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Riverhead brewery ready for grand opening

Dan Burke, who owns Long Ireland Beer Co.

Dan Burke, who owns Long Ireland Beer Co. with Greg Martin, stirs a 300-gallon tank of grain and water at their new brewery in Riverhead. (Sept. 14, 2011)

Up and down Pulaski Street in Riverhead, the smell of malted barley lingered in the air this week as machines hummed from the back of a former Agway building.

Emanating from the red-and-white, barnlike building, the scent marked the unmistakable presence of the area’s newest tenant --  Long Ireland Beer Co.

Although Long Ireland’s colorful tap handles have decorated bars and restaurants across Long Island for years, owners Dan Burke and Greg Martin quietly opened the doors to their own brewery and tasting room in May and will hold a grand opening Saturday.

Burke and Martin have been brewing together since 2003, while they were co-workers at a heating and electric company. At that time, they were brewing in Martin’s garage and following the precise instructions of a basic home-brew kit.

“It kind of became a hobby that spun out of control,” said Burke, 37, of Shoreham. “Through a mutual hatred of our old employer, we started our own beer company.”

But it took time. Martin, 39, of Port Jefferson Station, said the two spent a few years perfecting the beer-making process and interning for the New England Brewing Co. in Woodbridge, Conn. while continuing to work their day jobs.

In Connecticut, they would also brew their own recipes, at a rate of about 40 kegs per batch, to bring back to Long Island.

“After 6 p.m., we became door-to-door salesmen,” Burke said. “We went into bars with samples and asked them if they liked it. Many times we were rolling in kegs that night.”

As business grew and Martin and Burke got licensed to brew and sell beer in New York, they contracted with a brewery in Saratoga Springs, at a rate of about 300 kegs per batch for about a year, but soon needed more.

By that time, Burke and Martin knew they wanted to bring the whole operation home.

“Since May, we ended our contract and all our beer since then has been made from Riverhead,” Burke said.

Now, Long Ireland is producing about 400 kegs a month and delivering on average 10 to 15 kegs a day to the more than 250 locations where the beer is available across Long Island.

It’s almost like a dream, Martin said, but the grueling work brings both back to reality.

“The dream life also entails 16-hour work days, 6 days a week, very little sleep and lots of stress,” he said with a smile. “It’s a daily fight to be able to keep doing what you want to be able to do.”

They are constantly brewing, whether it’s their flagship Celtic Ale or a seasonal brew, currently a Pumpkin Ale, and both owners are hands-on, climbing up and down ladders to peer into 300-gallon metal brew tanks that reach into the building’s ceiling rafters.

“It’s a dirty, sweaty job while making beer sometimes,” Martin said.

Martin said the support from the community has been overwhelming. He said local businesses have embraced their products and community members have been coming in and out of the tasting room to see how it’s progressing.

“We appreciate their loyalty,” Burke said. “It’s really far in excess of what we thought when we started out.”

Burke and Martin agreed it has been a very busy few months and both are looking forward to their grand opening party -- which also happens to fall at the halfway point to St. Patrick’s Day.

Bangers and Mash, an Irish rock group, will be playing at the brewery from 1 to 5 p.m. and Maple Tree BBQ, in Riverhead, will be selling food.

Martin said there will also be beer specials, but really, the point of the party is to relax and mingle with the customers that have made them successful in a way that sometimes, still doesn’t feel real.

“When everything’s quiet and there’s no machinery running and the lights are off,” he said. “You kind of have that minute and you say, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’”

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