The judges announced the winners of Tap New York, a craft beer festival in Bethel Woods, New York, with lightning speed. As the beer categories flew by, Rich Castagna and his wife anxiously awaited the results. This competition wasn’t their first rodeo. As the owner and operator of the small but persistent Bridge and Tunnel Brewery, he’s thrown his beers in the ring at multiple competitions before, always coming back with runner-up trophies and still longing for a first-place finish. This year, however, felt different. 

Rich Castagna, a Wyckoff Hospital-born and Maspeth-raised New Yorker, has been busy brewing beer for well over twenty years. His story embodies the kind of grit and perseverance so long synonymous with New Yorkers. From his beginnings brewing in his garage to the two brick-and-mortar locations he manages — one over in Ridgewood and another in the small upstate town of Liberty  — Castagna completely built out much of his breweries from recycled materials. In his garage, he had started with a compact nano-system that eventually proved popular enough to maintain a small brewery and taproom.

His local location in Ridgewood, down on Decatur Street, used repurposed dairy equipment for the brew tanks and he created its canning system from scratch. According to Castagna, the brew system that he built out of the dairy tanks is one of the last remaining in New York State, and the only one of its kind in the city. Anything you can imagine needing for a taproom, Castagna seems to have found a way to make himself, with an amount of charm that extends to the Christmas lights adorning the walls. The doors at Bridge and Tunnel Brewery had opened in 2012, an occasion that Castagna had marked with a beer he saved for just that special day, a rich and creamy stout he called “OL Gilmartin Milk and Oatmeal.”

But the real beauty of a brewery like Bridge and Tunnel comes out in the generational crossovers that take place within the taproom on Decatur. Castagna says he grew up in an era where you kept your eyes down as you walked around the neighborhood, and he says seen all of the changes since. He says that he hopes his brewery bridges the gaps between those different generations in this neighborhood. When he first began commercially releasing cans, he utilized his experience as a former high school English teacher to craft vignettes about the history of the neighborhood, from his “Bone Orchard Vanilla Porter” which goes into Queens’ long history with graveyards to the cans he made for his “Urban Styles Milkshake IPA” that celebrates the history of the city’s graffiti art scene. 

While his brewery is doing well enough, Castagna says he sees everyone else getting priced out, something he sees in the regulars who have stopped showing up when forced to move out of the neighborhood. As he tells it, every year new folks would move into the neighborhood, fall in love with its quirks, and immediately be priced out within a year or two. The “backbone of the community is not built off of people who only stick around for a year,” he worries. The recent COVID-19 pandemic, he says, only made things worse. People, these days, are “just gone,” as Castagna puts it. Within a year or two, he fears having to relocate. 

Over at Tap New York, the announcers worked their way through the ever-changing list of craft beer styles and their respective winners. Up next was the category for “Stouts and Porter.” As it happened, Castagna had submitted his “OL Gilmartin Milk and Oatmeal” stout into the competition. As a stout,  it perfectly walks the line of milky and chocolatey flavors, with just enough chewiness and body, by the oatmeal, to hold you like a warm and gentle hug. 

His stout won. In Bethel Woods,  Castagna ran onto the stage to bask in the glory of all that. By the time he was shooed off stage, he learned he won another prize too: the highly sought-after Governors Cup, awarded to the best beer in the entire state. Through the category’s cacophony of brewers, the “OL Gilmartin Milk and Oatmeal” stout knocked out another win. Castagna say the win gave him a sliver of hope. Maybe his Bridge and Tunnel Brewery wasn’t going anywhere.

Image taken by Joey Harvey for Bushwick Daily.

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