Chris Cuzme is marrying his two passions in life. By day, he is the owner and head brewer at Fifth Hammer Brewing Company, but by night, he entertains beer drinkers with his saxophone.
After 10 years working in the beer industry for breweries and creating marketing campaigns, he’s now taken the plunge into owning a brewery.
“This journey I’ve been through a lot of areas of beer,” Cuzme said. “But never have I ever owned a brewery.”
Cuzme started as a home brewer and became the president of the New York Home Brewers Guild in 2013. This position led him to work in different breweries throughout the city, including 508 Gastrobrewery. “I was their brewer for two years creating any brew I can think of,” he said. “Then in 2015, the owners did not renew the lease and closed.”
A potential investor tried one of Cuzme’s brews after the brewery closed. “I took a break to travel to Hong Kong,” he said. “But, I get this email from a former lawyer that liked my brews and wanted to fund a brewery.”
The lawyer, David Scharfstein, 33, met with Cuzme to discuss a possible partnership. Within six months, they started to develop the brand. “Dave is the main financial backer,” he said. “Me and my wife invested our own money along with family investors.”
Cuzme and Scharfstein signed a 10-year lease on a 5,000-square foot warehouse in Long Island City. The former industrial space was converted into a taproom and a 15-barrel brewing system, which is around $250,000. With installation and plumbing the entire operation cost Scharfstein and Cuzme around $1.2 million. “We broke ground that year on this spot,” he said. “But with permit delays and inspection it took us two years to open this October.”
It is the fifth brewery and taproom to open in Long Island City, but he sees that as a benefit not competition. Cuzme said beer drinkers already come to the area, so he can test new types of brews.
These different beers are a reason for the breweries to thrive compared to other spirits. “There is a lot of them in Long Island City, but beer can be done in different varieties,” Joe DiStefano, founder of the Queens-based food and beverage blog, Chopsticks and Marrow, said. “Beer drinkers can have something different at each brewery, which is why Fifth Hammer has the chance to be creative.”
One thing that will benefit the brewing company is the expansive 2,000-square foot taproom. “It is one of the largest taprooms in Long Island City,” DiStefano said. Cuzme anticipates the taproom to be their main source of revenue.
Cuzme was concerned of losing customers because of the price and size of beer offered. The nearest taproom, Rockaway Brewing Company, serves half pints for $3, pints for $6 and a tasting flight for $7. Fifth Hammer Brewing Company offers small size glasses, including 4 oz. and 14 oz. at the same price and their flight of beer costs 70% more at $12.
Despite the higher prices, people piled into the former garage space during the opening weekend. “We all want to check out the new brewery and see if this is our new place to drink,” Danielle Dziuba, 35, said. “It’s not like we are out every night drinking, so the price comparison doesn’t make a difference.”
Unlike other taprooms in the area, the brewing company does not serve food and that could deter customers. “I came here hungry and thirsty and there’s only beer,” Vincenzo Fiorito, Long Island City resident, said. “Even though I can bring my own food, it makes you second guess if the visit is worth it lugging food.”
Looking beyond the taproom, Cuzme is trying to build a wholesale clientele. He made deliveries to 21 bars throughout the boroughs, including Fools Gold on the Lower East Side. “If there is a locally made brew, we want it,” Dave Weakley, manager of Fools Gold, said. “People liked it and we are planning to order more.”
There are some new wholesale orders, but Cuzme is still figuring out how to make bigger profits so he can play his music. “It’s all about how I can make money and still play my saxophone,” he said.
NAME: Fifth Hammer Brewing Company
LOCATIONS: Long Island City
MAJOR INVESTORS: Self-Funded