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Jul 31, 2014

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Heartland Brewing

By Gregg Smith

Calling New York'ers demanding is hardly a news flash. Residents of Gotham have long been noted (and sometimes admonished) for their critical view of virtually everything they touch. Further hampered by sometimes fickle tastes, the toughest area to succeed is dining and nightlife. Places seem to open, become wildly popular, then fold overnight. These conditions are enough to make most people think twice about starting a new business. Combined with a history of two brewpub closures it's little wonder New York has lagged behind in the craft brew movement. But all that may be changing and Heartland Brewing will be one of the players.

The roots of Heartland reach to Madison Avenue where Jon Bloostein worked as an advisor in the financial world of mergers and acquisitions. Trade shows in the business were routinely located on the west coast and Jon's position led him there several times a year. During one of those trips he first set foot in a brewpub. The impact of that visit was tremendous and during future trips he made the rounds of Gordon Biersch, Twenty Tank, San Francisco Brewing and any other brewpub he could locate.

Jon still speaks with awe and enthusiasm about the experience "I would go in and never want to leave" reminisces Bloostein, "It was like watching bread rise and then being baked - the next thing you know you're eating it warm and fresh - and it was all done right in front of you. Brewpubs are the same way, but it's beer." It was that kind of magic which drew him ever closer to brewing and thoughts of building his own.

Instead of looking upon his unfamiliarity with the beer business as a detriment, Bloostein considered his work in the financial world a plus. He was trained to research various industries and that training directed him to New Orleans for his first microbrewery conference. By the time he left the Big Easy he was hooked, as he says "It was great to find an embryonic industry where people were open and shared information willingly."

After additional trips to Portland, and other brewing centers, he began to picture what his brewpub would be. He likes to call it the antithesis of a trendy bar. Although virtually everything in Heartland is new, you get a feel of exactly the opposite. It begins when you step up to the deep brown, hardwood bar and continues as your gaze takes in the wood and mirrored back bar. Above that, depicting the brewing process from midwest farms to consumers, is an allegorical mural in the style of Thomas Hart-Benton. Even this was made to look old by a coat of smoke-hued varnish. The effect continues with the brewery's logo on a brick wall opposite the bar. It's newly painted but prematurely aged by an acid wash. A mezzanine/loft, ceiling fans and period piece lighting completes an effect which rivals that of the city's oldest taverns.

At the far end of the bar is the equipment the acts like a magnet for beer lovers. The brew house is installed behind a casement window-like wall which imparts an old industrial feel that complements the restaurant's decor. But make no mistake, the brewing equipment is a spanking new 15bbl DME system incorporating the latest in brewing technology.

Presiding over the brewing is Jim Migliorini who was set down the road to brewing through his curiosity about a vineyard, not far from home, that was making fruit wines. Soon he was totally immersed in the mystery of fermentation and shortly thereafter was working as assistant winemaker. Fortunately, Jim discovered there was limited opportunity in the business so he pursued another passion, cooking, by taking a job as assistant chef at the Commonwealth Brewery in Boston. The close proximity of the fermentation tanks must have been like the sirens who tempted Ulysses. He shifted to assistant brewer, his final step on the odyssey which brought him to Heartland.

Normally, ever critical New York'ers would look at such a path to brewer with some skepticism. However, though Jim's background may not be the most conventional it certainly was effective. At this year's Great American Beer Festival Heartland was awarded a bronze medal for "Farmer Jon's Oatmeal Stout", quite an accomplishment in the first year of operation. The stout is a low hopped ale with an enigmatic character attained from its blend of biting roasted barley and the smooth, silkiness of oats. Other beers include their version of lager "Red Rooster" - mildly hopped and malty (made by an alt process.) "Harvest Wheat" is a traditional style, cloudy hefe-weizen which should be allowed to warm for full release of its classic wheat profile. All beers are "pushed" (dispensed) with a customized blend of CO2 and Nitrogen which stabilizes the beer's carbonation level and produces a big creamy head. This is especially true for the oatmeal stout which is served through a slow-pour tap that further emphasizes head formation.

Heartland also produces specialty beers such as their Smiling Pumpkin Ale. Deep gold with a light orange hue, it has a nose of nutmeg, a faint sweetness and a somewhat dry finish. Let it warm to bring forth the more assertive ginger and clove. In fact, it's in brewing the specialty beers where Jim reaches into his cooking background. For the pumpkin beer he scooped out the seeds, seasoned them with curry, roasted them and ground them into the consistency of course salt. He uses this to encrust the rim of a glass in a beer rendition of a margarita.

The third part of Heartland's team is Sam Hazen who presides over the kitchen as executive chef. This is no average brewpub menu; Mr. Hazen is a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and honed his skills at a number of renown restaurants before returning to the institute as an instructor. Today he enthusiastically designs appetizers and entrees which either incorporate or complement Heartland's beers. You might be tempted to think all the dishes are upscale, not so, one of the most popular is a version of hearty meatloaf, but it's unlikely mom ever served hers with a wild mushroom ale sauce.

Efforts of the kitchen's are no better showcased than in the brewery's frequent beer dinners. But the fun isn't limited to beer and food. Heartland also hosts scotch and bourbon tastings. Well they should, the bar's single malt selection numbers over twenty with a near equal number of whiskeys. They also boast an impressive variety of premium tequila.

The sum of Jon Bloostein's efforts is almost what he originally tried to avoid. Heartland has become a darling of the lower-midtown area. At times it almost seems like three different establishments. During the day it appears in the form of a classic bar, with quiet conversations and slowly savored pints. Later, near evening, it imparts the image of a popular happy hour watering hole and then a trendy restaurant/club. No matter, the overall effect of something a little different is maintained.

How does Bloostein feel about this success, and what does he plan next? Of course he's pleased with Heartland's reception but he hasn't forgotten which town he's in. Jon is taking a cautious approach to expansion as he searches for just the right second location. Meanwhile Heartland has demonstrated that brewpubs can be successful in the big apple. It's simply a matter of quality.

Heartland Brewing is located at 35 Union Square West (212) 645-3400

Gregg Smith

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