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Steve Mosco

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Ribs are all fired up. Photo from Jonathan Levine/Smoke Shack Blues

By Steve Mosco

Thousands of years ago, mankind crawled out of its primordial origins, stood upright and decided to quit choking down chunks of raw flesh. These prehistoric freethinkers put meat to heat, creating a ritual that continues to compel the carnivore spirit in an endless quest for the slow-smoked supernatural.

The ritual is barbecue and it goes well beyond hot dogs and hamburgers hastily seared on a dirty backyard grill. It is a culinary style reserved for the meticulously obsessive chef, as cooking times can range from several hours to more than half a day and doneness is measured in burnt ends and smoke rings.

“Smoking is such 
an important 
cooking technique. 
In barbecue, it might be the most important.” — Eric Rifkin, Bobbique in Patchogue

Meat, time, heat and smoke; there are no secrets in barbecue, just obsession.

And the obsession is heating up on Long Island. A decade or so in the past, the number of barbecue joints on the Island could be counted on one sauce-stained hand. Now, slabs of brisket, piles of pork, racks of ribs and links of sausage are readily available in napkin-destroying glory in a growing number of eateries.

To travel the Island seeking out these restaurants is to explore the diverse nature of barbecue itself.

Barbecue is a fundamental element in America’s cooking culture; it is the only truly American cuisine, and like everything else purely American, its form is contingent on its regional influences.

There’s Memphis-style pit barbecue, which is high on the hog in rib and pulled form, served in a tangy, thin tomato-based sauce. The Carolinas offer two distinct forms of ‘cue, with North giving us spice and vinegar basted pork and the South opting a sauce that is more mustard based. Kansas City style cooks its meats super slow and super low over hickory wood, served with a thick and sweet molasses sauce. In Texas, meat is king, as dinosaur-sized beef ribs are served alongside a heaping portion of brisket and sauce is usually an afterthought.

St. Louis Spare Ribs
Ingredients: 4-5 pounds pork back “spare” ribs; Your favorite dry rub; Mustard; Your favorite barbecue sauce; Wood chunks or chips for added smoke (optional)
Directions: To start, choose some fresh pork spare ribs. Preheat your grill to 225-250 F. Wash and dry ribs, then trim and remove the membrane. Now rub in mustard on all sides. Lightly apply dry rub seasoning to both sides of the slab. Let stand for 15-30 minutes. Allow ribs to come to room temperature just before placing on the grill. Place a water or basting pan on the grill or within the coals for added moisture (optional). Barbecue at 225-250 F opposite coals with closed grill lid for 3-4 hours. Mop the ribs several times. To keep from overcooking, remove the racks when they pull apart easily, with meat still attached to the bone. Serve with your favorite barbecue sauce.

Barbecue on Long Island is trending toward an amalgamation of styles, with professionally trained chefs taming fire to give the public what it wants.

Bobbique in Patchogue (70 W. Main St.) specializes in Memphis-style pit barbecue. For chef Eric Rifkin, it all started with an inspirational trip to Memphis, Tennessee. With a menu that includes such staples as St. Louis-style ribs, brisket and pulled pork, as well as barbecued salmon and shrimp, Rifkin’s slow-cooking technique utilizes an authentic, soulful southern charm that acts as a great equalizer at mealtime.

“Barbecue is a communal experience,” says Rifkin. “People come together, roll up their sleeves, feel, touch the meat. It’s become a comfort thing. It’s a ‘talk to the table next to you’ kind of meal.”

Rifkin is a classically trained chef with an impressive resume. In transferring his refined talents to the decidedly less polished cooking style of the pit, Rifkin developed his own art of smoke, one of barbecue’s essential elements.

“Smoking is such an important cooking technique. In barbecue, it might be the most important,” he says. “The smoke imparts flavor into cuts of meat that were at one time less desirable. The right kind of smoke used the correct way changes everything.”

Another chef blurring the lines between barbecue boundaries is Jonathan Levine, whose restaurant Smoke Shack Blues opens in Port Jefferson this September. A chef with an origin story that includes fancy cuisine of the French-Italian lineage, Levine’s career trajectory was altered by traveling through the Carolinas and Texas during a family vacation.

It was during that trip he experienced the powerful effects of low-temp cooking combined with smoke. The science of low and slow with smoke melts the fat within, and that translucent succulence bastes the meat from the inside while the outer bark encases the juices until it’s ready for the cutting board.

“Everything is kept inside the meat,” says Levine. “The same cut of meat that is unremarkable cooked one way is made incredible when cooked in true barbecue style. All of those juices rendering inside for 14 hours or so makes for a completely different eating experience.”

Levine recently gave locals a taste of what to expect from his forthcoming restaurant at multiple events at Benner’s Farm in East Setauket. He offered pork shoulder for Western Carolina style pulled pork, smoked barbecue chicken, pork ribs and even tins of his own barbecue dry rub.

“It’s so easy for a chef to toss his meat in a sauce,” he says. “But with a dry rub, there is really nowhere to hide. It is all about the meat.”

Molasses BBQ Chicken
Ingredients for glaze: Cider vinegar — 1⁄4 cup (4 tablespoons); Brown mustard — 1⁄2 cup (8 tablespoons); Molasses — 1 cup (16 tablespoons); Salt — 4 teaspoons; Fresh black pepper — 2 teaspoons
Other Ingredients: Chicken — 6 pounds; Salt — to taste; Pepper — to taste
Directions: Preheat grill. In a pan pour in cider vinegar, add mustard and mix. Add in the molasses, mix well, season with salt and pepper. Place the pan on hot coals and allow to simmer. Place the chicken pieces over indirect heat on grill and season with salt and pepper. Cover and grill at 350 F and cook for about 1 hour. After 20 minutes of cooking, brush the chicken with the glaze after every 15 minutes. When about to be done, sear over direct heat for few minutes.

The nature of Long Island’s cross-cultural barbecue style has even influenced a man who didn’t require an illuminating trip to America’s smoked-meat meccas. Lloyd Adams is a Texan through and through. A marriage brought him to Long Island in 1995 and by 2003 he started Laura’s BBQ Shack, a traveling Texas-style barbecue smoker that rolls into events like a traveling carnival of meat.

After a few years of struggling to find a foothold in the Island’s barbecue scene, Adams’ big break came at an event hosted by the Holbrook Chamber of Commerce. Long before many of the Island’s barbecue restaurants were even a gleam in a chef’s eye, Adams was schooling locals on true barbecue.

“I spent a lot of time explaining it as a cooking method,” says Adams. “I had to explain that the meat might be pink, but it is not raw. That pink you see is from the authentic smoke and the low-temperature cooking.”

But as barbecue continues to marinate and mature on the Island, people are becoming savvier; they are learning to embrace those pink smoke rings and burnt ends, according to Adams.

“People are much more educated about barbecue these days,” he says. “People aren’t going for it multiple times a week like they might Chinese or Italian, but it is growing.”

The ever-evolving Long Island barbecue scene will likely continue to expand to new flavor territories as each new generation cuts through the smoke and slides up to flames. Even in Adams’ own enterprise, the Texas-strong style has morphed to include much more pork than is usually found on slabs in the Lone Star state.

That’s merely one example of the ever-changing story of barbecue culture. And on Long Island, this quintessentially American style of making meat better will continue to raise its flavor profile.

“Whether you are cooking beef or pork or using one style or another, it is important to take pride in your barbecue and always be your own worst critic,” says Adams. “People here are willing to listen and to learn and I suppose that’s a good sign.”

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Spider Bite’s founder and brewmaster Larry Goldstein says his beer has developed a loyal following.

By Steve Mosco

Personality goes a long way, even in beer. Far removed from the stale sameness of big-name beer companies, micro- and nanobreweries throughout Long Island are offering unique options to the brew drinker who craves more than watered-down sips from cold-activated, color-changing cans.

It’s no secret that Long Island is overflowing with craft breweries. What craft beer devotees may not know is how much work — and ingredients — go into keeping breweries afloat and churning out dynamic, foamy goodness. It’s more than just the expected barley, hops, water and yeast. Brewmasters must employ peppery grains and floral bouquets, enlivening fruits and balancing bitterness along with equal measures of patience, flexibility and plenty of capital.

Born in basements and garages, with and without spousal approval, homespun ale artistry on the Island often froths forward from conversations over really bad beer. Those initial beer-side chats about the betterment of the drinker’s experience sometimes morph into a far grander dream of bringing beer brewed with care to the masses.

Port Jeff Brewing Company has grown an enthusiastic following, especially on the local level. Beer drinkers in Port Jefferson hoist the brewery’s offerings with a healthy dose of local pride, and crowd the brewery’s tasting room, open daily from noon to 8 p.m., along with brew followers from beyond town limits. The brewery also hosts free tours every Saturday at 4 p.m., where visitors learn about the brewing process for popular Port Jeff beers like Schooner Pale Ale, Port Jeff Porter and more.

The Port Jeff Brewing Company has many different beers to choose from. Photo by M. Furman
The Port Jeff Brewing Company has many different beers to choose from. Photo by M. Furman

“For the first few years, it was just a hobby that was cool,” said Michael Philbrick, who went from 10-year home brewing hobbyist to head brewmaster at Port Jeff Brewing Company in 2011. “When we first opened, there were no breweries even close to here. Now there seems to be another five every few years.”

All of these breweries are proving to be a financial boon to New York State. According to a report released in April by the New York State Brewers Association and the New York Wine & Grape Foundation, the craft beer industry in the state grew 59 percent from 2013 to 2014 — with a total economic impact estimated at $3.5 billion.

But even with those growing numbers and the industry’s popularity with imbibers, Philbrick said the craft beer industry only accounts for a small shred of the market share on Long Island — domestic juggernauts and foreign imports still rule the cooler.

“Of all the beers on the Island, you’re looking at a very small share of the market for craft brews,” he says. “Amazingly, there is still room to grow.”

Philbrick believes this produces a healthy amount of camaraderie among brewmasters on Long Island. They all want each other to survive and thrive in this industry.

“We all do the same events and deal with the same people,” he says. “And we all got into this for the same reason: the love of beer. We learn about the business from each other and we do group purchasing of equipment. I ran out of bottles once and the guys at Great South Bay [Brewery] helped me out. And I know they’ll call me for a certain hop or grain.”

Port Jeff has also worked with Spider Bite Beer Company, a fledgling brewery out of Holbrook. Spider Bite’s founder and co-owner, Larry Goldstein, agreed with Philbrick that it makes no sense to undercut other local breweries in order to get ahead. Goldstein routinely works with Barrage Brewing Company in East Farmingdale, participating in tap takeovers at bars together and lending each other equipment.

“We’re only going to survive if we cooperate,” he said. “This business is way too expensive to be selfish.”

When Goldstein first decided to back out of his chiropractic practice in favor of the brew life, he was floored by the sheer amount of operational expenses. But he pushed through, buying equipment fit for a laboratory, kegs and key ingredients to achieve some truly remarkable flavor profiles.

“It’s a huge investment even to just get started,” he says. “You have to buy all the equipment, all the kegs, the ingredients. And everything is expensive. It’s insane.”

The insanely enticing flavors of Goldstein’s Boris the Spider Russian Imperial Stout, Rophenia Belgian Quad and more are available to imbibe at Spider Bite’s Holbrook tasting room, open Thursdays, 4 to 8 p.m.; Fridays, 3 to 8 p.m.; and Saturdays and Sundays, noon to 4 p.m.

Even considering the sky-high cost involved in the production of beer, each brewmaster says they would rather work their fingers to the bone and push their bank accounts to the brink doing what they love than anything else. Obstacles often stand in the way — a busted septic tank here, an uncooperative municipality there — but most brew heads learn to roll with problems in order to get their product to the public.

Michael Philbrick, founder and owner of Port Jeff Brewing Company. Photo by M. Furman
Michael Philbrick, founder and owner of Port Jeff Brewing Company. Photo by M. Furman

For Jamie Adams, founder of Saint James Brewery, this is no vanity project. There is purpose behind all of this hard work and investment. Established in 2012, Saint James is a New York State farm-certified brewery that creates Belgian-inspired ales in a farm-to-pint initiative. Culling fresh ingredients like apricots, raspberries, barley and select spices from local farms, including Condzella’s Farm in Wading River, Adams and his wife and co-owner Rachel are getting back to the roots of beer making.

“We want the customer to understand and appreciate the value of a locally brewed product,” said Adams. “For us, it’s all about Long Island. Whether it’s fruit farmers on the East End or honey farmers or local barely, the goal is to enlighten people and help appreciate the value of working with local raw materials.”

A former clerk in the New York Stock Exchange, Adams is a self-taught brewer and meticulous worker. Those days on Wall Street are a distant memory, but his worker-bee mentality has remained intact. He now focuses on raising his standards with every batch of farmhouse Belgian ale.

“Chances are when someone is drinking our beer, they are having it for the first time. So each batch we make has to be perfect,” says Adams. “This is a higher calling for me. The agricultural economy is so important to everything we do. And if it grows, it can help this island tremendously. It’s not cost effective for all brewers to use locally grown ingredients, but we want to get to the point where that is the norm.”

Adams wants the emboldening medley of flavors so singular to craft beer to change the mind-set of beer drinkers and distributors. And like his beer-brewing brethren, he wants to pop the cap on the craft industry’s share of the Island’s beer market.

He envisions a time when local craft breweries can claim 20 percent of the market — a monumental task that actually seems achievable when comparing the charisma and personality of craft brew to the demoralizing drudgery of mass-produced beer.

“Our job as brewers is to work together to get bar owners to put more craft beers on tap,” he says. “I believe if you give consumers a local option, they will take it. And that is how we grow this business.”