Towards the end of September Pip and I travelled to New York for our honeymoon. Anyone who has been to that wonderful city knows there is plenty to see and do, but we knew we’d have to check out the local ale scene as well, dutiful beer drinkers and CAMRA members that we are. However, all the pre-trip planning went into the sights and although the excellent Lonely Planet guide mentions good places to drink, initial investigation earlier in the year revealed some had shut down. And not all those listed were ale focused venues anyway. So Pip had the first of three great ideas concerning beer in New York; go to a bookshop when we arrive and get a book on the local scene. The second great idea was photographing three of the featured area crawls, instead of buying the book and lugging it around with us. So now we were set.
In the early evening of the second day we found ourselves in Brooklyn, specifically Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). I thought we would be drinking around Williamsburg one evening (also an area in Brooklyn and a popular drinking destination), but we didn’t know for sure if there were many alehouses and the metro journey there was convoluted. So we opted to follow parts of East Village crawl, getting the F line to 2nd Avenue and walking five blocks north. Coopers Craft and Kitchen occupies the corner of 2nd Ave & E 5th St and does so with a muted style that does nothing to diminish its presence. They have opted to eschew outside drinking (we found out later that corner bars generally have seating hugging the outside walls) in favour of increasing the internal area. We walked in and decided the left hand table area looked like it was for diners so we veered right towards the bar. On first impressions the bar area didn’t look very big with only seats at the bar, a couple of tables and high stools with a shelf running along a separating wall in the middle. But I realised later that even this was more space than some bars offer non diners. It wasn’t busy and we still weren’t certain which tables were reserved just for eating so we decided to sit at the bar. The barman approached us and I decided it was best to come clean, “This is our first time in a bar in America so we may require a little help.” Now, what I was getting at was the etiquette of tipping which we had learnt was a dollar per drink, and I was hoping he might provide some direction in that area. Also, I could see keg handles but nothing from breweries advertising their wares. The barman gestured to two wide blackboards hanging on the back bar. I later worked out there were 24 different craft beers on tap but in the mean time I quickly searched for something that looked like a safe bet. I settled on Autumn Pale Ale, 6.5%, by Bronx Brewery and Pip went for the 4.2% Summer Ale from Narrangansett brewery. Unfortunately there was no mention of tipping. Well it was a long shot after all. The best barmen and women are unpresumptuous. So we sat with our drinks and marvelled at the beer list. We concluded that we recognised a handful of the breweries but most were unknown. Which meant, of course, that we were duty bound to stay for a second drink. By this time we had noticed that a group of lads at the end of the bar had left some dollar bills on the bar after paying for a round. So we left four dollars to account for our first round too and hoped the barmen had not thought the American equivalent of ‘bloody foreigners.’ My second drink was East Standard IPA, 6.7%, by Peekskill Brewery which was very nice and Pip had Driftwood Ale, 6.0%, from Montauk Brewery. The atmosphere was just right, helped by the fact it wasn’t busy, and the decor was spot on. The lighting was at a medium level from fairy light style bulbs on a string, the walls were white washed above wooden banquette seating, with a wooden floor and a wooden ceiling too. We could have happily stayed there all night but that would no kind of crawl.
Our next stop was up 2nd Avenue two blocks and just off the main drag down E 7th Street in a westerly. The book map showed two venues in this location but one of them looked like a sports bar. Now we avoid those places in the UK so I couldn’t imagine that a sports bar in a country that obsesses over sports foreign to us, would be any better. So we went down the well lit stairs to Jimmy’s No.43 which nestles underneath the aforementioned sports bar. It had a cosy feel as soon as we walked in but the bar, straight opposite the door did not have much standing space behind the obligatory bar stools. We couldn’t see a beer list so we asked one of the barmaids who produced a couple of stapled A4 sheets. We decided to only have halves as the beer list was quite small and we had half a mind to go back to Coopers afterwards. Either way we now knew there were ale bars out there with impressive beer ranges and we wanted to prioritize them if possible. I chose Bridge and Tunnel IPA, 5.8%, from Iron Springs Brewery and Pip went for Dizzy Blonde, 5.6%, by Wandering Star. But it was certainly a pleasant place to sit; they had worked hard to create an atmospheric space, which I think you’re pretty much forced to do when your venue is in the basement. It was a lot quieter than Cooper’s but that simply added to the charm in my opinion. There were small wooden tables to sit at, low and high versions with stools of the corresponding height and flickering candles in glasses upon them. There was a curious amount of mirrors used for decoration but there was a decent amount of breweriana too here and there. And they had a penchant for UK music which is always nice to hear in another country.
From searching the internet on our phones (we had wisely bought US sim cards upon arrival to avoid huge UK data charges) we had found a nearby bar that sold a good amount of craft ale, and it was close to the subway station for the line that would get us back to the hotel. Fool’s Gold is a long narrow bar off E Houston that specialises in an extensive craft beer range and American whiskies, and claims to do everything but live up to the name, quite the opposite actually. 31 craft ales on tap and if that isn’t enough booze for you there are more than 80 American Whiskies to choose from. It wasn’t too busy in here either, not surprising seeing as it was a Wednesday, but then this is the city that never sleeps after all. Deeper into the building the space opened up a bit with high tables and chairs and barrels to stand around. Lowish lighting was all around and candles were present here also. Again there were blackboards above the bar with details of some of the beers but thankfully there was also a beer menu to flick through. There were TV screens on the bar back showing Family Guy and American Dad when we walked in which, I’m almost ashamed to admit, took our attention aware from our surroundings. But I took enough notice of the selection to take the picture featured here, where you can see the daunting row of tap handles. I had a half of Wild One by Bell’s. Half, I hear you ask? Yes, because this is America and they only brew session beers for novelty. My beer was 7.0% and I already felt tipsy and knew we were going somewhere else afterwards, and we had spent the day on our feet visiting the Statue of Liberty amongst other things. Pip had a pint of Boat Beer, 4.2%, by Carlton which she thought was average. After this we went to the Amsterdam Alehouse on the Upper West Side near to our hotel to finish the night, but this is described later on.
On the next evening we also found ourselves wanting beer, having thoroughly enjoyed the previous night spent in New York bars. As it turned out there was a bar just down Broadway from our hotel, which looked merely ok from the outside. But through Untappd it became apparent that it had quite decent beer credentials. Upon entry and inspection of the bar we confirmed it had a decent amount of craft beer. But where it really excelled was in the five fridges dotted around, filled with bottles and cans. There was a mix of US & Belgian beers on draught, including a Wild Beer Co beer, Kwak, Tripel Karmeliet, Goose Island Pale. Music was playing at a reasonable level, with medium level lighting peppered with fairy lights above the bar & in the window. Snacks adorned the left hand back bar, with spirits occupying the right. A fish tank sat high up in the middle of the back bar, but I’m not sure how they fed the fish. The space had been maximised by the construction of a small 2nd storey accessed at the rear of the bar, past the toilets, that allowed for a handful of extra tables. We got a seat underneath part of the upper floor and near to 3 of the take away fridges holding cans and bottles. I wasn’t entirely surprised to notice bottles of St Petersburg from Thornbridge in stock. They’ll probably get the first real ale into space. But there was a Wild Beer Co beer on draught too. There were TVs behind and above the bar, 4 showing American Football and 3 showing baseball. Chairs were positioned all along the bar with 4 high tables and stools providing the rest of the downstairs seating. There was wooden flooring throughout with a mix of upholstered chairs & stools and the occasional wooden one. I had Loose Cannon IPA, 5.6%, from Heavy Seas and was surprised to see it being dispensed from a single hand pump tucked in the corner of the bar, sans sparkler. I had heard that cask ale was making an impression in the US but didn’t really expect to see any. Unfortunately it was a little on the warm side and lacking in body. There was a subtle hop flavour with an almost caramel characteristic from the malt, but on the whole I was underwhelmed. It was described on the beer list as an English style IPA. It was in the sense that it was under 6% and came in a cask but I’m not sure what counts as an English IPA these days, as most UK Brewers seem to favour US hops. Pip had a Goose Island Pale, 5.0%, which was much lighter and a little hoppier than mine with a dry finish. I had managed to acquire a printed beer list from the barmaid whilst asking what material (just out of curiosity) the cask was made out of, a question to which she did not possess the answer. I had chosen another IPA, this time from a Brooklyn brewery but it was not available so I asked if there were any other IPA’s. This, it turns out, was a mistake. The remaining IPA was from Dogfish, fine, I thought, I’ve heard of them so I’ll give it a go. I think my words after tasting it back at the table were ‘Jesus Christ’. Upon tagging my beer in Untappd I saw it was a double IPA. Now that’s all very well & good in the UK where the tax rules discourage brewers from making beer over 7.4% but in the US they have no such worries, or moral obligation. For my beer, if it can be accurately labelled as such, was 18%. Gold Label is a shandy next to that. So how did it taste? I’m not sure as I was too busy falling off my chair, both physically & metaphorically. Was it sweet? Perhaps a little but most of all it was brutal, like being hit in the face by falling space debris. And there I was thinking I might be reckless and finish the night on a Kwak.
On our third night in the Big Apple we decided to follow another crawl from the pilfered book, this time on the Upper East Side. We started at the 3rd Avenue Ale House which occupies a generous corner plot (a preferred location for many bars it seems) and is an unabashed beer specialist. We walked in the front door & were immediately met by a girl sat by a podium. I experienced a brief moment of panic but then it was established we were OK to just drink, and outside too for it was a lovely evening. I was slightly disappointed not to be able to see the bar initially (although we were asked if we wanted to sit at the bar) but my fears were unfounded when I located the beer selection in the middle of the menu book we were presented with. 7 standard beers, including Guinness, Stella, Delirium Tremens, a Flying Dog amber ale, a wheat beer & a cider. Plus 19 featured draft beers including Hofbrau’s Oktoberfest, a sour pumpkin beer, 2 strong Belgians & a fruit wheat beer. The rest were from US microbreweries. There were 13 Belgian bottles on offer (including Kwak, Chimay Blue & Red, Orval, & Westmalle Tripel & Dubbel. The bottle selection was also impressive with 10 from US breweries, 5 from Germany & others from around the world. Three were featured from the UK; London Pride & 2 Samuel Smiths, Nut Brown ale & Oatmeal Stout. There were 60 different beers on the menu all together, not to be sniffed at all. I opted for First Bite Pale Ale, 5.5%, from Spider Bite Br Co in the Bronx which had a pleasant hop flavour with medium bitterness and a long, slightly dry, finish. Pip had a pint (by this time we had established that the measurement used was 16oz, but it’s close enough to a pint for me) of Honey Blonde Ale, 5.2%, from Central Waters Br Co who we had seen the night before. It was certainly sweeter than mine and easy drinking. We were sat right on the corner of the building which made for good people & traffic watching. Our drinks order was taken and brought to us and we knew from the previous night we could run a tab just for drinks. From what I could see of the inside there were TV screens showing Baseball, low lighting, and candles on tables. We were promptly asked if we wanted a second round (my glass had been empty for perhaps 90 seconds) and when the waitress was quizzed on beer (how hoppy is this Stone double IPA, how fruity is the Brooklyn saison) she knew the answers and there was no trace of winging it. And whilst our second round was being fetched we were asked if we wanted another by another waitress. To say we were sat outside and not eating they were not slacking on service.
The next bar was not far away, one block east and three blocks north. Merrion Square is a medium sized corner bar and had sports and a talk show on TV’s above the bar, which is evidently the way it’s done in America. But as with other bars we’d been in, no one was paying much attention to what was on TV. There was a pool table in the rear and two beer ball machines at the front right, whatever that was. There was bench seating on the left side with barrel tables & stools in the middle and a long bar. Another common feature in the US it seems, in order to provide more bar seating if anything. Indeed, most punters like to sit at the bar & there are always plenty of stools. We were asked for ID immediately upon entry (we snook in the side door) by a looming, unsmiling African American bouncer. I gleefully informed him it was the first time in 17 years of being drinking age (in the UK) that I had been ID’d, having waited to utter those words for well over a decade. He was unmoved. A small part of me was crushed. But it seemed that everyone got ID’d regardless. To say it was a Friday night it was only half full.
The lighting was medium low and music was playing at a fairly loud volume. There were two bartenders serving the 28 beers on draft 4 of which were pumpkin ales. All of the beers were at least $8, even a 2.7%. Presumably this is to cover the cost of the free burger or chicken wings you’re entitled to with a draft beer. One per person of course. Eight of the beers were 8% or above, which is a quite high proportion. We decided to have two drinks here; I started with 2/3 pint of Dragonhosen Oktoberfest, 9.0% which was decent, while Pip opted for a pint of the more sensible Brown Note from Against the Grain, 5.0%. My second drink was 2/3 pint Golden Monkey by Victory Brewery, 9.5%, which was described as a Tripel style beer & I can testify that it hit the mark for me in that description. Pip had a pint of Mo Ale APA, 6.0%, by Maine Brewery. As I was drinking strong beers they came in smaller glasses so I managed to get a third drink in 3rd round; 2/3 Left Coast, Asylum, 11%. I realised that after finishing this beer I would have trouble accessing a faculty that most people take for granted: vision. I blame Untappd for that; ooh look I only need 2 more 10%+ beers to get to the next level! Pip also had time for a third drink, largely because I was drinking my 11% beer rather carefully, and went for the safe and familiar Brooklyn Lager, 5.2%.
We also went to the Amsterdam Ale House (again on a corner plot) which we quickly realised had the same owner as the Third Avenue Ale House, but not quite as large a selection of beer. It was Saturday night, so drinkers were only allowed at the bar or on a couple benches outside the front door. Tables were strictly for diners, at 9:15pm at any rate. Sitting at the bar is the norm in America; you drink there and eat there. About the only thing you can’t do there is use the toilet, sorry, restroom. Tables were about half full and we managed to snag two stools near the far end of the bar. Same low lighting, candles on tables, a hostess by the door & same menu. Although the beer selection was not quite as comprehensive as its sibling there was still a decent selection. While we sat another customer demonstrated an answer to a question we had wondered about; yes you can get tasters in the US! We had also learnt at this point that beer is measured in ounces with 16 almost equalling a pint and 12 being used for strong beers, so roughly 3/4 of a pint. We had also noticed that they don’t do pump clips over there, or even font badges like we have for lager. Instead they have brash and imposing tap handles, but if you’re looking for what’s on offer you are better off asking to see a beer list. All the serious ale houses will have one.
We had investigated some different areas of New York and sampled some good beer in some memorable places. One thing that did surprise me was how hoppy the beers weren’t generally. And in true beer hound style we decided we should bring back as many of the cans that Broadway Dive stocked as possible, so we bought a second suitcase to take home. And that was Pip’s third great idea!