If you live in New York and care at all about drinking good beer, it is basically a given that you’ve spent considerable time reading Chris O’Leary’s indispensable Brew York, a website dedicated to covering the explosive craft beer scene here in the city. It features news, event listings, and some thoughtful pieces of criticism on the industry as a whole. O’Leary, who you’ve no doubt seen at various beer events around town, will host an event this Saturday at One Mile House celebrating the site’s fifth anniversary. We spoke to him about that and lots of other stuff.
So, five years ago, what compelled you to start Brew York?
I started it mainly because nothing like it existed and I wanted a resource for finding craft beer in the city. The site began as partly a way of sharing beers, bars, and events that I found, then morphed quickly into a resource for beer drinkers once I realized that people were using it that way.
Can you talk a little about what the beer community was like back then compared to what it is now?
It’s amazing how much the community has grown in the last five years. Think about this: there were four breweries in the city when I started in 2009. By the end of this year, we’ll have 21. I’ve covered the opening of at least 150 craft beer-centric bars in that time — exactly one has closed. And bars have become far more conscious of craft beer across the board, and as a result, there are a lot more educated beer drinkers here who share their advice and recommendations with other people. There were few people who would say that New York had a “beer scene” five years ago, now nobody scoffs when I say that’s what I cover.
Who are the people who played big roles in things five years ago that are still active now?
Garrett Oliver is still a Rockstar of craft beer — even moreso now that Brooklyn’s reach extends overseas. I think about the bars that have stood the test of time… Dave Brodrick of Blind Tiger, Ed Berestecki of Mugs Alehouse, and Lee Seinfeld of Dive Bar are just some that come to mind. It’s even more fascinating how others have grown in those five years — bartenders becoming bar owners, bar managers growing small beer bar empires, homebrewers becoming brewers.
I know Brew York isn’t a full-time job for you, even despite how much work clearly goes into it. What’s your day job, and do your co-workers know about this other major part of your life?
My day job is in advertising, and after I was profiled in the Times in 2010, it became next to impossible to keep this from my co-workers. These days, they come to me for beer and bar recommendations and I’ve hosted beer tastings for my department.
What’s the best beer you’ve had in the past five years?
I couldn’t answer that question to save my life. There’s simply too much good beer out there these days for me to choose one thing. But one more memorable experience was having a 2003 Brooklyn Monster Ale in 2013 at Mugs Alehouse. It was the first Barleywine I had, and it was surreal having the same beer ten years later.
With the recent arrival of Bell’s (and now Almanac!) in mind, is there a brewery you’d most like to see distributed in NY?
That’s one I can answer easily: Boulevard. They’re one of the most capable breweries out there making such a wide portfolio of diverse beers. I can’t wait until they’re finally pouring here.
What do you see five years down the road for Brew York?
It’s hard to tell. Sometimes I struggle with the amount of time I put into the site and think it’s going to get to a point that I can’t do it alone. Then I wonder if the beer scene will become less niche and a big media outlet will make my site irrelevant. Either one would probably give me the first opportunity to breathe a sigh of relief in a long time!
One of the reasons I love following you personally on social media is the amount of traveling you do—it doesn’t hurt, obviously, that much of your traveling is centered on visiting breweries. Is there another U.S. city whose beer scene you envy to the point where you’d consider moving there? Or, to put it another way that doesn’t allow you to skirt the question entirely: if you had to move somewhere else, where would it be?
My readers might notice that I visit Denver a lot. It’s sort of my second home, with a huge (nearly overwhelming) beer scene, marquee beer events every year, lots of out-of-state breweries distributing there, and some of the country’s best beer bars. And next week, I’m back for a week for the Great American Beer Festival. New York’s beer scene will never match Denver’s, but as long as I’m here, I’d like to see New York strive to be something people admire for their beer as much as Denver.
Tell us a little about what we an expect at One Mile House on Saturday — I believe I saw that you’ll be breaking into your personal bottle collection? Do you have an extensive cellar?
I almost felt obligated to have a party after doing this for five years. Really, I’m excited just to hang out with my readers amongst a whole bunch of great beers. Gerry from One Mile House and I picked out a few kegs from his cellar, then selected some of my favorite beers to pour (since I rarely share my opinion of beers on my site, this will be an opportunity for readers to quietly judge me for my taste in beer). I’ve got about a hundred bottles in my personal beer cellar from as far back as 2006, so I figure it’s as good a time as any to pull those out to share and toast five years of drinking more beer than I probably should.
Click here for more information on Saturday’s event, including the already very impressive beer list.
Follow Mike Conklin on Twitter @MikeConklin.