Three years ago, Brad Hillman decided to build his wife a walk-in closest. And then she decided to surprise him with a beer-making kit. “I got halfway done with the closet, and then the next thing you know, there’s a fridge in it,” says Hillman.
It’s one of six currently scattered throughout the Brooklyn apartment of the Gramercy Tavern bartender, whose home brewing operation got some glorious exposure at last month’s Good Beer at BAM party. Hillman’s smoked porter was paired at the event with Gramercy’s kielbasa pretzel rolls; while the combination was impressive in its own right, the fact that such a distinctive beer had come from Hillman’s apartment made it even more memorable.
The batch that Hillman served at BAM was only the second he’d ever made from his recipe for smoked porter, which uses beechwood-smoked malt from Bamberg, a German town known for its smoked beers. Hillman tweaked his recipe so that the smoke would serve as more of an accent than dominating taste, and balanced the flavor profile with American hops.
Though Gramercy’s been “very supportive” of his pastime and, Hillman says, “would put me on draft in a heartbeat if they could,” he can’t sell his porter legally because he’s not a licensed brewer. But that may change: “I have project with a partner and am working on becoming a legal brewer,” he says, estimating that the process will take between one and a half to two years.
In the meantime, he’ll be serving his beer at the Brooklyn Cheese Experiment at the Bell House on September 13, and at the Let Us Eat Local tasting event on September 16. Hillman’s taken the “local” bit to its limit: He’s been growing hops in his backyard for the past three years. Though he doesn’t use them in all of his beer — the hops go rancid before they can all be ground into pellets and vacuum-packed — he adds them to his batches of fresh hops beer. Hops, it turns out, may be Brooklyn’s version of kudzu. “They’re really, really easy to grow,” Hillman says. “They have huge root structures. Once you put them in the ground, you can’t get rid of them.”
To harvest the 30-foot vines growing up the wall of his apartment, Hillman has had to appeal to his next-door neighbor’s generosity — and love of free beer. “There’s photographs of me hanging out his window,” Hillman says. “So my use of local ingredients is well-documented.”