It is said that no-one really comes from New York; it’s a city built on a perpetual influx of people who simply don’t want to be anywhere else, or have nowhere else to go. This cliché of the melting pot has created a semi-mythical city that can satisfy any desire – culinary, cultural or otherwise – all day, every day. I can’t pretend to be objective about New York; it’s a city that I love.
Returning to the city recently after an inexplicable 10-year absence, I was curious to see how the beer scene had developed. But in one of the biggest cities on the planet, where everything is on offer all the time, where do you start?
Downtown Manhattan is where all the fun happens. The East Village is no longer the edgy New York of movie depiction, but what it has lost in grit, it has gained in great specialist beer bars; a fair trade-off you might say, and you could do worse than start at dba (41 1st Ave, between 2nd & 3rd St), which ticks many of the boxes on a beer lover’s list.
It’s a down-to-earth bar, with a decent selection of draught beers, a huge collection of bottles chalked up on boards behind the bar, knowledgeable bar staff, and a tiny beer garden. The place is used by locals and beer enthusiasts alike. Draught beers rotate frequently, and you can be sure of something special; Kelso Hop Lager (firm, malty and astringent) and Sly Fox IPA (sweet, smoky and whiskyish) were both on great form.
From here, the short walk up 1st Avenue and left along 7th St brings you to McSorley’s Old Ale House (15 East 7th St), a real ‘must-see.’ It’s a classic bar that has been serving suds to the thirsty for more than 150 years, but sells only two types of its own beer: Light and Dark. Sadly, neither of these will set your pulse racing, but salvation is close at hand.
Burp Castle (41 East 7th St) has a great selection of draughts from all over the world, and the list of imported Belgian beers is exceptional. Should the choice here not satisfy you, next door Jimmy’s No. 43 (43 East 7th St) has an equally impressive range, including beers from the excellent Sixpoint microbrewery (based in south Brooklyn, but look out for its beers all over the city), including the Brownstone Brown Ale (roasty, malty, slightly sweet). Jimmy’s also does tasty, wholesome food.
Moving one block north, press on eastwards, to the Hop Devil Grill (129 St Mark’s Place), where a slightly more self-consciously hip crowd enjoy a choice of around two dozen draught beers, dispensed from an eye-catching steel-backed bar. On cask there was Hop Angel from the Chelsea Brewery, a big, bittersweet sticky ale, heavily hopped, with a pungent herbal finish. From here, it’s a short stroll east to Zum Schneider (107 Avenue C, on the corner of 7th St), an oddly authentic German bierkeller, where you might catch some live oompah to go with classic German beer and food.
While the East Village offers variety and accessibility, Greenwich Village is home to one of the jewels of the New York beer scene. The Blind Tiger Ale House (281 Bleecker St) is a cosy bar with a slightly upscale feel, populated by a more mature clientele enjoying a wide selection of draught beers, and a mind-boggling bottle list, some 50 beers strong, with many rare and vintage beers in evidence. From a huge range of beers on tap, Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA stood out for its profound, persistently bittersweet finish. Blind Tiger also hold lots of one-off events; on this visit, I was a day too early to sample the last available cask of Sixpoint Imperial Russian Stout. Once you’ve spent some time here, it will be hard to pull yourself away, and harder still to find somewhere better to eat, drink and be merry.
However, should you be looking for great food and beer together, the only real choice is the Gramercy Tavern (42 E 20th St, btween Broadway & Park Avenue South). Although pricey, the food is great, and the beer list offers great scope for food and beer matching; they were the peole who introduced the concept of a list of aged vintage beers to the city. The bottle of 1998 Gales Prize Old Ale, rendered almost flat with age, and full of stewed prune and armagnac flavours, that I consumed with a trio of cheeses, was exceptional.
Of course, no New York visit would be complete without a trip up the Empire State Building, the ground floor of which conveniently houses a Heartlands Brewery bar, one of a citywide chain of six (check the website for locations). The décor may be brash, but the beers are all good quality, from the Summertime Apricot Ale to the Farmer John’s Oatmeal Stout. Head brewer Kelly Taylor describes them as: “Like regular beers, but with more stuff in them,” a description that encapsulates his no-nonsense approach to flavour and quality. It’s worth noting that this chain’s brewing activity has been centralized to a brewery in Brooklyn, also home to Kelly’s own innovative microbrand, Kelso of Brooklyn. Kelso’s production is tiny, keg and cask only, but worth seeking out.
If you just fancy shifting down a gear from the hustle of Manhattan, then salvation is a just a subway ride away. Take the L-train to Bedford Avenue in fashionable Williamsburg on a Friday afternoon (from 6pm, or tours every hour from midday Saturday), and hit the Brooklyn Brewery tap (79 North 11th St), where its entire range of draught beers, and some of its harder-to-find bottled offerings, are available to taste. From its flagship Brooklyn Lager, through to Local 1, its strong, bottle-fermented ale, the commitment to quality is clear. Talking to brewmaster Garrett Oliver, a verbal tsunami of passionate enthusiasm, his mantra of ‘great beer at a fair price’ needs no elaboration. Exciting though these beers are, try to pace yourself, because it would be a shame to make this your only port of call in Williamsburg. Near the brewery, Mugs Ale House (125 Bedford Ave, at 10th St) offers an outstanding selection of beers in a picture-perfect bar, all dark wood, tiled floors and pressed tin ceilings. Food here is decent, varied and sensibly priced, and the beer list even more so. From here, you can walk south along Bedford Avenue, the buzzing main street through this part of Williamsburg, and then turn left when you reach Metropolitan Avenue. Walking for another five minutes will bring you to Spuyten Duyvil (359 Metropolitan Ave, at Havermeyer St). It doesn’t have a sign, except for the name in tiny letters on its mailbox, but its red-painted iron gate and window grills should tip you off. This is a great no-frills place, with bare floorboards and mismatched painted furniture, ensuring that people come solely to enjoy its wide selection of beers, relaxed atmosphere, and tranquil beer garden.
The focus is more on Belgian beers, but with half a dozen international draughts, and a good range of Americana and other European brews. The friendly barstaff know their stuff, managing to find me a Belgian beer I’d never heard of; ‘T Smisje Blond, a delicate, crisp beer brewed with lime blossom, which lends it a spicy, herbal edge.
It seems crazy to end my beer journey in New York with a beer that has travelled as far as I did to get there, but that’s what this city is all about. Not only does it offer the best beers from the USA, but it also collects the cream of the rest of the world, and serves it to you however you want it. From the bareboards aesthetic of a neighbourhood bar like Spuyten Duyvil, to the upscale delights of fine dining with beer at the Gramercy Tavern, to raucous bierfest oompah at Zum Schneider, New York offers you everything that you want, all of the time.
41 1st Ave
Tel: +1 212 475 5097
McSorley’s Old Ale House
15 East 7th St
Tel: +1 212 473 9148
41 East 7th St
Tel: +1 212 982 4576
Jimmy’s No. 43
43 East 7th St
Tel: + 1 212 982 3006
Hop Devil Grill
129 St Mark’s Place
Tel: + 1 212 533 4468
107 Avenue C, on the corner of 7th St
Tel: +1 212 598 1098
The Blind Tiger Ale House
281 Bleecker St
Tel: +1 212 462 4682
Heartlands Brewery – bars across the city
Mugs Ale House
125 Bedford Ave, at 10th St
Tel: +1 718 384 8494
359 Metropolitan Ave, at Havermeyer St
Tel: +1 718 963 4140
79 N 11th St
Tel: +1 718 486 7422
Happy hour at the brewery tap –
Fridays, from 6pm
Tours on Saturday, on the hour,
(currently no tour or tap)
Kelso Of Brooklyn
(currently no tour or tap)