New York’s Ale Awakening: How a Cocktail City Learned to Love Beer

The Big Apple is finally catching up to the artisanal beer culture that has its epicenter out West

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SingleCut Beersmiths

The fresh beer served at SingleCut Beersmiths, which opened in Queens in Dec. 2012, is brewed in tanks right next to the tap room.

In a windowless basement two blocks east of the Hudson River, brewer Chris Cuzme is literally on the ground floor of New York City’s burgeoning craft beer scene. While his 200-sq-ft. brewing room is modest by any measure, Cuzme doesn’t let the close quarters cramp his style. Since taking the helm at 508 Gastrobrewery in West SoHo in December, he’s made everything from a pale ale brewed with Szechuan peppercorns and grains of paradise to a blonde ale blended with Turkish pomegranate tea. “I probably won’t repeat many beers,” says Cuzme, a saxophone player and long-time home brewer who adds, “that’s what keeps it fun for me.”

While outposts like Portland, Oregon and Boulder, Colorado have long been at the epicenter of America’s artisanal ale awakening, New York is only now hitting its stride in both production and consumption of craft beer. A few years ago, just a handful of breweries operated in the five boroughs. Today, the city boasts more than 15 brewers, including newcomers SingleCut Beersmiths in Queens, which opened in December, and City Island Beer in the Bronx, which is releasing its debut pale ale at New York Beer Week on Feb. 22.  About 125 bars and restaurants are also participating in the 10-day fest, up from 25 in 2009, according to New York City Brewers Guild president Jeremy Cowan.

“Definitely New York is catching up. There is no question,” says Dan Wandel, a beverage-industry analyst at research firm SymphonyIRI. Craft beer sales in the New York City metro area rose 29% from 2009 to $16.4 million in 2012, according to the research firm, which tracks supermarket sales only. What’s more, 2012 was the first year that New Yorkers bought nearly as much craft beer (versus mass-market labels) as the rest of the country.

Until now, “New York has been considered kind of a wasteland for craft beer,” says Don Bryant, president of Hopunion, a major supplier of hops to the more than 2,000 craft brewers across the country. While some blame the high cost of real estate for the city’s laggard status when it comes to cultivating a craft beer culture of its own, others chalk it up to matters of class and culture.

“New York is not a working-class city,” says Peter Hepp, a former roofer who is now the head brewmaster at one of the city’s newest brewpubs, Birreria in the Flatiron district. Hepp cites the metropolis’s high-brow image as the best explanation for why it was slow to catch on to the craft beer craze. After all, its best-known borough has a classic cocktail named after it, not a beer. As wine and cocktail bars thrived in Manhattan over the last two decades, beer took a backseat. The first boutique ales many New Yorkers first sampled weren’t even local brews, either: New York imports 37% of its beer from outside the U.S., vs. a 19.3% import rate across the country. “The world comes to us,” says Ethan Long, founder of Rockaway Brewing in Queens, another newcomer.

For years there was also a culture clash between the early craft beer pioneers and cocktail-sipping city types. “Craft beer used to be about mountains and lakes,” notes New York City Brewers Guild president Cowan. “Craft breweries were started by a lot of people in the country, and a lot of them smoking weed, versus people in the city,” he adds. Because the food scene in New York City was so closely tied with the wine and spirits industry, that made it doubly tough for even the best craft beer to get noticed by influential foodies. That all started to change, however, when places like Thomas Keller’s Per Se and Tom Colicchio’s Craft restaurants started co-hosting beer dinners with Brooklyn Brewery in 2009. Keller even commissioned brewmaster Garrett Oliver to make a Belgian-style ale called Blue Apron, which is still sold exclusively at Keller’s restaurants.

Class and culture issues aside, the high price of New York City real estate has also kept locally-brewed beer from taking off sooner. Unlike artisanal pickles, cheese, and popsicles—all of which can be made in small spaces—brewing equipment can’t fit in a broom closet. Brooklyn Brewery, still the city’s largest and best-known craft brewer, made all of its beer in upstate New York for much of the 1990s, in order to keep costs in check. (It now brews some of its specialty beers at its facility in Williamsburg, Brooklyn as well.) Newcomers Bronx Brewery and City Island Beer now contract brew in Connecticut and Massachusetts, respectively, because it is cheaper to rent out another brewer’s equipment in a region where wages are lower than to operate their own facility within city limits.

Other New York City brewers have gotten around the real estate dilemma either by staying small or by setting up shop in more remote corners of the city. Manhattan-based brewers 508 Gastrobrewery and Birreria, which only sell their beers on-site, are more like nanobreweries in scale. Meanwhile, SingleCut Beersmiths, which is located in a warehouse on the outer fringe of Astoria, features a surprisingly cozy 5,000-sq. ft. brewery and tap room.

On a recent Sunday night around 6 p.m., SingleCut’s tap room was still bustling, despite the bitter chill outside and 10-minute walk from the nearest subway station. An IPA, a Mahogany ale, and a creamy milk stout were all on tap in the high-ceilinged room outfitted with metal bar stools. Even better: A new kitchen featuring hearty meat pies, opening this week, should help fortify city dwellers willing to leave their familiar cocktails behind and brave the outer boroughs for a truly local craft beer adventure.