Is this a beer list or an appetizer menu? That might be your first question when you enter Shelter Island Craft Brewery for the first time and examine the beers on tap.
The names of some of the beers — Forbidden Fruit, French Kiss and Twin Forks Harvest — might be more reminiscent of something from a master chef’s kitchen. With ingredients like thyme, peppercorn, orange, licorice and lemon verbena, it’s easy to see that owner and brewmaster James Hull draws on his culinary background when brewing his creations.
“I just like to cook, it’s my passion,” said Hull.
While Hull did work in the kitchen at restaurants like East Hampton’s Della Femina and Sag Harbor’s Paradise, he actually considers himself a former jeweler from Manhattan’s Diamond District, where he worked for 25 years.
Opening Shelter Island Craft Brewery was a dream he and longtime partner Clarissa Williams started together before she lost her battle with cancer last February.
“We were working toward opening this together, but I lost her,” said Hull. “Her almost dying wish was for me to continue to bring it out, and I did. It’s been a challenging year, obviously; probably the most challenging year of my life.”
The brewery opened last summer to great fanfare and very early success. Shelter Island immediately embraced the brewery and on weekends when the population swelled with the influx of summer visitors, it almost always sold out.
“They were wiping me out. They were taking everything I had,” said Hull. “I guess in a business sense that’s a good thing, to sell out your entire stock, but then you have to replace it.”
Hull prefers to brew his beer in small batches, which gives him more creative control and allows him to take the time to train future brewmasters in the art of beer making. This fall, one of Hull’s apprentices was Mel Scarberry, a chef at the Chequit’s Red Maple restaurant.
“I’m just learning, that way I can help him when he needs it,” explained Scarberry. “I’ve pretty much studied every ethnicity of cuisine, and beer is one of my last frontiers.”
While all grains and some hops are imported from off-island, most of the other ingredients that the brewery depends on are local, like honey and hops. Many of the more exotic ingredients come from Hull’s own garden, including flowers such as hibiscus and rose rugosa, as well as herbs like sage, rosemary and thyme. More potent ingredients like beach plums and lemon verbena are cooked down into syrups and teas to last throughout the winter.
“It is like cooking,” Hull said. “It is like being a chef, but harder. It’s a lot more complex because you’re dealing with pH balances and hops and yeast influences. You have to have the experience beforehand to know what it’s going to produce. You’re mixing the orange and the fennel because you know that’s going to work well with scallops.”
Uh, did he say scallops?
Last November, in fact, Hull created a scallop beer to honor the East End season. Peconic Bay scallops were pan-seared the same day they were caught, then dropped into a ready-made brew that already contained ingredients like orange and fennel. The scallops brewed for just 12 hours before being removed; then the beer was kegged.
“What the scallop will leave behind is mostly caramel,” Hull said. “The caramelization will leave the [essence] of the fresh scallop. These scallops that we get here are beautiful; they taste like they have sugar in them.”
The scallop beer, tastes surprisingly sweet, not bitter or hoppy. A slight briny undercurrent also comes to mind, with elements of orange and herbs. A limited edition brew, Hull’s Scallop Beer was released on a Thursday and gone by Sunday.
Some of the brewery’s early summer favorites have become mainstays, including a light, citrusy beer called Liquid Sunshine, and Dune Cottage, a Belgian-style saison. A saison, which is French for “season,” is a pale ale. Historically farmers brewed their own saisons during winter months to save for the summer. Local ingredients made each one distinctive. Today the beer is brewed year round.
Hull is now working on winter brews like Forbidden Fruit, an apple-based beer made with Fuji apples grown on the island.
“The apple beer is a real beer, based with a Munich and pilsner malt,” he said. “I balance it right from the get-go and use coriander, lemon peel and apples from the lawns of Shelter Island.”
Other brews in the works include a nut porter beer made with crushed chestnuts called Castania, which means “chestnut” in Italian. Montezuma is a Mexican molé-inspired beer, made with real Mexican peppers and cocoa nibs.
A fall beer still being served is French Kiss, an imperial milk stout, inspired by the dessert crème brulée and made with toasted sugar and vanilla extract. To an untrained nose, it smells more like a cold-brewed tea.
“You can get a little of that,” said Hull. “That’s just the base for it, we add everything later on.”
Those ingredients include dark grain, pure vanilla bean and butter cream. A few weeks later the delicious French Kiss was available, darker and richer with a slight sweet flavor.
With so many beers in the works and summer favorites still on tap, one would expect Hull to rest on his laurels, but he’s already planning new brews.
“I might introduce a Hull, because it’s my name. There’s a German hop called Hull Melon from Hull, Germany, and I’m going to change my saison to an elderflower extract, instead of the rugosa, because obviously I can’t get rugosa anymore,” he said.
Chris Hulse of East Moriches stopped in for the first time one afternoon to sample some beers and came away impressed.
“I loved it,” exclaimed Hulse. “They’re all good. I liked the IPA and the Harvest Ale was great; that’s what I got the growler for. It’s all good here. He really takes his time and does it right.”
Hull said he enjoys serving his beers to his customers just as much as making them.
“I’m mostly getting all positive feedback and enjoying it,” said Hull. “I love when the beer comes out nice in the glass and people are smiling. It’s a good thing.”
This story was originally published in the winter 2016 edition of the Long Island Wine Press