Exploring New York City – away from Manhattan – through its breweries

By / Wine + Drinks / December 19th, 2018 / 4
New York City breweries

Damn, I love New York.

I’ve been visiting New York City every year since I was about 10 years old and I’ve honestly never stopped loving it. For me, it’s a place that feels more like home than my actual home of Toronto. It’s a large, bustling place of constant activity with a rich history and the most diverse types of people from all over the world. Nowhere else will you find such a vibrant scene of music, art, dining and culture than the big city itself. Truth be told, I’m at my happiest in New York.

But what upsets me is that most of the people I know who visit the city never tend to stray much past the borders of Manhattan. Sure, there’s a lot about Manhattan that is amazing — I can go on to talk about Union Square, the Village and so forth — but the city really opens up when you explore beyond the usual sights and get into the beauty of boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens.

Along with being a traveller, I’m also a beer drinker. And because of that, I like to encourage people to explore the beauty of regions and countries through the breweries that inhabit them. So, load up your MTA card because we’re going to look at three neighbourhoods and a few can’t-miss breweries to try while you take in this wonderful city.

Williamsburg is an interesting place that has a fascinating and somewhat troubled history. In 1855, the City of Williamsburg (along with the Town of Bushwick) was annexed into the City of Brooklyn as part of the Eastern District and subsequently developed as an industrial area. In 1898, Brooklyn became a City of Greater New York borough and, especially after the completion of the Williamsburg Bridge in 1903, the area quickly became the city’s most densely populated area. Over the years, the population kept growing while the heavy-industry side of Williamsburg died out. When the area became notable for its crime, many residents eventually left. With that, rent prices in Williamsburg began to drop, which in turn attracted artists. It was then that the area’s resurgence in popularity brought forth gentrification, which brings us to the Hipster Mecca that it is today.

For me, you can’t really visit New York without making a stop at Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg for its famous tours and a visit to the taproom. Park Slope residents Steve Hindy and Tom Potter quit their jobs to start a brewery in 1988, hiring Milton Glaser, the creator of the I Heart New York sign, to design their logo. In 1996, Hindy and Ptter, along with brewmaster Garrett Oliver, moved into a former Williamsburg matzo factory and built a brewery that would end up being at the vanguard of craft beer developments in New York, America and many other places in the world.

It wouldn’t be hyperbole at all to say that Garrett Oliver’s depth of knowledge and skill along with his creativity and business sense are the driving force behind Brooklyn Brewery’s success. Along with initial growth in the North American market, the brewery has expanded to locations in London and Stockholm, the latter brewing a special beer — Brooklyn 1/2 Ale Session Saison — to adapt to the low-alcohol requirements of Swedish stores. On top of that, Oliver has two books, The Brewmaster’s Table and the Oxford Companion to Beer, that stand as essential reads for any beer lover.

Brooklyn Brewery pint

I don’t know where to begin with beer recommendations for Brooklyn Brewery because, honestly, it’s all good. Garrett Oliver has managed to create an extensive portfolio that ranges from simple done well, like the flagship Brooklyn Lager, 1/2 Ale and Brooklyn Brown Ale to high-concept, like Tripel Burner, a liquorice-spiced tripel aged in white wine barrels. Two essential beers for newbies would have to be a mix of those two extremes. The Sorachi Ace Saison is a beautiful burst of lemon in a glass with a light peppery finish and the Bel Air Sour has to be one of the most accessible dry-hopped sour ales I’ve had, with lovely notes of tropical fruit and a lightly tart finish.

While Brooklyn Brewery is the classic foundation upon which the current NYC beer scene is built, fellow Williamsburg resident, Grimm Artisanal Ales, has gone for a look that more closely represents the hipster culture that embodies the neighbourhood.

Though Grimm has only been open since the end of June, owners Lauren and Joe Grimm have been brewing at a number of locations in the area over the last five years. During that time, they acquired such a strong reputation that their eventual grand opening was a relief to their many fans, happy to finally have regular access to their offerings.

The space itself is very Williamsburg. It’s large, minimally decorated and very white. A DJ plays on one side of the room where some tables are laid out while the bar is packed with patrons of all sorts ordering any of the wide variety of beers on tap. Throughout the location is an assortment of beautiful, brightly coloured art pieces that stylistically fall in line with the hip vibe the space is successfully going for.

While the taps change frequently, beers can include Today’s Special Extra Citra, an offshoot of Grimm’s standard Today’s Special American pale ale that goes heavy on notes of berry, orange and grapefruit, or Future Days, a golden sour blended in oak barrels and dry-hopped with Simcoe hops, giving it a nice note of apricot to match the mild acidity and dry oak notes. For something more seasonably appropriate, the Double Negative imperial stout is smooth with notes of dark chocolate, black currants and a nice, roasted coffee note at the end.

Onward to Queens!

I’ll admit to having some misguided assumptions about Queens. Before visiting the area, it always seemed like a quiet and dull suburb. A place where sitcom characters like the Heffernans and Frank Costanza live. I’m pleased to say, though, that Queens is actually a thriving area, not unlike Toronto’s Roncesvalles, filled with small shops and enough greenery to make it a nice breath of fresh air away from midtown Manhattan. Though there are rough patches dating from the area’s industrial past, old warehouses are currently being reoccupied and revamped to give the area new life. The Queens neighbourhood of Ridgewood also has some wonderful history to it, becoming populated in the early-1900s with German immigrants who worked in the area’s many breweries.

Coney Island tap

A favourite spot in Ridgewood for me would have to be Bridge and Tunnel Brewery, if only for its pride in being a truly family-run business built on passion. Rich and Lisa Castagna originally started brewing in a small DIY 150-square-foot garage in Maspeth, getting official status as New York’s first garage-based nano brewery in 2012. In 2015, they moved to their larger Ridgewood location, but the pair never gave up their love of DIY, using repurposed, reclaimed and retrofitted materials to build a brewery from the ground up (with daughters Mia, Samara and Hailey helping). The result is a taproom with a vibe that fits nicely in between loveable dive bar and small community space, featuring low lighting that creates a cozy, rustic atmosphere and distinctly New York feel.

The taproom features 16 pours and runs through a wide range of styles, from barley wines and imperial stouts to raspberry sours and scrumpies. A beer of note, the Get In, Shut up, Hold On NY IPA made with New York Bagels, is a very accessible, somewhat malt-forward IPA with a punch of pine and citrus bitterness.

If you have the time to take the Q train over, a treat for the whole family is, of course, Coney Island.

Coney has a rich history, being the largest amusement area in the United States from 1880 to 1945. Many of its past exhibits represented both bad and good, from the human exploitation of the Igorrote Village, in which tribesman relocated from the Phillipines ate dogs in front of a gawking audience, to the benefits of the baby incubator exhibit, which saved many premature babies during a time when such technology wasn’t yet scientifically accepted.

Regardless of its past, Coney feels like a plane ride away from Manhattan. Home to a beautiful beach, the area also has many rides (including the historic Cyclone), a number of excellent foods (forget the original Nathan’s hot dog stand and go next door to Pete’s Clam Stop for a sausage and fresh clams or oysters), carnies and good beer.

Coney Island Brewing Co. has gone through some changes over the years. Originally opened in 2010 and owned by Shmaltz Brewing, it was officially declared the smallest operating brewery in the world. In 2013, Alchemy & Science, a Boston Beer Co. subsidiary, purchased the brewery and began the process of rebranding and upgrading the brewery to its current digs at 1904 Surf Avenue. A wide variety of beers are served there, from flagships like the crisp Mermaid Pilsner and the Merman IPA with its burst of citrus and assertive grain bitterness. There are also limited offerings, such as the delicious Watermelon Wheat and the New York Honey Stout.

If the taproom is too packed, you can opt for an authentic Coney experience at the Coney Island Freak Bar down the road, where you can drink the same beers, catch an extremely entertaining performance at the Circus Sideshow and visit the museum and gift shop.

There are plenty more places and neighbourhoods to visit, of course. Brooklyn’s award-winning Threes Brewing and the wildly popular Other Half Brewing are just two more examples of places to check out.

But like all good trips to New York, what you don’t check out just means more to do the next time you visit.


Robin LeBlanc is a beer columnist, award-winning blogger at TheThirstyWench.com, and co-author of The Ontario Craft Beer Guide, a guidebook to all of Ontario's breweries now in its second edition. She lives in Toronto.

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