Jim Raras had been offered a pretty cool new job, but before he accepted, he wanted to conduct a small focus group with friends. What he wanted to find out was whether there was any correlation between people who are into craft beer and those who are, or once were, into baseball cards. When he found a strong connection between the two seemingly disparate passions, he called Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and accepted the job. He would be the first executive vice president of Mikkeller Brewing NYC—a brewery to be built into the New York Mets’ Citi Field baseball stadium.
Raras, who was formerly the CFO at Vermont’s acclaimed Hill Farmstead Brewery in Greensboro Bend, tells me, “A huge piece of this project was appealing to me, but Citi Field in and of itself had this other element—mainly, access to a lot of people who may not be beer geeks, beer nerds, beer enthusiasts, whatever you want to call them. They’re just sports fans, people who live in the metro area. From a business perspective, we have the native demand, this customer segment coming for something else. It’s a cool opportunity to educate them on beer—thematically, with baseball and baseball cards.”
This year’s baseball season kicked off in April with Citi Field offering two Mikkeller beers specially made for the stadium. Produced at Mikkeller’s San Diego brewery, Henry Hops (an IPA) and Say Hey Sally (a pilsner) came in Keith Shore–designed orange-and-blue cans meant to resemble 1980s-era baseball cards. Beer and baseball have long been intrinsically linked, and Henry and Sally were an immediate hit. Little did fans know that a couple of months later, Mikkeller would be announcing plans to open a most unconventional brewery in the ballpark.
“From a functional perspective, it is a traditional brewery,” Raras claims. “I wouldn’t say anything Mikkeller does is traditional per se, but [this will be a] living, breathing, production brewery as opposed to just a pilot system.”
From an operational and manufacturing standpoint, the new facility will be a regular 20-barrel brewhouse system housed in a 10,000-square-foot space. It will have a canning line in-house (“You can have hoppy beer in the hot sun and not have your beer skunk [with cans],” Raras says) and a 5,500-square-foot taproom with 60 draft offerings at any given time—both geeky beers, like barrel-aged coffee stouts, and more mainstream, lighter offerings they’ll call ballpark brews, most meant to be consumed on-site. There will even be “elevated” stadium food courtesy of chef David Chang’s chicken sandwich chain Fuku, and Pat LaFrieda. Best of all, you won’t need a ticket to the game to enter the taproom.
The only difference between this brewery and others is that, instead of being located in an urban warehouse district or empty field out in the countryside like most breweries, Mikkeller NYC will be on the right-field, 126th Street side of a giant baseball stadium in Queens. One surrounded by literally a million square feet of parking lot.
“From a construction perspective, New York is challenging,” Raras says. “Layer on [doing construction during] baseball season, and we have to be sensitive about not just ongoing operations but the fans and baseball.”
Although there are challenges in building and attempting to run a brewery in a working baseball stadium, Raras points to the positives. Yes, they are currently going through a build-out, but it’s happening in the shell of a space that had long been used for private events within the stadium. That means the infrastructure is already in place, with quality electric and water lines already available. Raras also points to the space’s impressive 27-foot-high ceilings, which will allow for an innovative design: building the brewhouse vertically, fermentors on top of tanks.
“We’re in Citi Field, but we’re a tenant of Citi Field,” Raras claims, noting that the Mets have no financial investment in the project. “We benefit from that infrastructure.”
Though it may eventually become the best known, Mikkeller NYC is not the first brewery built inside a ballpark. Minor league ballparks have proved particularly fertile ground for hosting breweries. Against the Grain opened in Slugger Field in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2011—and quickly became the state’s top brewery—while Bull Durham Beer Co. opened in the Bulls’ Athletic Park in Durham, North Carolina, in 2015. The already-successful Terrapin Beer Co. in Athens, Georgia, opened its ATL Brew Lab in the right field of the Braves’ new SunTrust Park earlier this year (and sells a beer made with baseball bat shavings).
Of course, one of the most famous modern beers originated at a ballpark brewery that still stands today. When The SandLot brewery was launched with the opening of the Colorado Rockies’ Coors Field in 1995, the taproom was only open to ticket holders (which would remain true until 2010). Back then the Coors-owned, 10-barrel brewpub offered a test beer called Bellyslide Belgian White. It proved so popular that nowadays it’s brewed in a massive facility in Golden, Colorado…and we know it better as Blue Moon.
“Brewing at a ballpark certainly presents challenges, mainly in the way of space,” says Keith Villa, the founder of Blue Moon Brewing Company. “However, the inspiration you get from brewing so close to an MLB ballpark can’t be replicated, and neither can the opportunity to test new beers on a large group of people.”
Indeed, a brewpub without customers is not a business that can succeed, no matter how cool its location. Mikkeller NYC will be open “360-ish” days a year in a not-exactly-bustling part of outer Queens. There are only 81 home games a year—and one wonders who exactly is going to trek out to an empty stadium on a chilly November night to drink beer. Brooklyn and Queens already have plenty of top-notch breweries in well-populated areas much closer to Manhattan.
But Raras disputes that line of thinking, noting that the area around Flushing Meadows is up and coming, and that Mikkeller NYC has a chance to be the “cornerstone” of a burgeoning community. Still, he claims that despite Mikkeller’s having some three dozen other properties around the world—from Copenhagen to Berlin to Taipei and Tokyo—Mikkeller NYC won’t get a “free ride”; it will have to be profitable.
Perhaps it will be, despite the obstacles it faces, because it has a unique draw none of New York City’s 32 other breweries can possibly claim. “On the days we don’t have a game or an event,” Raras notes, “we’ll have a lot of available parking.”
Mikkeller Brewery NYC plans to open in Citi Field in the late fall 2017.
Aaron Goldfarb lives in Brooklyn and is the author of “How to Fail: The Self-Hurt Guide,” “The Guide for a Single Man,” and “The Guide for a Single Woman.” His writing on beer has appeared in Esquire, Playboy, The Daily Beast, PUNCH, First We Feast, Serious Eats, Draft Magazine and other publications.