The Man Behind the Glass: Pete Lengyel, Brewer, Biologist, and Birder
By Cat Wolinski
If you step up to Bushwick, Brooklyn’s Kings County Brewers Collective (better known to locals as KCBC), you’ll immediately notice immense glass windows stretching sidewalk to ceiling comprising its entrance. Mirroring those, behind the bar inside, another wall of glass offers a window into KCBC’s brewhouse, where you’re likely to catch a glimpse of “brew commander,” Pete Lengyel.
Lengyel, often under a billed cap, swoops between brite tanks and mash tuns, quiet, contemplative, and calculating. Like a great horned owl in his cave, we’d venture to guess he may even be nocturnal – at the time of our visit, he hasn’t slept much in three days.
“I’ve got the most experience brewing, so I’m back here [the most],” he says. “I live in this cave. But I love it – it’s what I want to do, make beer.”
As one of KCBC’s three founders (co-founders Tony Bellis and Zack Kinney handle the financial and sales and marketing sides of the business, respectively), Lengyel is the mind behind at least one third of the beer recipes here. But don’t let this troglophile’s background dwelling fool you – along with heading up production, Lengyel was at the forefront of KCBC’s formation. He also has close to 10 years’ experience in the New York brewing scene, and has played a major role in shaping the city’s beer culture.
Among his unsung accolades is founding one of Brooklyn’s most prominent homebrew clubs, the Brewsers, from which many members have gone on to brew professionally. He helped launch Finback Brewery, now one of the most popular breweries in Queens, and worked his way through keg washing, cellaring and brewing gigs at Brooklyn Brewery, Greenpoint Beerworks, and Rockaway Brewing.
He also helped open East Williamsburg beer bar, Beer Street (then a retail store), poured beers for several years at Brouwerij Lane (where the Brewsers continue to meet every month), and offered his bartending and beer menu writing skills at famed pizza joint, Paulie Gee’s.
Throughout many of his early brewing days, Lengyel said he held as many as five jobs at a time. When he wasn’t chasing his next beer gig, he was working full time for a biotechnology company in Westchester, Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, where he conducted stem cell research. It was there that he honed his skills for maintaining meticulous detail and cleanliness, both imperative to the brewing process.
“I worked in a lab for many years where if you screw up an experiment, it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars down the drain,” he said. “I’m incredibly, acutely aware of sanitation. A lot of other [brewers] are just not as obsessed.”
In the meantime, he also, somehow, became an avid birder, and started the Beerders, a birdwatching and beer drinking club with Brooklyn head brewer and longtime pal, Al Duval.
“He and I are obsessed,” said Lengyel. “We both have binoculars and cameras, and do bird photography and bird watching. We have a big group.” The trajectory is simple: “We go birdwatching and then we have a beer.”
Be it beer, biology or birds, Lengyel brings predatory precision and passion to his professional and personal life. After plans to break ground on a brewpub in Greenpoint, Brooklyn disintegrated, he quickly identified his next target, and began forming what would eventually become the Kings County Brewers Collective. After a fluctuating group of “collective” partners ebbed and flowed, the final trio eventually formed.
At long last, Lengyel, Bellis and Kinney bore KCBC, which celebrates its first birthday this summer. “I left my six-figure lab job [to open a brewery]. When I told HR, they laughed,” Lengyel said. “I burned my entire life savings building this.”
But, he added, it was worth it. “We have this now,” he said, noting that the humble brewery has recently added a full time taproom manager and a full time salesperson to its staff.
His next goal on the horizon: a collaboration beer with the Audubon Society, to benefit Project Safe Flight, an initiative to prevent “window strike,” which causes one billion bird deaths in the US every year. “High rises with glass windows kill between one and nine million birds per year in New York City alone, which is unacceptable,” he said.
Other than that, perhaps, is letting more light in. “I want skylights, but we don’t have them yet.”