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New York City's current craft beer boom feels quite exciting and new...except, in fact, there's nothing new about it. Before the Croton Aqueduct began providing potable drinking water to the city in the early 1840s, beer was considered the one of the few safe ways to hydrate, and for most of the 19th century, New York City was one of the country's largest brewing centers.
Why was New York an epicenter of suds? German immigrants brought with them a love of lager (and built up beer gardens and beer halls all over the city.) And it wasn't just the brewing industry that thrived: between 1840 and 1900, New York state was also the hop-growing capital of the country.
The majority of these early breweries were in the Williamsburg and Bushwick areas of Brooklyn: neighborhoods that had access to lake water from Long Island, which was both safe to drink and ideal for making crisp, refreshing lager. Brewing lager wasn't easy, though; before the advent of refrigeration, the fermentations had to be chilled by ice blocks transported from upstate. A mildew outbreak in the early 1900s devastated local hop production, driving hop prices through the roof. And once the Temperance movement started to grow, the city's beer industry just couldn't stay afloat.
Before Prohibition, there were 70 operating breweries in NYC, but only a few survived the dry years (mostly by selling products like malt tonics and ice cream), and the era's final brewery in Brooklyn closed its doors in 1976.
Today, New York beer lovers owe a lot to the passage of a 1979 law called H.R. 1337 which legalized homebrewing; most of the brewers making today's scene great started off experimenting in their city apartments. If you live in New York, you've probably visited Brooklyn Brewery. But the outer boroughs have lots of fantastic new and lesser-known breweries, too—spots that'll get you excited about today's New York beer scene. (They're all easily accessible by public transportation, to boot.)
Here are seven impressive breweries to add to your next beer crawl, plus tips on what to drink when you arrive.
Threes Brewing doesn't look quite like your typical brewery: 333 Douglass Street hosts art shows, occasional concerts, and community meetings, boasting a cafe-like setting upstairs, intimate booths where you can play board games and enjoy coffee or a meal, as well as an inviting tasting room. Instead of having their own kitchen and menu, Threes has kitchen space that hosts restaurants from all over the city in two week residencies. During a recent visit, the Sussman Brothers were running the show, with Roberta's pizza on deck.
There's fresh beer to drink—poured straight from shiny steel tanks revealed with a slide of the bar shelves—and also barrel-aged cocktails, wine, and cider. Many of Threes' beers are never distributed beyond the brewery, so your best chance to taste them is by going to the source.
The taproom has 24 lines to pull fresh pints from the brewery alongside beers from "friends and heroes," including a wide variety from local favorites like Greenport Harbor to Green Flash from California. You'll also get a chance to sample recipes-in-progress: batches brewed on a 10 gallon pilot system that may end up in final blends or never appear again.
Must-Try Beers: Honeydew aromas and earthy fruit notes lead the current batch of Wandering Bine Saison; it finishes dry with hints of grapefruit zest. The next batch will include some barrel-aged versions in the mix. Be sure to taste False Witness, too: it's a medium-bodied saison aged in Cabernet Franc barrels, which add a whiff of vanilla and oak. Grassy dryness keeps this lemon-cookie-like beer refreshing.
Several of the beers are fermented with Brettanomyces (which contributes funky, leathery qualities to beer)—the Atomic Swerve, for example, is an earthy IPA flavored with blood orange zest and juice that's fermented exclusively with Brettanomyces. It's great to find a beer that showcases the malt, hops, and yeast simultaneously—it's layered and complex but every element shines.
Tours: No tours yet, but big open glass windows let you see the magic happen.
Other Half Brewing Co.
The Other Half Brewing entrance blends into a wall of graffiti; you might miss it the first time, but it's a place you don't want to miss. The brewery plans to double the tasting room's size (and their brewing capacity) in the next few months, but as of now, things are cozy, with one picnic table, raw walls, and a bartop that once went on tour with the Rolling Stones. You don't come to Other Half for a fancy atmosphere, though: you come to drink the hoppy beers that are electrifying New York City's beer scene.
Other Half is building relationships with local farmers like the folks at Indian Ladder Farmstead in Altamont, New York to create beers with locally grown hops and malts, such as their chocolaty Indian Ladder Farmstead stout. This toasty molasses-tinged brew made with Indian Ladder barley and locally grown hops adds a kick of rye and wheat for a hint of spice and rich texture.
As of now, they're only doing private tours with advanced notice, but they also have a few different options available for private parties. You can rent the tasting room or even a big space in the brewery itself, where you can try Other Half beers in the rawest and freshest form imaginable—straight out of the fermenters and the bright tanks.
Must-Try Beers: On their first release day, Other Half sold 220 cases of their Imperial IPA Green Diamonds in just eight hours. We're not shocked; it's a deliciously bright, piney beer with a sharp bitterness and the massive hoppiness from Galaxy hops. Another essential: Hop Showers, which'll hit you with hops that are citrusy, juicy, and dank.
Tours: Private tours only at this point, available by appointment.
Over 30 years ago, Singlecut Beersmiths owner Rich Buceta fell in love with the flavorful lagers of Europe. About 10 years into a homebrewing hobby, he swapped his corner office in advertising for an entry level job cleaning kegs at Greenpoint Beer Works, eventually working his way up to become a brewer for Kelso. Today, Singlecut is a fantastic lager-focused brewery, and the best place to taste these beers is right at the Astoria headquarters, where they're as fresh as possible.
Initially, the Singlecut team imagined just a 40-barrel system and a 'sampling room' for people to stop by and fill growlers. When almost 1,200 people showed up at their opening party, they quickly realized that their fans wanted something more. A small kitchen was added to serve bar bites, and bands were booked to play for packed crowds in the barn-like space. Music is central to Singlecut's culture: Buceta plays guitar, the bartenders are musicians in a band that often performs, and the bar's killer record collection has been known to inspire the occasional sing-along.
The lineup at the brewery is constantly rotating, with experimental pilot batches popping up as well the occasional cask conditioned and barrel aged brews. Some of the beers are light and refreshing while others are rich and boozy, and all are available by the pint or flight. It's easy to come here and lose an entire day.
Must-Try Beers: 1933 Queens Lagrrr, is a crisp, herbal pilsner that's slightly more hoppy than a traditional pils. It's clean and nutty with delicate grassy notes. Pilsner suffers the longer it travels; getting one this wonderfully fresh makes you feel happy to be a New Yorker. If you're looking for a more unusual take on lager, try the Jan White Lagrrr, brewed with coriander, chamomile flowers, and 500 zested and juiced oranges per batch, as well as matzo and Sichuan peppercorns. The floral aromas and crisp, cracker-like malt flavors are brightened up by fruitiness and a dry finish. It's a best-of-both-worlds cross between a witbier and a pils, and it goes down a little too easy.
Tours: Free tours are given on Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. and 4 p.m., no reservation required.
In the warehouse district of Long Island City, under the Pulaski bridge at the bottom of the 7 train stairs is probably the last place you'd expect to find some of the most unique and delicious farmhouse ales being made in New York. But here they are, thanks to Transmitter Brewing owners Anthony Accardi and Rob Kolb.
Most of the beers (brewed on a 6-barrel system) are bottle-conditioned in 750mL bottles, but there's ongoing experimentation with brewing methods, yeast and bacteria strains, and barrel aging. They currently have 25 yeast strains active in the brewery, and even make their own candi sugar so they can adjust sweetness levels as needed. Their barrel collection includes casks that previously held red wine, apple brandy, rum, and more.
As you taste, you note how remarkably dry these beers stay. Even the rum barrel aged 12% ABV Imperial stout we tried wasn't cloying. The city's restaurants have taken note of the beers' complexity and subtlety—Del Posto and Eleven Madison Park have both offered Transmitter beers on their menus.
The brewery's small batches run out very quickly, so visiting the sampling room is your best bet. Try a one-ounce taste or buy a bottle and enjoy it at their picnic table or consider taking them to go—the majority of these beers will age quite nicely.
Must-Try Beers: All of Transmitter's beers are named with a letter and number. The letter stands for the style (G for Golden, S for Saison, F for Farmhouse, etc.), and the numbers are the recipe numbers. My current favorite is F4, a farmhouse ale brewed with a small portion of wheat and oats and three strains of Brettanomyces. The tangy melon aromas are boosted with a hint of vanilla, and it all finishes with a kick of earthy funk.
Tours: Very informal. For the most part if nothing pressing is going on, they'll be glad to show people around and answer questions.
You go to the Bronx Brewery to have a good time. On a Friday or Saturday night, it feels more like you're walking into a house party than a brewery. A foosball table is the first thing to greet you, followed by comfortable couches, a small bar, and windows and doors providing glimpses into the soaring production facility. There's a big dog-friendly backyard, too, that will be open when the weather warms. "The neighborhood has given a lot to us so we try to give back by providing a great place to hang out," says co-founder Chris Gallant. He believes that beer "isn't something to enjoy by yourself, it's meant to be enjoyed with friends."
At first, there was just one beer: Bronx Pale Ale, initially brewed at Cottrell Brewery in Connecticut while they raised money to set up shop in their current South Bronx location. They sold the pale ale out of an old Red Bull van—no matter how many times they painted over it, you could still see traces of the wings. Since those days, they've added a Rye Pale, Belgian Pale, and an India Pale to their year round roster. They're busy experimenting with new flavors: a rye pale ale aged in rye whiskey barrels, and a Brett- and Lacto- bourbon barrel aged pale ale, among others.
They don't have a kitchen of their own, but you can order from an assortment of local restaurants, and on Friday nights they get dinner catered (free for the thirsty crowd!), from a variety of nearby spots.
Must-Try Beers: Pints at the bar stay around five or six bucks, and they serve $8 flights that include a sample of all four year-round beers plus a seasonal. Don't miss a fresh pour of Summer Pale: it's an unfiltered, dry-hopped pale ale brewed with dried lemon peel. Biscuity citrus flavors as well as a green hop bite make this ideal to quench your thirst on a warm day, and it's a perfect match for spicy food.
Tours: Casual tours provided by request when possible. Just ask!
Gun Hill Brewing Co.
With its soaring ceilings and no-nonsense atmosphere, Gun Hill Brewing is a welcoming place to introduce newbies to craft beer (dedicated beer lovers will be convinced to stick around at first sip.) Owners Kieran Farrell and Dave Lopez played baseball together in the borough for more than a decade; often commiserating about jobs they weren't passionate about. They dreamed of escaping it all to start their own project. After a false start or two, they found veteran brewer Chris Sheehan through probrewer.com and launched the brewery. Their goal: to make delicious beers that don't intimidate people and can be enjoyed more than one at a time.
The brewery and tasting room are only partially separated by the bar, and if the brewing schedule coincides with tasting room hours, you can grab a pint and watch the action. It's also a good place to watch a Yankees game or play a round of Jenga. Delivery menus are available if you're hungry, or you can walk across the street to the food truck serving hearty Dominican fare. (Gun Hill customers even get a discount.)
Must-Try Beers: Gun Hill's Void of Light, a jet black stout, has gotten a lot of attention lately, winning a gold medal at 2014's Great American Beer Festival. The roasty, chewy, espresso-tinged beer deserves all the hype (and the barrel aged versions are delicious as well.) While you're at the brewery, don't miss special limited pours like Cherry Tree, a golden ale that's keg-conditioned with Montmorency tart cherry concentrate for a refreshing, tangy result.
Tours: Saturday and Sunday afternoons, but can also be booked in advance on weekdays depending on availability.
If I were to say that your reward for taking a free boat ride past some of the most incredible sights New York has to offer was drinking delicious beer in an awesome brewery, it would seem like a no brainer, right? That's exactly what you'll get at Flagship Brewery, just a short walk from the ferry landing on Staten Island.
At one time, there were seven operating breweries on Staten Island, and the folks at Flagship are working to bring that beer scene back. John Gordon, Jay Sykes, and Matthew McGinley grew up on the same block together on the island's north shore, and worked in various roles in the beer industry before taking the plunge. They brought in Patrick Morse, formerly of Harpoon and Greenpoint Beer Works to head up the brewing.
Fridays and Saturdays, you'll find live music, and other days alternate between comedy, trivia, and charity events. In the middle of the room, you'll find a small screen that lets you order pizza from nearby Pier 76, and you're just a short walk away from one of the city's best neighborhoods for Sri Lankan food. (If you go the spicy route, partner it with Flagship's juicy Witbier, which is brewed with coriander.)
Must-Try Beers: Very few breweries produce a Dark Mild which is an English style of beer known for full flavors but a relatively light body. Flagship's version is fantastic: it's bold and roasty, with hints of cocoa and espresso, but still highly refreshing. Try the seasonal brews too: the Wee Heavy is wonderfully smooth, balancing caramel and nutty flavors with just the right amount of hop bitterness.
You might catch the team experimenting with a Randall, which adds flavor to an already-brewed beer. Try the American Pale Ale filtered through fresh grapefruit for added bright, juicy notes. (They've also tinkered with pineapple, but pronounced the grapefruit better.)
Tours: Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Feel free to show up or make a reservation; tours are $5 and include a pint at the end.