Vinyl listening bars are commonplace in Tokyo, so much so they’re often considered sacred by the music dwellers inhabiting their space. Places like BaoBab in Kichijoji embody the communal audiophile experience where music lovers from around the globe can rejoice in super chill atmospheres with vinyl records spinning into oblivion.
Places like BaoBab are far less common in the U.S., almost non-existent, but there’s hope! Visionaries understand that proven concepts, even when emplaced in unfamiliar environments, can thrive and even evolve into something new and different.
Chris Maestro, founder of Brooklyn’s own BierWax, had a mid-life idea he decided not to squander. Instead, he turned it into New York City’s first vinyl record and craft beer bar, two things near and dear to both of our hearts. Chris and I shared that connection recently by doing an interview covering a wide array of topics including what it’s like to be a black-owned business in an industry dominated by white men, how race and social justice play into vinyl records and craft beer, and why renewable energy is sourced to keep the records spinning at BierWax each and every day.
The unadulterated interview is below and next time you’re in NYC, stop by BierWax at 556 Vanderbilt Avenue in Brooklyn, or pop into their 2nd location opening soon in Queens to melt the night away.
What made you brave enough to open up BierWax a few years back? Was there trepidation becoming the first vinyl record, craft beer bar in New York?
I spent nearly two decades in public school education in NYC. At a certain point in my career, as I approached 40 years of age, I had an itch I needed to scratch. As a record collector since my late teens and having a love affair with craft beer, which started in my late twenties, I wanted to create something that married these two passions of mine.
At first, that thing was a blog where I wrote about these two passions, vinyl records/hip-hop and craft beer. At the time, NYC went from 5 breweries to 12 or 15 overnight with the passage of new state laws that made it easier to open up breweries in New York State. I visited many of these breweries when they first opened and tried to grab photos and interviews with the owners. I also started homebrewing, a way to intimately learn the brewing process. I had a few pretty decent batches under my belt; however, that was a big crossroad.
I realized through homebrewing that I ultimately wanted to open up a spot that curated great beer being made by local "experts." I knew it would take me way too long to become a bona fide brewer myself. There were a few other inspirational moments, places that I visited around the world, that planted a seed that would become BierWax. One of these places was in Amsterdam, a bar called Cafe de Duivel, which I visited in 2009. There were DJs spinning actual hip hop vinyl, not Serato, which pretty much wasn't happening much in NYC anymore. Back then, I thought to myself, "Why doesn't something like this exist in NYC, the birthplace of hip hop?"
In terms of being the first to do it in NYC, when I knew the theme had to be craft beer and vinyl records, I did some research and only found one place in Texas I believe that was similar. There was a Korean restaurant in NYC with an insane record collection (Mono Mono), but it wasn't a bar. There really were no places modeled after the Jazz Kissa, Japanese vinyl listening room concept in the United States at the time. This was only 4 years ago. I'm proud to say we were one of the first. A few places opened up right after us and others a few years after us. I do feel like we served as inspiration here in the States for other vinyl record bars.
The vinyl collection at BierWax is mammoth in size and scope. Where did all the records come from? Are they from your collection or an assortment from a few people?
Every single record in BierWax, Brooklyn is from my personal collection. I've been collecting records since I was in college, over 25 years ago. As a record collector and DJ, my obsession with collecting has never stopped. I have gotten lucky too with acquiring some small collections for free. I would put the word out to friends and I'd sometimes get lucky with being gifted their parents' or grandparents' collections. I've had to say no to some of these gifts when the records were mainly showtunes and Neil Diamond records. I don't like to think about how much money I've spent on records over these past 25 years.
How do you incorporate "local" into your concept and operation? Do you try to keep a certain amount of local beer in stock and/or spotlight local musicians?
There are so many incredible local breweries. I try to focus on NYC, but also consider any New York State produced beer "local," as well. We try to keep at least 75% of our draft beer to local options. Sometimes we don't make that percentage if the beers are top notch from out of state. The DJs that spin regularly at BierWax are mainly local, mostly from Brooklyn.
I'm an environmentalist at heart and practice, so I have to ask, what made you go solar and source most of your energy from renewable energy?
I actually have a master's degree in Sustainability and Socially Responsible Business, so the concept is very near and dear to my heart. The solar panels, however, were our landlords' idea. It was their undertaking and I'm so happy it was completed 3 years ago. It has certainly saved on electricity bills, but we have been contributing to the cost of the panels.
The other sustainable feature of our bar is our patio furniture. A dear friend of mine hand-crafted the benches and tables using reclaimed wood that he pulled out of the Hudson River. He is a member of a boathouse on the Hudson River and spends a lot of time watching driftwood float past the club. He has become really good at furniture making with these discarded pieces of wood.
With BierWax being a "black-owned" business, how do you think race relations and the evolving social justice dialogue intertwine with craft beer and vinyl records? Is there a connection even if cosmic? Can beer and music heal the world?
I absolutely love this question and the "cosmic" reference. Right after George Floyd was murdered, I was involved in conversations with several people of color in the craft beer industry. We were brainstorming about what we can do as POC in the industry. One of the breweries started a project called, "Breathing Conversations" and engaged other breweries while brewing a "Breathing Conversations" collab in conversations around race and social justice. It was a rather short-lived endeavor, only lasting for 10 months or so. Our industry is 90% white male, but there are individuals who are doing a lot of work to push for inclusivity and diversity within the larger craft beer community.
I think it is overly optimistic to think beer and vinyl could heal the world because we are at a dire place in terms of climate change, rising anti-democratic movements, and rising racism. I often worry about what the United States will be like when my daughters are adults. It feels like we are moving backwards not forwards.
At the end of the interview, Chris and I pondered whether to end the discussion on such a gloomy note, but I decided to keep the commentary because it’s important. For things to change, we need to talk openly, and while beer and vinyl certainly won’t heal the world, sharing music and beer with others regardless of race, color or creed, will certainly help.