Brews Over Broadway
A beer is poured into a tiny glass from a towering stainless-steel fermentation tank. The glass is handed to Javier Muñoz, who plays the lead role in "Hamilton" once a week. The actor smiles upon smelling its pitch-black-colored, not-yet-fully-carbonated contents.
After a few thoughtful tastes, descriptors start flowing from Muñoz: coffee, chocolate, smooth. Another sip. A pause. It evokes memories of his childhood, of living in Puerto Rico and drinking Malta, a non-alcoholic malt beverage made similarly to beer.
"That's what this reminds me of," he says, "and it makes me happy."
On this recent weekend morning, Muñoz is sampling Void of Light, an award-winning stout made by the Bronx's Gun Hill Brewing Company. He is one of three cast members of Lin-Manuel Miranda's enormously successful and critically acclaimed musical about Alexander Hamilton—Kamille Upshaw and David Guzman are the others—visiting Gun Hill's facility in Williamsbridge, which, when it opened in 2014, was the first brewery to make beer in the borough since the 1960s. Its owners, Dave Lopez and Kieran Farrell, both have Bronx-laid roots. Their beer company is named for a nearby perch now located in Woodlawn Cemetery, where colonists stored guns and ammo and fired cannons during the Revolutionary War.
The thespians’ trip to Gun Hill marks the first collaboration in the Broadway Brews Project. The brainchild of The Happy Hour Guys, a traveling web series touring bars, breweries, and distilleries across the country (its two hosts are theater actors), Broadway Brews will join local beer makers with popular shows to make one-off beers for charity. In addition to organizing each pairing, The Guys will film the entire process and air it over several episodes.
The beer made by Gun Hill and "Hamilton" is named Rise Up Rye (“rise up” is a refrain in the show's anthem, "My Shot"). It will be released on April 30 at an event near the Richard Rodgers Theatre, where the revolutionary musical has played to sellout crowds since last August.
We spoke with three of the collaboration's players to learn more: Ludwig, one half of The Happy Hour Guys; Lopez, one of Gun Hill's owners; and Chris Prout, the brewery's newly hired head brewer.
Jimmy, can you tell us about The Happy Hour Guys and what inspired you to start the Broadway Brews Project?
Jimmy Ludwig: So, [The Happy Hour Guys] is myself and Mark and we're both actors and Broadway vets. When we started the show—this was in 2006—we were fascinated by how many parallels there were in craft beer and acting, in terms of the work ethic and the commitment to quality. But at that point it was more in an amusing, Isn't that wild?, sort of way. Well, we've done over 300 episodes since that time, and now there’s a lot of video content out there about craft beer. It's always been important for us to stay unique, stay ahead of the curve, and there was a time where we literally had this head-slapping moment of clarity to bring our craft beer and Broadway lives together.
When was that?
JL: Last year. Now shortly before that, our friend [Justin "Squigs" Robertson], who's like the unofficial third Happy Hour Guy, he tells us about this beer Gun Hill had just made called Schuyler’s American Wheat. Of course, with the brewery's focus it made sense that they would name a beer tied to the Revolutionary War period. But in our mind, that immediately had us think of "Hamilton"; Schuyler is the mother of three of its main characters. The gears started to turn after that, and Broadway Brews came out of it. And now the here we are.
So, you had originally wanted to have Gun Hill and "Hamilton" for the first collaboration? It's a perfect pairing given the shared historical theme.
JL: We actually had feelers out to a bunch of shows to see if they would be interested in the project, based on the premise of us putting together and filming a Broadway show and a local brewery making a beer for charity. As luck would have it, we had some actor connections associated [with "Hamilton"] and through those we got to their PR department and then ultimately to Jeffrey Seller [lead producer] He signed off on this project on November 16, which also happens to be my birthday. Coincidence? I wonder.
Dave, what was your initial reaction to the prospect of making a beer with the cast of "Hamilton"?
Dave Lopez: It pretty much took me all of about two seconds to agree to do it. Anytime you can share the spotlight with something as popular as ["Hamilton"], it’s a no-brainer. And let's be honest, the hope of getting a pair of tickets from doing this definitely crossed my mind. [Laughs.]
Have you asked?
DL: I made a joke about getting a pair for my wife and I when we first met with the cast manager and the publicist. But I was really more serious than kidding. [Laughs.]
Jimmy, you're filming the project as a multi-episode arc for The Happy Hour Guys. What's the breakdown?
JL: It was initially going to be three episodes, but now we're thinking it may be four so we can circle around a couple months later to check in with everyone, see what the beer and series accomplished, and what it continues to accomplish. The first episode is going to be the cast and brewers meeting to plan the recipe, decide on a name, and pick the charity that we brewed for. Then the second will cover the brew day, and the third the release party. The first episode should be out fairly soon, likely this week or next.
How was the process of designing the recipe?
JL: Without giving too much of the planning away, there was talk about using a legacy or historic ingredient, something that might have been in use during the time of the American Revolution. That's the most obvious connection here.
Chris Prout: That's how we came up with using rye as the beer's base malt. And because of rye's historical prominence locally, we sourced it from New York Craft Malt, about 20 percent.
DL: Given the nature of the collaboration, we all agreed that the beer should be as universally appealing as possible. At that point we left Chris to put his own twist on everything.
How would you describe the beer, Chris?
CP: We're billing this as an American rye saison. I'd describe it as light, crisp, and interesting for every kind of beer drinker—approachable for those new to what craft beer is now, and enough complexity for the geeks. The saison is really a style that bridges wine and beer. The fruity yeast character here plays nicely with the fruity New Zealand hops we used, and there's low bitterness. You're going to get flavors like peach, apricot, and mango; juicy pear tones along with earthy, peppery spice; and a slightly tart finish.
What were the casts' thoughts and reactions walking into the brewery that day?
JL: They seemed to enjoy it. I think it was everyone's first time in a brewery, and it's always wonderful to watch the light bulbs come on. We definitely heard things like Wait, that’s how it’s done? And these hops smell amazing! That sort of thing
DL: I think the fact that they ventured up to the Bronx on a Sunday morning after 16 or 17 consecutive days of performing really showed how into it they were.
Did they participate in the brewing process?
DL: They did. The cast got to add all of the hops into the boil. They also helped a little bit with cleanup and the introduction of the yeast to the fermenter.
CP: I love that they were able to rattle off the aroma descriptors most prevalent with Wai-iti hops, which is the variety we used. One descriptor I found not only funny, but also accurate, was that they smelled like new carpet. [Laughs.]
JL: I think the coolest part for me was watching the cast partake in some "quality control."
"Hamilton" is currently the most popular show on Broadway. Jimmy, how difficult has it been to organize everything?
JL: The logistics have been nuts, just because of their hectic schedules. I mean, the cast members were coming off two straight weeks of shows without a day off and they still showed up. Funny story: At one point in March I got an email from their PR saying that the brew day needed to be rescheduled. I thought, “Oh, man! Come on, there are so many moving parts here.” So I called them to ask why, and to get an idea if there was any wiggle room. They were like; "We’re going to Washington to perform for the Obamas that day.” I basically nodded and hung up. I mean, you can’t really argue if they’re performing for the Leader of the Free World.
DL: But I think I can speak for all of us when I say that never did the planning ever feel arduous, or like work at all. Jimmy and his wife live in Inwood, so they come to the tasting room fairly often and we've become good friends. And Chris, even though he just came on board, he's fit right into the flow of things. It was all pretty painless.
Chris, this was one of your first times brewing since joining Gun Hill. Can you tell us about joining the brewery?
CP: The capacity to make a lot of beer intrigued me, and the ability to do a lot of things with that volume—an extensive barrel-aging program, splitting single batches into different fermenters and using different yeasts—that's the stuff I want to do. Coming from a smaller five-barrel system to one that was over six times the capacity, I was definitely a bit concerned about transitioning. But everyone made it pretty seamless. Dave and Kieran [Farrell, Gun Hill's other owner] brought in a veteran brewer, Mike Smith, to assist for a couple of weeks. And with Max [Balkin], our assistant brewer who knows the brew house really well, I felt confident in no time. I'm looking forward to all the possibilities.
The proceeds from Rise Up Rye will be donated to a charity of the cast's choice. What charity was chosen and why?
DL: We're brewing for a social-service agency called Graham Windham, which at its start 210 years ago was the orphanage, that Alexander Hamilton’s widow, Eliza Hamilton, started in New York City. The show has really worked hand in hand with the organization and they've raised a ton of money and awareness for them.
JL: One of the great things that they've done is, two dozen of the cast members started "The Eliza Project" which is affiliated with Graham Windham and gives some of the agency's children acting and dancing lessons as a way to use art as a form of expression. For us, the charity aspect is a key part of the Broadway Brews Project. It's great to hang out with the cast and make a cool beer, but it's even better knowing that the finished product is actually going to help make a difference for someone.