The space for New York City in everyone’s imagination is already pretty full. That’s partly because it does such a wonderful job of promoting itself—I can think of more cultural references to individual bridges in New York City than certain other major cities—but also because of the variety of experiences.
NYC boroughs seem to take turns in the spotlight. As Manhattan completed its revitalization in the 2000s, Brooklyn became the centre of the hipster world. And now that ad agency directors are the only creatives in that part of town, Queens is the new darling for early adopters.
Throughout these transformations (and much further back through New York’s waves of immigration) beer has played an outsize role.
Back in the early 2010s, Beer School: Bottling Success at Brooklyn Brewery was one of the first beer books I read. It’s remarkable that Steve Hindy and Tom Potter were already writing about their craft beer success in 2007.
Food & Beer is another signpost of New York’s rarefied love of beer. It’s a high-gloss cookbook created as a collaboration by the brewer at Tørst and the chef of Luksus. Fittingly, it’s in New York that beer finally took a seat at the fine-dining table.
Luksus closed in 2016, but for a few years, it was the poster child for craft beer in restaurants. In 2014, it became the first restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star without pouring wine or liquor—instead, each course on the tasting menu was paired with a different beer.
Others have taken up the challenge and new breweries have joined Brooklyn on their mission to make some elbow room amongst the wine bars and brown-liquor speakeasies.
You won’t find too many sprawling beer gardens or production breweries in Mannhattan these days. But, luckily, the Queensboro, one of those movie-star bridges, will take you to a neighbourhood in Long Island City (yes, that’s still very much in NYC) with six breweries within easy walking distance of each other.
Having clocked more than 25 years of selling beer, Brooklyn Brewery deserves a spot on the list of essential American craft breweries. And it’s not just a beer factory. Their dashing brewmaster, Garrett Oliver is the author of Brewmaster’s Table and the editor of The Oxford Companion to Beer so it should come as no surprise that his brewery offers a complete experience.
The headquarters in Williamsburg (they also have an upstate outpost at the Culinary Institute of America) is a must-visit for the history mixed with innovation. Try to stick to what you can only get on-site—that means veering away from Brooklyn lager.)
You’re in luck if one of the Brooklyn Quarterly Experiments or something from the Brewmaster’s Reserve programme is pouring. Bel Air Sour (5.8% ABV) is a year-rounder that graduated from the BR. It combines the tartness from their house strain of lacto with tropical fruit from simcoe and amarillo hops.
Look also for Black Ops (11.5% ABV), an annual take on a Russian imperial stout. For 2019, they managed to hide an entire black forest cake (taste-wise, at least) in each bottle of opaque goodness.
After paying respects at the OG, we’re off deeper into the borough. Three decades of gentrification have pushed brewery founders from areas like Williamsburg to neighbourhoods like Industry City, where Other Half runs their gritty-around-the-edges operation.
Where some breweries make a style or two that pushes the borders of what beer is expected to taste like, Other Half slams on the afterburners as they cross into airspace usually reserved for everything from smoothies to wine to milkshakes.
Broccoli (7.9% ABV) is an imperial IPA made with a quartet of hops that give it a smooth citrus profile to match its opaque haziness. If you feel you need to ease gently into the hop-dominated madness, Forever Ever (4.7% ABV) is their session IPA, but it still packs in five hop varieties and fits into the juicy, tropical New England-style family.
And if you want to preview your trip to New York there is an option closer to home. Other Half bought an old brewery across the lake in Rochester and converted it. Think the same wacky beer styles at a more relaxed pace.
What’s the difference between Brooklyn and Long Island City? Fresher tattoos and even more tech companies with offices in old warehouses. Plus LIC is the home to the current boom in New York City’s craft beer scene.
The beer menu splits between taps from other breweries and the house options. Among the latter, there are plenty of IPAs (including the double and dry-hopped variety) but Thousand Stars pilsner (5.2% ABV) has a good malt backbone that helps refresh the hop-tired palate. Meadow Maker (7.5% ABV) is a smooth, New England-style reintroduction to IPAs with notes of peaches and tropical fruit.
With everything from Buffalo fried pickles to the Mother Clucker fried chicken sandwich, this is a tough spot to stick to just beer at.
Fifth Hammer Brewing
Next stop north is relative newcomer Fifth Hammer. It’s a casual space anchored by a long bar and with plenty of seating.
Fruited sours like Palate Pigment (5.2% ABV) are a mainstay on the good-sized list of creative options. You’ll also find a seasonal focus like the Iron Lotus (10.5% ABV) porter for the end of winter. Their 4-oz. taster glasses are a great way to tour the catalogue.
Once you’re done at Fifth Hammer there are four more breweries in this part of Queens—Rockaway, ICONYC, Big Alice and LIC Beer Project—that are worth a visit. The best part is that it will only take a half-hour walk for the grand tour.
Where else to go
With Broadway and world-class shopping (and hundreds of other attractions) Manhattan beckons those who can’t leave on beer alone. We get it.
The Jeffrey NYC is at 60th Street under the Queensboro bridge. Inside this rustic-looking bar, they have an exceptional beer list that covers strong ales from Belgium, cult IPAs from California and whatever’s in-season from NYC breweries.
Further downtown on Bleeker, Blind Tiger is a 24-year-old institution. Nearly 30 taps pour outstanding brews from (mainly) the northeastern U.S. You’ll also find a deeper-than-average food menu of bar favourites.
For a pint before you pick up a few bottles to take home, Top Hops Beer Shop should be your go-to. They cover a wide range including New York options like Other Half, Finback and Sixpoint.
I could ramble on for pages about pizza and hot dogs—two classics from the New York cannon. In a nutshell: get a slice from John’s on Bleeker Street and, on a nice day at least, it’s worth the trip to Coney Island for the Nathan’s dog.
Where to Stay
Expensive cities have expensive hotel rooms. So, for my money, you have two options. Either hunt for a good deal at one of the iconic Manhattan piles (the Algonquin, Pierre, Warwick, Roosevelt and Washington Square have patina without the sky-high price tag) or snag an AirBnB in LIC.
Getting to NYC
Newark’s airport has the connection (via Porter) to the island airport in Toronto. In the unlikely event that you swing a flight through JFK, BKLYN offers 20 good beers on tap and top-notch food by chef Laurent Toroundel. The (slightly bizarre) consolation prize at LaGuardia is an outpost by the Boston Beer Company, makers of Sam Adams and fans of the Boston Red Sox.
The subway system is vastly cleaner and safer than it was in the days of Serpico and Taxi Driver. Now you’re more likely to need to keep your wits about you to avoid accidentally getting on an express train.