At the age that most teenagers were busy convincing their older friends to buy them booze, Scott Vaccaro was hard at work brewing it in his kitchen. The founder of Captain Lawrence Brewing Company, Westchester County’s award-winning and only brewery, believes in experimenting with flavors in order to create beers that are profoundly unique. In an age where most of the country (or, well, the world) only consumes beer that was manufactured by giant corporations, the New York native is firmly holding on to his belief that customers deserve the best – and most interesting – tastes. But more than anything, Scott’s story is that of a man who held onto his passion against all odds and turned it into a profitable business. And if you ever wondered just how in the world one makes beer, hold on to your malted barley and dive right into this interview.
Your fascination with brewing started when you saw your friend’s father brewing a batch of home brew at age fifteen. So you became interested in it even before you had had a beer, correct?
I was seventeen, and truth be told, I had been drinking already. [laughs] I was sneaking beers here and there, but seeing that first home brewing was a huge eye-opener. I had no idea that anything like that could be done at home; at that point, it was just a mythical taboo for me. I’d always liked to cook, and saw it almost as another way to put things together, create, and consume.
What did Mom and Dad think about this newfound passion?
Being fortunate enough to have parents who were open-minded enough to let me try at home, I was already making up to five gallon batches of beer in high school. I wasn’t funding keg parties for my friends or anything! I was just making these beers that most seventeen-year-olds wouldn’t think about drinking.
I continued my home brewing until I was forced to leave for college – at that point, the goal was to become an accountant and follow my father’s footsteps. One day, I read about UC Davis’ Fermentation Science Program, which was the perfect program for me. Fast-forward a few months later and I was studying a beverage I was not yet able to drink.
Moving forward, tell me about the major defining steps in your career?
My senior year in college at Davis, we took a field trip to Sierra Nevada. I went to the Sierra Nevada pub attached to the brewery and simply inquired with the head brewer how I should go about getting a job at a place like this. “Well, we’re expanding – send us your resume!” I ended up interviewing twice and getting the gig.
Working at Sierra Nevada was like attending graduate school at the most beautiful brewery. After two and half years, I decided to leave and go on a six-week tour of Europe where I was excited to visit as many breweries as possible; the goal was to reacquaint myself with the Belgian brewing style. I went to Connecticut after that – which was much closer to my home in New York – and, taking a drink at The Colorado Brewery, I asked if I could apply for a job there. “Our brewer left last week!” Unfortunately, they closed their doors six months after I started working there. After that experience, I knew that I needed to open up my own brewery in New York, where I had this dream of being able to sit with my father, having beers. Over the course of the next year, I worked part-time jobs and lived with my parents as I developed a business plan. Eventually, we broke grounds and transformed an empty warehouse into a beautiful brewery.
Talk to me about your beers: Pale Ale, Smoked Porter, Golden Delicious… is there a particular story you’d like to share behind one of these beers? And what makes them different?
The Pale Ale was an adaptation of a recipe I’d made for the 1998 Bay Area Brew-Off, for which I’d won first place. It’s American-style, very forward, and talks to the very West Coast style of beer I was drinking at the time. The Smoked Porter came about when I was trying to add layers of flavor and depth to the Porter beer. It’s a meld of two styles: English-style Porter and German-style smoked beer. The Golden Delicious came by chance as I was just in a local liquor store. I drink bourbon every now and then, and I noticed an apple brandy behind me. It was made in New Jersey, so I called them up and asked if they’d ever sold their apple brandy barrels since I’d love to age my beers in them – that’s how the Golden Delicious came about. We’ve tried to get our hands on as many flavors as possible because they add diversity and taste to our beers. Brewing is about creating – it’s like cooking.
Tell me a bit about the big industries, and how does a local brewing company compete against the big guns like Budweiser or Corona?
People don’t realize that craft beer still only makes up less than 5% of all beers in this country, which is such a tiny microcosm. At the Super Bowl this weekend [the interview was conducted on 2/03/11], you’ll have those ridiculous beer commercials… but if you truly believe in supporting local restaurants and farms, there are local breweries all over the country. We don’t make the same style of beer as the big guys, and they want to put us out of business.
How do you explain the fact that you never gave up on brewing?
I think it was just that I fell in love with it so deeply. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I wouldn’t even know what to do! I started at seventeen, and since I’m now thirty-two, I’ve been doing this for nearly half my life. It’s who I am. I recently found one of my college essays I wrote to get into Davis with the tagline, “I was born to brew.” [laughs]
Was there a defining moment that confirmed that this vocation was the right one?
Wow, there are so many… My freshman year in college, I went to buy beers with my friends and remember spending forty dollars on Sierra Nevada Celebration. People thought I was crazy to spend that much money on beer, but this is what I thought beer was meant to be.
All right, since most of our readers (including myself) have absolutely no idea how beer is made, give us a little bit of Brewing 101.
Sure! Brewing is very straight-forward and uses four basic ingredients: water, yeast, malted barley, and hops. We have great water without minerals in Pleasantville, which is great for brewing beer or making bagels and pizza. Malted barley comes from all over the world, and is simply sprouted and dried with hot air. Hops add bitterness and aroma. Yeast will ferment the liquid and turn it into beer. You first take the malted barley and mix it with water – when you extract the water from the mash, a liquid made out of sugar from malt called wort will come out. Extract the sweet liquid, get it into a kettle, boil it and add the hops, cool it down, pump it into a fermentor, and add your yeast. In three weeks, the process of fermentation will generate alcohol and CO2, creating beer. Keep in mind that while this process is pretty standard, you can have an endless variety of molts, yeasts… And that makes all of the difference.
Where can our readers buy some Captain Lawrence beers?
Two ways: wholesale businesses – bars and restaurants – and retail businesses directly with the brewery. At the beginning, we’d literally walk into bars, ask them to taste our beers, and support us. The reception was overwhelming: after two months, we were in fifty bars and restaurants, and that number quickly turned into one-hundred, one-hundred and fifty… As of now, we’re sold within the lower fifty counties of New York. Locally, the tasting crowd is very loyal, and after all these years I still give the tours of the brewery most times on Saturdays. I got to know some customers so well that I invited them to my wedding in August.
Congratulations on the wedding! Was it a prerequisite that she loved beer?
[laughs] She started out as an Amstel Light drinker, and now has switched to Liquid Gold. She’s come a long way.
How can our readers contribute to your success?
Daily BR!NK readers can support us when they see Captain Lawrence at the bar, and spreading the word about our grassroots efforts. We have no marketing campaign, but if you see us on tap then order a pint – and if you’re ever in the New York area stop by and say hello.