Having visited the West Coast USA several times, inlcuding the beer paradise that is Portland, Oregon, this time we took a trip to the East Coast. Turns out they’re not short of good beer there either. Here’s a round up of some of the best bars we visited in New York.
A small, dimly lit, one room bar with a beamed ceiling, large stone fireplace with a thick wooden mantlepiece, wooden tables and settles – I could almost be describing the interior of an old English pub, but Blind Tiger has only been serving beer at this West Village location on the corner of Bleecker and Jones since 2007. From the outside it’s not obvious that the building is apparently one of the oldest structures in Greenwich Village, dating to 1813, albeit with “major alterations” in 1890 (Greenwich Village Historic District Report (PDF)). The three cask ales (two from Sierra Nevada and one from Flying Dog when visited) and twenty eight craft beers included some of the finest beers I’ve had, tried several times over a few days, just to be sure. In particular…
Maine Beer Company – after reacquainting myself with Peeper Ale, as good a pale ale as I’ve tasted, and enjoying the coal smoke and sour finish of the King Titus Porter, I spent the rest of my trip hunting down their beers in New York, Boston and Portland. I don’t know if there’s something in the water giving them an unfair advantage, but they are brewing what to my taste buds are some of the freshest, lushest, most enjoyable beers I’ve had the pleasure of drinking.
Evil Twin Femme Fatale Yuzu Pale – Initial alcoholic Orangina grows with huge fresh mango flavours into a juicy delight of a beer. There’s a squeeze of lemon sourness but the juicy fruit bursts through the dry brett. Wonderful.
In the evenings the bar grew loud with conversation, drowning out whatever music was playing in the background, few people paying attention to the TV silently showing baseball. It fills quickly and later it can take a while to secure a place at the small bar, but nowhere else in the West Village has a beer range like it.
McSorley’s Old Ale House:
East Village mid-nineteenth century ale house, one of the oldest in the city, there’s a choice of only two beers here – light and dark. The walls are covered in old photos, newspaper cuttings and nick-nacks, thick with dust and tar from over a hundred years as a smoky, spit and sawdust bar.
On the first visit during a weekday afternoon, the bar had one of the older crowds of any bar we visited, and we were entertained by the banter from the barman who said he’s worked there forty years.
Customer: “I’d like four dark beers”
Barman: “Well good for you, I’d like a Maserati”
(To another barman serving a customer) “Hey, don’t serve him so fast, he’ll expect it all the time”
Meanwhile another bar tender delivered rounds of foaming beer from the bar to the tables, beer dripping onto the sawdust. $5.50 gets a light and a dark, and the beers were good. Tasting notes? I was too busy listening to the barman.
(To a bald man) “Did you do something different with your hair? I noticed it right off the bat”!
We visited again at the weekend and it was different again – different barman, no banter across the bar, a group at a nearby table loudly recounting their fraternity drinking exploits. We downed a light and dark and took a few steps east.
Jimmy’s No. 43:
Just along the street from McSorley’s, Jimmy’s No. 43 is a welcoming, subterranean bar with a great selection of beer, served up by knowledgeable and friendly bar staff. We had particularly fine pints of Firestone Double Jack, Victory Braumeister Pils and a couple of Sixpoint wheat beers, finishing with a pint of Thornbridge Bracia as a nightcap before we stumbled upstairs and outside, into a cab home.
Over in Brooklyn, the Owl Farm is a long, narrow bar with twenty eight draft beers. One of the few bars whose beer list shows an awareness of ABV, splitting the list into session beers <5%, middle weight 5-8%, and big beers 8+. The best of the beers I tried was a middleweight that punched like a heavyweight – Le Bruery Humulus India Pale Lager, a big, bitter, piney Imperial Pilsner.
The friendly and laid back atmosphere was enhanced when the Magnetic Fields' 'Reno Dakota' played ("You have just disappeared / It makes me drink beer") and when the landlord came over to our table to thank us for visiting. If I'd known then just how long the walk over Brooklyn Bridge back to Manhattan would be, I’d have stayed for another drink and got a cab back.
Back in the West Village, a narrow, dark, subterranean bar focussing on European bottled beer, with only two draft beers – Bear Republic Peter Brown and Founders All Day IPA when visited. We had a can of Evil Twin hipster while listening to the Velvet Underground (fittingly), but it wasn’t the kind of place I could hang out in for long – just a bit too stark and dark, it was a relief to surface and find the sun still shining on MacDougal Street.
Kettle of Fish:
Formerly the Lion’s Head, it became the Kettle of Fish in 1999 when the pub of that name, originally located on MacDougal Street, moved to this location on Christopher Street. For me, the history of a pub is in the walls not in the name, so this isn’t the same place where Bob Dylan played to packed houses, although he did hang out here, guitars being passed around, when it was the Lion’s Head (Down The Highway – Howard Souness, 2001). On the afternoon we visited, it was a nice, quiet, friendly place serving beers from Sixpoint and Red Hook IPA.
Another historic bar once frequented by Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac and perhaps most famously, Dylan Thomas, said to have had his last drink from the long wooden bar here the evening before he died. Beer choice is limited but we enjoyed Lagunitas IPA as we soaked up the atmosphere.
A craft beer shop, Top Hops also has an impressive draft list with twenty beers regularly changing. We picked up some bottles and then relaxed at the bar for a few drinks, enjoying some local brews from the likes of Bronx, Chelsea and Sixpoint. It turned out to be one of the best bars we visited.
A smaller beer shop than nearby Top Hops, with fewer tap lines, but a great selection of bottles and cans, and amongst the beers on draft, a delicious drop of Maine Beer Co. MO. We left Good Beer with yet more bottles.
Packed out, probably as the Pony Bar is one of the few good bars in Hell’s Kitchen, we struggled to get to the bar for pints of Barrier Imposter Pilsner, and a Wandering Star Catnip White IPA, hops held in check by a feisty Belgian Wit yeast. Like many of the bars we visited, it quickly got so loud it was difficult to hold a conversation without joining in the shouting, so we headed on.
House of Brews:
A nearby Hell’s Kitchen bar, pleasant enough, the draft list is okay if unadventurous, although we had a nice Harpoon IPA.
It seems things change fast in New York, with no time for sentimentality, but at least one former hotel and bar is now a protected building.
Built in 1898, by the 1930s a "flophouse for sailors" in what was then the busiest part of the New York City port. This former hotel and bar now stands closed and crumbling, as traffic thunders past along the West Side Highway.
We really only scratched the surface of the beer scene in New York, there were plenty of bars we wanted to visit or revisit but we headed north to Boston and Portland, hunting for more beers from Maine Beer Co along the way – tracking down a bottle of the elusive Lunch at Stoddard’s in Boston, and in Portland more draft Peeper at Great Lost Bear and fresh bottles of Another One, perhaps their finest beer, at the Bier Cellar. Just to have some of these beers fresh on draft again seems reason enough to return…