Originally Published in The Toronto Standard
Of all the many reasons to visit New York, beer tourism has never really been one of them — at least not until recently. In the past couple of years, NYC has been adding a distinctive Big Apple flavour to America’s vibrant suds scene. From a Greenwich Street kitchen to a minimalist Danish pub in Greenpoint, brew in the five boroughs is suddenly worth the airfare.
It’s not just about the pints being poured. The beer joints themselves are products of the their own unique neighbourhoods, making it easy to find a place that suits your style while satisfying your palate.
Of course Hogtown’s own beer scene is also thriving, and there’s no pastime more authentically Torontonian than comparing this city to America’s largest burgh, so to help you find your own “local” while you’re on the road I visited a bunch of beer-focused establishments in my last two trips, consuming more than 70 beers along the way.
This is no Top 10 list (although the first two listed are the ones I would suggest are the “can’t miss” destinations for the truly passionate). This is merely a beer-lovers guide through some of the more common districts where you might find yourself in search of refreshment.
Proletariat (St. Mark’s Street, in the East Village)
Where it would fit in Toronto: Parkdale
In addition to being my favourite find, it’s also the darkest and tiniest of all the places I parked (Wide Open feels like a high school cafeteria, in comparison). Opened in May of 2012, the selection is a constant rotation of new and rare beers. I had an Oude Gueuze Tilquin à l’Ancienne (Belgium), a Porticus Leipziger Doppel-Porter (Germany) and a Peeper Pale Ale (Maine).
“We’re not just a bunch of kids new to the beer scene that ran out to get certified,” one of the owners tells me, stressing that despite the unique menu they don’t strive to be a snob hub. “If a construction worker comes in and asks for a Coors Light, we’re not going to look down our noses at him. We want to talk to him about beer and get him to try something new.”
A few Canadian beers have popped up on Proletariat’s magnetic menu board, from Hopfenstark (Québec City), Trou Du Diable (Shawinigan) and local fave Bellwoods, which shipped down a batch of its popular Witchshark IIPA.
Jabbed right in the heart of painfully cool St. Mark’s Street, there’s nothing tourist-trappy about Proletariat. It’s just good beer, if you’re lucky enough to get in.
TØRST (Greenpoint, Brooklyn)
Where it would fit in Toronto: Ossington
Speaking of Bellwoods, its name also appeared in Greenpoint recently. Thanks in part to a collaboration with TØRST founder, Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, No Sleep Till Brooklyn, a sour stout brewed and aged right here in T.O., was released in July on both sides of the border.
Jarnit-Bjergsø (brother to Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, founder of Mikkelar Brewery) is one of the best – if not the best – known “gypsy brewers” on the planet. The Danish ex-Pat made his reputation by mixing up his wares in other people’s breweries, under the banner of Evil Twin. When he decided to open his own establishment in March, Jeppe set up camp just east of Manhattan, where he serves not only Evil Twin’s own creations, but also some of the finest beers from both nearby and far-flung breweries.
You probably won’t find this place by accident, so map it out. There’s nothing street-facing to advertise it as one of the most acclaimed beer destinations in America, and the interior is more reminiscent of a sauna than a saloon; all finished wooden planks cut in clean, even lines.
Once you get used to the blindingly sombre environment, you’ll realize TØRST’s trappings offer a minimum of distractions from some of the finest beverages available on this continent.
508 GastroBrewery (Greenwich)
Where it would fit in Toronto: Leslieville
I really try not to come across as a beer snob, but when I first sat down at 508 GastroBrewery, I found myself (almost) obnoxiously sniffing around a tulip glass of steeped beer, trying to pick out a character unlike anything I had ever experienced.
When I looked up, staff were gesturing towards me and the brewer-of-record, Chris Cuzme – a genial, clean-cut, boyish type, just three months into his new position – appeared at my table offering a tour of his basement nano. The concoction I had been nosing around, he told me, was a blonde ale infused with a special pomegranate tea he had imported from Turkey. When my tour was complete I returned to my table to find one of every available house tap, including a stellar Szechuan saison made with peppercorns.
508 is a beer critics’ favourite in New York, but it also prides itself on its food. Although I didn’t try it, my wife swears the lobster ravioli is one of the tastiest meals she’s ever lingered over.
Blind Tiger (SoHo)
Where it would fit in Toronto: West Queen West or Yonge & Eglinton
Thin Lizzy was playing when I came in. Not “The Boys Are Back in Town,” but an actual, front-to-back LP of Phil Lynott’s timeless, but neglected (at least on this continent), bluesy rock offerings. That, alone, is reason enough to camp out.
You’re probably not going to get more than 40 folks comfortably in this place and most of the 25 or so that milled about when I pulled in seemed to be regulars discussing everything from Magicicadas to Brettanomyces. It’s worth going early.
Pouring craft since waaaaaaaaaaay back in ’95, Blind Tiger sports 28 All-American taps, a few casks and a generous selection of bottles. In addition to the beer, I also enjoyed that the kitchen staff honk on a squeezy-toy to let the server know an order is up, rather than smacking a bell.
Draught 55 (Midtown East)
Where it would fit in Toronto: Cabbagetown
I had the good fortune of showing up to Draught 55 on an afternoon when the bartender was on her only shift of the week, and so tried really, really, awfully hard to make up for what she didn’t immediately know.
This place is undoubtedly engineered to be a neighbourhood local, open since November, fully equipped for comfort and the craic. There was a baby shower going on in the back, golf on the big screen and a Spotify playlist list of covers.
After a few flights of U.S.-crafted craft beer, the name Engelszell lunged at me from the bottle list. The Austrian Monastery is the newest addition to the very select fraternity of Trappist brewers, now numbering a robust eight on the entire planet. Back home, where the LCBO boasts of its world-elite purchasing power, Engelszell is more elusive than Yeti, more rare than a Justin Trudeau policy, more difficult to obtain than video of a big city mayor smoking crack. So when the server – an Ulster Cailin, only in the New World for the summer – came to understand how freaking excited I was to get my hands on a bottle, she not only presented it with all the reverence it deserves, she neglected to add it to my bill (err… check).
PonyBar (Hell’s Kitchen and Upper East Side)
Where it would fit in Toronto: King West’s Theatre District
When I dropped by the Hell’s Kitchen location, three university students in little black dresses sat to my right, passing time until they could be seated across the street for a taping of So You Think You Can Dance. They were from Jersey. They were all going to different schools. They wanted “girly drinks.” They talked a lot.
On my left was a very informal business meeting, where the beer itself was never discussed.
PonyBar came to me as a recommendation on Twitter. When I checked in on Untappd (it’s like FourSquare, but for beer), I learned it’s also the hangout of one of the apps’ founders. Yup, I got a badge just for showing up.
I wouldn’t go out of my way to go back to PonyBar – it certainly didn’t strike me as a destination bar – but if I was in the area I certainly wouldn’t shy away from it. The 20+ all-American craft beers on tap provided plenty of great choices.
Amsterdam Ale House (Upper West Side)
Where it would fit in Toronto: Beaches
Amsterdam Ale House is what I would term “a compromise bar.” If you’re with a large group, everyone is going to find something they like.
Boasting 31 mostly unexciting taps (the bigger American craft brewers like Yuengling, Sierra Nevada and Brooklyn; the usual imports like Stella Artois, Guinness and Newcastle) and a slightly more impressive selection of bottles from home and abroad (including three from Québec’s Unibroue), it’s middle ground for both the craft beer fanatic and the American “lite” lager drinker.
The decor is dark wood, with muted, tavern-style pendant lights, brass-plated ceiling tiles and a bar that stretches most of the length of the north wall. The food menu is primarily burgers, pizza, pasta, soups and salads, so again, no surprises. Amsterdam doesn’t offer tasting flights, but the server will let you try any of the draught selections before you order.
Among the more distant locales on this list, it’s the only one that requires a wayfaring quaffer to venture north of Columbus Circle, yet I’ve ended up there on each of my recent trips. Despite the fact it’s not the most inspired bar on this list, that’s kind of the point: predictable can be far more enjoyable than bold.
Heartland (Times Square, Empire State Building, Union Square, other touristy places)
Where it would fit in Toronto: Dundas Square
Clearly staged to pry open the wallets of thirsty sightseers, Heartland is small chain of brewpubs occupying some of the most expensive real estate in Manhattan.
I wandered in to the Times Square branch and ordered a Super-Sized flight of eight samplers (six regulars, two seasonals). I was impressed. Although I found the label of the Indian River Light Ale somewhat objectionable, with its image of a sexed-up girl dressed in stereotypical Native attire, holding a shaker pint in one hand and a rifle in the other, the drink itself wasn’t quite so tasteless.
The Cornhusker Lager is listed as an American Adjunct Lager, brewed with corn. It, too, was surprisingly flavourful, compared with most adjunct lagers.
Although, admittedly, the beer was better than expected, I doubt I’ll be back. The decor was obnoxious, the staff acted as though serving was a distraction and with so many better craft beer joints appearing within stumbling distance of every major New York landmark, I’ll leave this one to the T.G.I. Friday crowd.
Eataly (Flatiron District)
Where it would fit in Toronto: Yorkville
If you don’t already know about Eataly, here are the basics:
It’s an Italian-derived, Epicurean meet-up that opened in 2010 to much fanfare. It has numerous eating and drinking stations throughout its 50,000 square feet. It’s not a great beer place, but it is a place with some great beer… or birra, more specifically. Pretty much every bottle is imported from Italy. What isn’t, comes from Dogfish Head in Delaware (whose founder is Sam Calagione – you do the math).
Where it would fit in Toronto: Liberty Village
At first pass, it looks like just another cookie-cutter, North American Irish pub with a twee name and sports on the big screen. The beer list, however, is excellent, with a fine range of American and imports. The standout for me was Brooklyn Brewery’s Pennant ’55 Ale – an English Brown Ale with a rich, toasted caramel flavour and not too much bite.
This is also where, after downing two flights, I had my first taste of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. I didn’t realize it was 15% ABV until I took my first sip (whoops). It’s an outstanding beer, that really shouldn’t follow anything else.
The service, mostly spawned in the Emerald Isle, was much warmer than the decor, which seemed a bit too sterile for anything passing itself off as Irish. Compared to the more authentic-looking Shamrock pubs directly to Féile’s west however, this was the only place I truly felt “fáilte.
Other New York beer joints worth checking out (some for my next trip) include Rattle ‘N’ Hum,Spuyten Duyvil and Beer Table. If you’ve been to any of these, or know of other bars deserving of my elbows, please let me know in the comments section below.