Sure, it's changed. Yeah, it's the Grumpy Old Man reporting again. I remember once, while we were on our summer holiday in Oslo, that traveling to America meant a voyage on Den Norske Amerikalinje. We were standing on the quay with hundreds of others, waving to my aunt, who was going away for a year as an au pair. Sure, there were flights, but those were for diplomats and the shipping industry. The rest, rich and poor, used the ocean liners. I have a feeling there is still a vessel sailing between England and New York, but it's not a significant part of the market any longer.
And sure, I have crossed the Atlantic – by plane – a few times, but that was decades ago. When low dollar rates and a household economy that looked fairly decent, we decided that I should take my oldest son along for a week in New York this fall, the rest of the family being more interested in sun and beaches later in the winter. The price of the tickets was not much more than we would have paid to some parts of the Mediterranean, though the hotel rates in Manhattan would have been prohibitive if the exchange rates were not as kind to us as they were.
So, twelve hours after we left Oslo, including a smooth transfer in 'Amsterdam, we landed at Newark and slid through immigration after a politely conducted interview. I guess none of us fit the terrorist profile very much. Traveling with an eleven year old, it is not beer travel as such. But, knowing me, I used the opportunities available, and wow, have there been changes in town since 1984! During the last five years or so, things have happened fast in Europe. The market for micro and craft brews has grown a lot, and in countries like Denmark, Belgium and the Netherlands you have splendid access to beers in the shops, and you can on occasion find a pub with a dozen beers on tap.
Well, this is different. The difference is, as the difference between New York and any city you might pick in Europe, a matter of scale. Here we are talking about medium sized bars with 30 – 50 - 60 beers on tap plus a fair selection of bottles. And not just 60 lagers of the world, we are talking about 90% craft beers here. IPAs and fruit beers, stouts and porters, smoked beer and wheat beer. There are speciality bars for imports, but many have a focus on beers from New York state, and with a selection of beers and brewers like this, you hardly need to look any further.
The only bar I really got to know during the week was The Ginger Man, above, strategically located about seven minutes walk from our Midtown hotel. 2-3 rotating cask ales at any time, and I estimate fifty other beers on draught, spread across the spectrum of beer styles. Child friendly during the early afternoon, which was very convenient for us. When the after work crown took over at six, we were on our way, either to a restaurant or back to our hotel for rest and recreation after a long day of shopping and sightseeing.
But there were fine beers just about everywhere. In the deli on the corner 100 yards from our hotel, there were dozens of beers, and they did not mind me splitting up the six packs, either. On the next corner, there was a more upmarket store with a large selection of Belgians and more pricey domestic beers from brewers like Ommegang. And the restaurants often have beer menus that are fairly impressive. The Japanese restaurants have a sake list. Gordon Ramsey's star studded restaurant at the London Hotel had a hand picked list of beers, four East Coast and one Belgian. The Blue Smoke barbecue restaurant, right, had a fine selection, too, including a house beer brewed for them by the Brooklyn brewery.
Some beer bars offer small size samplers, giving you the opportunity to get a bit further into their beer lists on a rather short visit. The Heartland Brewery, with a number of locations including the Empire State Building, offer about ten of their own brews, some of which vary with the season. Some of them are pale and tasteless and rather like the macro lagers, others are very decent offerings such as their Oatmeal Stout and their Red Ale.
I had high expectations for a new pub that had opened just a few weeks before our visit, the Rattle and Hum. On paper, their list of beers was fine, they had 30 beers on tap with plans to add another 20 or so. Sadly, two of the beers I tried were off, and the staff, while cute and polite, did not have a clue about beer. Lesson: If you want to open a specialty bar or restaurant, make sure you run it hands on during the first weeks of operation. I would not dare to risk my reputation in a fierce market like this. We focused on Midtown Manhattan. I am aware that the best beer bars are clustered in Greenwich Village and in Brooklyn, but that must be for another time. The samples I had of New York beer culture confirmed my expectations that this is one of the prime beer destinations on the planet.