Something's Brewing in New York City

A look at Big Apple beer culture

There’s an old joke: What do having sex in a canoe and American beer have in common? They’re both f****ng close to water.

Of course, that hasn’t been true for years. Starting in the 1970s and '80s, with small breweries like San Francisco’s Anchor Steam, Philadelphia’s Dock Street and Boston’s Sam Adams, American beer has become arguably the best in the world. New breweries seem to open every year, many taking creative approaches to classic styles of brewing.

I grew up in Philadelphia, a city that once boasted 700 breweries in its heyday. While it doesn’t approach those numbers now, Philadelphia has embraced craft brewing in a way no other East Coast city has. The area supports at least 20 small and craft breweries, ranging from America’s oldest beer, Yuengling, to the three-year-old Philadelphia Brewing Company. All those breweries and their brewmasters are very close, sometimes even collaborating on beers, and all are involved in Philadelphia’s annual Beer Week event. According to pints expert Don Russell, who writes a beer column for the Philadelphia Daily News under the nom de plume Joe Sixpack, Philadelphia’s “grown so unified because of our local bar owners, who have always supported local beer. Around here, bar owners drink in each other's bars, and so do the brewers.”

In 2003, I moved to New York. As a beer lover, I was struck by how much New York’s brewing culture didn’t match that of other cities. Still, it was home to one my favorite breweries from my college days, Brooklyn. Back then Brooklyn Brewery did not have much local competition, and its association with the city and home borough seemed unassailable. Its “B” logo, designed by “I LOVE NY” co-creator Milton Glaser, is reminiscent of the Brooklyn Dodgers “B,” and the brewery even makes a Pennant Ale commemorating the team’s 1955 World Series berth and ultimate victory over the Yankees. But in 2004, Sixpoint Craft Ales opened in Brooklyn and the scene slowly started to evolve.

Brooklyn Brewery is small by any measure of that word. It will never be an Anheuser-Busch, a Coors, or a Miller and it presently only produces one-twentieth the amount of beer Sam Adams does annually. Yet in Brooklyn, where to many, small is better, Brooklyn Brewery is starting to seem big and corporate and thus, passé. I definitely know people who seem to prefer other local beers to Brooklyn purely on some sort of unarticulated principle. In other brewing cities, like Denver or Philly, where beer connoisseurs feel the bad guys are the international conglomerates, not the local guys, this would seem unheard of, but not in New York. According to the New York Press, Park Slope bar Union Hall stopped carrying Brooklyn’s beers last spring because, as the bartender puts it, “You can get a Brooklyn in Texas,” so it feels less unique. The same article cites the growing number of other bars in Brooklyn that no longer serve the borough’s namesake beers.