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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

New York City - Night 6: Midtown

[A month after I got home, and I'm finally getting the last part of my trip report posted. Ah well, better late than never...]

NYC - Night 6 - Friday, September 29th:

For my last night in the Big Apple, I decided to stick fairly close to my hotel and hit a few Midtown locations that I hadn't visited yet (and ultimately, one that I already had).

First up was the renowned beer emporium The Ginger Man (11 E. 36th St. between 5th Ave. & Madison). I'd first tried to visit on Monday night and found it packed from wall-to-wall, but this time I made it down early enough to beat the crowds. With high ceilings and lots of well-polished wood, this place gives off an elegant but comfortable vibe, and the combination of an astounding tap line-up of 60+ beers and a small but well-selected menu of sandwiches, salads and cheeses seemed to make it a popular place with the after-work crowd. I enjoyed a pint of Erdinger Festwei├če and considered following it up with something else, but the Friday night rush was starting in earnest, so I decided to try and find some place a little quieter.

I'd hoped that place might be Stout NYC (133 W. 33rd St. near 7th), but thanks to Eric Clapton, it wasn't to be. It seemed that his concert at the nearby Madison Square Garden was being celebrated with a pre-show party at Stout being thrown by a local classic rock radio station, and as a result the place was jammed beyond belief. However, I did get a look at the tap list, and based on what I saw, I had no problem leaving without a drink: aside from Guinness and Murphy's, there wasn't a stout to be had, and the remaining taps were a couple of Brooklyn Brewing beers, a bunch of mainstream lagers, and and assortment of the usual overrated imports that are available pretty much everywhere. Apparently their bottle list does a better job of living up to the promising name of the place, but I wasn't ready to fight my way through the crowds to find out.

So I hit the road again and headed north to The House of Brews (363 W. 46th St. between 8th & 9th Ave.), a cozy lower level pub along the touristy Restaurant Row strip. I really liked the atmosphere in this place - very comfortable and laid-back, with friendly staff and a nice selection of over a dozen beers on tap and 80 or so in bottles. Based on the bartender's recommendation, I started with a pint of their cask ale selection, Chelsea Catskill Hop Harvest Ale, which was a very nice & hoppy little number that was in fantastic condition. I followed it with Harpoon Octoberfest which isn't the most exciting beer around, but still a pleasant one with a good maltiness. My only real complaint about this place was the food, as my dinner was a lacklustre order of fish & chips that featured limp french fries and soggy, over-battered fish filets. I also shared some nachos with my neighbour at the bar, and we both agreed that they were far from the best we'd ever had. Still, the vibe and the beer selection made this a great place to hang out and watch some of the ball game (I don't even like baseball, but the Jays were playing the Yankees, so I felt some obligation to my hometown team to cheer them on while sitting on enemy turf).

To cap my evening & my week in the city, I decided to head around the corner and revisit the place where I had started back on Sunday night, The Collins Bar (735 8th Ave. at 46th St.). It was a bit busier than my first visit, but I managed to find a spot at the back near the jukebox, which I proceeded to feed most of my remaining US currency in order to annoy the rest of the patrons with my eclectic musical tastes. I got excited when I saw the rare Sierra Nevada 20th Street Green Hop Ale on a list of special beers they had on tap from a Union Beer tasting event a couple of nights before, but was disappointed to find out that the keg had kicked just minutes before I walked into the bar. Combined with Sunday's Schlenkerla situation, I was definitely having some bad luck with the place, but that didn't change my opinion of The Collins as being a quintessential NYC watering hole - tons of history, a classic look that hasn't changed in decades, and needless to say, a brilliant selection of libations to choose from. Their feature beer for the night was Magic Hat #9, an interesting apricot pale ale that I'd enjoyed in the past, so I went for a pint of that before moving on to the Southampton Imperial Porter, a dark & luscious brew that was much better on tap than the bottled version I'd tried a few months previous.

With that, I woozily toddled back to my hotel, and flew home the next morning. All in all, it was a fantastic trip that proved to me that New York is an essential city for beer travellers to visit. It's only big deficiency would seem to be a lack of quality bottle shops, but since I wasn't doing much shopping on this trip, that was a minor quibble for me. Otherwise, it was remarkably easy to fill my free time with beer-related pursuits, and I hope to make it back there sooner than later to revisit a few places, as well as pay first visits to a few places I managed to miss.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Keepin' It Real

The latest in my occassional series of beer articles for Toronto food & drink website Gremolata was posted today. It's a brief introduction to cask/real ale, including a preview of tomorrow's Cask Days 2006 event at Volo, as well as a list of establishments in Toronto that serve cask ale on a regular basis. Not a lot of new info for beer geeks, but hopefully it'll convince some of the foodies & wine drinkers who make up most of Gremolata's readership to try a pint or two of the good stuff.

Speaking of Cask Days (which should really be called "Cask Day" without the pluralizing "s" this year, since both sessions are happening on Saturday), I will be there, and assuming I remember to bring my camera and notebook, I'll post some photos and a festival report next week. Right after I finally get the last report from my NYC trip written and posted...

Sunday, October 15, 2006

New York City - Night 5: Brooklyn

[Yeah, I'm still really busy - maybe I'll get these NYC posts finished before the next time I travel down there...]

NYC - Night 5 - Thursday, September 28th:

The trade tasting event that I attended on Tuesday had brought brewers from around the world into NYC, and several of them set up other events during their visit to give their beers some more exposure to the public at large, such as the sadly cancelled Schlenkerla night that I tried to attend on Sunday at The Collins Bar. The one that I was really excited about, though, was the Rogue night at Barcade in Brooklyn, which was set to feature 20 Rogue beers on tap - including a few rarities - and brewmaster John Maier in attendance.

HopStop maps in hand, I caught the subway out to the wilds of Williamsburg for a mini barhop. Before the drinking began, I satisfied my craving for something tasty and slightly greasy with a mock-meatball sandwich at Foodswings (295 Grand St.), a vegan fast food joint that even a carnivore could love. No tofu & spouts, hippie-dippie, peace & love shit at this place - the staff is pierced and tattooed, the music is down and dirty, and the menu features vegan versions of all your greasy spoon and pub grub faves, including chili con soya, "fish" & chips, nachos and "chicken" drumsticks.

It's also conveniently located just a couple of blocks from Spuyten Duyvil (359 Metropolitan Ave.), an unassuming looking place that has been voted the #4 Beer Bar in the U.S. on RateBeer and has been named the Best NYC Beer Bar by both New York Magazine and TimeOut New York. Like many of the bars I visited during my trip, Spuyten is a small place with a friendly neighbourhood vibe and tons of quirky character. The food menu is limited to plates of cheese and cold cuts, but patrons are welcome to bring in other food if desired. The tap list is small in size (6 draughts and a single cask) but big in quality, and the bottle list is astoundingly good, featuring an impeccably chosen selection of brews from around the world, including a good number of Belgians and more than a few rare and obscure treats. Since I was visiting solo, it was hard to justify dropping the big bucks on a 750 ml bottle of Cantillon or Fantome, so I stuck with a pint of Lagunitas Pils, a lean & well-balanced Bohemian pilsner, and a bottle of Kerkom Bink Blond, a surprisingly hoppy Belgian ale.

After that, it was off to Barcade (388 Union Ave.), which is one of the few "concept" bars I've been to that I actually enjoyed. A lot. Located in what seems to be a renovated garage or warehouse space of some sort, Barcade combines two of the best things in the world: great beer and classic video games. For someone who spent most of the early 80s converting my paper route earnings to quarters in order to get my fix of Robotron 2084 and Time Pilot, this place was like heaven. I arrived with a pocket full of quarters to find the place packed to the gills, and after fighting my way to the bar for a pint of Rogue Chocolate Stout on cask, I headed to the machines and started feeding them. The Chocolate was so good that it just had to be followed by another, during which I briefly met John Maier who was being mobbed like a rock star. Second pint of Chocolate drained, I considered having a third, but then realised that of the 20 Rogue beers on tap, there were probably at least a half-dozen that I would never have a chance to try again unless I visited the brewery in person. So I went for a glass of Rogue Love & Hoppiness, a robust pilsner that Maier and his wife, Stacey Wacker, originally brewed last year on Valentine's Day to be served at their wedding on April 9th, 2005. It was a very pleasant surprise from a brewer better known for his ales, and a great choice for my last beer of the night.

Then it was back to the subway and off to my hotel in Manhattan, with one more day and night left ahead if me to enjoy the city. I'll try to get the report of my last night on the town posted in less than a week this time, but I make no promises...

Sunday, October 08, 2006

New York City - Night 4: The East Village

[Sorry for falling behind on these, folks. Work has been busy since I got back, and the new hockey season started this week...]

NYC - Night 4 - Wednesday, September 27th:

If you only have one night to spend in New York and want to hit a few beer-friendly establishments, the East Village is the perfect neighbourhood to do so. There are about a half-dozen great bars within staggering distance of each other, not to mention plenty of restaurants to fortify yourself before, during or after your pub crawling.

My original plan for Wednesday night was to start with dinner somewhere and then hit several bars, but class let out early, so I had more time to myself than expected. I decided to start with a late afternoon snack at a non-beer location: Teany (90 Rivington St.), an aptly named (i.e. it's really teeny!) vegetarian cafe and tea house owned by Moby. (I'm semi-vegetarian, by the way - pescetarian, to be exact - so I spent as much time researching veggie restaurants before my trip as I did cataloguing beer destinations.) The tea menu in this place is as intimidating as the beer menus in some of my favourite bars - 98 different teas sorted by style, all with detailed tasting notes. I ended up with a white tea flavoured with chrysanthemum and a slice of very tasty vegan pumpkin "cheese"cake.

Sweet tooth satiated, I made the short walk to d.b.a. (41 1st Ave. between 2nd & 3rd St.). Located on the lower edge of the East Village, d.b.a. was one of the first beer specialty bars to open in Manhattan, and it still has a pretty solid reputation - it was voted 34th in RateBeer's list of Best U.S. Beer Bars for 2006 - although a couple of locals I spoke to later in the week have said that the selection and service have taken a downturn in the past year or two. Personally, the only complaint I had about the place was the horrendous state of the tiny washroom, although I guess it was no worse than the ones in the divey bars I used to frequent in my wayward youth. Still, I expected something a little more sanitary from this otherwise clean and comfortable place.

No complaints about the beer, though. They had a good selection of micros and imports on tap, including a couple of handpumps, and a chalkboard which not only listed their draught and cask selections, but included the dates that they'd all been tapped - a really nice touch that I'd like to see in more places. The bottle selection was also quite impressive, with lots of US micros and imports from Belgium, Germany, the UK, and even several Unibroue beers. And for those who like the hard stuff, they stock plenty of premium bourbon, tequila, whisky and other spirits. I stuck with the beer myself, and since I couldn't decide between malty or hoppy, I went both ways and had a very nice pint of Blue Point Hoptical Illusion on dry-hopped cask, and a glass of Brooklyn Oktoberfest on draught.

At my next stop, I was also offered a choice - not between malty or hoppy, but between "light or dark". Yes, I stopped in at McSorley's Old Ale House (15 E. 7th St. near 3rd Ave.), a NYC institution where they've been slinging suds for over 150 years. There's sawdust on the well-trod floor, white-aproned servers behind the weathered bar, and two types of beer, the aforementioned light and dark, served at a minimum of two mugs at a time. Brewed for the bar by Pabst/Miller, these are not hoity-toity craft beers, just simple brews that are easy to pound back. If you'd like to have a quick visit and try them both, ask the bartender for a "one & one" to get a single mug of each.

After the old-timey diversion of McSorley's, I wanted to get back to the fancy stuff, so I headed a block east and found myself faced with yet another choice: should I visit Burp Castle (41 E. 7th St. near 2nd Ave.) or Jimmy's No. 43 (43 E. 7th St. near 2nd Ave.)? OK, to be honest, I already knew that I was going to choose Jimmy's as I'd read about their Wednesday night beer & cheese tastings, as well as their menu of local and organic food. Located below street level, it looks like a tiny hole-in-the-wall on arrival, but it's actually a rather spacious place with several interconnected rooms and a very monastic decor. I stayed in the front room and grabbed a spot at the bar near the friendly rep from Merchant du Vin who was pouring small samples of Orval, Westmalle Tripel and Samuel Smith's Organic Lager to be enjoyed along with a complimentary cheese plate. Those served as a nice appetizer for a main course of their excellent mac & cheese and a pint of Six Point Bengali Tiger IPA, a wonderfully hoppy beer from a fairly new brewery in Brooklyn. I enjoyed it so much that I had their Smoked Baltic Porter for dessert - and yes, it was just as good as the name suggests. And I had a chance to meet the namesake owner of the place, Jimmy Carbone, who not only remembered me from an email I'd sent him a couple of weeks beforehand to ask about the beer & cheese night, but who also emailed me a couple of days after my visit to say thanks for stopping by. Who says New Yorkers aren't friendly?

My final stop of the night was the Hop Devil Grill (129 St. Marks Place at Ave. A), a funky hang-out with around 30 taps (mostly US micros, with a few well-selected imports) and a slew of bottles to choose from. I felt like something light to finish off my evening, so I had a pint of Brooklyner Weisse while watching the tail end of a Rangers pre-season game on the big screen. I was tempted to have another when I noticed a poster advertising their $3 Wednesday night "Kill The Keg" special, but I also noticed the time on my watch, which made me think better of it. No need to push things too far, as there would be more beer to enjoy tomorrow night. Oh yes, indeed...