Returning from a few days in NYC, I find the beer scene relatively stable in town. The variety of the last few years continues, with cider on the upswing and pumpkin beer less in evidence. “Sours”, variations on European originals such as Flanders red ale, are still big, and gose and Berlin wheat beer too. Various smoked beers are still seen too. These are arcane European types I don’t favour personally although many obviously do. Flavoured beers are still prominent, e.g., using coffee, chocolate, various fruits or tea in addition to hops and malt.
What is notable in the last two years is more craft beer everywhere, it is just more present, including in places which don’t specialize in beer as such. It’s the same thing on retail shelves. True, some of that is Goose Island, owned by giant Anheuser Busch InBev, or other brands now owned by big brewing, but that’s okay, it is still craft beer in the taste. If anything, my sense was IPA and more characterful beer are pushing out the Blue Moon (owned by MillerCoors) that was once ubiquitous.
A rare spotting of a California Common style from the area’s Barrier Brewing disappointed since the beer was heavily soured and had obviously gone off in the keg or the line. In a time when sour beer is considered a staple part of any good bar’s inventory, it is bootless to complain about this since the staff think the sourness is normal. Trying to explain that steam beer aka California Common Beer isn’t and never was sour is like thinking a waiter mid-town will appreciate your custom as much if you don’t tip him. Barrier is generally very reliable, so another time.
- The super-fresh and creamy draft Pilsner Urquell in the huge handle glass at Nelly Spillane’s on 33rd, next to Rattle ‘n Hum. Equal to the best draft I had in Prague. Craft beer before there was craft.
- The bottled Harvey Christmas Ale at the Cannibal and Beer counter in the elegant-hip Gotham West Market in Hell’s Kitchen. This is Harvey’s from Sussex, England. Whatever most brewers think they know about beer, Harvey’s probably forgot, but suffice to say it had a spicy treacle character with rich malt and good hop underpinning – all achieved in the good old English way with top yeasts and the right hops.
- Great South Bay Pumpkin Ale from the area. It’s a soft-textured beer which managed to show the squash in the mash as well as the typical pumpkin pie spice in a very drinkable way, not an easy act to achieve.
- Southern Tier’s (NY state) phenomenal Warlock Imperial Pumpkin Stout. This has the trademark “pumpkin puree” of the brewery’s renowned pumpkin beer but with a luscious porter character added. It’s velvety and spicy and the height of the brewer’s art pretty much. In pure gastronomic terms, easily the equal of the great classified growths, sauterne, vintage port, etc.
- Tres Equis lager from Threes Brewing in Gowanus, a delicious, clearly all-malt lager which is probably how a lot of American lager tasted when the style was first brewed here in the mid-1800’s. I happened to have part of a Miller High Life later that day, not by design, and the two were like night and day. One is thin and dominated by corn, the other generous in the malt yet with a firm neutral hoppiness in support. Tres Equis deserves to be widely known, it is a real winner.
- The old school-new school Sierra Nevada Stout, on draft at The Gingerman on East 36th Street. It is still the best medium gravity stout in the U.S. or just about anywhere. The rather more venerable Carnegie Porter from Finland, of which a 2014 brewing (bottled) pleased, was as good perhaps, with a molasses note the other didn’t have. I brought home a bottle of Founder’s Porter from Michigan and will be interested to see if it comes close to the Sierra Nevada. Generally, I find beers from newer, fashionable craft breweries aren’t as good as Sierra Nevada’s beers (where an equivalent is made of course). The reputed local, Other Half’s, stout, tasted in a flight on the same occasion, didn’t approach Sierra Nevada’s IMO notwithstanding the buzz attending this brewery.
- The Oktoberfest beer at Paulaner’s brewpub on Bowery at Houston. Rich and spicy in the way a real marzen rarely is in North America. Its wheat beer was second best. The blonde and dark lagers were a little thin I thought. All these were tasted in a flight, sometimes I change my mind when I have a full glass, so I reserve the right to re-taste in a half liter. 🙂
The Gingerman is still the best beer bar in Manhattan. I visited some newish ones, e.g., Albion on 2nd Avenue, and Village Pourhouse, but none come close to the temple of beer that Gingerman is. I stopped by a number of others including the worthy Pony Bar, just to look at their list but didn’t sample anything. One always misses things on any trip, a pub devoted to all-draft Guinness looked interesting, but it didn’t open for an hour. A Belgian Beer Bar near our hotel looked ditto, but it was never the right time…
Gambrinus always looks forward to the next trip though, good beer is always in memory but always in prospect.