After touring New York's most famous brewery, a still thirsty Joe Minihane goes in search of the best beer bars in Brooklyn.
The wind whips up brutally along North 11th Street from the East River, biting at my ears and hurrying my passage into a true Brooklyn institution. The Brooklyn Brewery has become a cornerstone of the borough’s growth into the epitome of New York cool, helping make craft beer a multimillion dollar global industry in the process.
Its famed Brooklyn Lager can be found everywhere from West Yorkshire to Melbourne. But I’m here to taste some of its more complex, tastier brews, as well as snoop around what has become a major destination for tourists crossing over from Manhattan.
Walking into the high-ceilinged converted factory building you get an immediate feel, not just for the brewing traditions, but also its history. This spot has been home to the Brooklyn Brewery since 1996 and was once a matzo factory, reflecting the strong Jewish heritage which still exists in Williamsburg.
I’m here on a Sunday for the half-hourly free tour and the place is already buzzing. The bar is rammed with punters, despite the fact the sun has only just gone over the yard arm, and long trestle tables are full of chatty drinkers. Gathering near the entrance, those of us on the tour (a group that totals more than 60), are led into the rear of the building to where the magic happens.
From humble beginnings
Huge vats, towering 9m (30ft) above us, dot the room, while brewing equipment lays dormant with the weekend in full flow. It means our tour guide can easily be heard when he steps up on a milk crate and begins to tell us a little about the history of the brewery and how it’s become something of an institution in recent years.
The brewery itself was the brainchild of Tom Hindy, he tells us, a man who learnt the art while working as a war correspondent across the Middle East in the 1980s. Hindy and his pals, unable to buy beer, resorted to creating their own brews in basements across Saudi Arabia and Syria. When Hindy returned to his native New York, he teamed up with his neighbour, investment banker Tom Potter, to create the Brooklyn Brewery in 1988.
The history of the brewery is almost as fascinating as the beer itself. The famous green and yellow logo was created by renowned graphic designer Milton Glaser, the man behind the classic I Love New York campaign. Glaser waived his fee for the design in return for shares in the brewery, which is now booming thanks to a growing taste for locally crafted, uniquely flavoured ales.
We’re quickly taken through the brewing process, discussing how long the blend of hops, malt, yeast and water come together to give different kinds of beer. Brooklyn Brewery is known for developing strong, robust ales and the guide explains why its IPA, so often seen as a ‘light beer’, is actually a hefty proposition that should only be tackled by hardened beer lovers. It’s all down to how long the beer is brewed.
After a primer on the slew of beers available (10 different ones are up for grabs at the in-house bar), the group is ready to have a taste. Led back through to the main hall, we greedily buy beer tokens and make for the pumps. While the classic Brooklyn Lager is on tap, no one’s much interested in this readily available brew. Instead, we try some of the East India Pale Ale as the winter sun streams in through the high windows.
As ways to end of the weekend go, hanging out at this laid-back brewery in one of New York’s coolest areas takes some beating. Chuck in the history lesson and a bit of science behind the booze and this is as guilt-free as a lunchtime pint can get.
Best craft beer bars in Brooklyn
If a tour of the Brooklyn Brewery (79 North 11th Street) doesn’t quite slay your thirst, fear not; craft beer bars abound in these parts. Here are six of the best that Brooklyn has to offer:
1) Glorietta Baldy
One of the latest additions to Bed-Stuy’s ever-increasing list of boozers, the rock ‘n’ roll-themed Glorietta Baldy (502 Franklin Avenue) boasts a stellar list of beers, including a rare selection of guest brews that rotate monthly.
2) Pickle Shack
Not only does this hipster hangout serve a heroic selection of beer, but Pickle Shack (256 Fourth Avenue) also has a mouth-watering menu that has been wowing palates across the city.
3) Battery Harris
This unpretentious Caribbean bar has a fine selection of craft beer, but Battery Harris (64 Frost Street) is also good if you fancy sipping cocktails, quaffing jerk chicken and tapping your feet to the reggae beat.
4) Spuyten Duyvil
Voted ‘Best bar in New York’ by the Beer Advocate, Spuyten Duyvil (359 Metropolitan Avenue) lives up to its bragging rights; its superb selection of beer takes punters from the Home Counties of England to the microbreweries of America’s heartland.
The achingly hip, Scandi-themed Tørst (615 Manhattan Avenue) is as renowned for its food – deliciously simple comfort cuisine – as it is for craft beer. Too cool for school? Perhaps, but it’s still one of Brooklyn’s finest.
Brooklyn Brewery tours – Need to know
How much? Small group tours (30 people max) of Brooklyn Brewery start at 5pm from Monday to Thursday and cost $8. You get to sample four beers. Tickets are only available online for these tours, via the Brooklyn Brewery website.
There are free tours every half hour from 1pm to 5pm on Saturdays and 1pm to 4pm on Sundays. There are no samples on these free tours, but you can buy beer tokens at the counter for $5 each (or pick up five for $20). There’s no need to book, just show up and make sure you’re thirsty.
Is it worth it? Absolutely. The free tour is incredibly informative, while the $8 weekday trip, including the chance to taste beers, is about as cheap as tourist attractions get in the Five Boroughs.
Room for improvement? The free tour could perhaps offer visitors the chance to snoop around the brewery floor, especially as the staff have downed tools for the weekend. It would also be good to get more of an insight into how all the different beers are made.