Thursday, 8 October 2015

It’s only rock ’n’ roll but I like it

Head brewer Rich is driving a fork-lift when I arrive. Perhaps this is self-selection bias, but all the brewers I meet in New York are big Anglophiles. At Singlecut Brewsmiths in Astoria, Queens, they are big cask beer fans too, and make a lot of it. They opened in 2012 and have already expanded once. They also have outstanding graphic design and beers with weird names, and it’s the first brewery tap I have seen with a drumkit on a mezzanine level. A large collection of vinyl LPs is behind the bar. The dust and humidity in a working brewery can’t be all that good for them, I muse. But the brewery is music-themed: live music is a big part of the taproom’s draw, and all the tap handles are shaped like guitar necks.

The first beer I try is an English pale ale called Keith, after Keith Richards, I gather. Served on nitro, it’s made with East Kent Goldings, Styrians and Target and tastes very fresh and slightly citric.

It would be wrong to treat Singlecut as a tribute band, as it were. There’s a lot of experimentation here too. Shine on Summer Sour Lagrrr is a sour lager, amazingly enough, which has spent a whole year in a dedicated souring tank. A beer called Kim is a hibiscus sour lager, which is basically a Berliner Weisse grist fermented with a lager yeast and then moved to the souring tank. Why bother with the slow, time-intensive lager fermentation for beers like this, I ask. Just to mix it up a bit, is the reply, and to have a unique twist on things. The technique seems to produce a nice beer, fruity and malty at the same time, though this is oddly reminiscent of Froot Loops cereal. There’s some sour cherryade and yoghurt flavours in there too, a milky salty lassi of a beer.

One wall of the brewery is stacked with wooden casks. These are rum casks rather than the more common bourbon casks. It’s usually a stout that goes into these, but at the moment there’s a rum aged lager, sweetish with only a light rum character – it’s the 14th fill of the cask.

Heavy Boots of Lead, made with 2-row, crystal and Munich, is like a chocolate brownie in a glass. There’s no other way to describe it, that’s what it tastes like, a fantastic beer.

Possibly the finest beer I taste in New York is the super-fresh 19-33 lager. No funny business in this one, just a straight up superbly made pilsner. A hint of sulphur and soft but intense bitterness from Saaz and Hallertauer Blanc hops. This is another one worth carrying across the Atlantic and that’s how I ended up drinking a growler of it in a field at Fyne Ales’ festival back in Scotland. Jay at Flagship was right, New York is lager town.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Girl, I wanna take you to a cheese bar

New York’s venerable cheese shop, Murray’s Cheese Store in Greenwich Village took a new leap a couple of years ago by opening a cheese bar a few doors down the street.

Not quite a ploughman’s, this is a selection of three cheeses with paired beers. Grimm IPA (which I know nothing about except that it comes from Brooklyn) is citric, perfumey and slightly sweaty; looks like apple juice, light-bodied, medium to bitter finish.

Something that can perhaps only exist in Vermont, Beanery Brewing is a company which sells exclusively coffee beers. Their Beanery IPA, brewed at Smuttynose, has only light coffee flavour but a vanilla-ey, sherberty lightness.

Other Half IPA (not sure exactly which one, as they have tons of IPAs) has tropical fruit and resin. Sorry, no cheese tasting notes except to note that this type of resiny IPA tends to do well against any washed-rind cheese.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Over the water to the forgotten borough

There is beer everywhere. Waiting in the ferry terminal the kiosk where I buy my morning coffee and bagel has draught Budweiser and Lagunitas IPA.

It’s a pleasant trip over the water to Staten Island, on the incongruously communistic free, municipally-owned ferry, which takes you to and from the heart of global capitalism in Manhattan. While the Staten Island Ferry is one of the iconic journeys in a city stuffed with icons, the island itself is known as “the forgotten borough”.

One of the newest breweries in NYC, and the only one on the island, is Flagship which has just celebrated its first birthday. Its slogan is “Unforgettable beer brewed in the forgotten borough” – but it wasn’t that which caught my attention. In the first instance it was because they brew a couple of British styles: wee heavy and dark mild, which I found intriguing.

Finding the brewery couldn’t be easier: take the train one stop from the ferry terminal and the brewery is across the street. It’s a baking hot day and a whiff of fermenting spent grain across the yard doesn’t put me off.

Brewery boss Jay is kind enough to show me around and let me taste some beers. He’s keen to talk about their lager, which they have just started brewing. Jay was in sales before starting the brewery, so ought to have an idea what will sell. They were very eager to bring a lager to market, because New York is lager town, he tells me. I am reminded again of that Yuengling–Brooklyn lineage (and the more beer I drink here, the more convinced I am that Jay is right).

While Flagship are already selling everything they produce, it’s only been recently that they have been able to tie up tanks for the required fermentation and conditioning time for a lager. On tasting it, it’s smashing. The best way I can describe it is to tell you to imagine if Brooklyn Lager had all European hops instead of Cascade. It’s a creamy, amber lager with satisfying bitterness and a herbal noble hop aroma.

Pale Ale is the beer which sells most in the other boroughs of New York City and the first to be bottled. This is, I think, the very first batch off the new packaging line – the bottles have no labels yet. It’s a tasty beer with maybe a slightly rough bitterness to it, made with seven types of C-hops and Mosaic. In addition to the up-front hoppiness, it’s chewy and biscuity. No murk here either.

Obviously I have to taste the Wee Heavy: a very heavy roast barley and hop bitterness, chewy too and drinkable enough for the 8% abv to get you into trouble. Not much like any Scottish wee heavy I’ve tried, but a tasty beer nonetheless.

It’s so hot waiting for the train back that I’m tempted to break into my six-pack. By the time I return to South Ferry it’s definitely time for a beer. The Fraunces Tavern is a tourist attraction in its own right, having been headquarters for various pre- and post-revolutionary organisations in the 18th century. Trying to get a small glass of the 6.8% Ommegang Fleur de Houblon, though, is futile – it’s only sold in pints. I have to chuckle to myself, remembering that most British pubs would probably do the opposite and insist on only serving a beer of that strength in halves. The beer is spicy and citrussy with that musty bitterness that comes from hopping up a wheat beer.

I saw a lot more cask beer in New York than I was expecting to, but didn’t get to drink much. In the case of the Fraunces Tavern, I really want to try the Bronx Pale Ale from the cask, but it’s not on. Just as well as a second pint at 6.3%, in this heat, would not be the best idea.

I find more cask at the well-known Ginger Man bar: KelSo Pale Ale, which has a high bitterness and splendidly flowery, geranium-like hop aroma.

I read a lot of curmudgeonly complaints about American cask beer. The main issue traditionalists have with it is the practice that American brewers have developed of adding not just hops, but fruit, chocolate, cake and other additional flavourings to the cask. Indeed, sometimes it seems that “cask” in the US means, in one sense, the same as “craft” in Britain: an opportunity to add a load of weird stuff to your beer post-fermentation.

I don’t see why US cask beer should have to be a carbon copy of British cask beer, though, and the other cask beer the Ginger Man serves up has, if anything, the opposite issue. It is almost too much like an English beer. More English-tasting than a lot of English beer, Sly Fox Chester County Bitter  has minty bitterness and creme brulee sweetness, like an old-school country bitter from Wadworth’s or somewhere. While I am sure the temperature is within the approved range, New York in summer is quite a bit hotter than most places in Britain ever get, and I don’t think the beer would be hurt by being a bit colder.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Brew York, Brew York, what a wonderful town

New York is weird for the first-time visitor. Because it’s so familiar from films and TV shows, it feels quite surreal to actually be there. I keep expecting to look out of the window and see Spider-Man fighting Dr Octopus on the flat roof of one of these Manhattan office blocks.

Arriving on a Sunday afternoon, my first beer in a random bar is Brooklyn Lager. I have never been impressed by this beer in the UK, where it’s usually old, poorly served and extortionately priced. Here, it’s still extortionately priced, like everything in New York, but it tastes much fresher with a solid hop flavour. Yuengling Lager, which I order because it’s a legendary brand that I’m never likely to see at home, is frankly disappointing – but I realise there’s a sort of continuity here; these brown, proletarian Yankee lagers.

There’s much more beer-wise to New York – much more to Brooklyn, in fact, than Brooklyn Brewery. Rather like London, the city is experiencing mushroom-like growth in small breweries, brewing a diverse range of styles.

Transmitter is the first brewery we make it to – “always well received” is the delightfully corny slogan. Transmitter is so small that it has neither a bar, nor draught beer, nor a customer toilet. You can only taste small samples and buy bottles to take away. We try them all, of course. As is usual in such places, what’s available depends very much on what’s been packaged recently and what is sold out.

Transmitter’s speciality is what the Americans call “farmhouse ales”, which is more than slightly ironic, as it’s in an industrial building between the Pulaski road bridge and a railway yard, which does have a certain gritty romanticism to it, but is about as far from a farmhouse as it’s possible to get. But damn if the beer isn’t good. A grapefruit witbier tasted, well, like a witbier with extra grapefruit, and New York Saison is seriously drinkable.

Given time, I would have happily spent an afternoon supping a few bottles of New York Saison, but the bar is higher: I need to choose which one is worth schlepping back across the Atlantic. F4, a “Brett Farmhouse Ale” brewed with three strains of Brettanomyces hits the spot: tasty, funky and complex.

If we’d had more time, I would have done this differently. We end up travelling all the way across Brooklyn to the next beer. Transmitter is practically in Queens while the next brewery, is at the opposite end, right down in the south-west at Red Hook. But Sunday opening times being what they are, we have no choice.

Other Half  is the hot brewery in New York right now. Their occasional releases of super-fresh cans – canned on Friday, sold on Saturday – provoke the kind of madness that leads people to queue up hours in advance for their IPAs. We arrive the day after one of these releases. Predictably, there are no cans left.

It’s just before closing time and we have time to squeeze in just one beer each.

Green Diamonds (9.1%) with Amarillo and Galaxy hops is sweet, oily and well balanced, with long sustained bitterness. Very pleasant with slight sweaty, yoghurty notes.

Equinox IPA (7%) has a big “dank” or marijuana-like aroma, all the better for the somewhat lower alcohol content, making it light-bodied and very drinkable. There’s a bit of fruit salad sweeties too. Quite dry so never gets cloying. It reminds me a little of one of Adnams’ single-hop pales, and I am forced to think how good it would be as a cask beer.

Both beers are good, yet neither are really in the category “I must seek this beer out again”. They have only a slight haze, no murk here. I do like the tap-room a lot – it is very small and very nice, done out in that hipster paint (guaranteed to flake off after three months). Despite the hipsters it doesn’t feel like it’s trying too hard, as UK bars often do.

Though the beer has little in common with Transmitter’s, Other Half’s location also adds fashionable urban grit to its appeal. The brewery and tap-room are opposite a drive-thru McDonald’s and underneath a freeway, which I guess is the New York equivalent of London’s railway arches.

Back in Manhattan for dinner – it takes half an hour longer than anticipated to get back on the subway – Heartland Brewery is a small chain of former brewpubs. It still feels very much like the type of brewpub you can read about in Michael Jackson’s books, food- and family-oriented.

A few years ago Heartland decided for reasons of efficiency and consistency to consolidate all their brewing in one place and downgrade the pubs to outlets for their beer. The facility, now named Greenpoint Beer Works, now produces all the beer for the restaurants. Heartland’s head brewer Kelly Taylor wanted his own range of beer, but rather than leave, he chose to contract the brewing out – to himself. So his KelSo beers are now also made there.

I only get to try one Heartland beer because we’re just in for dinner, not beer ticking. Although there are more exotic options available, I choose the beer in the “classic American Pilsner” style, which, according to legend, is what American lagers were like before Prohibition. This style combines substantial bitterness with a large dose of maize in the mash, which supposedly helped German immigrant brewers to clarify beers made with dodgy American barley in the late 19th century.

I think I prefer my lagers all-malt, but I wanted to try this as there isn’t really anything like it in Europe. There are maize-laden lagers in Belgium and Italy, of course, but they do not have the hop bitterness that this does, whereas the hoppy German and Czech lagers are all-malt.

I’ve noticed that the American brewers tend to brew a fair number of what they call “classic styles” – your Dunkel lager, ESB and so on. More so than the fashionable UK brewers. Don’t dismiss Heartland as conservative though: brewers from Other Half and Flagship worked here before moving on.

It’s fascinating to trace the generations through New York’s breweries: the brand that contract-brewed until there was money to build a facility (Brooklyn); the chain of pubs with a slightly dated feel (Heartland); the hipsters making tiny amounts of beer under bridges (Transmitter, Other Half, Big Alice). What they all seem to have in common is a connection with the city they’re in. It’s an exciting time to drink in New York.