When Circa Brewing Co. opened last month in Downtown Brooklyn, they focused squarely on two of the most competitive markets in the city: beer and pizza. You can get both at hundreds of other places in New York. Within a few blocks of Circa, there are nearly a dozen places to get pizza. But Circa’s Head Brewer, Danny Bruckert, thinks he can do better.
He and his twin brother, Luke, partnered with Circa Brewing’s owner Gerry Rooney to open a brewpub next to Fulton Mall. It’s a spot everyone passes on their way to work. Lawyers mill about looking for lunch. The 5 o’clock crowd hangs around for happy hour. The space seems right for quality beer and pizza.
Danny took me through his “brewhouse”. All of the brewing equipment is stacked up and tucked behind the bar. It’s a tight squeeze, but Danny doesn’t mind. He’s the only one back here, brewing a few days a week. Alongside his patron saint: Judge Judy.
As I walked up the steps to the mash tanks and Danny showed off his paddles, I noticed a framed, signed portrait of Judge Judy. In each brewery that Danny has worked, he’s hung a picture of his favorite judge. “She presides,” he proudly states.
Far off on the other side of the brew pub is Luke’s domain. Here, Luke, with his small staff, mans massive brick ovens and dishes up his unique pizza creations like the Big Dipper and the Fancy Bacon & Eggs. The Bruckert twins come from a pizza family and Luke has managed to hone his skill by running his own shop in Oregon.
Is Circa different from other pizza joints? Sure, lots of pizza places are elevating themselves with craft cocktails, Hawaiian pizza, independent beer and framed pictures of celebrities (full disclosure, Judge Judy hasn’t been to the brewery but Danny has a fantasy of brewing a collab with the infamous TV judge. Court Is In Session IPA, anyone?). But for Danny and Luke, the difference is in the details. Luke uses flour milled at one of the oldest grain mills in Italy. He can trace it back to their family’s region of Lombardy. And Danny serves samples of his Pilsner with every bottle of Budweiser.
It’s not just making good beer and pizza. It’s making people care about good beer and pizza. Danny’s not necessarily trying to convert every macro beer drinker and Luke doesn’t need you to stop eating dollar slices. They want Circa to start a conversation, though, about what you’re eating and drinking, and why that is.
Luke and Danny are angling to grow along with the Brooklyn craft beer scene, but for now, they’re content mastering their trade and aiming small. Danny is eyeing a canning machine, but only for the brewpub, and Luke’s still tweaking his pizza recipes. For what it’s worth, the Salumi pizza was delicious.
John Paradiso: While we wait for Luke we can get into some of your background, I know you were at Sixpoint recently?
Danny Bruckert: I was a brewer at Sixpoint for the past 3 years. Before that I was a brewer elsewhere and before that a keg washer. Sixpoint was a great place for learning. They put me through some great education programs and I had the opportunity to work with some really talented brewers.
JP: Luke, we were just talking about what led up to Circa. What prepared you for being here?
Luke Bruckert: Number one, I worked in fine dining restaurants for about 11 years. Number two, our family’s little pizza business, which is really the birth of my whole pizza experience. Their pizza business was a wood-fired oven out on a trailer. It was getting more successful so they bought a second unit and our family’s very competitive…Luke and Danny laugh… to say the least. We had this second unit going in southern Oregon and I said well let’s put the damn thing in Portland and let me run it. I had made horrible pizza for about six months and then over the course of a couple years I managed to just get better and better.
We’d do the Oregon Country Music Festival every year. You have to deal with a mass of people and the sheer volume and abrasiveness of the experience. It’s drunken cowboys.
I think we’re just on the cusp of craft beer in New York when you compare it to cities like that. We’re small time right now. When we get to 40+ breweries then I think you can fairly ask that question.
DB: It was like herding cattle.
LB: And the owner, Gerry, asked if he thought I could handle the volume and I thought, oh compared to that, this won’t be a problem.
JP: Compared to a drunken festival crowd.
LB: laughing Yea, it was good preparation.
DB: It was very aggressive, hot, sweaty preparation.
JP: Well you’d mentioned the competitiveness of the family, how is it working together as brothers?
LB: Man, it’s awesome.
DB: It’s horrible.
LB: It’s like enjoying a living nightmare. No, we love working together. The coolest thing about this project, the whole idea was for me to be a consultant for this project. And to me this was so cool because my brother and I had been wanting to do a collaboration together for a while, and the owner Gerry said, ‘Why don’t you do it in Brooklyn?’
DB: He’s got his end of it and I don’t go near it, even if I wanted to. And I’ve got my end.
LB: And I want nothing to do with brewing. And the one time I brewed with him, it was the most boring thing in my life. I’m excited about collaborating, thinking about the flavors of the products but I want nothing to do with the process at all.
JP: Well it’s good you two don’t have to overlap.
This city is stupid full of pizza but I’d say that there’s a small top tier of pizza, in my opinion. My inspiration is like pizza shops in Napoli.
JP: So you may not have had a lot of say in the matter but why Brooklyn? There’s a lot of pizza and a lot of beer. Where does Circa fit into that?
DB: Is there a lot of beer though? If you’re comparing to places like Portland, OR or Denver, CO, Brooklyn has the population to have two or three of those. I think we’re just on the cusp of craft beer in New York when you compare it to cities like that. We’re small time right now. When we get to 40+ breweries then I think you can fairly ask that question. But I think right now the beer culture is just beginning. Sure there’s a lot of beer but not a lot of breweries.
JP: Do you think there’s anything specific about Brooklyn?
DB: Manhattan is way too expensive. Brooklyn is expensive too, don’t get me wrong. I think you’re going to see growth…
LB: It just emphasizes that youthful, small business, start-up style.
DB: Yeah, you look at places like Folksbier, people love to see it grow. Same with Other Half, now they have one of the most popular breweries. Singlecut and Threes Brewing are other places you’ve been able to watch grow. People like to see these places grow and I hope they get that feeling from us. I don’t know how we’re going to grow. But I don’t think we have to.
JP: Well, how does that translate to pizza?
LB: This city is stupid full of pizza but I’d say that there’s a small top tier of pizza, in my opinion. My inspiration is like pizza shops in Napoli. You take a long, slow time to develop, like our pizza dough takes three days to develop before you eat it. And that has to do with flavor development, how it visually looks. So we found a pizza flour from Italy in the region where our family is from. And it personalizes me, and us, to the place.
JP: Yeah let’s talk about that. Where do you see you as a brewer and you as a pizza chef coming through here?
DB: To a lot of people, our beer list might look boring. I got the chance to brew a lot of crazy shit at Sixpoint. But I’ve really come to love just beer-flavored beer. This isn’t coming from a ‘I want to sell more beer’ point of view. The crazy shit will come. But I have a deep respect for well-crafted, and well-served beer. That’s another thing, making sure the beer has a proper head on it. Making sure the customers know why that’s important.
JP: Beer has a long way to go in terms of educating the mass public. Is there a similar thing in pizza?
LB: I want people to be able to say, ‘I want to go to a wood-fired pizza place because it has a specific flavor and look’ and just go from there. People start to demand new things. When you taste a certain alcohol or food, you don’t know what to expect at first but then it elevates what you have known. It makes you interested and makes you want to seek it out. There are a lot of pizza places in New York and Brooklyn that are just not serving good pizza. I mean how many shitty slice shops are there?
DB: And not to the people’s fault. They still consider it just a product. I mean we serve Budweiser here. More from a humorous point of view and there’s also a part of the bar clientele who might just order a Bud cause that’s what they’re used to. And every bud that goes out gets served with a sample of our beer.
DB: Oh yeah.
JP: I fucking love that.
DB: It’s like dude, check this shit out. And usually it starts a good conversation. I mean you can drink what you want but at least try us out.