NYC Beer Week Has Arrived: Where Should You Go? Does it Really Matter?

NYCBeerWeek2016A few years back, I tried to “do NYC Beer Week” and cover as many of the events as I possibly could. Not only was I utterly exhausted by the end of the week, I came to the conclusion that NYC Beer Week was not the best week of the year to celebrate beer in NYC.

However, a lot of press and time and effort goes in to this annual celebration, so here’s my view on the upcoming “week” (like so many beer weeks, it’s actually 10 days to encompass two weekends): the good, the bad, and the downright ugly.

The Good

  • Keeping it simple with the SimulTap

For the past couple years (since the enactment of the NY State Farm Brewery law), there has been a push for NYC Beer Week brews to be made with local ingredients. Hence, the SMASH beer, which normally stands for Single Malt and Single Hop, but is appropriated for NYC Beer Week as State Malt and State Hop. Brewers challenge themselves to create a simple, state-ingredient beer that can be enjoyed by everyone coming to the city. It’s perfect: No fuss, no frills. And about a dozen bars (including Alewife NYC, Banter, Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co., Jimmy’s No. 43, Murray’s Cheese Bar and Randolph Beer) have agreed to tap and toast a SMASH beer tonight (Friday, February 19th) at 7PM.

Among the breweries that made a 2016 SMASH beer are Big Alice Brewing, Bridge and Tunnel Brewery, Bronx Brewery, Brooklyn Brewery, Coney Island Brewing Company, Finback Brewery, Greenpoint Beer & Ales, Gun Hill Brewing, Heartland Brewing, Keg & Lantern, KelSo Beer, LIC Beer Project, Rockaway Brewing, Sixpoint Brewery, and Transmitter Brewing. It’s a low-key way to kick off the week in style at the location of your choice.

Yes, I do help publicize this event. But it’s also my favorite event not just of Beer Week but of the entire year. In addition to the aforementioned SMASH brewers, Brewer’s Choice invites many brewers from the state and beyond to create unique beers that will be available only for one night. This is not your usual suspects kind of event where everyone is getting—you’ll excuse the pun—smashed. You’ll also get the opportunity to hang out with the brewers themselves. Plus the event offers up about a dozen food purveyors serving everything from tacos to oysters on the half shell, all included in your $80 ticket (and they’re almost sold out so get yours here).

You can double your fun this year by slipping out after 7 PM to KelSo next door and partake of a specialty whiskey tasting from the Caskmates collection: the Jameson Caskmates KelSo Pale Ale Edition. While we’ve all heard about beer being aged in whiskey barrels, this whiskey has actually been aged in a KelSo beer barrel! It’s available in limited quantities, so if you see something, drink something!

  • Final Party is a Cask Festival

Ever since the untimely closing of d.b.a. in Brooklyn, NYC has gone without a proper cask festival. This year’s official closing party resurrects the best way to enjoy beer: gas free and at a proper temperature! Enjoy about 150 casks and light eats, while mingling with the makers. Two sessions will take place on Saturday, February 27th, and there are plenty of tickets (both VIP and GA) remaining for both.

The Bad

  • The opening bash is a cruise

This could go under “The Ugly” as far as I’m concerned. Who thought a booze cruise in February was a good idea? Well, the NYC Brewers Guild actually dodged a major bullet. After record-breaking low temps last Saturday, they’re looking at mid-50s tomorrow, Saturday, February 20th, for their two sailings. And in a surprise to no thinking person, tickets are still available for purchase here. As for me, I’m waiting for the real spring to arrive before heading out to drink in the bay under the Statue of Liberty.

  • Very few truly unique events

In general, there are fewer events being promoted this year and only a handful of them are interesting. Most of the events are just “themes.” A handful of beer dinners. I feel like there’s not a lot of substance or sizzle to the official event listings, but  Shmaltz is premiering their Vulcan Ale as a part of Astronomy Night on the Intrepid this evening (2/19 at 7PM). Bring your favorite Klingon to drink well and prosper. Another event that could be of interest is a Kick-Off Panel  at DBGB’s on Sunday, February 21st from 5-7PM, featuring Garrett Oliver (Brooklyn Brewery), Kelly Taylor (KelSo) and Benjamin Weiss (The Bruery).

The Ugly

  • We’re just not that in to you

In the past couple years, the Brewers Guild has been tweaking how they run and publicize the week, but the growing pains should be in the past. The truth is I hear nothing positive about being a part of NYC Beer Week from the people who really matter: the bar owners and industry insiders who might want to put money into being a sponsor at a Beer Week event. The Guild has decided that NYC Beer Week is really Beer Made by NYC Brewers Week. It’s not about the bar owners or non-guild members. And while this could be a great mission statement, it’s not really flying with anyone. Late last year I heard about a collaboration attempt from the NY State Brewers Association to have an event revolving around “country brewer/city brewer” beers, where upstate breweries would collaborate with city breweries to bring new beers to the market for beer week. That sounded like an awesome idea! But if it happened, no one is publicizing it. I just don’t believe the NYCBG has the bandwidth to undertake a SMASH beer project and a larger collaboration project. The SMASH beers are great, but it’s just a weekend idea. You cannot build 10 days’ worth of programming around this.

How to Right the Ship

  • Move Beer Week back to the fall

Before the NYCBG bought out the original beer week, it was held every September. Bar owners seemed to love it, because that was when business tends to be “off.” We NYers are generally spending the fall outdoors, not in bars. The weather is amazing for a few scant weeks in NYC, and September is one of those months. NYC Beer Week in the fall would encourage people to come indoors, and bar owners would probably drum up some great programming to attract more attendance. In February, business is generally good—random 3-feet blizzards aside—and bars don’t need to allocate resources to come up with clever ideas to attract business. Maybe that’s why this year’s events seem so ho-hum.

  • Incorporate more of the breweries

Nearly all the non-gypsy brewers in the city now have tap rooms. Yet almost no events are planned at any of the tap rooms during NYC Beer Week. Even the aforementioned Jameson event at the KelSo tap room is a whiskey outing. Some breweries (e.g. Bridge and Tunnel) are having ad hoc events as a part of their regular business. It seems like this is a wasted opportunity when places like Other Half routinely have lines around the block trying to get a new beer release. If the NYCBG is about the actual breweries, shouldn’t more events be taking place at the breweries?

  • Hire a few privates

I have long suspected that a major problem with the Guild’s version of NYC Beer Week is “too many generals, not enough privates.” If all you have is everyone looking out for his or her own brand, you’re unlikely to build a beer week of substance. I never hear anyone saying, “Let’s go to NYC for beer week.” Yet, I do hear it about San Francisco, Asheville and—especially here in NYC—Philadelphia. We need to figure out how to make NYC Beer Week “destination worthy,” and then have the troops in line to implement the strategy that the higher-ups devise.

Otherwise, the impetus for getting out to drink over the next 10 days is really just “business as usual.” And no matter the quality of the beer scene, that’s no reason to celebrate our city’s beer culture.

Brooklyn Beer Fests Beckon

BrooklynPourSo, it’s not too late to get your Oktoberfest going, and there are two “the bigger the better” drinking events upcoming with a Brooklyn focus that really look to be worth the price of admission (sadly, The Bitch will not be in attendance at either of them: In the case of the former, I’ll be raising my glass to toast friend and NYC beer event savant, Chris O’Leary’s fifth anniversary of his blog—in my best Rowan Atkinson impersonation: It is so much more than a blog—Brew York, New York. In the case of the latter, I’ll be at GABF).

First up is this weekend’s Brooklyn Pour. Put on by the Village Voice and held in Williamsburg(h)’s historic bank (you know the one I’m talking about if you take the J/M or bike/hike across the Williamsburg Bridge), Brooklyn Pour is one of the better-produced large-scale drinking fests. The Voice (almost) always manages to get the perfect balance of vendors, and this year’s Brooklyn Pour will feature some excellent European brews (two words: Ayinger Marzen) in addition to hyper local beers from new breweries like Braven (which is slated to open sometime this fall; local boys doing the gypsy thing). In all, they’ll be serving up more than 125 beers from 70 breweries.

Note that tickets will only be available online until tomorrow (Friday, September 26th) 2 p.m., so buy yours before the door price tacks on an extra $10. And while I don’t often recommend VIP, for Village Voice events, the cost is worth it: you get in an hour early, so you’ll miss the long lines (if you pay VIP, obviously, show up before the VIP doors open at 2 p.m.) plus you get your food included. Tickets are $85 for VIP (four-hour tasting) or $55 GA (3-6 p.m.; food available for additional purchase). Get them here.

On the day after GABF wraps in Colorado (October 5th), the inaugural Brooklyn Local Craft Beer Festival will take place at 420 Carroll Street in the trendy Gowanus/Carroll Gardens crossover neighborhood in south Brooklyn. Weirdly, despite being a stone’s throw from The Other Half, the BLCBF thus far has no actual Brooklyn artisanal craft breweries on the line-up. While I support their efforts to get away from the Brooklyn behemoths (including, well, you know, Brooklyn! as in Brewery), it’s odd to me that a festival calling itself Brooklyn Local Craft doesn’t have any. I’m hoping that a few more truly local brewers will come on in the final week leading up to the event.

Which isn’t to say the event won’t have some very cool, lesser known craft beers. It will. Most interesting among them is Long Island’s (kinda like Brooklyn, I suppose) Lithology Brewing Co., which currently is only serving its beer on the festival circuit (they expect to open their brewery to the public in early 2015). And for those of us who live in Brooklyn, this is also your opportunity to get some great brews from The Bronx (Gun Hill Brewing), Queens (Finback) and Staten Island (Flagship) without a two-hours-in-each-direction commute. They’re also offering punch cards for logging your brews, a very handy thing to have when you get too buzzed to do a proper Untappd check-in. GA tickets are $47.50 (including the fee) for six hours of drinking (noon to 6 p.m.). Food is available for additional purchase.

So, enjoy Brooklyn while I’m drinking in Manhattan and Denver! Have one for The Bitch.

Dollars and Suds: How The Craft Beer Renaissance And The American Economy Intersect

Jeremy Cowan gives a tour of his Shmaltz Brewing, one of 400 new breweries to open in 2013,

Jeremy Cowan gives a tour of his Shmaltz Brewing, one of 400 new breweries to open in 2013,

Can we talk about the economy? No, I’m not going to rehash the President’s State of the Union Address or bemoan (again) the decline of wages for journalists (hey, at least I still have a job… more on that in a minute). Rather, I want to consider that the American Beer Renaissance that has pushed us to more than 2,700 breweries nationwide is part of a larger narrative regarding American entrepreneurial resilience in the face of economic despair.

Let me start by saying that I am probably considered a liberal by many, but I’m more of a secular humanist, if you want to get right down to it. I believe in government and laws; I think the rich should be taxed and the sick and poor should be cared for. I think everyone deserves a good public education. However, I’ve lived in parts of the world without capitalism, and it left a lot to be desired. Hell, I’ve lived in parts of the world with way better social programs than I’ve ever been offered in the good ole U.S. of A., but I still felt something was lacking in the cultural and economic mores.

I believe there are three things that set Americans apart from the rest of the world (even the rest of the western world):

  1. Our privilege—White, male or neither, Americans are the most privileged people on the planet. Just go see if there’s clean water in your tap if you have any doubts (oops, sorry West Virginians).
  2. Our “moral” imperative—We think everyone wants to be like us, even when we don’t want to be like us (Puritanism is a hard mantle to cast off).
  3. Our entrepreneurial spirit—Everyone born here is planted in the soil that alleges, “You can be anything you want to be.”

Any of these tenets can be twisted for good or bad, and often are by politicians and pundits alike. However, it’s this pyramid with a base of privilege, upon which rises a mound of righteousness, topped with a can-do attitude that has built this country. It’s why historically anyone could start up a newspaper (now a blog). If you wanted to open a shop, you just did it. Inventing an operating system? Sure. Make billions. Go for it.

So, what in the name of hops heaven does this have to do with the incredible growth of beer in America (over 400 new breweries last year alone; i.e. more than one new brewery each day!)? I posit that as workers are either forced out (i.e. laid off) or opt out of the “traditional” job market, they are putting on their entrepreneurial rubber boots and brewing beer.

Think about it: In today’s economy, what kind of business should you be opening? Consumer spending is crap, few people have good jobs, our moods are pretty much sour. Of course we need a drink! Joking aside, sales of alcohol typically go up during a recession; some homebrewers start off so because they want good beer that they cannot afford to buy. And if you consider that the main growth for breweries over the last five years has been among small and independent brewers, it’s safe to guess they are catering to a hyper-local market (no need to spend money on gas to get some). In NYC alone, we’ve recently seen the launch of Finback Brewery (Queens), Other Half Brewing (Brooklyn), and Gun Hill Brewing Company (Bronx)—not to mention gypsy/contract brewers such as Grimm Artisanal—with several other breweries slated to come online in the year ahead.

No surprise, but it’s damn near impossible to open a brewery in NYC. Yet the American entrepreneur is indomitable! Where there’s a wort, there’s a way!

And let’s postpone a discussion of choice and quality. There are plenty of great beers and far too many good ones for a single person to imbibe in her lifetime. What strikes me as particularly relevant to the question of economy is that most of these brewers are college educated (Other Half’s Sam Richardson got a degree in Fermentation Science from Oregon State, for example). These are not your grandfather’s brewmasters. These are highly skilled, educated men and women with business acumen who are creating jobs for 21st Century workers. No, they aren’t the huge manufacturers of a bygone era. Hell, they aren’t even the brewers of the Lavern & Shirley era (yep, showing my age now). But they are enterprising, and the ripple effects of this growth are being felt by many.

Aside from jobs in the brewery, there are opportunities for distributors, marketers, beer writers, beer reviewers, bottlers, canning companies, food vendors (many breweries don’t have full kitchens but will partner with food trucks), truck drivers, and so on. Hell, last year they even made a rom-com film (Drinking Buddies, it’s on Netflix now) about life working in a brewery!

To those who claim this is a bubble, I say, PSHAW!

This nation is desperate for good work for great workers. And if Americans can drink on the job? Well, they’ll work all the harder for their paycheck. Trust me on that one. Love what you do; drink what you love.