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