Step into Po’ Boy Brewery and it’s like you’ve stepped into another world.
There’s a forest decor in the tasting room. Faux animal heads are mounted on the walls, each one named by a customer. Special mugs hang from the bar for beer club members — all above a bartender pulling from 15 different taps.
You’ll also find tables and stools, often filled with people who know something you might not:
Behind a pretty nondescript industrial park facade off Route 112 in Port Jefferson Station is a hidden gem where you can imbibe on a constantly rotating selection of beers and hard ciders.
Or, take them to go.
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“The cans have been hugely popular here,” said Bob Rodriguez, owner and brewmaster at Po’ Boy Brewery, which is located at 200 Wilson Street in Building E3 on the border of Upper Port Jefferson.
His neighbors include a fitness studio and a martial arts center.
But don’t judge a book by its cover; this is no townie bar.
This beer-maker has a dedicated following — enough so that Rodriguez says he releases a new hard cider weekly and a new beer every two weeks.
Most of the beer is consumed on premises, in the tasting room. Another 10 percent goes out the door. Rodriguez doesn’t bottle his beer, but he will custom-can whatever’s on tap in 12- or 16-ounce mixed packs. Growlers make up a small percentage of beer taken out of the brewery.
“This time of year you get a lot of people who run in at noon because they’re going to the beach to fill up a growler or cans,” he said. “Or you will see the other crowd that comes in after the beach.”
Behind another doorway at the back of the tasting room is where the potations are made. Rodriguez mixes flavors and styles of beer like a mad scientist.
His vats can produce anywhere from 90 to 120 gallons for each brew. For some perspective, on its website, the older and more well known Port Jefferson Brewing Company says it can produce over 200 gallons.
Po’ Boy seldom produces a style for a second time (with exceptions, which we’ll get to later).
“I would say that 75 percent of what we release is always brand new,” Rodriguez said. “I usually never put the same beer or cider back-to-back. I have so many ideas.”
He uses no fancy gadgets to brew his beer. Except for the pumps, almost everything is done manually.
“I took that home brewing mentality and brought it to a commercial brewery,” he said.
Rodriguez only started drinking beer about 11 years ago. He switched from wine and mixed cocktails.
“As you get older it’s hard to do that everyday,” he said.
Then he began home-brewing and joined clubs around Long Island to hone his craft. Like most, he started making beer out of his house, which led him to bigger and bigger things. Finally, in 2016, he found his current location in Port Jefferson Station. It took a year to get his permits and approvals before opening the doors at Po’ Boy in January 2017.
Rodriguez is resourceful. He built equipment by hand, adapted different pieces of hardware, and even uses a quilt in his chilling room to keep a brew at a specific temperature.
It’s a balance between financial necessity and ingenuity.
It is, he says, the “Po’Boy” way.
There’s also another reason. Rodriguez is only a brewer part-time. His other gig is working as a nurse, something he has done for the last 25 years.
Rodriguez started out treating patients in the poorer sections of New York City.
His hometown is East New York, Brooklyn. He got a degree in nursing from Molloy College and went onto achieve a doctorate in nursing practice from Stony Brook University.
He’s now a family nurse practitioner for Hudson River Healthcare in Riverhead.
“I like to say womb to tomb,” he said. “I take care of little babies to geriatric.”
During his career, he has mostly worked with the medically underserved and undereducated, even conducting involved and successful research studies on immigrant populations.
Rodriguez says that this scientific approach “absolutely” lends itself to his brewing success.
His childhood love of cooking is another factor.
“I’ve been cooking since I was 7 years old,” he said. “I’ve been playing with flavors the whole time.”
He’s not afraid to take chances, and by having a small system it gives him that flexibility.
“I do make some bizarre combinations,” he said.
Po’ Boy Brewery offers a variety from its kegs from pilsners to the ever-popular IPAs, and stouts to hard ciders.
“Here at the brewery we offer something for everyone,” he said.
One of his best-selling beers is called Cloudy Mentality. It’s a New England-style IPA that’s a bit hazy.
“It’s the most popular IPA sold in America today,” Rodriguez said.
Because of the way it’s made — by adding the hopslate in the process — it doesn’t give off the extreme bitterness that some people don’t like in a traditional IPA. This particular beer has notes of fruit, with a musky flavor on the back end.
“You might get tropical flavors, and there is a dank, hoppy flavor,” he said. “There is something there that comes from the Mosaic hop.”
Cloudy Mentality is one of the few beers he keeps in constant rotation.
All of his beers have quirky names derived from the recipes.
“We like to have fun with our names here.”
Then there’s Ménage à Po.
“I triple-hopped it,” Rodriguez said. “I add hops at three different times in the fermentation process.”
In all, there are eleven beers on tap at any time, as well as four hard ciders.
“My hard ciders are in high demand because I do bizarre flavors that are so flavorful,” he said.
But, don’t expect any of those flavors to be around long — as his regular customers know.
“It’s what a lot of people who come in here appreciate about the place,” Rodriguez said. “They always have something new.”
Among the faithful are a group of 50 mug club members they call muggers.
It’s an exclusive group, and essentially someone has to leave town or die in order for a spot to open. The waiting list has more than a hundred names, which is usually picked by lottery to fill a vacancy, unless there is someone who’s been on the list an exceptionally long time.
“Like Giants season ticket holders,” he said.
Rodriguez started out in Brooklyn, but school and work brought him out to eastern Long Island. He eventually settled in Lake Ronkonkoma, where he now lives with his wife and co-owner of the brewery, Wesam Hassanin and their children.
Wesam, who is a senior administrative assistant at Stony Brook Hospital by day, handles all of the social media profiles and press for Po’Boy.
Aside from that, his advertising is all word of mouth.
Word of mouth is how six months ago Po’ Boy brews started appearing on tap lines across the region.
Currently, you can find their beer at two locations in Port Jefferson: Grumpy Jack’s and Prohibition Kitchen. The next closest place is Country Corner in Setauket. There are currently 10 bars pouring Po’ Boy.
Since opening, the brewery has also grown from eight to 15 taps.
“I’ve always been taken aback by the support we got,” he said. “And it says a lot, because we really don’t distribute except in the last six months.”
Comparisons might be made to the other microbrewery in Port Jefferson.
Rodriguez says he is very friendly with Port Jefferson Brewery owner Mike Phibrick, and there isn’t even a healthy competition between them. There is no competition at all, actually. They have a chummy relationship and drink in each other’s breweries.
“He’s a good guy and a good brewer,” he said.
Rodriguez has won dozens of national awards for his brews over the years. He stopped competing about five years ago, but before that he had won the most competitions of any brewer on Long Island for three years straight.
Each award he won was for a different beer or hard cider style.
In one of the competitions he took best in show for an 11.5 percent ABV Imperial Porter.
“That beer was going to be made in Port Jeff [Brewery],” he said. “We aged it for a year before we released it.”
The Port Jefferson area has become a microcosm of what has been happening in the rest of the country for decades now. Breweries are popping up in small towns all over, providing a local flavor and artisanal alternative to the big-name brands.
From a small business perspective, it’s the opposite of the so-called Amazon-effect in retail, where brick-and mortar stores are vanishing in favor of online purchasing.
But breweries provide a service you can’t get on the internet.
“I think that’s why people have embraced it,” Rodriguez said. “These small establishments like this really prevent that cookie-cutter experience. You want Po’ Boy, you gotta come here.”
According to the Brewers Association, in 2018 craft beer made up just over 13 percent of all beer sales in America, translating into a $27.6 billion industry. Production of craft beer rose 4 percent last year, so it’s still a growing phenomenon.
“I think what the American population is doing is just getting back to its roots,” Rodriguez said. “We were a country that was built on beer. Virtually every town had its own brewery, so we’re just getting back to the basics.”
The future of craft beer is bright, according to Rodriguez.
“Some people for the last couple years think that there’s a bubble — and there’s not,” he said. “I think it’s going to be redefined. I think because there’s more competition you’re not going to see the big massive breweries like we first started seeing, because there’s a lot more competition for those taps, those handles out in the community.”
He expects to still see more and more smaller microbreweries crop up across the island and beyond.
“Not every brewery is going to be as large as Stone Brewery” in San Diego, he said.
Rodriguez likes his location near Upper Port Jefferson. He has ample free parking and proximity to the train station and Route 347 is a bonus.
“We have phenomenal parking. You don’t have the issues like downport,” he said. “You want to go downtown you can Uber or Qwik Ride.”
Plans to revitalize Upper Port, if successful ,will also benefit his business.
“Why not have an apartment building a block away from the train station?” he said. “Why not have a brewery you can walk to?”
Po’ boy Brewery is open from Wednesday to Sunday. There is no food served — except for some snacks — but occasionally they will have a food truck out front and local restaurants will deliver to the tasting room.
Now about that name.
As Rodriguez tells it, the name far preceded his notion of ever becoming a brewer.
“I used to drink at a local watering hole in Lake Ronkonkoma called Bruno’s at the time,” he said. “I sat at the only empty seat at the bar next to a retired FDNY fireman who, every time he bumped into me, asked me to buy him a beer.”
After two hours, Rodriguez said he finally looked at the guy and said, “Sir, I can’t buy you a beer. I’m just a po’ boy.” He pulled out his souvenir wooden nickel he carried around in his pocket to prove it.
“He said, ‘You really are a po’ boy!’”
After that, the fireman bought Rodriguez drinks and the experience stuck with him. He even had Po’ Boy put on his license plate.
When he got into beer making, Rodriguez vowed if he every opened a brewery that’s what he would name it.
The growth of Po’ Boy Brewery is limited only to how much he can put into it — as a one-man band with another career and a family. He credits his success to his past experiences and overall outlook on life.
“From the time I was a child I wanted to do the best I could,” he said. “I didn’t want to compete against anyone. I wanted to compete against myself to know I gave everything I could.”
“Because I was cooking since I was a kid. Because of healthcare. And just my passion of trying new things. I think that’s led to my success.”
In all his endeavors, from nursing to beer making, Rodriguez looks to help people — and hopes that kindness will propagate.
“I want to leave this world in a better place than I found it,” he said. “Am I going to be perfect? No. No one is. I’ll do the best I can and hopefully whatever lives I’ve changed, it helps them enough that they can help other lives and it spreads in some way — like an infection.”
Top: Bob and Samantha Rodriguez at Po’ Boy Brewery. (Credit: Lon Cohen)