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.


  1. I don't think of Staten Island as forgotten The again, I did use to live there. I seem to remember the last active brewery in New York before the 1980's revival was on Staten.

  2. Ah, Staten Island. The home of the Eltingville Club....