It’s 1996, and the New York Daily News runs an article about how a brand-new brewery under construction in Brooklyn will be the neighborhood’s first to open in 20 years. The next day, two limousines pull up outside the brewery’s construction site. The doors swing open, and out come two young men whose chests resemble beer barrels. They tell all the workers to go home, and stay home. Soon, the site is like a deserted movie set. Before leaving, the men deliver a message: The man in charge needs to call us, pronto.
In the craft beer industry, there’s no shortage of courageous characters whose adventurous tales would dominate a happy hour. Just to name a few: Dale Katechis of Oskar Blues rips up the hills of Lyons every morning on his mountain bike; Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada hikes his tail off in the Sierra Nevada Mountains; and, before starting Boston Beer Company, Jim Koch spent three years as a guide for Outward Bound and summited the highest peak in the Western and Southern hemispheres, Aconcagua.
Funny, then, that a soft-spoken, unassuming guy from New York City would have tales to top them all. Brooklyn Brewery Co-Founder Steve Hindy may not be able to remember the last time he went over the handlebars of a bike or shredded the gnar on the backside of Jackson Hole, but his experience as a war correspondent in the Middle East in the 1980s and his dealings with the mob in the pre-gentrified Brooklyn of the mid ’90s make a bloody elbow or a case of altitude sickness seem like child’s play.
Let’s go back to the beginning. In 1979, when he was stationed in the Middle East as a war correspondent for the Associated Press, Hindy was beginning to take an elevated interest in beer. Locals in Saudi Arabia could be beheaded for home brewing, but American diplomats living there were crafty enough to share their basement brews at American Embassies across the region. That beer, given its potential repercussions, probably tasted pretty damn good. Hindy sure liked it, and admittedly had a thought that it might be nice to have such a flavorful beer back in the States, where light lagers dominated. It was only a dream, though. He had much bigger issues at hand as a war correspondent.
Taking control of the meeting, the mob led Hindy into the bowels of his brewery, into a room without windows. They said they didn’t want to have to hurt him, and that they needed his cooperation.
Over the course of his five-year stint in the Middle East, living Beirut and Cairo, he dodged mortars, avoided gunfire, and filed stories. But it was in 1980 when he would feel the war’s brutal effects firsthand. While on patrol with a United Nations peacekeeping group in Southern Lebanon, his convoy was kidnapped by an Israeli-backed militia. Hindy was held at gunpoint but, through cooperation and the fact that he was an American journalist, eventually set free. The rest of his crew were not so lucky. Three of the men were tortured, and two of them were killed.
When asked how he was able to stay in the crisis zone for four more years and cope with what he had been through, he raised his shoulders and smiled slightly. “I turned to whiskey”, he said. Just as gloomy but perhaps more relevant to his future, he also took an interest in Belgian beer, he said, and continued to enjoy the home brew when he encountered it at the Embassy. His blossoming affection for beer did not go unnoticed amongst his colleagues. When he ended his tenure overseas to return to the United States in 1984, Hindy’s colleagues gave him a homebrew kit as a going-away present.
Hindy arrived back in New York to a city still dominated by light, flavorless lagers produced by big beer companies like Coors, Miller and Budweiser. After a short stint as an editor for Newsday, he recognized an opportunity to introduce craft beer to the city, teamed up with his neighbor and started brewing. There was a long and winding road of experimentation, fundraising, and grassroots distribution, but about ten years later in 1996, Hindy finally unveiled plans to open a microbrewery in Brooklyn. That’s when the Daily News ran the aforementioned article and prompted the mob to show up, tell his workers to go home, and demand a call from the brewery’s boss.
With his contractors failing to show up to work in the days after the mob’s initial visit, Hindy pondered a proper course of action. He knew what the mob wanted — a piece of the pie. But if he bribed them once, would they go away, or would they become his new business partners? A few days later, he met them outside the brewery in Brooklyn and offered to take them to lunch.
When asked how he was able to stay in the crisis zone for four more years and cope with what he had been through, he raised his shoulders and smiled slightly. “I turned to whiskey”, he said.
“Enough of this bullshit”, a suited-up Joe Pesci lookalike blurted out. “We’re not here to eat. We’re here for jobs. You built [this brewery] without us.” Hindy walked them inside the brewery, stopping in the main warehouse where some of his workers moved about. “We can’t talk here”, the Pesci lookalike said. “There’s too many people.” Taking control of the meeting, the mob led Hindy into the bowels of his brewery, into a room without windows. They said they didn’t want to have to hurt him, and that they needed his cooperation. This, after all, was their turf.
The boss grilled Hindy about his background. When he told them about his career as a journalist, they asked him to wait, retreating back into the warehouse for a team meeting. Hindy was sitting in a broken office chair, his feet off the ground, leaning back, when they burst back into the room. The boss said nothing, instead taking a hearty handful of Hindy’s twig and berries. He raised him out of the chair and threw him against the wall, looking hard into Hindy’s eyes. He parted his lips, showed his teeth, and breathed into Hindy’s startled face.
As Hindy contemplated how he would avoid a broken jaw, the boss released his grip. “Just kidding”, he said. He nodded to his musclemen, and they all walked out of the brewery without another word.
Then, two years ago in 2013, there was another knock on Brooklyn Brewery’s door. This time, it wasn’t the mob. It was Homeland Security. It was presumably Hindy’s experiences as a journalist that had made the mob think twice about its plan to bribe him; it was those same experiences that Homeland Security wanted to discuss. Turns out, the man who had kidnapped him back in 1980 in Lebanon was currently in Detroit, driving an ice cream truck. He had entered the country illegally but recently applied for US citizenship, and the Feds wanted Hindy’s help deporting him. A grid of headshots was laid out on the table, and Hindy, without hesitation, identified the man who had kidnapped him 33 years ago. He recorded a deposition and agreed to testify if called upon.
Six months ago, Hindy’s kidnapper, Mahmoud Bazzi, finally had his deportation hearing. He was denied citizenship and put in jail to await a Lebanese passport. It took over five months, but three weeks ago, the paperwork came through and Bazzi was officially deported.
“I was really surprised”, Hindy said of the news. “I had sort of given up hope that this guy would ever be brought to justice. I’m very pleased and I got some wonderful letters from people who have been working on this [case] for 30 years.”
With at least some form of closure to hang his hat on, Hindy continues to make pretty damn good beer in Brooklyn. The brewery has been growing at a 20 percent clip the last 10 years. But after hearing his story and understanding the magnitude of some of his experiences, beer seemed like a pretty petty thing to ask him about.