The English and education degrees Steve Hindy ’71, MAT ’73, earned at Cornell ended up serving him well, if not quite how he’d planned.
“I think I failed as an English teacher,” Hindy said, “but it turned out I was a pretty good beer teacher.”
The co-founder and chairman of Brooklyn Brewery, a craft beer pioneer, shared stories about his unlikely career, answered questions and led a virtual beer tasting May 19 during “Beer and Business with the 2020 Cornell Entrepreneur of the Year.”
Zach Shulman ’87, J.D. ’90, director of Entrepreneurship at Cornell, moderated the online happy hour discussion on Zoom with Amanda Hatcher, senior associate director at the Cornell Entrepreneur Network, and about 300 participants.
Hindy said when he started the business with neighbor Tom Potter in 1988, craft brewers needed to educate an American public accustomed to mass-produced lagers and pilsners about beer’s extraordinary variety and history. As a brewing nation, he said, the U.S. was regarded as a laughingstock.
“Today, America is the wellspring of this craft revolution, and it’s happening all over the world now,” Hindy said. “And I’m happy to say Brooklyn Brewery, and Brooklyn Lager in particular, have been a big driver of that international phenomenon.”
From his home in Brooklin, Maine, Hindy led off the virtual tasting with Brooklyn Lager, the company’s first beer. A darker, more bitter and aromatic take on popular varieties sold by Budweiser, Coors and Miller, it shocked many beer drinkers in the late ’80s, Hindy said. But enough liked it that “we were able to get a foothold and sell some beer.”
That marked the start of an entrepreneurial career Hindy never envisioned when he arrived at Cornell as an aspiring golfer and golf course designer. During his freshman year, he said, his golf handicap of 2 exceeded his GPA, which led him to drop the sport and shift his focus to literature.
After earning his master’s in 1973, Hindy struggled as a teacher in Ithaca and transitioned to journalism, eventually becoming Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press from 1979-84. He learned about beer from American homebrewers in countries where drinking wasn’t legal, and began making it when he returned to Brooklyn.
Brooklyn had once been a stronghold of breweries, including big brands like Schaefer and Rheingold, but now they were gone. Hindy thought one belonged there.
“It was a crazy idea,” he said. “The idea of bringing back that tradition to New York City I thought was a sort of wonderful dream.”
Persistence paid off early. Agreeing to meet a “clueless” Hindy after many entreaties, the renowned graphic designer Milton Glaser suggested scrapping the originally planned name – Brooklyn Eagle Beer, an homage to the newspaper once edited by Walt Whitman – and quickly designed the brand’s iconic “B” logo.
“It’s a brilliant logo,” Hindy said. “It’s enabled us to sell beer not only in New York but all over the world.”
Brooklyn Brewery is now the largest exporter of American-style craft beer, said Hindy, the author of “The Craft Beer Revolution” (2014) and co-author of “Beer School: Bottling Success at the Brooklyn Brewery” (2005).
Ignored by big distributors at first, the company did its own distribution. It eschewed traditional marketing, relying on word of mouth and custom promotions, Hindy recalled over a glass of Brooklyn Defender IPA.
In 1995, strongmen Hindy described as “union business agents” interrupted construction of a brewery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. They never followed through on threats to physically harm him, but the former war correspondent later confirmed “they were really bad guys.”
In 2016, the company sold a 24% stake to Japan’s Kirin Holdings Co. – by chance led by another Cornellian, Yoshinori Isozaki, MPS ’90 – expanding its reach in Asia and Australia.
The coronavirus pandemic poses a major threat to thousands of craft breweries, particularly those relying on local tasting rooms, Hindy said. With restaurants and bars shuttered, he said, Brooklyn Brewery expects to lose up to 40% of its business this year.
“We will survive this,” he said, sipping a Brooklyn Pilsner. “We’re in good shape, but things are going to change for the future.”
Closing with a sampling of Brooklyn Bel Air Sour, Hindy marveled at how the craft brewing industry has exploded since he got into it. That has created a far more competitive environment for startups, whose best opportunities now likely lie in hyperlocal markets, he said, despite current pandemic constraints.
Brooklyn Brewery never set out to sell beer in Paris, Stockholm or Tokyo, Hindy said. Developing that type of international following for a new brand would be much more difficult, he said, but not impossible.
“When you create a beer brand, it’s almost like a being: It becomes part of the world, it becomes part of the culture,” Hindy said. “And you follow that brand where it takes you.”