Something's Brewing in NYC

A look at Big Apple beer culture

 


There’s an old joke: what do having sex in a canoe and American beer have in common? They’re both f****ng close to water. Of course, that hasn’t been true for years. Starting in the 1970s and 80s, with small breweries like San Francisco’s Anchor Steam, Philadelphia’s Dock Street and Boston’s Sam Adams, American beer has become arguably the best in the world. New breweries seem to open every year, many taking creative approaches to classic styles of brewing.

I grew up in Philadelphia, a city that once boasted 700 breweries in its heyday. While it doesn’t approach those numbers now, Philadelphia has embraced craft brewing in a way no other East Coast city has. The area supports at least 20 small and craft breweries, ranging from America’s oldest beer, Yuengling, to the three-year-old Philadelphia Brewing Company. All those breweries and their brewmasters are very close, sometimes even collaborating on beers, and all are involved in Philadelphia’s annual Beer Week event. According to pints expert Don Russell, who writes a beer column for the Philadelphia Daily News under the nom de plume Joe Sixpack, Philadelphia’s “grown so unified because of our local bar owners, who have always supported local beer. Around here, bar owners drink in each other's bars, and so do the brewers.”

Photo courtesy post406 via Flickr/CC
In 2003, I moved to New York. As a beer lover, I was struck by how much New York’s brewing culture didn’t match that of other cities. Still, it was home to one my favorite breweries from my college days, Brooklyn. Back then Brooklyn Brewery did not have much local competition, and its association with the city and home borough seemed unassailable. Its “B” logo, designed by “I heart NY” co-creator Milton Glaser, is reminiscent of the Brooklyn Dodgers “B,” and the brewery even makes a Pennant Ale commemorating the team’s 1955 World Series berth and ultimate victory over the Yankees. But in 2004, Sixpoint Craft Ales opened in Brooklyn and the scene slowly started to evolve.

Brooklyn Brewery is small by any measure of that word. It will never be an Anheuser-Busch, a Coors or a Miller and it presently only produces one-twentieth the amount of beer Sam Adams does annually. Yet in Brooklyn, where to many, small is better, Brooklyn Brewery is starting to seem big and corporate and thus, passé. I definitely know people who seem to prefer other local beers to Brooklyn purely on some sort of unarticulated principle. In other brewing cities, like Denver or Philly, where beer connoisseurs feel the bad guys are the international conglomerates, not the local guys, this would seem unheard of, but not in New York. According to the New York Press, Park Slope bar Union Hall stopped carrying Brooklyn’s beers last spring because, as the bartender puts it, “You can get a Brooklyn in Texas,” so it feels less unique. The same article cites the growing number of other bars in Brooklyn that no longer serve the borough’s namesake beers.

According to Russell, “Drinking in New York is all about what's trendy.”  Brooklyn Brewery, which has been around since 1988, is decidedly no longer trendy. Part of its apparently diminished cache can be traced to 2006, when Brooklyn Brewery president and co-founder Steve Hindy publicly expressed support for the controversial Atlantic Yards arena project. Arena opponents organized a failed boycott of Brooklyn’s brews, but in the eyes of many, the brewery came to be associated with the domineering big guys. It was no longer an underdog. Despite the boycott’s floundering, many of the bars that switched away from Brooklyn’s beers never switched back. One argument used to support the change to say, Sixpoint, was that much of Brooklyn’s beers were brewed upstate due to the lack of space for a bottling facility in the city. Sixpoint didn’t sell its beer in bottles or cans until a few months ago (it still doesn’t sell it in bottles), and thus all of its beer was 100% locally made. Hindy says he doesn’t hold it against other brewers for taking advantage of the opportunities the arena incident presented, noting he probably would have done the same thing. For his part, Sixpoint founder and president Shane Welch says of the boycott, “Honestly I don’t think it made a big impact. We didn’t use that as an opportunity.”

The influence image has had in motivating certain drinkers to turn their collective noses up at Brooklyn can be seen in the growing popularity of relative newcomer Kelso. The beer, which is increasingly appearing on taps that once poured Brooklyn’s ales and lagers, is actually made by Greenpoint Beer Works, the same people who make beer for the decidedly corporate Heartland Brewery chain. New Yorkers who would never touch a beer from Heartland, happily order Kelso because most of them have no idea about the connection.

According to Hindy, “In New York, there’s not a real close relationship among brewers because there are not that many of us, and frankly, it has been a hard slog getting started in New York City. More than 20 startups have failed in the past 20 years. Those of us who succeeded had to have laser-like focus on our businesses.” Despite this, Hindy notes that the Brooklyn big three, Sixpoint, Kelso and Brooklyn, do collaborate on political issues. For example, they are presently working to reform New York’s franchise law which currently gives brand rights to distributors, making it extremely difficult for brewers, especially small ones, to switch to a different distributor, even if they are unhappy with the service being provided. Says Hindy, “Realistically, political issues are more important ones for brewers to come together on.” The masterbrewers from both Kelso and Sixpoint were also invited to the February ribbon-cutting at Brooklyn’s newly expanded facility.

Sixpoint, the brewery that has probably benefited the most locally from Brooklyn Brewery’s perceived faded coolness, paints a slightly different picture, asserting that the relationship among New York’s brewers is close. Sixpoint spokeswoman Cathy Erway assures me that there is “a very real affinity amongst craft brewers in NYC, who are a pretty small bunch.” Sixpoint’s president Welch echoes this sentiment, noting his great respect and friendship with New York area brewers. But then again, I didn’t expect them to say, “No, we are out to close every other brewery in the five boroughs.” In fact, Welch made a point of saying, “We have a very strong company mandate: we never say disparaging things about our colleagues, about other brewers.” Erway also cited a recent Greene Space panel hosted by public radio station WNYC, where a representative from Sixpoint joined representatives from Kelso and Brooklyn, as evidence of the beer-makers’ camaraderie. And that’s great, but it still pales in comparison to the frequent joint efforts of brewers in other cities. For the most part, microbrewing and New York are a new pairing; microbreweries and the beer-making culture have plenty of time to evolve. Hopefully that evolution will lead to an environment similar to what one sees in America’s other great beer drinking cities.

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Comments

  • Snooth User: lthep
    905404 0

    Great article! I had no idea about the distributor protections- it's awesome that the breweries are willing to play nice with competitors for the common good.

    Sep 01, 2011 at 11:51 AM


  • Snooth User: Mark Angelillo
    Founding Member Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    2 6,357

    Thanks Joshua - Can't deny the US is making some damn fine beer these days. I remember the first time I heard your lead in joke. Funny how Bud (the mainstay of close to water dalliance in the US) is now an InBev operation.

    Sep 01, 2011 at 12:07 PM


  • The preference of Sixpoint over Brooklyn is more than a trendy NY one. They brew interesting and extremely delicious beers—the Bengali Tiger IPA being one of my favorite beers in the world (we custom ordered a keg for my wedding reception, as my wife is equally as big of a fan). Not to diss Brooklyn Brewery, who also brews some interesting and tasty beers, but in comparison, they definitely seem more toward the macro-brew guys in style as well. I'd say Brooklyn is to Sixpoint as Sam Adams is to Dogfish Head (stylistically, not size-wise). Simply more interesting and tasty beers, IMHO. Then again, I'm an (American) IPA guy, so I love the more robust, hoppy style, and someone who's equally passionate, but who's a malty Belgian lover might very well prefer the Brooklyns and Sam Adams.

    From a perception standpoint, however, I've definitely been to bars with the same ol' line up of crappy domestic beers, Guiness, and Brooklyn Lager (in which case I do take the Brooklyn). More than a few times, those types of bars, who clearly don't take as much care in their beer curation (these same ol' clearly have distribution channels on lock), will also have unclean lines, and as a result, can detract from the taste experience and therefore the beer's reputation as well. I can tell the difference, but maybe not necessarily with everyone. I don't know, just a thought and what I've experienced.

    Sep 01, 2011 at 2:41 PM


  • Great brewer in Oceanside called Barrier Brewing with 2 brewers born from Sixpoint. They have nearly 30 different beers almost all of which are incredible. I have been driving from NJ to be able to enjoy their growler fills at home as they are not bottling and are only available in this fashion or on tap. They may be small in size, but they are BIG in creativity and taste.

    Sep 01, 2011 at 2:52 PM


  • While I realize that the article is written to support a New York metro craft brewing resurgence, it should be noted that in 2008, Portland, Oregon (pop 584,000 city, 2.6M metro, 3.8M state) had 30 microbreweries located within the city limits, more than any city in the world and greater than one-third of the state total (46). Drinking beer in the Northwest is a delight.

    Sep 01, 2011 at 4:39 PM


  • Snooth User: PAFromage
    926532 0

    Glad to see Snooth paying more attention to craft brews; nice piece, Philadelphia IS a great beer town as the writer notes. The choices at dozens of places are sometimes overwhelming but for the most part the servers have been trained to know beer.

    Sep 01, 2011 at 9:59 PM


  • I don't live in NYC, but my wife and I visit often and I found this to be a very interesting read.

    Sep 02, 2011 at 12:11 AM


  • Snooth User: Phoebek
    906067 0

    Great article! I love how people stop liking things simply because they are too available or popular. When did it become cool to not be popular? In California microbreweries are all the rage. But the best I have found in a while was at a small family run Italian restaurant where they brewed just a few "special" beers in the back. I am surprised New York has been so slow to catch on to craft brewing but the minute someone creates Hells Kitchen Ale, I will be in line to try it!

    Sep 02, 2011 at 12:58 AM


  • Snooth User: ShelleyR
    905572 0

    Very interesting piece. I look forward to reading more by Josh.

    Sep 02, 2011 at 11:42 AM


  • Snooth User: BenNYU
    905537 0

    Making me thirsty. But often what people drink has less to do with taste ( their taste or the beer's) than with the statement they think what they are drinking makes. Why else do young people drink crappy" retro" beers like Pabst or Piels?

    Sep 02, 2011 at 10:39 PM


  • Snooth User: Kro47
    927587 0

    Interesting, informative article. Maybe someday New Yorkers will have the same problem my Philly friends and I have--too many choices of where to go for a great local brew. I'm looking forward to Josh's follow-up article on how things progress with New York breweries.

    Sep 03, 2011 at 12:18 PM


  • Snooth User: Sintpeter
    820577 4

    Back in the early 90's, a Belgian told me the Bud/canoe joke, while clutching a then short-lived Long Island brew. Many US cities and towns produced inane brews over decades. The Germans (post WW1,WW2) got their revenge by giving an uncle Larry sub-standard recipes to take back to America to start a brewery.
    For years NYC has seen bad stuff come down from Utica and surrounds and then embarked on its own (unabashedly) hops, skips and burps. I remember The Manhattan Brewery in the 80's-90's. The joint was jumping, guys were pumping so-so brews (to a lot of tourists) - but management couldn't organize a booze-up in brewery! Later, I took my Brussels buddy to McSorley's for an "experience". He and girlfriend were polite.

    Sep 05, 2011 at 4:26 PM


  • Snooth User: alps
    929678 0

    Insightful article. It's a wonderful thing that craft breweries, and critics like Josh, have elevated beer to its rightfully deserved status. With that said, however, it is truly a shame that the beer scene in our country's largest city is so far behind the curve. On the other hand, Philadelphia (my home town) is just down the road... C'mon down!

    Sep 06, 2011 at 1:40 PM


  • Excellent article.
    @ Studley, you may want to try some of Brooklyn's limited-edition, tap only releases, such as their Reinschwiensgebot ('bacon beer') or the Manhattan Project -- before you write Brooklyn off as mainstream compared to Six Points (a delicious line of beers, no doubt, but really, how different is their IPA from the 8,000,000 other IPAs flooding the market?).

    Sep 07, 2011 at 6:42 PM


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