It’s late in the morning on a brew day, and the smell of warm wort fills the air of Industrial Arts Brewing Company when Jeff O’Neil walks in, slowly, casually, as if he doesn’t have a care in the world, as if he’s stepping through a dream. He immediately offers a beer, steps behind the bar, and starts pouring Metric, his Pilsner. It’s clear, malt-forward, with the familiar bite from traditional hops. It’s immediately familiar, like a distant memory of a Pilsner you had on a European vacation a lifetime ago or the way a certain generation talks about beer from way back when. However, this beer isn’t stuck in the past; it’s the sign of things to come. As craft brewing continues to gain market share, much of the growth will come from smaller brewers embracing the style long favored by the big players.
Before he opened this brewery that occupies 30,000 square feet in an arts and industrial complex complete with a creek that feeds into the nearby Hudson River, O’Neil was betting big on his hops forward ales—specifically Tools of the Trade, an American pale ale—as the big driver. And, don’t get him wrong; it’s done quite well. But Metric turned out to be the “sleeper hit of the summer” catching him a bit by surprise.
Garnerville is a working-class town about 40 miles north of New York City, and the Pilsner speaks to the locals, at both craft-centric and regular bars in Manhattan, and to long-time drinkers who occasionally want a respite from hops forward ales. (O’Neil cans his beer, and he, of course, has a New England IPA, Wrench, that is also doing quite well.)
“We’re not going to be a place that makes a new beer every week, but we have the luxury of not being locked down into a legacy,” he says, clearly enjoying the flexibility of his situation that allows him to make the beers he wants while meeting consumer demands. The word he likes to use is “intentional” when it comes to his beer-making approach.
“Someone told me early on in my career that all brewers have one thing that they hold onto, something dear that they are unmovable about,” he recalls. “I think what I’ve become is a process junkie. Don’t get me wrong. I love hops, and I’ve been accused of hating malt, but I love the process and the gadgets. Here we have a lot of control over our process, and that leads me into using that word, ‘intentional.’ ”
Thanks to a soft Euro when he was purchasing his 25-hectolitre BrauKon, O’Neil was able to add some of the “bells and whistles” that an earlier budget would have precluded. “We have facilities that most year-old breweries don’t have and experience that most don’t have,” he says, mentioning the mash tun, separate lauter tun, a boil kettle, a dedicated hop back, and a dedicated whirlpool. This setup means he can stack three or four beers back to back thanks to automation. He says that by being fastidious about the recipe programming and the critical control in advance, he’s hitting the values and numbers he wants each and every time, something he didn’t have the luxury for in the past at other breweries.
It’s not just a top-of-the-line system that helps him sell beer. It still comes down to the man himself. O’Neil deftly works with ingredients and has studied not only the work of others but his own, refining techniques, using the, ahem, tools of the trade to his advantage, and taking a careful approach to every detail inside and out. It’s hard not to compare him to a master artist.
“You know those pictures of Pollock in his studio from the fifties?” asks Augie Carton, the owner of Carton Brewing in New Jersey and a friend of O’Neil’s. “Knowing Chief is like visiting one of those. He’s there, a workman working in no particularly special way, other than some normal things being in slightly different positions, the canvas on the floor. He’s using basically the same tools as all his contemporaries, and above all it’s very casual. But when it’s over and the art is hung, he’s done his thing again, and it’s far more exciting than it should be.”
When he turned forty, O’Neil, who was regularly approached for brewing jobs and opportunities, decided that he’d start taking every meeting, that he’d find the right option for the next phase of his career. He toyed with all manner of ideas, from becoming a “hermit brewer living on a hill” making only geek-sought-after cork-and-cage bottles to contracting out a brand beer and simply working the marketing to being more of a publican. Ultimately, he wanted a place that would play into his experience.
That experience has come from working on both coasts, first in San Francisco at Twenty Tank Brewery, and then East where he took the lead at Ithaca Beer Company, a then already-established brewery that got a boost in flavor and inventiveness once O’Neil got his hands on the recipes. He then moved to the Hudson Valley where he helped Peekskill Brewery commission a new brewhouse and dial-in recipes.
He went big and planned to win because in his experience, many breweries have under planned for success. His system will let him increase production four-fold with ease, allowing him to become a regional player or to just drill deeper into the densely populated NYC. Industrial Arts produced about 4,000 barrels in its first year; it’ll pass that this year.
There was genuine excitement in the New York Metro area when O’Neil opened his doors in the summer of 2016. He is well-known around the area for his skill and kindness and as a general ambassador of good beer. Although he wears many hats these days and spends more time tending to the business-related matters than the beer making, he still, like so many others, sees himself as only one thing.
“I bristle when people call me an entrepreneur because really, I’m just a brewer trying to figure out a business.”