above: Justin Weinstein and Jarrett McGovern, two of the founders of Rise Brewing Company, in the Stamford taproom – Photographs by Carol Leonetti Dannhauser
Another party with coworkers. Another happy hour with friends. Another holiday hangover.
’Tis the season to tap a keg. But not all bubbly inside has to zap your energy, cloud your thinking or tax your liver. In fact, a couple of brews here in Stamford might actually power your partying.
Inside the tasting room of a Fairfield Avenue brewery, Jarrett McGovern lifts a tap and out flows liquid as dark as a Guinness stout, topped with a white, creamy head. This nitrogen-infused draft is coffee, cold-brewed, kegged and canned by McGovern and his partners, Grant Gyesky and Justin Weinstein, at Rise Brewing Co. in Stamford.
The drink—brewed with Peruvian organic coffee beans, plus Stamford’s own water filtered to remove chemicals—was born and perfected in 2014 during overnight experiments in McGovern’s New York City railroad flat. McGovern and pals—fit adventurers who drank coffee before skiing or surfing—wished to fuel their escapades with a cool, clean beverage with the lift and taste of coffee but without the sugar, cream, acid or sea of chemicals. So they tried their own cold-brewing, mixing and blending four cups at a time. “We were literally shaking it on my grandmother’s rocking chair for two hours,” McGovern recalls. Adds Weinstein, “It was a lot of trial and error.”
Once they landed on a great recipe, the friends, who had met as students at Brunswick Academy in Greenwich, aimed for bigger batches. Cold-brewed coffee “was exploding” at the time, says McGovern, who grew up fetching coffee at Lakeside Diner for his mom, and who learned about water filtration from his dad, Kevin, the founder of SoBe beverages. Back then, commercially cold-brewed coffee sat in exposed vats for 20 hours. The trio wanted a cleaner option. Beer brewers told them about nitrogen, which would preserve coffee naturally, plus add a creamy head.
They moved the brewing to Gyeski’s garage in Cos Cob, and drove kegs of their coffee into New York at sunrise. The hip Brooklyn Heights eatery Colonie filled an empty keg slot with the trio’s brew (and created the “Nitro Palmer,” a Rise coffee version of an Arnold Palmer). A vegan-cafe owner requested latte with a plant-based dairy alternative and Rise created its own organic oat milk, which sweetened the coffee without adding sugar. A friend requested a Rise kegerator at work when the office espresso machine broke down. And so it went. Orders started flowing.
Increasingly, customers wanted the brew for home. A microbrewery in Pennsylvania helped produce the canning line.
While Rise’s kegerators are found in offices, bars and restaurants throughout Stamford and nationwide (and places including the Yankees and Mets clubhouses), you can belly up to the bar at the Rise taproom, or grab a six-pack for your next holiday affair.
Four glasses arrive in a flight, each beverage containing the fizz of a soda, the tang of a beer and flavors unique and identifiable—guava, blueberries, lavender, ginger—as if commercial soda were stripped of chemicals and cloying sweetness, if fruit juice were bubbly and pure, if hard cider or fruity wines were flavored with actual organic fruit instead of whatever “natural fruit flavor” is.
Steve Gaskin is doing the pouring here at the East Coast Kombucha taproom, in an exposed-brick, turn-of-the-century, converted textile factory in South Norwalk. As Gaskin chats about his quest for the best kombucha, customers grab a keg for their kegerator, refill their howlers (32 oz.) and growlers (64 oz.), or pick up a four-pack.
Truth be told, Gaskin was not a kombucha fan until a wedding in Hawaii, where guests drank the fermented tea from a tap. It was so tasty—refreshing and clean, but without the vinegary flavor prevalent in many kombuchas here—that Gaskin, his wife, Glynise, and their good friend Claudia Duvall aspired to replicate it at home.
“We bought a homebrewing kit and used the exact recipe that we use today,” says Gaskin, citing a brew of organic teas (black assam, white peony, yerba matte and rooibos) organic sugar, water and a sourdough-like starter called Scoby that eats its way through sugar in a month of fermenting.
The trio experimented, adding strawberries and pineapples, spices and peppers, flowers and herbs. They thought their brew tasted great, just like the Hawaiian stuff.
At the time, Gaskin, a former TV producer, was searching for a new passion. He appreciated this fizzy, organic beverage that happened to be full of antioxidants, and thought other folks might too. “If you look at what restaurants and bars offer that aren’t alcoholic,” he says, “it’s mostly soda.”
But it’s one thing to homebrew in little five-gallon jugs in the basement. To scale-up the operation, the partners found financing, turned to a brewery in New Orleans for production help, and added cans to the kegs and bottles. Their kombucha business took off, with kegs flowing at more than 50 commercial accounts and a Sono taproom that was “open and hopping,” Gaskin says.
Then the pandemic arrived, and accounts evaporated like so many bubbles.
Instead of bailing on their venture, the partners doubled-down. They automated a canning operation on site, where tea brews and kombucha ferments 600 gallons at a time in shiny steel drums. They added exotic elixirs to the goods in the cupboard, bags of organic ginger and hibiscus petals from California, bottles of rose water from France, organic blueberries and guava nectar. Now, each season brings new flavors, available in Stamford at places like Chelsea Piers Fitness, The Granola Bar, and a host of delis, restaurants and markets in town, in addition to restaurants and grocery stores along the East Coast.
While a mug of booch can stand on its own as a holiday beverage, adds Gaskin, “it also makes a good cocktail mixer.”