went leaving DJ once again as top cheddar.

Now, with the Greenport Harbor Brewing Company expanding, Swanson needed to find brewer with experience. He and the brewery needed someone who could do the job without any training, who could hit the ground running. Swanson contacted UC Davis for his search hoping to find a candidate who could handle the load and work alongside him. DJ never thought to reach out to local brewers whom he assumed were happy in their current situation. Hayes, being a Davis graduate, saw the ad and had been toying with moving on for some time. He placed a call to DJ “SWAN!” who was shocked to receive the call and the rest is history.

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Having two brewmasters under one roof could, in most cases, be problematic. Not at Greenport Harbor however, as Hayes says “This is the house that DJ built and I’m cool with that”. Coming from similar yet diverse brewing backgrounds and with a combined twenty plus years of brewing experience between them gives Swanson and Hayes the ability to fill in each other’s weaknesses while pushing boundaries creatively. One such example is this year’s fifth anniversary beer (Five), a Belgian Dubbel that has been aged on tart cherries. This limited one-off will be released at the combined grand opening/5th anniversary party on July 12, 2014 and, after having tasted it from the conditioning tank with DJ & Joe, we can tell you it is one you will want to try. With this modern day rendition of Abbot and Costello at the helm you can be sure bigger and better things are on the horizon for Greenport Harbor Brewing Company. Though Swanson may be the boss he and Hayes will compliment each other as well as malt and hops. We can’t wait to see what they brew up in the years to come.

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