Most people have to sacrifice their passions in service to their careers. But Chris Cuzme isn’t like most people. As a saxophonist and co-owner of Long Island City’s Fifth Hammer Brewing Company, Chris Cuzme was able to make a career out of his two greatest passions.
After a childhood spent shuttling around the country and an adolescence spent studying the saxophone, Chris Cuzme moved to New York City in 1999 to pursue work as a professional musician. Surviving on music alone wasn’t everything he’d hoped for. To make ends meet while preserving his artistic drive, he sold tomatoes at the Union Square Farmers Market.
He decided to take what he called “the temp job gone wrong” at a financial company in 2001. Despite his professional background in music making and tomatoes, he was hired full-time. It turned out to be a blessing, as it allowed him the expendable income to get his first home brewing kit. With that brewing kit on hand, Cuzme “totally fell down the rabbit hole.”
He met his wife, Mary Izett, when they were both members of the New York City Homebrewers Guild in 2006—though they were friends and business partners first, first founding a food and beer pairing service together. Beginning in 2012 the duo produced a weekly podcast, Fuhmentaboudit!, on the Heritage Radio Network; Izette, already a beer writer, published a book about speed brewing and they launched their own brewery, Cuzette Libations, in 2015. This all laid the groundwork for their partnership with Fifth Hammer co-owner David Scharfstein, and the brewery was born the same year.
After a string of failed leases, Fifth Hammer found its current home in 2016. The hardship paid off since Cuzme expected to have to work much longer to be favored in the neighborhood.
“I think I underestimated the extent Long Island City would welcome us and it’s just been amazing that it happened so fast,” he said. “I thought more of our beer production would be going out to retail, but right now 80 percent is done through our taproom. It’s really a dream come true.”
All the while, the tomato-peddler-turned-financial-investor-turned-brewer kept playing the music he wanted to with the fellow musicians he enjoyed playing with. Now, Cuzme has a platform that allows him to combine his two great loves. Every Wednesday night since opening the taproom in September 2017, lucky neighbor regulars, adventurous tourists who rode the 7 Train from Midtown and other live music seekers from around the city flock to the brewery to hear Cuzme play sax with other beloved local music makers—and to drink the diverse and delicious brews made by the brewery’s 15-barrel-strong production line.
So, what are the parallels between being a professional musician and a professional brewer? According to Cuzme, both “want to learn everything and then forget everything as soon as possible. With saxophone and music in general, you don’t want to have to think about the structure of a melody in order to riff on it, you want to be able to just do it because it’s like a language you understand. The same goes for brewing beer—you have to learn the ropes and then find your own way.”