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Beer Now, Beer Then, Beer Here, Beer Everywhere

Filled with mingled cream and amber,
I will drain that glass again.
Such hilarious visions clamber
Through the chamber of my brain.
Quaintest thoughts, queerest fancies
Come to life and fade away.
What care I how time advances;
I am drinking ale today

-- Edgar Allan Poe

This ode to ale by one-time Village resident Edgar Allan Poe offers a suitable reminder of the pleasures of beer drinking. Today, we touch on the long history of beer in New York City, following it all the way to its purveyance at a couple of the best craft beer stores in town, both of which happen to be in our neighborhoods, Good Beer (422 E. 9th Street) and Carmine Street Beers (52 A Carmine Street). Look no further if you want somewhere to raise a glass (or two) in self-referential celebration of the frothy brew.

Beer arrived on our shores with colonists. The Dutch were prodigious brewers (and consumers of brew), producing in New Amsterdam enough beer for both the local market and to export to other colonies. As it happens, New York’s climate provides ideal conditions for this purpose relative to other American colonies (the heat of the southern ones impaired the brewing process, while the cold of the more northern ones complicated the cultivation of barley). New Amsterdam even featured a brewer street (or Brouwer Straat) in the location of the current Stone Street, as well as an inordinate number of beer sellers (it is believed that up to a quarter of all houses in New Amsterdam sold beer). The British, upon seizing control of New Amsterdam, picked up where the Dutch brewers left off. A hundred years later, local beer production got a boost from the Revolutionary War, which interrupted British trade and forced domestic brewers to make up the shortfall in supply. 

The next significant development in the history of beer in the city — and especially in our neighborhoods — came thanks to the wave of German immigration that followed the political and economic unrest in Germany during the 1830s. Germans brought with them a recent but already widely embraced tradition in lager brewing.1 This style at first diversified local breweries and would decades later come to dominate domestic brewing altogether. By the end of the century, New York and especially Brooklyn had become perhaps the largest beer production area in the country (a country that was at the time producing more beer than any other in the world). Meanwhile, Kleindetuschland (the predominantly German-speaking area of the Lower East Side, now the East Village) boasted dozens of beer gardens, beer halls, and saloons. But then Prohibition happened. First, it proceeded incrementally, state by state. Then, spurred by the anti-German sentiment that surrounded WWI, it saw national implementation, with the passage of the Volstead Act. 

The failed national temperance experiment lasted for thirteen years, until 1933. During that time, most breweries went out of business. Upon resuming brewing operations, those that remained had to contend at once with depressed economic conditions, new laws that limited the alcohol content of beer well below customary levels, and portions of the public unfamiliar with traditional beer. In response, breweries began producing a watery, less flavorful product, and further cutting down costs by mixing barley with less expensive grains, such as rice and corn. For over four decades, this kind of beer — interchangeable but for the packaging — was virtually the only kind available in this country. And it remains by far the most consumed kind. 

The contraction of breweries in this country from over four thousand in the late 1800s to a few dozen in the 1970s began its astounding reversal during the last decades of the twentieth century, first in the West and then in the East Coast. Small breweries started cropping up, reviving traditional beer styles and transforming them through the use of local ingredients. Eventually, however, they became far bolder and more experimental in their beer production. This proliferation of craft breweries remained gradual through the 2000s, but then accelerated exponentially about ten years ago. Today, there are over nine thousand breweries in the country. In the city, there were about half a dozen breweries as recently as twenty years ago. Currently, there are over forty, including two in Manhattan, one of which just opened in the East Village! Craft beer stores have helped catalyze this growth by introducing customers to new beer styles and new breweries. And we are fortunate to have two great ones in our neighborhoods. 

Good Beer (422 E 9th Street)

This longstanding shop/taproom was launched in 2010 by David Cichowicz, who moved into the neighborhood in the 90s, drawn by its music venues and its art scene. An informal survey of the beer selection at local bodegas persuaded him of the area’s likely receptiveness to a dedicated craft beer store. So David decided to open one with a primary focus on American, independent craft breweries, while still paying attention to beers from countries from which these breweries take their inspiration: England, Germany, and Belgium. Beside the ample beer selection for sale, Good Beer has a rotating lineup of twelve beers on tap for purchase in a growler to take home or for drinking right at the store — either inside or in their garden. These are typically beers only available on draught. Can’t decide among them? No problem. You can get a flight and sample four of them. You can also get two more flights and sample the rest! 

As an invested observer with ringside seats, David marvels at the recent explosion of craft breweries. When he opened the store, he would carry everything independent brewers operating in the New York market had to offer, the flagship beer, the seasonals, and the special releases. Now, he routinely has to turn down breweries or some of their offerings. This abundance of choice can result in a frequent turnover of beers. According to David, however, the increase in competition has also put somewhat of a damper on the experimental spirit of some breweries, and has led them to favor the most popular styles (i.e. hazy IPAs, kettle sours2, and “adjuncted” stouts3) at the expense of more idiosyncratic offerings. He is, though, pleased to report a recent renewed interest in long-neglected lager styles — an interest that he hopes will extend to other still overlooked styles, such as ESBs4 and grisettes5. Speaking of which, asked to name an underappreciated beer as his store, David pointed to Arrowood Farms’ grisette, Whitfield Road. But don’t take his word for it. Swing by Good Beer and give it a try today!

Carmine Street Beers (52 A Carmine Street)

This great family-owned store was curiously borne out of necessity. Beginning in 1998, Brian Monteiro operated Elite Copy Center at this location, where several compact-car-sized machines generated enough heat to leave Brian thirsting for a beer by mid-afternoon every summer. At the time, the closest place to buy a craft beer was all the way over at the Bowery. As a result, Brain decided in 2013 to close the copy shop, which had been struggling due to online competition, and open a beer store. His son and partner Shane feels glad to have stayed in the neighborhood, which he has increasingly come to appreciate for its sense of community and for the reassuring presence of decades-long residents.  

In a sense, the store’s model hasn’t changed since it opened. It offers a sizable selection of beer for purchase and a rotating lineup of fourteen beers on tap that one can drink at the store or purchase for takeout. The emphasis of the store, however, has shifted dramatically as interest in craft beer has grown. Before, it used to carry macrobrews popular in the neighborhood and a selection of craft beers aimed at the small group of customers with an affinity for the more specialized product. Today, the selection of craft beers dwarves that of their counterparts.

Shane now makes an effort to stock a beer for every occasion and to seek out the best and rarest ones he can find. “I’ve had the philosophy that it’s worth keeping [great, rare beers] on the shelf even if they don’t sell that much, because they will make one or two people happy enough to tell ten other people about the one place where they were able to find this.” Thanks to this philosophy, the store often manages to grab hold of very limited releases. And the proliferation of local breweries, combined with their ever-accelerating rate of rotation among beer styles, has offered Shane ample opportunity to grasp for eclectic choices (among which he wishes there were a greater representation of smoked beers).

Asked to name an underappreciated beer at his store, he picked the exceptional Rothaus Pils among imports and Dutchess Ales’ Magister Dark Mild among locals. No need to choose between them — swing by Carmine Street Beers and give both a try!

To everyone enjoying a beer today (and especially to those doing so at the great, independent small stores in our neighborhoods that can so enrich the experience) we say: Prost! ¡Salud! Sláinte! Cin cin! Santé! Kanpai! Cheers! and all the rest! 

1 The British, like the Dutch, brewed only ale, which is defined by the use of top-fermenting yeast that thrives in mild temperatures and which comprises styles such as milds, pale ales, extra special bitters, brown ales, porters, stouts, and indian pale ales, among others. Lagers (from the german word for storage) use a bottom-fermenting yeast that operates more slowly and in colder conditions. They include styles such as helles, pilsner, altbier, märzen, dunkel, bock, and schwarzbier, among others.

2 Kettle sours are beers soured through the introduction of a souring bacteria into the brew kettle before fermentation begins. This process is easier and quicker than traditional souring methods but produces less complex results.

3 Adjuncted stouts are ones that contain non-traditional beer ingredients, meaning ingredients other than malts, hops, yeast, and water.

4 An extra special bitter is a maltier, fruitier, and more assertive version of a British bitter ale.

5 A grisette is a low alcohol Belgian style ale typical of the mining regions of that country and similar in profile to Belgian farmhouse ales.

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