Culturefix's Ari Stern on Craft Beer and Not Getting Bored
Culturefix is a unique fixture on the Lower East Side's Clinton Street: Part bar, gallery, poetry forum, theater stage, catering business, and event space, the venue hosts a number of far-ranging parties, including comedy nights, tastings, and tech entrepreneur meetups. But what's always on the menu is an eclectic mix of beers: lambics, sour and smoked beers, Hefeweizen, and Berlinerweisse. We caught up with co-owner Ari Stern to learn about how his one-of-a-kind beer-focused space came to be.
What is your personal history with hospitality?
My family owned a butcher shop on 100th Street for about 50 years, and then they moved to 86th street in the mid '80s when the gettin' was good. I worked there through high school; I started cutting meat, catering, and other things. I'm a people person. I like the customer service aspect of the business, but I don't like front of the house. I like being behind the scenes. In 1998, I went to culinary school. My brother joined the army, and we had a deal that if he didn't go AWOL, I'd go to culinary school. So I did it just for shits and giggles. I loved it, I happened to be good at it, I have an eye for detail, my hands are coordinated, and I'm not stupid. If you have those things going for you, you can probably be a cook. It's not brain surgery, but it does require a certain level of interest in being creative. It combines the arts and sciences in a practical way.
How did you and co-owner Cole Schaffer decide to open Culturefix?
I was a chef for twelve years, Cole was a restaurant manager for about the same time--eight to ten years--and we worked at Asia De Cuba together for about three years. We became friends, and then years later, in 2009, we decided we'd really had enough of being slaves for other people and wanted to open a small wine bar. And then we became an event space, bar, gallery, a little bit of everything.
So when did the interest in beer begin?
When I turned 17 and got my first beer. Initially Culturefix opened with 26 wines and six beers and we now have 35 beers and six wines, just based on what people are drinking when they're at the bar.
Culturefix is not the usual bar scene. Is it what you'd originally envisioned?
No, we were looking for a small space where we could just have a bar, maybe a lounge, with cocktails. We were looking around Clinton; the door was unlocked in the current space, we walked in, we called our broker and he said it didn't exist and that it wasn't a real space. And we were like, "We're standing inside, we know it's real; we're not hallucinating." So we called the landlord, and we had a lease in four weeks.
So how did you decide to make the bar a gallery as well?
Because the space is so big, and the gallery wall seems to be made for a gallery, it had to happen. We had outside curators for the first year, the second year we had a curatorial collective maintaining the gallery, doing six-week shows. In 2013, we partnered with another group to curate 52 one-week shows. Right now it's our summer group show with several artists we like, just trying to keep it lively for the summer.
So where do you go to drink?
Why, in god's name, would I pay someone else for alcohol? No, I go to WD~50 for cocktails, because they're the kings of the world. Honestly, they're the best at everything, and they're right down the block. You tell them, "I want something brown and citrusy," they'll make it, and then they'll carbonate it right in front of you. It's awesome. I drank through their amazing selection of ryes too.
What is your favorite beer that you've offered at Culturefix?
I have two. The Leipzig Gose is amazing. Salt and coriander, refreshing wheat beer, not heavy. That's the one everybody loves. The other one is the Kipling by Thornbridge Brewery. It's a South Pacific-style pale ale. It's like an IPA when the English started colonizing the southern hemisphere. So it uses different hops from the southern hemisphere, different malts, different grains, that add a passion fruit, tropical flavor. It comes in a 22-ounce bottle, it's always a good value, and it's delicious. They're based out of the U.K., but the style is from the 1860s when the UK was colonizing Australia.
How do you learn about unique beers?
Beer Advocate is great--they're a beer rating company. Whole Foods beer store, Good Beer, ABC Liquors, and you just taste your way through everything. That's the best way. Our goal was to have a representation of a variety of styles. To have a Gose, Berlinerweisse, those things are unique and round out a list in a clever way. People come to Culturefix because the beer menu changes all the time. The drafts are never the same. We want people to expect change. And it's the same thing for our events program. The art changes so frequently, you can't love an artist and come back the next week to buy it. It's this week or it's never. Nobody gets bored.