The computer sits on the counter, next to the cash register and way too close to a growler of Ithaca Flower Power.
“You’re not worried about spilling beer all over your laptop?” asks a customer, pulling $20 out of his wallet.
“Oh, we already did that,” responds Vitaly, the owner of Beer Boutique. “The laptop is so drunk that it is in the same position as me and my wife — it never sobers up. It works, but it probably has a couple of pitchers of beer in it. A lot of people haven’t tried the beer that this laptop has tried.”
Step into Beer Boutique and chances are you’ll find yourself in a conversation with its affable owner. Born and raised in Minsk, Vitaly moved to the United States 14 years ago and graduated with a degree in marketing from the University of Nebraska. He then started a company that organized offbeat events like competitive eating competitions. When that fizzled out, he worked as a systems engineer for a hedge fund. However, Vitaly’s dream was to own his own store, so he saved money while brewing ideas for his next business venture. The a-ha moment happened when he came across a unique beer counter-pressure system that keeps oxygen out of the bottle, allowing the drink to stay fresh for up to six weeks. He bought it on the spot and opened Beer Boutique last year with his wife, Maria.
YACK caught up with Vitaly shortly after the store’s first anniversary.
YACK: How did you get interested in beer?
Vitaly: It was a long process. I’m not a heavy drinker but I’m Russian so I do like heavy liquor, something that’s 40 percent alcohol. It’s part of the Russian culture. The drinking is actually a social habit. It’s not to get drunk; it’s for conversation. Beer is the best drink for that because you don’t get drunk that easily. You can do it for a little while. With vodka if you drink intensively you’ll get drunk within an hour. With beer you can have something going for four or five hours. I’ve been into beer for the last five, six years. As a matter of fact that’s how I met my wife. Our first date was in a beer garden.
YACK: You met there?
Vitaly: No, we met not far away from my house. She worked not far from my house and I knew her because I was going to the store where she was working. Later on, when I asked her out, I asked her to go to the beer garden. Draft Barn in Sheepshead Bay — it’s on Avenue X and West Street.
YACK: How did you learn about craft beer?
Vitaly: It was an ongoing process. We opened the store spontaneously. When we were looking to open a business we had no idea we were going to open a beer store. It happened very accidentally. We were just saving money and looking for a good idea and I came across this European counter pressure system right here. Being as spontaneous as I usually am, I just bought it on my credit card and made the decision of opening a beer store within probably two and a half minutes. It was the beginning of November, 2011.
YACK: There are a dizzying amount of choices with craft beer these days. What would your advice be for customers who can’t decide what to buy?
Vitaly: When they come to our store, they shouldn’t be shy. We don’t hold anything against anybody. If you don’t know beers and you know Coors Light, just tell me or my wife, “I like Coors Light”, and we’ll find something a step up with more flavors, but in the same style. The thing about craft beers is that they are so flavorful that once you get used to them you will never ever be able to buy mainstream beer again. It’s just not going to taste good to you. My advice to people is to be careful because as soon as they get introduced to craft beer then they’re going to start spending more money on beer than they did before. And there is no way they will be able to get satisfaction with their old beers.
YACK: Which breweries have you been impressed by lately?
Vitaly: Maine Beer Company, most definitely. That’s a real small company — there’s only two guys in a garage and they’re only using solar power, so they have very little production, but the beer is world class. I’m really a big fan of Lagunitas — they make excellent beer and their price is super reasonable. Stone Brewery, of course, a California brewery. As far as local breweries, I’m a big fan of Ommegang and some stuff from Captain Lawrence.
YACK: Some craft breweries have been scaling up their businesses. Do you think this will affect the quality of their beers?
Vitaly: Yes, I do think it will, but I don’t know for sure. I know the brewing process, but I’m not a brewer — I have never worked at a brewery. From my best understanding of it, there is a huge brewery where the brewmaster sits in his office and there’s a whole bunch of apprentices that do the beer for him. That beer doesn’t have personality because the brewmaster is not involved in making it. It’s almost like a restaurant where you have a world famous chef who doesn’t make each meal.
YACK: They’re just managing things.
Vitaly: Right, so you still get good quality food but you don’t get that particular chef making it. Same thing happens, I believe, when breweries grow. The beer loses a little personality.
YACK: What is the best beer in the world right now?
Vitaly: That’s a very tough question. According to Beer Advocate, the Number 1 beer in the world that is only available locally is Alchemist Heady Topper. That’s considered the number 1 for local beers. What’s the number 1 beer in the world? That’s a tough question.
YACK: Okay, what about your favorite beer?
Vitaly: I’ll name a couple. I don’t like the brewery but I like one of their beers: Goose Island Bourbon County Stout. Of course I am not original — it is one of the best stouts ever made. Kentucky Breakfast Stout by Founders. Parabola by Firestone. All those beers are really very similar level — very hard to differentiate. Alchemist‘s Heady Topper is definitely one of my most favorite beers and so is Pliny the Elder from Russian River. I’m sure Pliny the Younger would be even better, but I have never tried it. When I was in California, it wasn’t there — it’s only seasonal.
YACK: What’s the next step for the beer industry? It’s grown so much in the past couple of years.
Vitaly: Breweries are still popping up all over the place. There are super beer towns like Portland, Oregon, that have 60 breweries in one town. There are breweries opening up all over New York City, and Brooklyn especially. I think the future of beer is small breweries, simply because those beers have personality.
YACK: So the future is bright.
Vitaly: I consider craft beer to be a political party. We are in a big war with mainstream beers. So any small brewery has my support. If anyone comes in and says, ‘I just opened a brewery. Would you like to buy a keg from me?’ I’d buy it without even tasting just to support it. I may not buy it again if the beer is not up to our standards, but a lot of beer store owners in the industry do the same. You have to be loyal to craft beer.
VITALY’S WILLIAMSBURG RECOMMENDATIONS
Favorite bar: Barcade
Beer Boutique; 497 Union Ave, Brooklyn; 718-599-0020; www.BeerBoutiqueNYC.com