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Shelter Island Profile: Jim Hull, a taste for life

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Jim Hull creating the recipe for a new porter, as yet unnamed, featuring vanilla bean, bourbon and Island honey at Shelter Island Craft Brewery on North Ferry Road.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Jim Hull creating the recipe for a new porter, as yet unnamed, featuring vanilla bean, bourbon and Island honey at Shelter Island Craft Brewery on North Ferry Road.

In the early 1970s, Jim Hull was one of the 3,600 ironworkers who built the World Trade Center.

He lived in Queens but he loved to get to the site early in the morning, sit on a bench with a cup of coffee and listen to the city come to life.

“Total silence, then the fans started up on top of the buildings, then the traffic started and the horns and by 9 o’clock the jack hammers were going and the beast was alive,” Jim said. “It was just beautiful.”

Working since he was 13, Jim started out in construction and then spent 25 years in the jewelry business. In 1998 he became one of the most sought-after charter boat captains on Long Island with his business, “Light Tackle Challenge,” fishing for bluefish and striped bass. And, to the delight of many Island hopheads, in 2014 he got a farm brewery license and began what he calls his last venture, making and serving beer at the Shelter Island Craft Brewery.

Born in Brooklyn, Jim grew up in East New York, a rough neighborhood then and now. His mother was a housewife, his father a machinist, and Jim was the oldest of three brothers. His parents split up when he was 13, and Jim became responsible for providing some household income, which he did until he was “emancipated” at 16 when his mother remarried. He eventually graduated from Erasmus High School in Brooklyn.

Instead of college, he joined the Ironworkers Union and went to work. “It was a very high paying job but to be honest, the II-A deferment got me out of Vietnam,” Jim said. “I did not want to be drafted.”

In the mid-1970s Jim went into the jewelry business. Starting with nothing, he built up a business with seven retail outlets, designing, manufacturing, and selling in the diamond district market where he was in a distinct minority.

“Someone asked me five or six times a day: ‘Are you Jewish?’ I’m not,” Jim said, “but there was absolutely no resistance to me.”

In 1971 Jim married, had twin daughters Jeanine and Alison, in 1975, and divorced in 1988 when the girls were in their early teens. Today, Alison works at the brewery with plans to open her own brewpub in Long Beach. Jeanine is involved in the jewelry business with the help of Jim’s ex-wife. Jeanine’s husband, Angelo Marchica, masterminded the renovation of the brewery, transforming the one-time insurance office into a comfortable space for drinking Jim’s fragrant brews.

In 1986, Jim was selling jewelry at Caesar’s Bay Bazaar, an indoor market near the Verrazano Bridge, when he met Clarissa Williams who was selling dancing tights. “We fell in love right away,” Jim said. Both were married at the time, and although they were together for three decades, “We never really wanted to get married,” he said.

In the late 1990s, the couple were looking for a place to live within striking distance of New York. Jim’s jewelry business still needed his attention but they wanted a place rural enough for him to hunt and fish, finally settling on Shelter Island.

Jim went about recreating himself as a fishing guide. Although he had fished since he was eight, he took time to learn the water, the geography and where to find fish. “I’m not a shoot-from-the-hip kind of person,” he said.

Jim fished out of Shelter Island for May only. From June to September he fished out of Montauk, commuting each day to work. On the Island he kept a low profile, while Clarissa was a much-loved waitress at Pat and Steve’s Restaurant.

“I’m the most boring person,” Jim said. “Before Clarissa got sick, no one knew who I was on the this Island.”

They had seriously considered buying Pat and Steve’s when the Lenoxes decided to retire. But Jim had started brewing beer at home and was getting more and more interested in brewing as a business. “It’s cooking actually,” he said. “I’m a wanna-be chef.”

Both in their early 60s, they decided a brewery made more sense than the daily pressure of a restaurant. “When Clarissa knew she was terminally ill, she said ‘you have to go forward. I want you to do it,’” Jim remembered. “And I wanted to do it too.”

Clarissa died last February at 63. “She only cared about other people, not herself,” said her partner of 30 years. “She was a one-of-a-kind person.”

Now 65, he mentioned two things that have helped him become a successful brewer — his sense of taste and the conviction that if he puts time into thinking things over he’ll have a good outcome. “I don’t drink, but I love to taste,” he said. “And I‘m a control freak.”

Most craft beer is made using at least some local ingredients. In New York State, a Farm Brewery license requires at least 20 percent of ingredients come from within the state. Jim’s brews not only fill the bill by using local hops and New York State malt, but the flavor profile of many of his brews follows the flavors of local fruits and herbs in season. “I feel pride in this Island,” he said.

His “Forbidden Apple” brew was made with Mutsu apples grown by Darrin Binder, “Liquid Sunshine” and “Bees Knees” with honey from hives managed by Sarah Shepherd, and “Nude Beach” with beach plums harvested by Al Kilb.

On the first Monday of last November, Jim seared a batch of local Peconic Bay scallops and added them to an orange and fennel flavored brew to make Scallop Ale. “It was gone real fast,” Jim said.

Even the mash, a slurry of fermented grains, herbs and flavors, goes back into the local ecosystem when farmer Julia Trunzo from Sylvester Manor Educational Farm hauls as much as 100 pounds at a time from a barrel outside the store to feed the pigs and chickens.

“It stays on the Island,” Jim said.

“Make beer and make people happy,” he added. “Part two is the most important part.”