31 October 2016

The crawl is on

In late September I headed off on an 18,000km round trip to the United States, taking in three cities, 38 pubs and a fair handful of beers which you're going to hear all about in varying levels of detail on this blog in the coming weeks. But I'll say this at the outset: one of the objects of the exercise was to attempt a benchmarking of American beers, especially the hoppy ones, against what we have closer to home. And while I had a number of utterly sublime beers, my back-of-the-envelope assessment is that the days of the US being on OMG the next level are gone. We get plenty of locally produced beers in Europe these days that can go toe-to-toe with what America does, and I'm including Portland Oregon during fresh hop season in that. What the US did lack, however, is clunkers: infections, oxidation, yeast bite and other technical oopsies that we see too much of here, even from reputable breweries. Beers that come in for criticism in the following pages do so mainly because I didn't like them, not because somebody messed up the brewing. Though cask dispense is a whole other story. Anyway, let's get the first pint in.

The initial, and longest, part of the trip was New York. We stayed in Brooklyn and on the first evening wandered down to Brooklyn Heights, on the shore of the East River overlooking downtown Manhattan. Cliché be damned, we began with a pizza. I ordered a War Flag Pils with mine, War Flag being based up the other end of the borough. It arrived a rather unhealthy yellow colour but redeemed itself with a lovely lemony foretaste. It had quite a lot of the German brewpub pils about it: crunchy rustic grains and a mild yeast burr. Rounded and filling rather than sharp and quenching it was still rather enjoyable and I would happily have quaffed it and ordered another except for the $7 (plus tax and tip) price tag. Beer isn't cheap in the city I came to regard over the following days as less of a New York and more of a Stinky Geneva.

Anyway, back to the present and around the corner to a pleasant looking pub we'd passed previously for a couple of final beers as we fought the jetlag. More pils for me, this time Joe's Pils from Colorado brewery Avery: an old friend I haven't seen in far too many years. My enthusiasm was short lived, however. It's a rather dull, thin, boring lager, making a bit of an effort with some nettley noble hops and adding in an American fruit-chew-sweet overtone, but ending up underwhelming, if inoffensive.

Looking for a smidge more wow I picked Fruit Fly next, from sour enthusiasts New Belgium. This one has added passionfruit and Citra hops and exhibits a powerfully funky farmyard aroma. Citra leads the charge in the taste: a big lemon and lime tartness, followed swiftly by a burst of passionfruit sweet. I wanted it to keep going in this direction but the finish is rapid: dry and chalky. It's nearly superb but I think I'd like the volume turned up a little on it.

Back to New York breweries and on the left of the picture there is amber-coloured Bronx Pale Ale. Ah, now here's the America I expected: resins on the nose, a full jar of toffees in the flavour, turning quickly to burnt caramel. The hops add a lacing of sherbet and then a hard green bitterness. It's a bit of a tough guy, but loveable and cuddly with it.

Day two brought us over to Manhattan, and wandering towards Times Square at roughly beer o'clock I spotted a neon sign flashing BREWERY down the street. Closer inspection revealed it to be a branch of the Heartland brewpub chain. Inside it was pleasantly bright and cheery with a long bar, a full range of beer options and a folksy -- but not too folksy -- theme. Oatmeal stout for me: Farmer Jon's. This is 6% ABV and as full and smooth as you like. Creamy milky chocolate is the centre, edged with the bitterness of darker cocoa and a grainy dryness to keep it from over-sweetness. It really delivers on the promises of the style.

Another 6%-er for the lady: Indiana, Heartland's IPA. Like our friend from the Bronx it's a sticky one, though tasting more of orange boiled sweets than toffee. But while it's most definitely heavy and sweet, there's an acid bitterness in the finish which accumulates sufficiently to provide balance. Overall it's a little too sweet for me, but it does its thing quite well.

At dinnertime we found ourselves in Hell's Kitchen, just on the edge of theatreland so understandably well stocked with eating options. We found a pleasant little taco place and resisted the upsold margaritas, opting instead for White Aphro, a wheat beer by Empire Brewing in Syracuse. They didn't warn me that it contains ginger but boy does it: a massive hit of sweet crystallised ginger right at the start, and through the middle as well, with a long tail of throat-scratching ginger ale dryness. I quite like unabashed ginger beers so I was fine with it, even if it was pretty one-dimensional.

So far we were just finding beers on the fly. Time now to start ticking off the must-visits on the list I'd brought with me. Rattle N Hum was nearest to where we happened to be standing so that's where we headed. It seems that The City That Never Sleeps doesn't do quiet Tuesday evenings either, and the long, narrow and dark sports bar was packed. We just managed to get a couple of seats at an unbussed table by the solitary window. Fighting my way to the bar I came back with a Blanc Tarte Barrique for me, an all-over-the-place barrel-aged sour beer from San Diego's Green Flash, swinging wildly between the intense woody sourness of aged gueuze and soft luscious peach fruit. It's an absolute rollercoaster but I rather enjoyed the ride; and for her Glacial Trail IPA: more boiled sweets and lots and lots of heavy cloying crystal malt. She liked it but a sip was plenty for me. Another round seemed like far too much effort so we left it there.

It was down to the East Village the following afternoon, and Fool's Gold, a bayou shack-style bar which probably also gets loud and uncomfortable in the evenings but was very civilised at 2pm. And oh, hello Hill Farmstead on the tap list. Sumner pale ale was the shout: murky, of course, and a little bit rough with it, but also demonstrating a pleasant gentle grapefruit bitterness. Simcoe, Citra and Mosaic are the hops and the latter does impart a little of its signature spring onion as well. Not a stunner, but really not bad either.

Next to it there is Other Half IPA, Other Half being a south Brooklyn brewery of no small repute according to this piece by Mr Urch. We didn't make the time to visit it ourselves, but did sample a few of its wares on the way round. This one is extremely, bizarrely, malt-forward for an IPA, brown in appearance and tasting more of chocolate than of hops. A strange and unsettling introduction to the brewery.

That was followed by a much more orthodox pale ale: Daisy Cutter by Chicago's Half Acre. Funky dank resins pour out of the aroma while the flavour sparks with peach and grapefruit, and yet it never quite tips over into hop-based sensory overload. In fact the bitterness is low enough that it feels like it should be punchier, but as-is, it's bright, fresh and very drinkable, especially at a modest 5.2% ABV.

To finish this post, we stay in the East Village but step away from craft beer and into McSorley's Old Ale House, an Irish-American landmark pub trying so hard to be a blue collar saloon you can see a vein bulging in its forehead. Sawdust covers the floor and surly waiters sling two types of beer at you, two glasses at a time for some reason, both brewed for the house by the ultimate blue collar brewer Pabst. More than anywhere, its darkness, bruskness, and take-it-or-leave-it approach to choice reminded me of U Fleků in Prague.

McSorley's Draft Ale is a pale gold colour with little to say for itself other than an old world hop bitterness which has a touch of white pepper about it, so I'm guessing is made with something German. McSorley's Draft Porter has a definite stout dryness up front, then a middle of caramel and liquorice for a kind of Czech tmavý effect. A nasty saccharine metallic twang creeps in after a while rendering it less enjoyable with each sip towards the end. Were I calling for a third I'd be back on the ale again, but I wasn't. A tiny, exclusive, uber-craft bar had just opened for the day two blocks away and I wanted to get in before the hordes of unspeakable cool people nabbed all the stools.