It was early 1997 and ice beers were all the rage.

Bottles of Zima were flying off the shelves on Long Island. People were picking up Red Dog by the suitcase.

And there sat an unhappy Dave Schultzer in his West Islip baseball card shop.

He decided to do something about it.

He didn’t set out to help change the region’s beer culture — that would come later.

Schultzer just needed a fresh start. So, he traded his cards for kegs, purchasing Station Beverage in Bellport that summer.

“I was miserable and I didn’t know where I was going with my life and my buddy looked at this place as a second store,” he recalled. “But it needed too much work.”

His friend thought Schultzer could handle it. Not only that, he thought his gregarious spirit would help quickly grow Station Beverage’s waning clientele.

“He said I would bring some personality to the building,” Schultzer recalled.

On July 1, 1997, Schultzer greeted his first trickle of customers to Bellport Cold Beer & Soda.

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What the old Station Beverage looked like when Dave Schultzer took over in 1997. (courtesy)

THE RISE OF CRAFT

If you owned a beer distributor and wanted to offer a variety of brews two decades ago, you went with imports.

Some of the breweries date back centuries and have names and even alphabets most of us wouldn’t recognize.

“There wasn’t even a market for it,” Schultzer said.

The craft beer offerings were limited to just a handful, among them were Sierra Nevada, Pete’s Wicked and Saranac.

But the collector in Schultzer was determined to expand the selection.

It turned out that working with home brewers was a way to go.

Schultzer and Bellport Cold Beer & Soda has since helped several island brewers establish beer businesses, typically by carrying their earliest offerings, hosting tastings and touting their handiwork on his once-popular blog.

Among them was Long Ireland Beer Company, now headquartered in Riverhead.

Now recognized across the region, Long Ireland was founded by friends and home brewers Greg Martin and Dan Burke.

Martin can recall stopping by Bellport Cold Beer & Soda for the first time in March 2009, when he unknowingly stepped into a Captain Lawrence Brewing Co. tasting with owner Scott Vacarro.

“I didn’t want to be rude,” Martin said, “so I was just going to leave the sample and go. Dave was like, ‘No let’s drink this now and share it with some people.”

“He made me feel welcome and important,” Martin added. “He has always been a great supporter of our brand and I’m happy that Dan and I call him a personal friend beyond business.”

“Dave was always willing to bring someone in, even if it wasn’t profitable, because he was looking to build a community,” said Rich Thatcher, a former Bellport Cold Beer & Soda staffer who in 2007 co-founded Long Island Beer and Malt Enthusiasts, the island’s seminal craft beer club.

“We were hoping to raise awareness of craft beer on Long Island, which was lacking compared to the rest of the nation,” Thatcher said. “There was a lot of creative beers that the big distributors were ignoring, and Dave took advantage of it”

After a few years in business, Schultzer hung a sign outside that read “Over 250 Varieties of Beer.”

Today the sign reads “Over 900 Varieties of Beer.”

Schultzer says it’s more like 1,100, but he thinks displaying four figures is pretentious.

BUILDING COMMUNITY

As the years went on, Bellport Beer & Soda became a mecca for craft beer lovers across the island. So much so, that Schultzer started calling it a craft beer store. And he arranged the inventory to reflect that.

Soon, visitors looking for Bud Light at 417 Station Road had to pass thousands of different craft beer offerings before finding their blue-and-white 12-pack in the furthest reaches of the store.

Today, that’s what most distributors are doing.

“I don’t know if Dave ever quite got the credit that he’s deserved” for being a trendsetter in the craft beer world, said Thatcher. “But that happens in business; people are always copying another person’s good ideas.”

Schultzer was also among one of the earliest members to join Long Island Beer and Malt Enthusiasts, which consisted of brewers and beer lovers alike.

“He’s awesome at making friends out of total strangers,” Thatcher said, “and that really helps make things happen.”

In Bellport, Schultzer always keeps his eye out for Bud, Coors or Miller drinkers to convert.

He’s trained his staff to do the same.

“They don’t realize, but we’ll ask certain questions and then suggest a bottle” of craft, based on the answers, he said.

It’s all about finding that gateway beer into the craft world, he and the staffers say. 

Then, another member of L.I.’s craft beer community is born.

Schultzer’s efforts have expanded well beyond Bellport, as he is now the president of Long Island Craft Beer Week, which was founded in 2011. He assumed the role in 2014.

He’s also very involved in the Bellport Chamber of Commerce.

Today, there are dozens of Long Island breweries, with new ones seemingly sprouting up each month.

Of those, only the BrickHouse in Patchogue existed at the time Schultzer opened Bellport Cold Beer & Soda.

“I didn’t have any Long Island beer on my shelves” in 1997, he said.

During that summer over 20 years ago, when Schultzer decided to close up shop in West Islip, he called his mother and father and told them he’d be moving back  in with them at 32 years old.  

He knew he would be losing money his first few years. But what attracted him to Bellport wasn’t financial success — it was his vision of a neighborhood hangout.

When he first created his website, the Cheers theme song played for visitors.

“This really did turn out to be my Cheers,” he said.

Dave Schultzer and Rich Thatcher at Bellport Cold Beer & Soda in 2015. (Facebook)

Top: Dave Schultzer leads his beer buddy’s in a group selfie during Long Island Craft Beer Week 2017. (Credit: longislandcraftbeerweek.com)