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Chris Gray and Beth Lewand of Greenpoint's Eastern District

We had heard the tale of North Greenpoint’s Eastern District – Beth Lewand loved cheese. Chris Gray loved beer. After an intro by a mutual friend, the fellow Greenpointers promptly fell in love, quit their jobs, opened a craft cheese and beer shop around the corner from their house, and lived happily ever after.

Wait. Did we miss anything? We figured it was probably worth a visit to the cheery and charming Manhattan Avenue shop to find out…And to try one of their already-famous and oh-so-simple sandwiches…And to maybe pick up a growler of one of Chris’ carefully curated selection of craft brews…

Hi Beth.

Beth: Hey. Chris is actually home making soup right now, but he’ll be back any minute.

No problem. Let’s start with you. Where are you from? How did you get interested in food and come to open this place?

Well I was born in Vermont and raised in Baltimore, but my dad grew up in Greenpoint and his parents grew up in Greenpoint too.  About fourteen years ago I moved to the house on Freeman St. where my grandfather was born in 1917.

Wow! That’s a good story right there!

Yeah! It’s kind of amazing.

I moved to New York in ’96. I was working in website production at the time. I moved into Manhattan, then out here to my grandfather’s house – he sold it to me cheap. He wanted me to have it, so I moved in, and I’ve done a bunch of fixing up over the years since.

Eventually I met Chris, who was living over on Clay Street at the time. He’s now my husband. Eventually he moved in and we’ve been living together there since 2006.

How did you guys meet?

We had a friend in common. We spent our first sort-of date over at Tommy’s Tavern on the corner of Freeman and Manhattan, drinking cheap Budweisers.

What better way to get to know someone?

That’s right! So all those years I was still doing website production for various Cable TV networks. I worked for Comedy Central and VH1 and Fuse. Chris was doing art handling and construction and carpentry, and playing music in a couple of different bands.

What kind of music? What bands?

He played drums in a rock n’ roll band called Endless Boogie – which is still around – and he played an experimental combination of synthesizers, effects pedals, and other random instruments  in a noise band called Double Leopards – which is not still around.  He’s strictly a basement jammer…for now.

So, over the years we would sort of jokingly daydream about opening a beer and cheese shop because those are two things we really loved. He’s particularly expert in beer – he’s been homebrewing for decades.  And I have a particular interest in cheese.

Years ago I started going to Murrays and trying to work my way through the whole cheese counter. Seriously! Studying it. In my own way. Studying it by eating it!

To us this was kind of like a funny little daydream we had. It never seemed realistic.

And then a couple of years ago I got laid off after the economy crashed. Like everyone else!

[Chris comes in from the street.]

Chris: I’m back! Done with the lentil soup!

Beth: Alright! Good! We live less than a block away, so if we have a slow afternoon one of us can just run home and cook dinner. That’s one of the benefits of having slow afternoons.

So after a few months of thinking about what to do next, I started thinking, “Well actually maybe opening a beer and cheese shop isn’t just a crazy idea. Or maybe it is a crazy idea, but a crazy idea that we might actually want to pursue!”

That summer I apprenticed  – I trained at Artisanal Bistro and then worked at the cheese counter at Bar Artisanal. Just to sort of learn more and make sure this was something I’d want to spend all day doing. And I found that I really enjoyed it! I found that I really like introducing people to food that they might not otherwise explore. I enjoy learning all about the history and anthropology of different kinds of cheese, and the science of cheesemaking is really fascinating too.

I found it a lot more fulfilling to be interacting with people all day instead of sitting in an office in front of a computer. Doing something that clearly, directly made people happy felt a little more gratifying!

We got married in October 2009. We went to Bali and Hong Kong for our honeymoon. Ahh…those were the days! When we came back I started working on the business plan for the shop and Chris started working at The Brooklyn Kitchen – he set up their homebrew department there.

Chris: That was a lot of fun!

Beth: Chris had known Harry Rosenblum, the owner of The Brooklyn Kitchen, for a long time. He’d been bugging him since the small, early days of Brooklyn Kitchen to start up a homebrew department. He’s a homebrewer and at that time there wasn’t anywhere to get homebrew supplies or ingredients around here. It was all mail order.

Chris: Before The Brooklyn Kitchen and Brooklyn Homebrew started carrying homebrew supplies you had to go out to Long Island or to this hydroponic gardening place in Queens, which didn’t have much – like, emergency items only. The basics. Now I can ride my bike or take the subway to get whatever I need. Things have changed a lot for homebrewers in Brooklyn in the last few years.

Beth: So while I was putting together the business plan, it became clear there was clearly a growing interest in craft beer and artisanal foods in the city and really in the whole country. There was clearly a lot more interest in making food and knowing more about food and where it came from and who made it and all that good stuff, so opening the shop started to look like it would actually make a lot of sense!

In January of 2010, we purchased the store and the equipment inside it and rented the space. It was total quismet. We knew we wanted to do it in Greenpoint. It seemed like there was a lot of potential here – there aren’t a lot of options for good food yet in this part of Greenpoint. One day I was crossing the street on my way home and I saw a For Sale sign in the window of this place, and it turned out to be perfect – a great amount of space for a good price. And it came with some cool stuff too – these big old refrigeration cases came with it. There’s some cool meat and butchering equipment in the back too. They used to make Kielbasa and sausages here. It was a Polish meat market for decades before we took it over.

There’s a smokehouse in back too. We’re not quite ready to start making sausage and that sort of thing yet, but it’s nice that we have it there and it could be something we’ll move into in the future. We’ll see!

So we, and by that I mean Chris, spent the next nine months renovating the place and getting the smell of Kielbasa out of the walls!

Any special tricks for that?

Chris: Yeah – knock down the walls!

Beth: Ha ha – So we put in a new walk-in, made it all bright and cheery and clean…eventually we found a couple of people to share the kitchen space with us. Anton Nocito from P&H Soda Co. and Laena McCarthy from Anarchy in a Jar share our kitchen and make their stuff here.

The renovation was the hard part. Finding all the products to put on the shelves…Making our wishlists of all the beers and cheeses and other things we wanted to carry was the fun part.

Chris: Ha Ha – yeah I’d be in here gutting the place and people would stop in and ask, “So what beer are you gonna have?” I’d be like, “Beer!? I need drywall! It’ll take me two days to figure out what beer I want to carry! Come back in a couple of months!” Well, in the end it took a lot longer than two days.

Beth: We spent a while narrowing down the list, but in the grand scheme of things, that was the fun part.

We decided to focus primarily on American craft cheeses and beers, but we’re not dogmatic about it. We have our favorite Belgian beers and Italian cheeses and things that we think are important to the mix.

Chris: Or things that we selfishly picked because we just wanted them. It is our store! We can do that!

Beth:  There’s so much available that’s locally made and that’s good. A lot of our local and Brooklyn-made products are our best sellers and we rounded those out with our favorites from other parts of the country or the world. Like Pocky and Pretz from Japan or Speculoos from Belgium…things that we love.

[…A UPS delivery man comes in from the street with a box that he says was ‘really stinking up the truck!’...then dashes out.]

Chris: Yeah, we have to subject the UPS guy to some tough stuff. This is a box of Grayson cheese from Meadow Creek Farms in Virginia. It stinks! It’s stinking up the guy’s whole truck!

Beth: Ha, ha – at least we know we’ll get those shipments right on time! He can’t wait to get rid of them!

Chris: He probably came right here – directly from the warehouse.

Beth: For some of our cheeses, we work directly with the farmers – that’s the stuff that comes by UPS or US Mail or FedEx. Sorry delivery people!

So I’m sure you love every last one of your cheeses, but do you have any current favorites?

Beth: One of our ‘most recommended’ is Nettle Meadow Kunik. It’s made in New York State. It’s a triple cream cheese made with a combination of goats’ milk and cows’ cream.

Goats don’t make a lot of extra cream, so in order to ‘cream it up’ they add the cows’ cream.  It’s super-creamy but a lot more flavorful than a lot of triple cream cheeses. Triple creams are often really mild. This one is really really good. It’s fairly local, and it’s one of those cheeses I’ll give people a taste of – on one of those little tasting forks, and they end up not wanting to throw the fork away…

Chris: They end up sucking on the fork.

Beth: Ha ha – yeah, they end up walking around the store with the fork in their mouths. If I give someone a taste of that one I know they’re going to buy it!

One of our other current favorites is the Tarentaise from Spring Brook Farm in Vermont. That’s a hard nutty cheese – a good compliment to the soft and creamy ones.

Tell me about the sandwiches.

We found that sandwiches were really in demand around here.  There’s not a lot of variety of sandwiches or other food around here just yet so it made sense to offer some. And they’re sandwiches – who doesn’t love a good sandwich?

We come up with them together. One of us will come up with an idea and work on it and the other one will taste it. We work on it until we get it right. We keep the recipes pretty simple and just focus on the right pairing of maybe three really great ingredients. I think they’re really good!

I’ve been hearing a lot about your Turkey Sandwich with Bacon Marmalade…

Beth: Oh yeah. That’s one where we knew we needed to figure out a sandwich specifically for one ingredient – Bacon Marmalade. It’s the ultimate ingredient. We tried a few different things and settled on pairing it with turkey and smoked gouda. It’s really good.

So Chris, how did you develop an interest in beer?

Chris: I grew up in Philly, which was a real beer town. Lots of great breweries around there. Lots of craft beer. In college, like plenty of other guys,  I was more interested in drinking beer than in going to class. And when I had a job and could afford to spend more than $1.95 on a ‘40’ I started to explore. It was kind of like “What’s this beer? I’ve never heard of it. Let’s get it!”

It started out with things like Yuengling when they were still really small. My friends and I made a pilgrimage to the brewery. It was up in the cold mountains of Pennsylvania, and it was really nice up there. We’d get the beer at the brewery, and it was super-fresh and just amazingly good, and that got us even more curious – we started really getting into exploring more and more beers.

In the 90’s more and more small breweries were opening up in Eastern Pennsylvania, so we’d seek those out and we just really liked trying beers we’d never tried before.

I had a friend who worked at a store in Philly that was considered a beer nerd’s mecca. Originally it was a tiny store with an awesome beer selection. The owner was kind of a jerk to work for, so my friend would always give us a really good ‘discount,’ and that allowed us to taste all kinds of great beers that we might not have been able to find or afford, and that just got us more and more interested in learning more.

Sometime in the mid-90’s a friend of mine started homebrewing. I was like, “This is really interesting. How do you do it?” So he said, “Wanna do it?” So we went over to his place one afternoon and we made a beer and it wasn’t good, but it was fun, and we just kept doing it. My roommates and friends all started homebrewing.  We started doing brew nights. We’d invite people over and have a little party making and drinking beer, and it was great.

Whenever I travelled anywhere – different states or different countries – I’d seek out the local beers.  So there it is – I’m a beer nerd. That’s what I’m into.

When I moved up here it was kind of a bummer – it just wasn’t a beer town. I was often coming back from Philly with cases of great craft beer to share with my friends who hadn’t had a chance to try them because they just weren’t available here.  When Beth and I started dating, we started brewing at her house, and we just kept it going!

When I was playing music in bands and we’d go on tour in Europe, I couldn’t wait to get to Belgium. We’d all get different beers and pass the glasses around. Or if we were in England we’d try some really local English Bitter brewed in one town for one pub. We’d just try stuff and it was great and that’s what I’m hoping to make available to people with the selection here.

We have a handful of customers who I can tell are just kind of wading into this world of great beer, which is really awesome! Some of them know I know, so they ask. They’ll say, “I tried this one and liked that one…what should I try next?” I love those guys! I love people like that – who are adventurous and want to try stuff.

Any recent favorites for you? Any discoveries?

Well, I’ve become a champion of Stillwater Brewery, out of Maryland, because I think that guy does amazing things. I pretty much always have something of his on tap or in bottles in the case. I’ve really become a big fan of Barrier Brewery out in Oceanside, New York in Nassau County. It’s just a two man operation. They make great beer. They’re super-nice guys. They don’t have a distributor – they just show up in their pickup truck. They call and ask, “You need beer?” and I’ll say, “Yeah I need beer.” And they’ll show up a day or two later in their pickup truck with a keg.

Beth: A lot of our favorite operations are two-person operations!

Chris: You can always tell when they’ve made their Brooklyn run. All of a sudden they’ll be on tap at Bierkraft, Beer Table, Brouwerj Lane…they’ve got a lot of fans. Their beers are all good. I’ve enjoyed every one of their beers, which is pretty unusual.

I’m also a big fan of Captain Lawrence and have been since they started up. We’ve gone up to the brewery for special bottle releases and that sort of thing. He makes great beer too.

What else? There are so many, but those are some of my favorite local and regional craft breweries right now.

The Stillwater is distributed by Twelve Percent Imports. They’re a great distributor – they also carry a lot of really rare and interesting Belgian and other European beers. They’re a two-person operation too. Brian and Maggie go to these tiny little breweries in Europe and find the most interesting things. They have great taste. They find beers you would never have seen or heard of before unless you happened to be in the little town in Northern France or Belgium or Sweden where they’re made.  And a lot of those breweries are one or two or three person operations – like the Barrier Berweries of their little towns.

They make it easy to find great, rare beers.

So what are some of the non-cheese and non-beer highlights on the shelves?

Beth: We really like everything we have on our shelves. We just started carrying some snacks from Ovenly. We actually got our first shipment from them this week. I think those bacon-washed peanuts are going to be a big hit. The pecans are delicious also.

We also just started carrying some meats from The Meat Hook. We’ve got their country pate and mortadella. Both are really good. One woman came in a few days ago and got a tiny slice of the country pate. The next day she came back and got a giant chunk! It’s so good!

How did you come up with the name ‘Eastern District’?

Beth: We wanted a name that was local and historical, without being too obvious or limiting. We did a little research and found that Eastern District was an older name for the industrial, eastern area of Greenpoint, Williamsburg and Bushwick. We’re not exactly in that area, but we liked the history. We do sometimes get accidental phone calls for the Eastern District Court or the now-defunct high school of the same name!

Judging by Chris’ background as a musician and the eclectic playlist you have going here, I’m guessing you’re pretty into music. What do you like? Do you get out to shows much?

We both love a lot of different kinds of music. Here in the shop you might hear anything from Hawkwind, Mad Lib, Brian Eno, Pharoah Saunders, King Tubby, The Impressions, or The Breeders, to Siouxsie and the Banshees, or Blue Oyster Cult.

We’re usually too tired to go to any shows these days, but the best show we’ve seen lately was the Metal Mountains record release show at Secret Project Robot, and that’s one of our favorite new albums too.

How long have you been open?

Beth: Since November 30, so approaching four months.

Is it just you guys?

Beth: Yep. Right now it’s just us. We like to daydream about all the awesome things that’ll happen once we have some help, but right now it’s just us. And I think that’s a good way to get started. I think it’s good to figure it all out before you start telling other people what to do!

Having fun?

Beth: Most of the time! It’s been great. Everything I was hoping would happen has happened – we’ve gotten to know our neighbors a lot better, we have a great group of regulars – it’s like our own little community. It’s just been fun. Chris gets into recommending beer the way I like to recommend cheese- by finding out a little bit about what people like and helping them discover something new. That’s just really fun for us.

We have some beers and cheeses that we keep in stock all the time, but we cycle through others too. The beers on tap change all the time, and we bring in new cheeses, so there’s always something new for someone to discover whenever they come in, and that’s what we love about it.

Well, I think that’s it, but I might have to get one of those Bacon Marmalade sandwiches…

Beth: You probably should.

Editor’s note: The Bacon Marmalade sandwich was good. Really good. Worth a trip.

Want to see Beth making a sandwich? Live and in person? Check out Food Curated’s live sandwich action episode with Beth:

EAT THIS: My Friend’s Mustard Ham & Cheese Sandwich at Eastern District from SkeeterNYC on Vimeo.


Stop by and visit Beth and Chris at Eastern District – 1053 Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint

 

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