Last weekend I attended the inaugural NYC Craft Beer Festival, an event that boasted a staggering 75 craft breweries (plus Blue Moon) with an emphasis on limited and seasonal releases. The beer list should make any connoisseur quiver- there was a frankly stupefying amount of quality beers all crammed into one giant room for a two and a half hour session.
First though, a note. Writing about an event like this is hard. Sampling beers in a two ounce shot glass doesn’t exactly give you a huge chance to check out all the usual stuff beer nerds look for (head retention, aroma, etc.), never mind that you’re using the same glass over and over and not having anything in between. It’s simply impossible to give fair thoughts about each and every beer, especially the ones later on in the event, and it would be the most boring read ever if I did. I tried over thirty beers all told, and all I know is that my notes from the first hour are a lot more legible than from the last one.
I stood on line for the first session of the fest at 1:30pm in front of a bunch of kids who complained about having hangovers from going out the night before, and had to stop myself from turning around and stabbing my finger into their chests, barking “Amateurs!” But they were young and still had lots to learn so I let them walk, unmolested.
The massive line wrapped all the way around to Park Ave, and it was easy to wonder if it would have been smarter to splurge the extra ten bucks for the “Connoisseur's lounge”, which offered an exclusive space and an hour more of drinking. (Yes, the fest did not want to give press badges to Badass Digest!) But the line moved quickly and my beer-loving friend and I were soon inside the Armory. (The fest was hosted at the Lexington Armory, a hanger that still holds the 69th Infantry Regiment, as noted by the many toughs in cameo military duds that wandered around. A place stocked with tons of weaponry was clearly the obvious location to fill with thousands of drunks.)
Our first plan of attack- get our hands on beer. Novel idea, I know, and we soon headed straight to The Bronx Brewery to try out their Pale Ale, which I’ve been dying to sample for months now. As someone born in the most notorious of all boroughs in NYC I love the renaissance of breweries and brewpubs in my hometown, and thankfully their first release is absolutely delicious. The 6.3% alcohol is a little more than expected in an American Pale Ale but not enough to let you taste it.
Grabbing a Bronx Brewery sticker for my corny keg, I turned around to notice one of my favorite local breweries- Blue Point Brewery, which is located out on Long Island. Their RastafaRye and BP Toxic Sludge (a Black IPA whose profits go to bird rescues) are some of the finest examples of their specific styles, two beers I pick up whenever I can. They had their ubiquitous Toasted Lager on tap but I dove right into their White... IPA? That’s right, a White IPA, the first example of the relatively new style that I’ve ever tried, and easily one of the most memorable beers at the fest. In it wheat and hops combine for smooth mouthfeel with a bit of bitterness in the end. I wanted to try more than 2 ounces of this one- here’s hoping that they bottle it soon.
Right next door was Sierra Nevada, arguably the king of all craft beer. They had their Ruthless Rye IPA and since I’ve just been on a massive rye kick (I just brewed a delicious Rye Stout last month from Northern Brewer’s new rye malt extract) this was the obvious choice. It lives up to the name, and might be the most rye-tasting rye beer you’ve ever had. With its piney smell, citrusy, spicy notes and that delicious, oiley feel, it's definitely going to be a mainstay in my fridge, as their Torpedo already is.
My next stop was Breckenridge Brewery, who was serving up its Agave Wheat and Avalanche Amber. As curious as an adjunct that agave seemed, I tried the Avalanche Amber to keep changing things up. Malty and sweet, it went down real easy.
Next up was Smuttynose and its Star Island Single, an abbey-style ale that's their attempt to take the style and put it into a session beer (Session beers are easy-drinking beers that usually are only around 5% alcohol. So you can drink a whole bunch of them in a session without getting drunk.) It went down easy as well, too easy, in fact- and I had to remind myself that I was supposed to be covering this event for the site. This is something that would trouble me later.
Captain Lawrence’s Imperial IPA was next and that’s the one that woke me up and slowed me down at the same time. Drinking it was like being smashed in the face with a bag of hops, and I mean that in a good way. An amazing beer, but one that I need to enjoy outside of this setting. The sample was not nearly enough, although with just a taste I knew that it had ruined me- no beer before or after could really stand up to it. This is a monster of a beer.
Taking some time to sip and savor the Imperial IPA as my buddy dug into a pulled pork sandwich, we decided to change things up next and head to Doc's Draft Hard Ciders for its Pear Cider. I've always enjoyed Doc's ciders and this was my first try of their Pear. Pouring absolutely clear and with no head to speak of, it was just as sweet and tasty as I’d hoped. Definitely something I’m going to try to emulate in the future (making your own hard cider is ridiculously easy, people! Fruit, yeast and time is all you really need.)
After that, time for a beer! We ran over to Sixpoint, who was serving their Crisp Lager, which is one of those beers you shove into the face of casual beer-drinkers to say “Here! This is what a fucking beer is supposed to taste like, ya mook!” Or maybe that’s just me. But they were also pouring their Resin Double IPA. The brewery is known for making delicious beers- not over-the-top ones- and this was just further proof. It's hoppy but not oppressively so, just the perfect amount of piney bitterness. They’re already canning those in their trademark “micro-kegs”, 16-ounce tallboys in cases of four. Find a New York friend to ship you some of this brewery’s beers- they’re delicious.
Greenport’s Black Duck Porter was my first real dark beer of the night (er, afternoon). Coffee, roasted malt- delicious and dark and probably not the best beer to be drinking in the middle of all of these hoppy beers with a glass that hasn’t been washed out once. Definitely another I’d like to try again sometime.
Next up was Firestone Walker, where I almost went for their Walker's Reserve Robust Porter but decided to try their Union Jack at the last minute. I was glad I did... I had no idea what a delicious IPA the brewery makes.
I had been chuckling at the name of the brewery for a while, so I headed over to Clown Shoes to try their Lubrication Black IPA. Yes, I tried it for the name alone. The beer was decent with a nice taste but the flavor felt like it just drops off the earth while you’re drinking it.
(Author’s note- around here my writing gets more erratic and I think I missed a beer or two.)
Anderson Valley had a guy pouring the beer that didn't know anything about it, which an asshole behind me took exception to. We tried their Mowkeef Saison and the guy asked about it; he had a sheet of paper pushed towards him. He looked at it and shoved it back at the pourer saying "It’s a paragraph- how about you read it and get back to me? Do your fuckin' homework!" Harsh, but fair. In the traditional style of the French farmer beer it was nicely fruity and spicy, which is more amusing after you remember that this beer is named after a place in Fire Island.
My buddy Steve pointed out Northern Tier's Oak Pumking across the aisle and out of nowhere some guy popped up and exclaimed how amazing of a beer it was, his favorite pumpkin beer of all time, we had to try it immediately. He seemed genuine but it would have been an incredible example of marketing if not. We headed over to try it and while my companion loved it I found it way too spicy for my tastes, and it ended up being the first one I couldn’t make through. I dumped half of it in the garbage and looked for the next.
From here, many beers followed that I somehow forgot to take notes of at all, and the fact that I can’t remember anything about them probably doesn’t help. I did manage to go to Founder’s and nab their Centennial IPA , which is one of my favorite IPAs. Try their regular IPA and then go for the Centennial and you'll realize why people are so in love with Centennial Hops, those citrusy, bitter flowers of joy. (This was actually the first and only beer of the fest I tried that I had already tried!)
As we drank we checked out some of the vendors, laughing at “Drinkopoly” and commenting on how we’re too old to be playing drinking games. This from men who regularly play board games with little fiddly bits, mind you.
Another vendor who caught my eye was Earth Glass Project, who was selling glass jewelry made from beer bottles. He had some great stuff there and my eye kept wandering to a belt buckle made from a Flying Dog Brewery bottle, which as you should know features the art of Ralph Steadman. You might know him better as the guy who did all of Hunter Thompson’s stuff.) I cursed, knowing that I would have to buy it at some point. I could feel the alcohol lubing that wallet right out of my pocket.
Next up was 508, a gastrobrewery down on Greenwich Street that I've somehow never heard of. You ever instantly become a fan of something? That’s how I felt after trying their Coffee Porter, which smelled and tasted just like something I would wake up and drink every damn morning. It was so great that I decided to stay near the booth and make my next beer their Cascade Commons, which was so smooth and delicious that I debated drinking nothing else for the rest of the fest. I will have to make my way down there soon and grab a growler of this, easily one of my favorites from the fest.
Time seemed to speed up as more and more beers disappeared into my gullet, making stops at Great South Bay Brewery for their Robert Moses Pale Ale and Goose Island for their Matilda, a Belgian IPA that was sure to shut up anyone trying to disparage them for selling out to InBev. I sampled Nebraska's Centennial Pale Ale about the time people starting drunkenly wooping around me.
(Author’s note- I’m starting to not be able to read my handwriting at all.)
I stopped by Long Ireland Brewing and had my first bad experience with a server, being ignored by a girl who was too busy chatting with a friend before she finally saw me and asked what I wanted with an irritated tone. I tried their Celtic Ale and promptly forgot about it, as I discussed mobile games with my buddy and tried to convince him just how amazing Swords and Sworcery: Superbrothers was, telling him “You have to pronounce it like you’re the fucking RZA!”, perhaps thinking too much of my newly-thought joke and repeating it loudly.
At this point time was running short, but before I left I had to try Jonas Bronck’s Beer’s Pelham Bay IPA. Having grown up in Throggs Neck in the Bronx (right next door) I ran right over. How could I resist? I ended up asking the guy who served me the beer if he was from The Bronx, a loyalty test of sorts (even though I'm a traitor who's skipped boroughs), and not only was he from Woodlawn but he was the founder and head brewer of the company. We talked a bit about the challenge of getting a brewery started in the city and about where I can find his beer. It’s been making its way around NYC, Long Island and Westchester. They’re planning on bottling the IPA this summer in 12 ounce bottles. “No cans?” I asked with a smirk, and he mentioned that while it’s trendy right now there’s nothing like a bottle. It’s definitely a good choice for their first as it’s a really quality beer, smooth with just the perfect amount of hops. I sampled their Kingsbridge Kolsch before I left the booth.
Right about now I checked my phone- panic. It was 4:02, and our session of the fest was technically over. No one had made an attempt to leave just yet, though, and so I glanced quickly over the nearby booths to see which I should try for next.
One I hadn't had the chance to check out yet was Bomb Lager, which boasted a stylized logo that looked like graffiti art. I ran over to them holding my sampling cup out like Oliver Twist, pleading for more libations, but they had covered up their cans and denied me, stating that they had been told to stop serving. Walking away dejected and thirsty, I noticed that White Birch Brewing was pouring beers. I hustled over and asked for their Hookset Ale, a Belgian-style beer, but here my notes get a little cloudy, for some reason.
All I know is that it absolutely hit the spot, and that White Birch clearly staffs only badass motherfuckers who don’t take shit from authorities, and for that I say kudos.
Sipping my final beer I realized that this may be my only chance for my belt buckle, and the only chance to take a piss before we were kicked out. My loyal companion ran to the booth to pick up the below piece of art as I drained the ol’ hog, noting that the crowd had gotten considerably more drunk in the last half hour or so.
The fest was a great time, expertly ran and perhaps the perfect length. Even though there were still many, many breweries I hadn’t hit I doubt I could have drank much more (I could have, but it certainly wouldn’t have been a great idea, especially at 4:00pm) and the crowd didn’t have the time to get stupid drunk. We left the Armory to a beautiful day, enjoying the feeling of being pleasantly buzzed in Manhattan. My drinking buddy decided to waste his time and check out Project X and I headed home to the wife and kid... stopping to pick up a 6-pack of Sierra Nevada’s Righteous Rye IPA on the way home.
Till next year!