Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Drinking in Brooklyn

I spent a good deal of the early part of the year talking to anyone and everyone who has anything to do with the cocktail, beer and coffee scenes in Brooklyn. The canvasing was in service of a feature on the Brooklyn drinking scene for Imbibe magazine. It wasn't difficult to research; a Brooklynite for 16 years, I had been doing casual, unscripted research for such a survey two or three years by simply paying calls on the new Brooklyn bars and cafe as they opened in waves in 2008 and 2009. And most of the people I interviewed for the piece I had already come to know. Nothing quite as pleasurable as doing an in-depth piece on your own hometown.

Here's the article. There are also lists of places to go for  cocktails, coffee, beer and wine (yes, wine does get a mention in the piece, though not a thorough going over, thank God—adding that aspect to the article might have killed me), all put together by yours truly. But I won't print those here. I have to leave some reason to go out and buy the mag.


By Robert Simonson

IN THE LATE 19th CENTURY, BROOKLYN WAS A GLORIOUS PLACE TO DRINK. The borough (then a full-fledged city in its own right) boasted 48 breweries and lent its name to The Brooklyn, one of the country’s most popular cocktails at the time. Two of America’s largest coffee roasters of the area—R. Buckle Brothers and the A & P company—called Brooklyn home, and the venerable, gas-lit Gage & Tollner restaurant on Fulton Street served coffee so strong, some customers asked for it to be diluted.

Then came Prohibition, the Depression, high taxes and rising labor costs. The Breweries—Trommer’s, Piels, Rheingold—closed one by one. The last, Schaefer, turned off its Brooklyn taps in 1976. The Brooklyn Cocktail died from memory as an essential ingredient, Amer Picon, fell into obscurity. Gage & Tollner closed, its landmark interior eventually invaded by TGI Friday’s and then Arby’s.

In the last decade, however, craft breweries, cocktail lounges and coffee bars have been cropping up from Greenpoint to Bushwick. The shift took root in the ’90s, when New Yorkers crossed the East River in droves to escape rising rents and encroaching homogenization bred by Manhattan’s bear hug of chain stores and luxury condos. Some of those transplants became entrepreneurs, opening bars and cafés over the years to slake the thirsts of the new locals. That trend has steadily gained steam, and today Brooklynites have reclaimed one of the most enviable drink cultures in the country.

How Brooklyn Got its Brew Back 

"You can go anywhere in Brooklyn and get a great beer,” says Garrett Oliver, the poised yet cheerful Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster, who could be considered the godfather of Brooklyn’s beer renaissance. “Fifteen years ago that wasn’t true.”

Brooklyn Brewery, founded in 1987 by reporter Steve Hindy and banker Tom Potter, can take a lot of credit for changing the borough’s there-but-for-the-grace-of-Manhattan-go-I reputation. Suddenly, something was made in Brooklyn, and it was really good! Now, it’s difficult to find a bar in the borough that doesn’t serve locally made beers—and not just dedicated beer bars like Park Slope’s epicurean Beer Table, Carroll Gardens’ rustic Bar Great Harry or Greenpoint’s fun-loving The Diamond Bar. You can also find them at the typical corner dive. “People in this neighborhood would never eat at Burger King, but they had no problem drinking cans of PBR,” says Joe Carroll, owner of Williamsburg’s seven-year-old Spuyten Duyvil, which boasts a mouth-watering array of international craft beers. “I think that’s changed. They know good beer now and drink good beer.”

The second wave of Brooklyn’s craft-brewing renaissance began with the 2004 arrival of Sixpoint. Owner and Wisconsinite Shane Welch didn’t want to be tethered to the standard brew-and-bottle formula when coming up with a business plan for his brewery. “Why not make a whole bunch of beers and let people enjoy them?” he asked himself. The trouble was there are only a few places in the country where a brewery can support itself on draught alone. Welch picked up and moved to Red Hook, rightly guessing that Brooklyn was one of them. He set up business in a tight space behind a couple of huge, green, bay doors on lonely Van Dyne Street. Now in its sixth year, Sixpoint has produced 63 different beers and counting, including its first and most familiar, Brownstone Ale, and dozens of one-offs. The beers are unfiltered and known to be surprisingly complex yet approachable, from the hoppy IPA Bengali Tiger and the bracingly sharp Righteous Rye to the toasty, dense Brownstone, which is made from a blend of 12 different malts.

Sixpoint’s facility is tiny, so it contracts with Clinton Hill’s Green Point Beerworks to produce some of its beers. As a testament to the partnership and collaboration that goes on among Brooklyn’s entrepreneurs, Green Point happens to be the base of operations of Kelly Taylor, the brewmaster at Kelso—the third entry in Brooklyn’s triumvirate of micro-breweries. Two years after Taylor began working for Heartland Brewery in 2000, the brewpub chain—the most prominent of the Manhattan brewpubs that sprang up in the 1990s—decided to set up Green Point to help defray some of its costs. They put Taylor in charge.

“I was given carte blanche to build this place,” he says. When some tanks sat idle, Taylor asked to take up the slack by creating his own line of beers, starting in 2006 with Kelso Nut Brown Lager, his flagship beer. The brewery frequently focuses on German-style beers—producing a classic, European-style Pilsner and St. Gowanus, a blend of Belgian-style golden ale and American-style pale ale—plus an array of seasonal brews.

These distinctive Brooklyn-born brews are perfectly matched by Brooklyn’s highly individualized beer dens. The Diamond Bar, owned by the affable Dave Pollack (a former Spuyten Duyvil bartender), is an oasis on a darkened Greenpoint block, specializing in session beers, shuffleboard and quoits (a twist on horseshoes). It typically gets its cask-conditioned ale from Brooklyn Brewery, just six blocks away. Similarly, Carroll Gardens’ dog-friendly Bar Great Harry, an ordinary-looking bar with an extraordinary beer selection, often has multiple draught lines of nearby Sixpoint. “Brooklyn’s got a lot of love for Sixpoint,” says owner Mike Wiley. “It’s an easy beer to sell.”

Clearly, there’s a lot of local pride for home-grown brews. Williamsburg’s Barcade, which marries a two-dozen strong draught line-up with an array of vintage arcade games, holds events like “Brooklyn Beer Night” and “Sixpoint Beer Night.” Bierkraft, a Park Slope beer store and grocery, regularly carries Kelso and Sixpoint beer for growler refills. And Kelso may have pulled off the savviest placement trick in the borough, getting the staid, 123-year-old Brooklyn steak house Peter Luger to go local and put his Nut Brown Lager on tap. “We let them call it Peter Luger Lager,” laughs Taylor.

A New Class of Cocktails 

With the ongoing migration of New Yorkers over the East River bridges, it was only a matter of time before the new Brooklynites would start looking for cocktails on par with those they’d enjoyed in Manhattan. Quietly forcing the issue was the fact that many of Manhattan’s best bartenders and cocktail lounge owners actually lived in Brooklyn: Mayahuel’s Phil Ward; Summit Bar’s Greg Seider; Death & Co.’s Brian Miller and Joaquim Simo; Pegu Club’s St. John Frizell; and Flatiron Lounge owner Julie Reiner.

So the 21st-century dawn of such landmark Manhattan cocktail spots as Milk & Honey, PDT and Little Branch was quickly followed by the 2008-2009 deluge of high-end Brooklyn bars. In 2008, Reiner opened Clover Club in Cobble Hill, a sepia-hued picture-postcard of the dark-wood, upholstered, Victorian era. A year later, Frizell opened his cozy Fort Defiance in Red Hook, outfitted with a patchwork of memorabilia from places where he has either lived or visited, such as New Orleans and South America, and named after a Revolutionary War citadel that once stood nearby.

But Fort Defiance and Clover Club aren’t the only bars with heavyweights behind them. Cocktail consultants Tad Carducci and Paul Tanguay of The Tippling Bros. created the opening cocktail menu at Williamsburg’s Bar Celona, whose bar is managed by Clif Travers, formerly of Om in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Clover Club. Sasha Petraske, considered one of the forces behind New York’s craft cocktail movement, designed the menu at Kathryn Weatherup’s eponymous Weather Up in Prospect Heights, and former U.K. bartender of the year Charlotte Voisey consulted at The Hideout in Fort Greene.

Accordingly, the cocktail menus at these bars are complex and sophisticated, offering a mix of classics and new creations. Clover Club’s menu, for instance, is divided into sections such as “Bucks & Mules” and “The Work of Charles Baker” (the mid-20th-century cocktail writer and creator). Bar Celona riffs on the simple Gin & Tonic, offering several subtle variations. And Prime Meats, a quasi-Germanic restaurant that opened in Carroll Gardens in early 2009, deploys ingredients like Fernet Branca and unaged corn whiskey and makes homemade pear bitters with fruit from a tree in the restaurant’s backyard.

But as writer Thomas Wolfe famously said, “Only the dead know Brooklyn.” The borough and its residents are so various it would take a lifetime to really know them. Thus, what works on Brooklyn’s well-trafficked Smith Street—a once-dangerous strip that’s now chockablock with the likes of Clover Club, JakeWalk and the swank whiskey haven Char No 4.—might not fly in warehouse-laden Red Hook. “We’re prone to deal with a different clientele,” says Frizell. “If you talk to people who go to PDT or Pegu Club, 90 percent of the customers understand the whole cocktail renaissance. In [parts of] Brooklyn, you have to be ready for the people who have no idea what’s going on.” Consequently, Frizell keeps his cocktail menu “non-confrontational,” leading off with well-known classics like the Manhattan, as well as new creations like the Colonial Cooler, made with gin, two kinds of sweet vermouth, lemon juice and Cointreau.

It’s all part of what keeps Brooklyn’s spirit so down to earth. While the first wave of the borough’s new cocktail dens brought places like The Hideout, which took cues from Manhattan with a limited-seating, no-signage, speakeasy feel, a more open-door scene has since prevailed. Frizell painted “Fort Defiance” in large letters on the outside wall of his convivial corner saloon-café, while the spacious Clover Club greets the street with a clear-glass facade and a big illuminated sign. “Everything I’ve ever done has been accessible,” says Reiner. “Speakeasy has never been my shtick.”

The Coffee Comeback

It’s that no-nonsense attitude that drew Duane Sorenson, owner of Portland, Oregon’s vaunted Stumptown Coffee, to set up shop in Brooklyn. “Brooklyn and Portland, to me, are similar in many ways,” says the scruffy 38-year-old. “I’m drinking beer with people who raise bees on their roof. They’re pickling in their kitchens.”

Sorenson was barely a day on Brooklyn soil when a friend took him to a party at the popular Carroll Gardens eatery Frankies Spuntino, run by Frank Falcinelli and Frank Costronovo, two laser-intense local food moguls known as “The Franks.” The Franks were already fans of Stumptown, and they took to Sorenson immediately. “The next day, they showed me where my apartment was going to be,” Sorenson says. “They showed me where I was going to roast coffee. It happened like that.” The Franks hold the lease with Sorenson to the roastery, and they plan to open a combination café and cocktail bar in the front by mid-2010.

Sorenson’s experience is almost symbolic of Brooklyn’s coffee scene in general. While the borough has long been home to several large wholesale roasters, such as Gillies Coffee, at the retail level, coffee was more of an afterthought. Then, around 2007, cafés started sprouting up across Brooklyn, staffed with professionally trained baristas and sourcing beans from the country’s best-known artisan roasters. “It’s rapidly evolving from bodega-grade to quality-focused,” says Kevin Cuddeback, CEO of Gimme! Coffee, a roaster/retailer with locations in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Upstate New York. “Lust for great coffee continues to spread with every new shop that opens. I think there’s tremendous potential for Brooklyn to become known for having a loud heartbeat in modern café society.”

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Fantastic article regarding the wealth of quality drinks in my borough. I am proud to live in a community that can quench my thirst in so many satisfying ways.

However, the cocktail renaissance in Brooklyn didn't just start in 2008, like the article implied. It began two years earlier, when Jack the Horse Tavern opened in Brooklyn Heights. They were running a knock-out classic cocktail program when Brooklyn was all but a dry county for cocktails.