From Catering to Concert Fans to Putting Beer in Cans: 18th Ward Brewing is on the Rise
18th Ward Brewing was only open for five months before the pandemic hit, but they were able to make a big impact fast. The Williamsburg brewery sits across the street from Brooklyn Steel, a massive venue that has hosted the likes of Wilco, Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, LCD Soundsystem, and Perfume Genius on its stage. Concert-goers were happy to have a craft beer haven to hit before and/or after catching their favorite artists live. From the built-in buzz of a brewery taproom to the thrill of seeing a memorable show, the geographic partnership of 18th Ward and Brooklyn Steel made for an electric experience on a nightly basis.
The pandemic may have halted concerts, but it didn’t halt creativity, innovation, or growth at 18th Ward. The brewery has been acquiring new fans, and fast, beyond its neighborhood, canning its masterfully brewed and delicious beers. We wanted to get to know this relatively young brewery, how it’s been evolving without its venue sidekick, how music is ingrained in its identity, and what we can expect, from its beer to its future. Here’s our conversation with Jordan Beldner, who co-owns the brewery with partner Michael O’Brien--and stay tuned at the end of the interview for a fun way to interact with 18th Ward’s musical connection.
How did 18th Ward come about, what was the journey to opening a brewery for you?
[Michael and I] opened Northern Bell seven years ago, and seven years ago in Williamsburg there were not really many beer bars, there were more just bars that served Bud, Bud Light, Goose Island. We wanted to have a more elevated beer program, and that’s gone well, we’re very happy. Then three years ago, we opened up Jimbo Slim’s, a little dive bar on the edge of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. It doesn’t have quite the beer program Northern Bell has, it fits the crowd there.
Mike and I have always been all about all things beer, we love beer. We were looking for another space in 2018, but the brewery thing was a pipe dream then. We didn’t think it made sense financially, and there was a little saturation at that point--which has gotten even more so. But when Brooklyn Steel opened up, we looked and across the street, there were all these open warehouses. We said, you know what, here’s an opportunity to open a brewery by a music venue.
We opened in September of 2019. We had a wonderful first five months, and then Covid hit. But the good thing from Covid for the business was that it gave us a moment to take a step back and realize we could make a change. We brought in our brewer Will Arnaiz, who had brewed at Bronx Brewery and Captain Lawrence, and we decided to pivot and can [our beer]. Our original plan was to start canning and doing retail three years in, but here we are.
What was your specific connection to craft beer before this?
I drank a lot of Yuengling in college, and then as I moved out to California after I went to school at the University of Delaware, I started trying different beers out there and going to different breweries, and I acquired a taste for trying new stuff. I don’t think I could pick one beer that blew my mind, but if I had to, it had to be Magic Hat #9. I’ve been going to Phish shows for 20 years, and Magic Hat probably would have been my first sort of alternative beer, at one of those shows.
My partner Mike and I have been friends for 30 years. We were made for this industry, we’ve always been social guys and we love the business. We’ve both bartended, both been waiters, and we realized at some point we both wanted a business of our own.
What was your vision for 18th Ward, what did you want it to be? How did you go about making that a reality?
Make good beer and be a fun place to go before and after concerts. It’s very simple. I’m a big live music guy so the idea of being able to go to a concert venue and go across the street and be able to drink beer that’s not just Bud or Bud Light, that’s a great experience.
Being open only several months before the pandemic hit, what were those months like?
We’re the only game in town over there, so when from the first night we opened our doors, we were busy. People didn’t know who we were. We didn’t promote our opening; we never did that with any of our bars. We just open the doors, put out an A-frame: we’re open. People walking up to go to show would see this big neon sign that says “brewery,” and be interested and get excited. Non-show nights started out slow, but then business doubled as regulars and locals knew we were there, too. It’s gotten even better for us now. I’m actually scared for when concerts come back because on those busy nights, it’s gotten pretty hairy [laughs].
What is it like being across the street from Brooklyn Steel? What does this location mean for you and 18th Ward’s music connection?
We’re big music guys. We built a stage in the brewery to have bands come in, so people can be drinking beer and seeing someone local play, then go across the street and see this band they’ve gotten tickets to see. Music is in Mike’s and my DNA.
How has 18th Ward shifted gears during the pandemic? How has this year been in terms of tough realities, customer support, etc.?
The best thing for us was to get involved with TapRm. We started canning with no real outlet before [partnering with] TapRm. Before, you may have not known about us if you lived more than five, ten blocks away, so this has been huge, for people around the state and outside of Brooklyn even to say, “Oh, who the hell are these guys?” and get interested in our beer. It’s been tremendous for us...more people became aware of us this way.
How would you describe 18th Ward beer to someone who’s yet to experience it?
Come into our brewery and you’re going to be able to find your favorites: your pilsners, your IPAs, your golden ales, and so on. But you’ll also find some different beers--we have a smoked beer on tap right now, for example, and we’re currently aging beer in grappa barrels. So, you walk in and get your IPAs and ales, but you’re also going to try something different. That was the thing when we hired Will, we told him to go to town, have fun, make any funky, weird thing.
What drives inspiration and creation for brewing?
We let Will explore. But there’s a balance; you have to have one...in addition to people coming out to the brewery who are fans of our beer, we’re across the street from a music venue where people are coming from Connecticut, New Jersey, everywhere--so you need beers that appeal to the masses. One popular beer on show nights is a simple golden ale. It’s great, [concert-goers] can have a simple 5% ale before they go across the street and get into the show.
What are your hopes, plans, and vision for 18th Ward going forward?
For us, we’re just growing. We just signed a sublease for a production facility in Long Island because we’re not able to keep up with current canning as well as current drafts, and that’s with no concerts happening. So, we’re growing, and it’s a good problem to have in a rough time. At the end of the day, we want to open a place upstate, and have a bigger production facility, and we have ideas on how to handle that that won’t be a traditional profit-and-loss brewery, but will have more of a donation vibe--but I don’t want to say too much yet.
Experience more of 18th Ward! While you drink your 18th Ward brews, catch the atmosphere of the taproom with this Spotify playlist curated by Jordan and Will. Jordan says these 13 songs are “a mixture of classic rock and jam bands. All of these songs are on the taproom playlist and bring a mellow vibe that matches our brews.” So kick back with some good old fashioned rock and roll, from Neil Young to The Flaming Lips.