The sign crowning the awning of Eagle Provisions—whitewashed plywood with hand pained lettering in orange and black—seems like it's been there a long time. And it has: 34 years, an eternity in the gentrifying neighborhood south of Park Slope and north of Sunset Park. Its red-and-white eagle, a reference to the Polish coat of arms, has been there even a longer, a hold-over from the store's previous tenants (the name was shifted from Rite Eagle Market to Eagle Provisions when Mr. Zawinsky and sons took over.) And its claims are as old, and as enticing: manufacturers of the world's finest keilbasy.
Inside, I found John Zawinsky hanging out by the cash register. "We came here in 1979, December 13" he told me, smiling. "It's me and my brother Richard, and our father, who is now deceased. My father was a sausage maker, and it was his dream to have a business. In Poland he tried twice, was not successful, and then he came here, and he worked for this place—it used to be just a Polish delicatessen/a little supermarket. When it went under, it was his dream to take it over. He wanted to make it more upscale, and he did."
Eagle Provisions is no longer "just a Polish delicatessen." There are the "American" goods you'd expect from a solid corner grocer, as well as good selection of imported European products—Polish staples, freshly baked babka, nice chocolates—that fall under the store's other sign-claim: epicurean delights from around the world.
But the main claim is still the main draw. "The reason we got started, let me show you." We slipped behind the butcher counter, and through a heavy door into the back. "What really started the store was the smoke house. We have three smoke houses, and we make smoked polish sausage, kielbasa. Once a week, we make a batch. About a thousand pounds at a time." We paused to admire the fire-red equipment—inherited from the previous tenants, brought over from Germany in the late 1930s—and I expressed amazement at the weekly output. John laughed. "It's not crazy! It's kielbasa!"
Eagle Provisions also makes double-smoked and fresh kielbasa as well as a dried sausage, kabanos, and a hickory smoked pork butt (instructions: simmer in water for one hour). "At Christmas and Easter people buy a lot of kielbasa, and the kabanos. They come for the babka, too, and the pickles. We make all the sausages. But we don't make the other stuff, when would we sleep?"
And there's another reason people come. They come for the thing folks often pair with good sausage: good beer. In fact, in most circles, Eagle Provisions is known not for its provisions—its bottled borscht and its pickles in brine—but for its beer. Erin Zimmer wrote about their amazing beer selection back in 2009, and if anything, it's grown. "The beer has taken over in the last ten years" John noted. "But, you can only carry what's licensed for New York State." (The thought seemed to visibly frustrate him.) "We try to carry all of it, but of course there's a lot more."
Still, what's licensed for New York State is enough to fill out fully a third of the thirty-four year old establishment. "It's grown to where now, I believe, we're supposedly the largest bottled beer store in the United States, as far as selection. We have over 2,300 varieties of beer." John is likely not exaggerating.
"People look for Fat Tire all the time, people look for Hawaiian beer, beer from Antarctica. Yes!" He laughed at my confused look. "There is beer from Antarctica! It's made in Brazil, but it was originally conceived in Antarctica." Said beer is currently out of stock, but in its place you'll find beers from forty one different countries, including:
Argentina, Austria, Belgium, Bolivia, Canada, China, Colombia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Guatemala, Holland, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Japan, Kenya, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Mexico, Nicaragua, Norway, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, and Thailand, and beers from almost half the country, including Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Washington.
There are hundreds of types of Belgium beers, sour ales, and some bottles of honey wines from South Africa. There's a decent selection of gluten free beers, and a wall-full of mixers, including Moxie soda ("the oldest soda in the country!") and a dozen types of ginger beer.
John breaks the geographic layout for his seasonal beers, which he stocks up front. For the fall he has 52, including—count them—42 pumpkin brews, and a new Abita made with pecans.
He pulled a corked bottle off the shelf, admiring is label. "You just get involved, and you get carried away. It's like anything; once you study something, you read the article, one thing leads to another, a customer tells you a story about someplace they were, and you end up with all this."
I asked John which of his 2,300 varieties of beer he recommends. He shook his head. "My favorite is not in stock again. It's a Belgian, it's called Witches Brew. It's a 10%, really intense."
On my way out, I picked up a bottle of Otro Mundo, from Argentina, which I didn't even know existed. And I'm Argentinean.
628 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215 (map)