Along with co-founder Rob Kolb, Ant runs the award-winning Transmitter Brewing from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Transmitter was formed to bring a unique perspective on traditional beer styles to the local New York City beer scene, and Ant is passionate about the process of brewing, and combining interesting ingredients to make something special. (Top photo by Kevin Kerr)
What’s your favorite wall decoration in your home?
In my previous life, before the brewery, I printed photographs for artists. High-end photographic fine art, basically. And so, I have a ton of amazing photographs up and around that I was given, bartered for, et cetera.
It’s hard to pick one because they all represent various things for me, but I’d probably say a William Eggleston photograph of the front of a large, flat-based truck. He didn’t photograph in the square format very much, but this particular set of photographs was done with a medium-format square camera.
It’s kind of boxy and beautiful. I think it’s from the mid-’70s, so it has sort of a unique palette that describes color film from that time. It’s just a fun, clean, very descriptive photograph of a truck done by someone that knows color.
You are a foodie, some might say … a gourmand! What is something fun that you cooked recently?
Yeah, I love food. I probably spend most of my free waking hours, when I’m not at work, on various cooking projects.
I think one of my strengths is being able to focus and really dig into a subject, and that includes food. Recently I grilled some octopus and put it over like a mix of lentils and Swiss chard, that really turned out well.
I call myself a component cook. I have a pantry full of things like mushroom powder or homemade mayo, and in a moment of inspiration I can use those components to turn something relatively ordinary into something more sophisticated.
What’s your favorite piece of equipment in the brewery?
Thinking along Bernd and Hilla Becher photography lines, since my history is photography, I think the fermentation vessels are kind of beautiful.
These industrial, big, stainless-steel vats are conical at the bottom. That cone shape helps the yeast settle, and they’re ubiquitous in breweries. If you’ve ever stepped into a brewery, you’ve seen them. They could be anywhere from 100 gallons or 150 gallons all the way up to thousands of gallons.
They’re very purposeful and designed exactly for their intended use. There’s nothing particularly special about them, except that they are the heart of a brewery, in some way. Nothing more than a big shiny piece of metal that really represents what we do here, which is basically turning sugar water into delicious beer.
Opening a brewery or distillery or vineyard … it’s almost like a fantasy job. What’s something you would tell a founder or first-time brewer to absolutely do before they start their journey?
One mistake I think we made was starting too small. It’s a manufacturing business and all about scale, essentially. You’re really working against yourself if you start too small.
It takes the same amount of time to make a gallon of beer as it does to make a thousand gallons of beer. So, you really need to be efficient in that way, which is hard. It goes against how many people who haven’t run a business before think about it … like they’re gonna grow, they’re gonna scale up.
That all becomes more difficult than it seems when they’re in the middle of it. You really want to start with something that has a viable scale, and then move from there.
I’d also tell a person starting out to rethink their sense of time, so to speak. My entire life, I was interested in making things, and for a long time, it was making photographs for artists. That gave me satisfaction at the end of the day, that I made something aesthetically beautiful. And brewing is not dissimilar. It’s less immediate, less about the end of the day, more about the end of the month.
The fact that you own a brewery is the sexy part, that’s 10%. The much bigger, far less sexy part is keeping track of books and ordering supplies.
What’s been your biggest challenge growing the brand?
The beer business is wild and fascinating and interesting in a lot of ways. 40 years ago, there were no craft brewers, then craft brewing suddenly became a thing.
That first wave of regional brewers … Brooklyn Brewery, Lagunitas, Founders … arrived in the late ’80s and ’90s. There was a moment when small breweries exploded, then everything collapsed back down as people started getting into the business for the wrong reason. A lot of people thought they were gonna get rich, which isn’t a good reason to get into beer.
Starting in 2010 or so, there was another swell of small breweries popping up. When we started in 2014, there were something like 2,200 breweries in the US. Almost a decade later we’re looking at more like 9,200 breweries in the U.S., nearly a four-fold increase.
That alone presents a unique challenge in terms of business and competition and availability. On the one hand, that shows that there is intense interest in craft beer. On the other hand, it changes the business plan pretty drastically.
It’s much harder to distribute beer because basically there’s a brewery in every neighborhood now. You have to adjust your expectations in terms of sending beer out into the world. As the industry grew, tasting rooms became a possibility because of changes in state laws. That gave breweries direct access to consumers. The tasting room model is much more important today than it was 10 years ago.
Why did you pick the name “Transmitter”?
My business partner and I lived in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn when we first thought of opening a brewery. We started looking for real estate in Greenpoint. There’s a park at the end of Greenpoint Avenue called Transmitter Park, it’s where WNYC moved their radio towers off of Manhattan in the late ’30s. It’s since been refurbished.
Obviously, the towers are all gone. So, we named it after that park, just looking for a name, really. It turned out that the real estate gods wouldn’t allow us to open a brewery in Greenpoint at that time. When I say “real estate gods”, it really had more to do with finding the right space at the right price. A brewery is a manufacturer. We needed manufacturing-priced space and Greenpoint was moving away from that in favor of apartments and retail.
We then found a space at the edge of Long Island City and Greenpoint, just across the Pulaski Bridge, and were there for the first five years. My wife was walking across the bridge and saw a For Rent sign in a garage space. It’s a funny thing, right? You need manufacturing space, but you also need it to be close to people. That’s a challenging Venn diagram, but we made it work in that location.
Your packaging shares the aesthetics of an old-time TV test pattern. Was that conscious on your part?
Our designer Jeff Rogers stumbled on something called a QSL card, which was a postcard sent among ham radio operators after they made contact. It gave us the entrée into a way to add information to the label in an organized way and have a visual identity. So, our number-letter system is not unlike the call signs of a ham radio operator.
Added bonus: we don’t have to come up with goofy names for beers all the time because we just use a system. It takes some pressure off of naming things, literally. There are so many breweries now. You could end up in trouble if someone else trademarked a particular beer name.
We came up with an alphanumeric system for the beer names. So, the alpha, the letter of the name, is the family of beers. Then the number is the actual recipe. We have a series of S beers for Saisons, and we have 10 Saisons. So, we have S1 through 10 right now. Each letter/number is a distinct beer, different in idea and execution than the next one.
What do you like most about the NYC brewing scene?
It’s a burgeoning business, for sure. We have a breweries guild that allows us to work together on marketing strategies and general brewing-related issues.
There’s a certain type of person that wants to start a brewery in New York City. It is not an easy location to do what we do. In fact, I’d say in some ways, that’s probably part of that challenge. If you moved the brewery 50 miles in any direction, basically, you’d have a much, much easier time in terms of real estate expectations. It’s always fun to chat with those hardy people who are as crazy as you are.
What’s something you haven’t brewed yet but you’d like to try?
I don’t have any interest in doing something like seltzer, but lower ABV table beers are interesting. Maybe pulling some of the material out of the beer and presenting something that’s both lower in alcohol but still flavorful. That presents kind of a potentially unique challenge.
The less grain you use, the lower the alcohol. And also, the less grain you use, the less existing flavor is in the beer. So, lower ABV tends to be a delicate balance to make something that’s both pleasurable to drink and “sessionable.”
What’s one of your favorite outdoor spaces?
I have a house in Sullivan County and we’ve been going up there for 25 years, and that absolutely is one of my favorite outdoor spaces. It’s up on a hill. We overlook a valley and a lake, and then beyond are the low rolling hills of the Catskills. Really hard to beat.
It’s like a relationship with the space that’s now so old that it’s just pleasing and comfortable that I can’t imagine life without it.
Who’s a creative person you really admire?
Matthew Barney is someone I had the chance to work with as a photo printer. I love the depth of broad imagination in the world that he creates. That’s intriguing to me, to be able to put together mythologies that build upon each other and are deep, complex, and whole.
What’s one of your favorite albums of all time?
I don’t put it on much, but maybe something like Pink Floyd, Atom Heart Mother. Psychedelic noise.
The Bad Plus is a great small New York jazz group that I think does some incredible music, sort of the other end of psychedelic.
What’s a famous piece of entertainment that it feels like everybody loves but you can’t get into?
I have a much broader answer. I don’t really go to movies, in general. That kind of entertainment, sitting and watching like that, doesn’t interest me. I get the point, I just have no interest in it.
I know how that sounds. A friend said once, “I don’t like soup.” How can you not like soup? I get that you don’t like broccoli soup or you don’t like clam chowder, but how can you categorically not like soup? I guess for me, movies is my soup.
What’s a restaurant we should visit in New York City?
Last month, my wife and I were in the East Village and stopped at Rowdy Rooster, which is kind of a hot chicken sandwich restaurant. And it was freaking delicious. It’s just sort of an Indian take on a fried chicken sandwich. $14, and they made it in eight minutes in front of me. One of the best foods I’ve had in a while.