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.


  1. If you're in Brooklyn for a while, I'd recommend getting hold on anything from Grimm.

    Also you have to go to Torst - Evil Twin's bar/restaurant.

  2. Did you pick these places to visit, or were they just convenient? I never quite know how to deal with the paralysis of choice somewhere like New York offers.

    1. A bit of both. Most of the very small breweries open their taprooms Thursday–Saturday, which was a bit of a bother, as I was there Sunday-Wednesday. I had a list of another dozen places that I never made it to.