“I have respect for Coors Light” is not the sort of statement you would expect from one of the most respected craft brewers in the country. But Phil Markowski, the soft-spoken man behind the award-winning beers at Southampton Publick House on Long Island, believes in giving credit where it’s due.
Sitting in the sunshine of the brewpub’s bright dining room, wearing his ever-present baseball cap, he describes his own Montauk Light–a crisp, fizzy pale lager malt with grassy and citrus notes–as “somewhere between an Amstel and a Coors Light,” admitting when pressed that his might have a bit more flavor, and explaining, “I take as much pride in this light beer as I do some of our more esoteric ones. Light beers are like standing there in a Speedo: There’s nothing to hide behind. Coors and Amstel do a good job.”
What the major players can’t do is create the kind of bigbodied and eclectic beers that Markowski specializes in, which are served in the restaurant out in Southampton and poured with pride here at top restaurants like Gramercy Tavern and Craft, as well as beer geek hangouts like D.B.A. and the Blind Tiger Ale House.
“Phil makes tremendous beers,” says Sam Barbieri of Kips Bay’s beer specialist bar, the Waterfront Ale House. “He has a great palate and never skimps on using the highest-quality ingredients. Whatever seasonal beers he makes, we serve.”
Markowski got acquainted with good beer at college in the ’80s, when interesting beer was hard to find. “I started drinking imports and became aware that beer could have a more complex, deeper flavor than what I was used to.” He also started hanging out with some home brewers–while working as an electrical engineer after graduation, one of his colleagues was “this English guy who homebrewed and talked about it like it was a common thing to do”–and was inspired to try it himself.
After his homebrews began winning awards, Markowski went pro in 1989: He was appointed head brewer at the New England Brewing Company, in Norwalk, Connecticut, a small-scale craft brewery dedicated to authentic traditional beer. There he began researching heirloom recipes and techniques to develop beers that straddle the line between historic and modern, like the malty steamstyle Atlantic Amber (a gold medal winner at the Great American Beer Festival) and the hoppy and potent Gold Stock Ale.
In 1996 he joined forces with Don Sullivan, a gregarious restaurateur who was opening the Southampton Publick House with his brother in a historic building in the tony East End town. Sullivan had been doing back-of-house design for several Manhattan brewpubs–which were having a bit of a heyday in the early ’90s–and saw the business potential.
“If you create a high-quality beer for on-premise consumption,” he explains, “something of really good quality, then you aren’t shelling out $120 a keg for Heineken, you are keeping the costs in house.” Sullivan also liked the idea of turning the historic building, which had hosted the likes of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Truman Capote during its various incarnations over the years–and still retains the tin ceiling and dark wooded charm from when it was known as Mrs. Cavanaugh’s speakeasy–into a modern brewpub.
The name was his brother’s idea: “We liked the idea of an old-fashioned British public house where you came for drink, for company, for shelter from the storm.” They also saw it as a play on their location; the Hamptons may be brimming with crowds and wealth in the summer but winters can be cold, lonely and cashstrapped. “If you’re committed to running a business that is open every day year-round,” he says, “then you have to be truly committed to being great.”
Which is where Markowski comes in. “Phil is one of the preeminent craft brewers,” says Sullivan proudly. “He’s a great guy, someone you want around, but more importantly he’s extraordinarily serious about what he does. Disciplined but not afraid to take measured risks.”
Some of those risks have led to one-of-a-kind beers: Markowski’s Peconic County Reserve was fermented with chardonnay grapes from a local winery and aged in wine barrels. His Double Ice Bock, which spent some time frozen to intensify the flavors and up the alcohol ante, won a gold medal in the “Strong Ales & Lagers” category at the Great American Beer Festival. And his Cuvee des Fleur is a vigorous golden ale made with organic lavender, rose hips, chamomile and marigold because, Markowski reasoned, “Hops are basically flowers, why not use other flowers?”
But while he may be known for his more out-there creations, he’s also wary of what he calls the “side-show aspect” of craft brewing, in which alcohol content is ever increasing and ingredients can get odd in an endless effort to ratchet things up. He gravitates towards session beers whose 4-5 percent alcohol content makes them easy to settle in with for a night of drinking. “What I enjoy most” he says, “is coming up with recipes for traditional styles, but with my own modern twist.” The signature Southampton Double White is an amped-up version of a Belgian witbier redolent with malt, orange and coriander. His flagship brew is the copper-hued Secret Ale, a style of Belgian farmhouse-inspired Alt beer that isn’t widely available in the United States.
Markowski has made 85 different kinds of beer since the Publick House opened, about 30 each year, with four or five on tap at any time and six to 10 more available in bottles. They fall into three categories: session beers, which include an I.P.A., the Alt and the Double White; The Southampton XXII series, such as the stronger Imperial Porter and a Trappist-inspired Triple Ale; and the limitededition seasonal Southampton 750 series, which are 10-12 percent alcohol and meant to be aged, like the Abbot 12, a figgy ale with a dark rum character, and the Saison Deluxe, a pineapple-and-passion-fruit-toned farmhouse-style ale which took the silver medal at The Great American Beer Festival in 1998 and 2005.
“These beers have at least a five-year shelf life and, like wine, will age and change in the bottle,” explains Markowski, adding, “I get frustrated with the down-market perception of beer as compared to wine.” But beverage directors at some of the city’s finest restaurant serve Markowski’s beers like they would a wine.
“Southampton beers go along well with our wine-by-the-glass program,” says Nikki Ledbetter, beverage director at Craft. “They have a really big portfolio with flavors you don’t find elsewhere and it pairs really well with our food.”
At Apiary in the East Village beverage director Ron Didner likes “the artisanal aspect” of Southampton beers and considers the Double White a natural complement to the restaurant’s seasonal cuisine, like the skate served over smoked bacon and razor clam chowder and the Thai-accented squid salad, which pair well with the beer’s herbal aspects.
Such demand spelled the need to expand. “From the beginning we had people coming in, saying ‘I love this, how can I get it, how can I serve it in my place?'” says Sullivan. Waterfront’s Barbieri was such an early supporter that before Sullivan had a distribution deal for New York City, Barbieri would drive out to the brewery in an employee’s truck to stock up on porters and ales to serve at his dark, cozy bar. While all the beers served at the Publick House are still brewed on-site, rising demand has led to contract brewing too.
“Within our first four years we were moving draft into the five boroughs and through Nassau and Suffolk as well,” recalls Sullivan. “We were doing 100 barrels, which is an ocean of beer for us.” So they began brewing at Olde Saratoga brewery up in Saratoga Springs. “But for as big an amount as it is for us, it’s really just a drop in the bucket for those guys.”
“In 2004-05 we did 7,000-8,000 cases. We doubled that the following year. In 2007 we doubled again. Last year we did 60,000-70,000 cases, but each step you take costs money. We are successful but still struggling. To increase our sales, we need to increase our production; and to increase our production, we need to increase our sales. It’s kind of a catch-22 situation. In a perfect world you wouldn’t need help. But we do.”
That realization led to the gasp heard ’round the craft brew world as, in late 2007, microbrewing Southampton Bottling and macrobrewer Pabst Brewing Company announced an alliance to expand the marketing and distributing of Southampton’s ales and lagers beyond New York’s borders. Both Sullivan and Markowski are quick to point out that they have not been bought out. “We make the beers, they distribute them,” says Markowski. “They have no control over the product. I’m there for all the brewing.”
He moved to Connecticut, which puts him fairly equidistant from all three breweries where the beers are contract brewed: Southampton, and Sly Fox Brewing and the Lion Brewery, both in Pennsylvania. His travel schedule is also filling up as the Pabst deal has brought the beers to new markets: 20 states and growing. As of this spring Southampton can now be found in Chicago, Savannah and even Fargo, North Dakota. (You can also find them at two beer-centric Edible events: On July 15th at Inside Park at St. Bart’s and on July 29th for Good Beer at Brooklyn’s BAM.)
Despite the economic downturn the company is growing. “The winter was very slow,” allows Markowski, “but trends of the last few years have shown that even as the traditional beer industry remains stagnant, craft beer is growing. There’s a whole new broader audience for local breweries.” He notes that several of his limited-edition brews have been auctioned off for a pretty penny on eBay. Coors Light can’t say that.
Lisa McLaughlin writes about food, drink and cultural trends for TIME magazine when she isn’t busy trying to figure out how to grow hops on her windowsill.
Photo credit: Lindsay Morris