NYC Craft Beer Week 2011

by Anchor-Of-My-Eye


I'd like to introduce my first guest blogger (and housemate!), Andrew.  As an avid homebrewer and a lover of all things beer and food, he's the best person I know to talk about this fantastic annual NYC celebration of all things craft beer.

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This past week was the fourth annual (second for us) New York Craft Beer Week.  I get excited about this.  For those who don't know, beer week is an opportunity for a lot of New York City bars and restaurants who take pride in offering a selection of craft beers to get some exposure by offering beer deals, special menus and food pairing events, and for beer lovers to take advantage of all the offerings and maybe try out a few places they've never been to before.  

To take part in the basic deals, you buy a "passport" with listings of all the participating bars.  Each bar has half a page mapping their location and providing a tear-out ticket that's good for one $3 draft from a particular craft brewery any time during beer week.  Most of them also have an alternate deal on the back side of the ticket that's good for a whole year, something like $2 off any NY state beer on tap or a free plate of sausages with any draft or bottle.  

Being something of a beer geek I put together two maps last year: the area near my office and the parts of Brooklyn we can get to from home in half an hour or so.  I put dots on the maps for all the participating bars so I could plan efficient routes to pick up a couple of beers on the way home from work or on a relatively short night out in Brooklyn.  This year I got to a couple of favorites (Blind TigerMission Dolores) and tried a couple of first-time participants including Pour George on West 8th Street.  That place was fun, even though it was still very quiet at 5:00 on a Wednesday.

The more exciting and involved events don't require a passport though.  Restaurants offer special menus or tastings with enticing names like "very old beer and extremely stinky cheese." We signed up for one at the Birreria at Eataly, a rooftop beer hall over Mario Batali's massive gourmet Italian food market. Eataly offers a huge range of imported and domestic groceries as well as excellent prepared foods.  The Birreria itself has a tiny but prolific brewery and a great selection of other brews from Italy, the U.S. and elsewhere.  Its conception was a collaboration between Batali, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head brewery, and two Italian brewers, Leonardo Di Vincenzo of Birra del Borgo and Teo Musso of Baladin (Leo and Teo).  We jumped at the chance to reserve spots at the beer week event mostly because Sam was personally hosting the lunch and giving a tour of the brewing facilities.  

As the owner and creative engine of our favorite brewery, and the star of the fascinating but sadly very quickly cancelled TV series Brew Masters, he was a major inspiration in our decision to start brewing at home (he also started out in a Brooklyn apartment before becoming a professional).  So we were pretty psyched to see what he had planned for the lunch.  We had also been to the Birreria before and found the setting, the food and the beers to be exceptional.  

So we showed up for the 11:30AM start to the lunch, and most of the guests already had beers in hand.  We were welcomed with a seasonal house brew from the Birreria, a nice clean, refreshing wit beer called Sophia, brewed with peppercorns for just a touch of spice.  

We were almost immediately ushered into the brewery tour, which was being conducted in phases due to the tiny size of the facility.  Sam gave some background about the history of Eataly and the Birreria, trying to convey in a few minutes just how much work and love went into getting a functioning brewery permitted and installed on the roof of an old building in NYC, as well as the "slow food" philosophy behind their beers.  Ingredients are carefully selected and blended, brewed in small batches and placed directly into casks, unfiltered, to carbonate naturally and to be served only in-house on tap.  They like to add an original, creative accent to traditional beer styles, like the pepper in the Sophia or the Italian thyme in their IPA.  

We were introduced to the head brewer, Brooks Carretta, an enthusiastic young man with an interesting accent that could only come from his journey from birth in Arkansas, through relocation to Italy (near Rome) at 7 years old and living there in a bilingual community until coming to New York this year.  He had apprenticed for a couple of years with Teo and Leo, and for a stint with Sam at Dogfish Head before being named brewmeister at Eataly.  He was actually brewing at the time of the tour, so we got to see a bit of action.  They also passed around a very special ingredient that was going into that day's beer—"wet" hops picked just the previous day in Yakima Valley, Washington and sent overnight to the brewery.  Everybody got to take one and open it up for inspection and close sniffing.

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It is exceedingly rare for brewers to get wet hops; they are almost always dried out to extend shelf life.  Brooks and Sam seemed genuinely excited to see how the day's brew would turn out.  There was definitely a fresher, grassier scent to the wet hops compared to the dried and pelletized ones we use in our home brewing.  We were smelling ours periodically throughout the meal.  

Then it was time to sit down and meet our fellow diners.  In keeping with the spirit of the place, we were seated family style in groups of 10 at four big circular tables, with a small table in the middle for Sam and a few of his friends and collaborators.  After a brief but friendly and welcoming opening speech, delivered extra loud to combat the sound of the torrential rain on the retractable glass roof over our heads, the feast began.  Cured meats and assorted cheeses in generous quantities came out, served with house-made sourdough and pretzel bread, some seriously sharp mustard and a chestnut-infused honey.  After a few minutes, the staff brought out little bowls of fried fresh shitake mushrooms that even people who don’t like mushrooms were raving about, nicely seasoned, earthy and chewy and a great contrast with the cold appetizers.  All of that was paired with a robust saison from Leo’s brewery, spiced with gentian root instead of aroma hops at the end of the boil for a distinctive tanginess.  We were off to a good start.

The secondi were an extremely manly array of meats: spice rubbed and fried individual pork ribs, slices of beautifully marbled rare beef short ribs, grilled half quail that I couldn’t get enough of, and dense smoked lamb sausage.  This was served with one of my favorite Dogfish Head beers, Bitches Brew (after the Miles Davis album), a very bold, dark beer made with three parts imperial stout and one part honey beer with gesho root, all in the innovative tradition of the eponymous groundbreaking jazz fusion album.  As a token vegetable, some roasted root vegetables—carrots and, I think, parsnips—were served alongside.  

By the middle of the second course, everyone seemed to be having a great time.  Camaraderie broke out among the tablemates.  We learned about the diet plans (obviously being set back a bit at the time) of a couple of guys at the table who had each lost about 30 pounds over the last few months.  A reserved but happy-looking young woman turned out to be a pastry chef, to everyone’s great interest.  And after a few words from a relatively quiet couple to our immediate left, the more talkative dieter picked out their Philadelphia accents and drew them into a bit of conversation.  

Sam would say a few words between each course as well, letting us know he was having a good time, thanking the staff for being so attentive after the very late previous night, and introducing a couple of other people for their own brief speeches.

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We heard from the beer director for the Birreria, who curates the selection of tap and bottled beers other than the house brews and absolutely loves his job, and from Christian DeBenedetti, a beer writer who has spent years traveling throughout the U.S. and documenting the burgeoning craft beer movement, which he recounts in his new book, "The Great American Ale Trail."  It’s always inspiring to hear from people who are really passionate and happy about the work they do.  Makes you think a little more about your own career path and what other possibilities might be out there.  Sam is a great example of this, and makes us dream about maybe expanding our operation and selling our homebrews or even opening our own brewpub some day.  He was also very friendly, taking time to stand and talk with each table, answer questions and pose for photo opportunities.  

Finally the dessert course arrived, tiramisu paired with a Belgian-style strong amber ale from Teo’s brewery, with a hint of cinnamon and a nice light mouthfeel.  We had a bit of debate at the table about how well the pairing worked, and a bit of critique on the tiramisu, but everyone was still having a great time.  Our table actually had to stand up at one point and let the staff shift us over a few feet to get away from a persistent drip due to the rainstorm outside, though we hardly noticed with everything else going on.  

Along with dessert, we also got to try out yet another beer from Dogfish Head that had previously been tasted by only a few people at their brewery, called Urkontinent.  It was another very dark beer with some exotic ingredients brewed in: Australian waddleseed, myrica gale, and rooibos tea.  I have no idea what the non-tea ingredients taste like on their own but it made for a unique beer.  The recipe came out of a collaboration with Google employees, who got to make suggestions for ingredients from far-flung places.  The idea was to demonstrate how such diverse ingredients and their places of origin are so much more accessible than ever before, and that they can be integrated into our lives in creative ways.  Some folks at our table thought it went better with the dessert than the primary pairing from Baladin.  After some groping about for a description of the most noticeable but hardest-to-place note in the flavor, there was a eureka moment when someone got it: nail polish/acetone!  Somehow that note worked with the rest of the ingredients.  The sharpness was a good contrast to the roasty dark malt flavor and the somewhat floral aroma of the tea.  

Altogether it was a surreal experience, having so much beer and food by 2 p.m. on a weekday, becoming friendly with a bunch of strangers and our beer hero, and then departing into the kind of torrential downpour you only see a couple of times a year.  The subway platform felt even more cave-like than usual, with water cascading down through the ventilation grates overhead and everything feeling dank and subterranean.  After the train ride and walk home, we were pretty much done for the day.