If 2014 was the year of the brewery, 2015 is becoming the year of the brand. Just two frigid months in, rows upon rows of unfamiliar labels and curious draft names have already been turning heads all over the city. The increasingly thirsty New York City market, though now flush with its own stock of award-winning local breweries, has also shifted into focus as prime territory for out-of-state producers looking to extend their national reach and spread their message. Though many of these novel new brews are undeniably top notch, some are insanely pricey — $50 for a 22oz bottle? Really? — and many have traveled thousands of miles to reach that Brooklyn bottleshop, a trip that inevitably brings freshness in question.
In an effort to get a handle on this recent outsider invasion, I asked a couple industry insiders to give me their thoughts — and their personal recommendations — on navigating craft beer’s rapidly changing consumer landscape.
“In a city like New York, there are so many people that aren’t from here, so small brands that make into the market make people feel more at home,” says Khara Gilvey, veteran bartender behind the sticks at Windsor Terrace’s infallible craft den, Double Windsor. “When Bell’s was released, all these midwestern people were overjoyed. It’s like running into someone from your hometown in Union Square and being like, ‘What are you doing here?’”
As one of South Brooklyn’s premiere beer bars, Double Windsor has already hosted its fair share of special bottle releases and brand launches this year. Two weeks ago, Maine’s Baxter Brewing took over the taps for their NYC debut and Kansas City, Missouri’s famed Boulevard Brewing Co. plans to launch there with six dedicated lines on March 3rd. And though reception’s been good, the crowd hasn’t always been so diverse. For instance, a highly anticipated bottle shipment of Pizza Boy Brewing’s Intangible Ales Future Primitive, a tart, Brett-fermented Farmhouse Ale from a Pennsylvania brewpub, hasn’t exactly been flying off the shelves at $24 a pop.
“I’ve sold two in three weeks, and we’ve had it for awhile,” says Gilvey. “The people who do buy it are beer geeks that are excited to see something they haven’t had before, and that’s what they spend their extra money on, but it’s not everyone. The whole thing, all these new hyped up new brands, it’s just making me more biased towards local breweries that are even just a little more established, like Other Half — they’ve already proved themselves.”
Though Gilvey’s privy to the finicky front lines of consumer choice, Bierkraft cellar manager Sam Lance shares only a slightly more optimistic view from behind the shelves.
“I’m very excited to have Pizza Boy in Brooklyn, but less excited at the price point that they came in with,” he admits. “My take is one of muted excitement. I love that we’re finally getting access to some of these amazing breweries, and I want to be able to offer my customers as many good options as possible, but the case and keg price that they’re coming into town with really hurts the budget.”
Not all of the price points are so steep, however, and Lance is overwhelmingly stoked on the city’s freshman fleet. “We’re absolutely loving all of our new West Coast and Pacific NorthWest friends that are making their way East — it certainly spices up some of these blustery, frozen days,” he continues. “I was so surprised by the Canadian outfit, Beau’s Natural. At first, I was skeptical about their Tom Green Beer — I don’t love gimmicks — but they hooked me with the Milk Stout style, a personal favorite, and a competitive price point. So I ordered a case and was greeted by a goofy label but an amazing beer. It ended up being a hit and Tom Green actually tweeted out about us having it, so that was cool.”
California’s Alpine Beer Company created quite a buzz just last week when it showed up on a bevy of area tap lists, and Lance counts it as among the best new brews. “My favorite has to be Alpine,” he says. “They came into town with their Alpine Ale, Duet, IPA, and Captain Stout. I got in a keg of Duet and it kicked in 2 days! I had people coming in from Manhattan, Yonkers and Long Island City to fill their growlers.”
In New York, with so many top-rated local options, the IPA market is a tough one to crack. Though understandably charmed by Alpine’s immediate success, Lance is weary that some of the West Coast imports might eventually lose their novel appeal and, over time, their bright, hoppy flavor. “I’m worried that the hype will die down and we’ll have old kegs of Alpine sitting around in our inventory,” he explains. “Gigantic falls in a similar boat. They’ve sent one shipment out, and the kegs of IPA and Imperial IPA went quickly. But now, after a month or so, some of the bottles are still sticking around. Why should I serve a 60-day-old IPA and charge $2 more a glass, when it could as easily be a 5-day-old local IPA?”
Speaking as a consumer and as a critic, established Brooklyn-based beer writer Joshua M. Bernstein is pleased to see many of these brands flood his local market. “I’m thrilled that, at long last, Boulevard is finally arriving in New York City,” he says. “Brewmaster Steven Pauwels makes some of the finest Saisons in America. I’ll happily fill my fridge with Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale.”
Bernstein also adds a bit of perspective to the eyebrow-raising price tags on some of the more limited bottle runs. “Brands such as [California’s] FiftyFifty and Pizza Boy are very scarce, even in their home markets. Add in distributor costs and the standard bar and bottle shop mark-up, and you’ll pay a pretty penny,” he explains. “But look at it this way: Used to be, you had to convince someone to either mule these beers to you, or pay for pricey shipping. This is no different — just way, way, way easier to get a bottle that’s more than likely in good shape.”
While increased numbers always run the risk of oversaturation, the insiders agree that our city’s 8 million or so residents still have room on their pints for plenty of new and different options. After all, diversity, creativity, experimentation and innovation have long been the cornerstones of craft beer, so limiting consumer choice seems, at the very least, antithetical to the growing culture.
Echoing this logic, Gilvey and Lance couldn’t help but list a number a brands they’d love to see arrive on New York’s hallowed shores, including Maine’s Bissell Brothers Brewing and Oxbow Beer, California’s sour-focused Rare Barrel and Minnesota’s award-winning Surly Brewing Co. Keep your eyes peeled for these celebrated picks.
And as for brands he’d like to see jump on the NYC-bound bandwagon, Bernstein offers up his hopeful predictions — with a measured hand, of course.
“New Belgium, for sure, but that’s just a matter of time,” he says. “Also, Great Lakes, Odell and Deschutes — but you can’t be too greedy, you know.”