Urban Oyster has been leading small group tours of NYC since 2009 and specializes in food, beer and wine related tours. When I was invited to choose among their tours to review one for this site – the choice was difficult. For any food, wine, dark beer and/or NYC history enthusiast, Urban Oyster offers many tempting options.
Because I knew nothing about beer let alone craft beer prior to the tour, I opted for the Saturday Brooklyn Fermented NY Craft Beer Crawl, which takes place in Williamsburg. This tour is also offered in Manhattan’s East Village on Thursday afternoons.
Artisanal food and drink is exploding in America – and Brooklyn is leading the trend.
I’ve always been a lover of dark beers, especially when traveling, but never understood beer terminology, what makes a beer craft, or the difference between lagers, porters or ales.
We met at Barcade, a short walk from the Lorimer Street subway station. Meredith, our guide, was early and lead us to 2 large tables at the back of the cavernous, arcade-game filled room. We were provided tasting notes that include a Tasting Vocubulary, Food & Beer Pairing chart, and a useful Beer Style Guide. On the back of the guide was a map of the locations we would be visiting – and I was thrilled to see Spuyten Duyvil was part of the plan. I’ve long wanted to visit this noted place for home-made charcuterie across the street from their destination BBQ restaurant Fette Sau.
Meredith outlined the plan for the day, and mentioned for the first of many times that we should stay safe; drink plenty of water and eat the provided food. We were told the tour would last about 3.5 hours and would include 4 stops. There would be food at 2 of the stops. She also told us the beer plan: 3 tastings at Barcade; 3 more tastings at the 2nd stop – Spuyten Duyvil; a half pint at the 3rd – Breukelen Beer Merchants; and 3 more tastings at the last stop, Mug’s Ale House.
Our small group was a mix of locals, two couples from NJ, and 1 serious beer enthusiast from Norway.
Meredith is a beer writer who has been leading this tour for over a year and I can’t imagine a better guide. She professionally lead us through the tastings, urging us to be specific about what we were tasting and what characteristics we most liked in each beer. It wasn’t enough to say the beer was sweet – she urged us to detect flavors and be more articulate about discussing them. Not in an annoying, naggy way – she is too cool . She taught us to evaluate beer like a cicerone – the sommelier of the beer world. Any wrong information here is not a reflection of Meredith – just an inability to fact check notes I took while imbibing.
She also dispelled a major myth. The difference between light and dark beer is the toasting of the grains – dark beer is not stronger or heavier than light beer. And, by light, I mean in color – not the lower cal swill.
When I told her I prefer dark beer, she puzzled me by saying I must like “hoppy” beer – so she explained what makes a beer hoppy – that bitter back of palate piney, resin-y taste. If the hops is added at the beginning of the boil the output will be more piney; end of the boil it will be more flowery/grassy. I hope I’m remembering this right after a day of drinking!
As we learned more about beer, pizza arrived at Barcade and we dug in. Barcade has 25 taps and a lot of vintage arcade games. Although it started as a place to showcase regional beers, they now have beers from all over the world – and multiple locations (Philadelphia; Jersey City, NJ and a soon to open Manhattan location). Meredith explained that craft breweries prefer to distribute to places like Barcade, where beer is stored and maintained to the highest standards.
We learned to consider the appearance, aroma, taste, and mouth feel as we tried Beer #1. Brooklyn Brewery‘s Sorachi Ace. High in alcohol, Meredith explained it was a farmhouse style beer in the Belgian Saison style, and she asked if we could taste or smell spices like white peppercorns and coriander. My palate is definitely not that sophisticated, but I loved the beer and will look for it.
Beer #2 I immediately got was a red ale, but that was the depth of my knowledge. It turned out to be Vermont’s McNeill’s Brewery Ruby Ale. Meredith explained this is an example of a new trend – “Session Beer” – as in lighter alcohol beer you can drink all day and still be fine the next.
The tastings were interspersed with interesting historical facts. Do you know the reason the Mayflower docked in Massachusetts instead of continuing on to Virginia as planned? The pilgrims ran out of beer.
This leads us into the fascinating history of beer in America. The British bought porters with them when they arrived. They were poor quality but the beer was healthier to drink than water. In the 1800s the Germans arrived with lager, drastically improving the quality. The Germans also brought breweries and beer gardens, turning drinking into a family event. By the 1880s there were 50 breweries in NYC; in 1977 the last one closed. Meredith attributed this to a generation growing up with Prohibition and cocktail culture. Beer was no longer stylish and the big midwestern breweries took over. Luckily, in the late 70s something occurred that changed the face of the industry. Jimmy Carter legalized home brewing. Craft beer-making took off in America.
Brooklyn Brewery opened in 1988 and was the first true brewery in NYC in 10 years, according to Meredith. I can vaguely remember a place on West 18th with huge brewing vats, and small breweries in Soho and by Chelsea Piers but those were more for in-house use. Now, we have over 3000 breweries in the United States including 125 in New York State, with another 200 in production nationwide. There are 16 new breweries in NYC and Staten Island is getting another. And, yet 90% of the beer we drink in America is produced by 2 conglomerates: SAB Miller and Anheuser Busch InBev.
Of course the big guys want to get in on the craft beer craze – Meredith referred to it as “crafty” beer. She does give them credit as serving as a gateway to real craft beers as consumers become more educated about their options.
What makes a craft beer? An independent producer who uses traditional or innovative high quality ingredients and fermentation processes to make under 6 million barrels of beer annually.
Beer #3 – one of my favorite beers of the day, the Abita Imperator Black IPA.
Meredith hands us each a quarter to play a video game (Miss Pac Man!) and gives us time to use the bathroom before the short walk to Spuyten Duyvil. After hearing one of the NJ women complain about the bathroom, curiosity gets the best of me. It has graffiti. Wow.
At Spuyten Duyvil bowls of crusty bread and a sampling of charcuterie are waiting for us at a table near the large garden. Three tulip shaped glasses are lined up before each seat. We sample a Kulmbacher Kapuziner Weisse beer, Galaxy’s Dark Star Black Hop Ale and All Stars Bakery‘s Kvas beer. I might have gotten this wrong but my notes state this beer was sweeter, and less carbonated – and I’m pretty sure Meredith indicated that this beer is not barrel brewed.
Meredith points out glasses typically vary to maintain the correct temperature for the particular style of beer. You don’t want your hand warming some beers through the glass, for the same reason you hold a Champagne flute by the stem. The the stemmed tulip shape keeps the hand’s heat off the body of the glass and the carbonation in the beer. Everything is done to assure the correct temperature of the beer at serving time at Spuyten Duyvil.
A short walk brings us to Breukelen Bier Merchants, a bottle shop with an extensive collection of refrigerated bottles of beer along one wall and taps for growlers to go. The store is a friendly, family, relaxed atmosphere with seating at high tables in the back. We meet Craig, who owns the shop with his wife and cousin. He tells us he wanted a environment similar to a wine tasting room, and that there were only 3 local places with craft beers when he opened. Now they’re everywhere. Breukelen Bier Merchants differentiates itself by hosting monthly events like the OK Cupid Singles event and relaxed brewery tastings.
We each try a half pint of the Stillwater Saison Farmhouse Ale while Meredith explains this small brewery is expanding by contract brewing – using their own recipe at a hired brewery that produces the beer. The Stillwater tastes like bubblegum to me. Meredith confirms my taste (yeah!) by saying Belgian brewers use candy sugars so this makes sense.
The tour’s last stop positioned us well for the Bedford Avenue L Train subway station, shopping on Bedford, or Smorgasburg. Because Bedford Avenue is so jammed on Saturday afternoon, Meredith tells us where we’re going should we get separated and we meet at Mug’s Ale House.
Mug’s is one of Brooklyn’s oldest beer bars and a local fixture before the Great Williamsburg Hipster Migration. When the current owner Ed acquired the bar in 1992 he inherited the regulars who were Bud and Coors guys, according to Meredith. One day, the Coors line quit and Ed supposedly substituted a craft beer. After a regular chased him around the bar, Helene his wife pulled out the Bud line and they’ve served only craft beers ever since. Mug’s is known for craft beer events and the quality of the ever changing selection.
We sit at large picnic tables in the quiet, fenced-in outdoor area behind the bar and taste 3 more beers.
Beer #1 is Founder’s All Day IPA. Another session ale; I could drink this beer all day.
Beer #2 is Bell’s Oberon. Meredith, if you’re reading this – thank you profusely for turning me on to these special Bell’s beers, of which I was completely unaware. Cute, young, male bartenders compliment me for my astute selection any time I order a Bell’s now. Bell’s started as a Kalamazoo, MI home brewing supply shop and now makes such renowned beers that Oberon Day, when the Bell’s Oberon is released, is awaited all year in Michigan.
Beer #3 is a cask beer – SingleCut from Queens. The first brewery in Queens since Prohibition, located in Astoria, it is open to the public Thursday – Sunday. Unlike most small brewers who specialize in ales, SingleCut specializes in lagers. Meredith tells us their very unique beers are made down the street from a beautiful, old Steinway piano factory. I plan to visit the brewery and neighborhood this summer.
Meredith leaves us at Mug’s, knowing a lot more about beer, the history of beer making in America and some great places in Williamsburg I would likely never have visited. Since the tour, I find myself opting for beer more than wine – and always craft over crafty!
About Urban Oyster:
According to David Naczycz, Urban Oyster’s founder, their tours are comprised of 50% locals and 50% visitors. Visitors are their largest growing segment and the tours attract a lot of Europeans and Australians. They attract visitors who want a more authentic experience and to explore deeper into the city.
Urban Oyster is continuously adding new tours to their line-up. Their new brewery tour is their first non-walking tour, for obvious reasons. Some other tempting weekly Urban Oyster group tours: Neighborhood Eats New York Waterfront, Brewed in Brooklyn, Neighborhood Eats Brownstone Brooklyn, Brewery Winery Distillery.
Group tours are in English for now but tours in other languages are in the process of being developed. Urban Oyster currently offers private tours in German and Italian. Private tours can also be arranged for groups and make a great Bachelor or Bachelorette party!
As Intrepid’s Urban Adventures NYC partner, they offer a range of other tours and can connect visitors with local Urban Adventure tours in other cities to make multi-destination US trip planning seamless.
About Beer, Williamsburg and NYC:
The Last Bohemia: Scenes from the Life of Williamsburg – Robert Anasi’s really entertaining book that still haunts me, 2 years after reading it.
Participation in NY Fermented Craft Beer Crawl courtesy of Urban Oyster.