I can't pretend to be objective about New York; it's a city that I love. I've visited probably a half a dozen times, and lived there for a short while in the early 1990's. I spent quite a bit of that time, like many Englishmen abroad, complaining about about the beer, and drinking beers that I would never normally drink. No doubt spurred on by my whining, someone eventually handed me a new "local" beer, Brooklyn Lager, which at that time still brewed outside of the city, but soon to was break ground in Brooklyn and establish itself as a local legend. I was hooked, and no doubt contributed substantially to their initial success.
Fast forward 15 years, and I find myself in Leeds, attending a beer dinner, hosted by the Brooklyn Brewery's very own brewmaster, Garrett Oliver. I was lucky enough to be invited to attend, and reported it for Beers of the World magazine. It was memorable for a number of reasons; it was held at Anthony's in Leeds, a favourite venue of mine, notable for excellent browsing and sluicing; Garrett was (and still is) a charismatic, knowledgeable and gregarious chap; and the meal ended memorably for me, as I got to meet chef patron Anthony Flinn at the end of the meal. In fact, as everyone drifted away, I sat with him and Garrett, chatting about food and beer, for quite a while. It's fair to say that I was awestruck. They say that meeting your heroes is always a bad idea. What nonsense, it was great fun.
Anyway, on a recent visit to New York, two friends and I were lucky enough to be shown around the brewery by Garrett. The area around the brewery in Williamsburg has become very hip over the last 5 years, lending a slightly surreal air to the brewery, as though by osmosis the great beers brewed here have made the area fashionable. Fantasy, of course, but hard to ignore.
If you've toured a brewery, you know that externally, they all look a bit samey; fermenters, conditioners, kegging machines, perhaps a bottling line. It's what goes on inside the shiny steel vats that matters. There's a vat steaming away, destined to turn into East India Pale Ale. Garrett opens it for us to sniff; you can tell that it's going to be beer, but steamy, hoppy brew has a way to go yet. From a conditioning tank in the corner, Garrett draws off some samples of the experimental collaboration with Schneider & Son. Both breweries made a beer to the same specification, but hopped it differently, Schneider using German hops, and Brooklyn using American. This beer, Brooklyner-Schneider Hopfen-Weisse (the German brew was Schneider-Brooklyner Hopfen-Weisse) is about to be kegged, and is really at the very peak of its condition, and one of my companions, Dave, notes: "You can't get any better then 'just done'". He's right.
The pale yellow, cloudy beer is absolutely bursting with vitality, the slightly bubblegummy, banana ester aroma belying its wheat beer origins, but an intriguing floral spice note showing its hop content. Being from the conditioning tank, it has only a natural carbonation, making it just gently prickle on the tongue, leaving a complex spicy wheat, flora hop, persistently fruity bittersweet aftertaste with hints of cinnamon, banana custard and hop bite making sure that although slightly sweet, it never cloys. It's really quite exciting to drink, and even more exciting to have caught the beer at its peak.
Hugh Johnson writes about the half-fermented grape must called "paradis" that the locals drink in the upper reaches of the Rhone, near Condrieu. No wonder it's so rare, he moans, the locals guzzle it all before it's finished. I know how they feel; I don't want to move away from the conditioner, I want to suckle sweet nectar from its stainless steel teat. A couple of pints won't be missed, surely? For a moment, I ponder the possibility of having my companions restrain Garrett while I guzzle some more of this hybrid ambrosia, but alas! and hooray!, the brewery tap awaits.
All the beers (bar two) are kegged, and we kick off with Blanche de Brooklyn, a Belgian-style wheat beer, light, clean, and refreshing, softly spicy, and exactly how it should be: "It is what it is" concurs Garrett, and indeed, it is. Brooklyner Weisse, a German-style wheat beer, is a little firmer on the palate, with some banana and spice notes and a noticeably creamy mouthfeel. Summer Ale is a crisp, blonde quencher, designed to appeal to the broader market, but brewed without any adjunct (corn, rice, etc.). Dave wisecracks that if adjunct works for all the mass market beers, then maybe Brooklyn should try it in their Summer Ale. "We would, but, oh, the price of corn these days" deadpans Garrett.
Pennant Ale is their English-style ale, and it makes me write down a word that doesn't exist; "aftertastey". It's very noticeable that this beer has a broad, complex flavour, with classic complex English ale malt fruitiness and hop zing that carry into the finish. This beer is sold in cask-conditioned form at the famous Spotted Pig gastropub in Manhattan, somewhere that I failed to visit, but have added to my list headed "Compelling Reasons to Revisit New York ASAP". Brooklyn Lager (the only beer to be brewed offsite, at a brewery upstate), is as great as ever, a copper-coloured classic delivering a balanced but punchy dose of sweet malt and hop spice. Punchy could also describe East India Pale Ale, which really pushes all my buttons; slightly sweet, slightly viscous mouthfeel, cleansing hop bitterness, but always balanced, clean and moreish.
EIPA is currently very near the top of my list of favourite beers, but only because the last beer on tap is unavailable in the UK. Brooklyn Blast (or is it "BLAST!!"?) is a beer that belongs in the American category of extreme beers. Fortunately, this style appeals to me, and the scouring, profoundly bittersweet rasp of hops across my tongue appeals to the part of my nature that might be termed "hedonism through austerity". There's a very slight warming from the alcohol, and Garrett lets on that we're reached 9 or 10% abv in this beer, although it's so well hidden as to be almost dangerous. However, the intensity of this beer ensures that contentment is reached well before capacity.
The first of two bottled beers is new to me; Local 1 is Brooklyn's very own bottle-fermented real ale. Primary fermentation is followed by sterile filtration, and then the beer is bottled in 75cl bottles, reprimed, and undergoes a period of warm conditioning. The resulting beer reaches around 9% abv, and is broadly in the strong golden ale / tripel style. Full-bodied, slightly sweet, with estery banana notes and a definite herbal edge, leading to a long, drying finish, it's a bit of a departure, but works wonderfully well. We finish up with a bottle of Black Chocolate Stout, which shows its youth in the smoky, caramelised malt and bonfire toffee flavours. Over time, this will settle down, the smokiness will integrate and the silky chocolate notes will emerge. Even at this stage, its unctuous richness is a treat, and I'm sure it would be amazing with a scoop of vanilla ice cream floating in it.
If you ever go to New York City, and fancy visiting the brewery tap, it's only a short subway ride away. I recommend it wholeheartedly.
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