It’s plain to see that Brooklyn has morphed into a true craft beer destination. These days, even your average corner bar boasts a tap list longer than a 40-man roster, and with all the unfamiliar brands and new breweries entering the market, it’s tough for even the wisest of drinkers to make sense of their diner-sized selections. Exciting, sure, but overwhelming? Confusing? Absolutely.
Beer educator and writer Orr Shtuhl is here to help. His company, The Bestest, will soon be giving educational pub crawls through his beloved Greenpoint. During these two hour jaunts, Shtuhl will patiently leading groups of inquisitive proto-beer geeks through the neighborhood’s maze of world class imbibing options and providing them with the tools to make better, more informed choices when it comes to picking out a cold one.
I spoke to Orr about his company, his neighborhood and some of “the bestest” bars in Brooklyn.
Meredith Heil: So tell me a little about your background–how’d you get into beer and what led you to start these tours?
Orr Shtuhl: Sure, I have been working in beer since a week before I turned 21, but legally, I’ve been doing it since I turned 21. I started out as a writer and before I moved to New York, I was a beer columnist for many years at Washington City Paper and I’ve also written for Serious Eats. But these days, I’ve been doing more education, which lets me drink and hang out with people and I like that a lot more than the journalism side. So for the last five years, I’ve taught beer classes at the Murray’s Cheese Shop and The Bedford Cheese Shop.
I still love doing that, but I think there’s a way to take it a step further than just a beer tasting, so with The Bestest, these classes are tours. We’ll drink great beers together, of course, but we’re also going to learn how to navigate these craft beer bars and their menus, which can be sometimes intimidating. We’ll learn the stories behind these bars and who’s putting them together and why the beers in one place differ from the the beers at another, what makes each place special.
MH: Sounds fun. So why Greenpoint?
OS: Well, no question, Greenpoint is the best neighborhood in New York City for drinking a beer. It wasn’t always this way, but over the last few years, as beer has generally exploded through New York, the density of world class destinations in Greenpoint is amazing, even more dense than other places in the city. You have two places making beer in this little neighborhood, two brewpubs, which is kind of unheard of–Dirck the Norseman, which everyone knows about, but also Keg & Lantern, which gets less press but I still think is amazing. To be able to walk from one brewery to another is pretty incredible, even in New York City.
MH: I’m guessing you live in Greenpoint?
OS: Yes, that’s reason number two. I live and work in Greenpoint, so I’m certainly qualified as a local guide. I pretty much never leave the neighborhood, but I’m hoping to expand these tours in the future to cover other parts of Brooklyn, maybe to Astoria and Lower Manhattan, also.
MH: Let’s talk details–what bars are you visiting on the tour? And how long do they run?
OS: If you want to check out the full list, definitely check out my website. I’m not saying exactly which bars we’ll go to each day, because I want these tours to be more private and organized, but each tour will cover three bars and we’ll be drinking three beers. Another thing that’s important to me is that we’re going to be drinking together–we’re going to be learning about the beer, but it’s not going to be so formal as your typical tasting class where you get three ounces of something and you have to really think hard about that little taste. To me, that’s the most frustrating part about tasting classes–you’re given this thing that tastes amazing, and all you want is more of it, but you’re served is this little, unrealistic shot glass. So one thing that we’re definitely doing is at each of the three bars, you’ll get a full pint of beer.
One thing I do want to talk about is the recent history of craft beer in the neighborhood, so the last, say, 15 years. When I pick the venues for one tour, I always want to include a bar that’s part of the new wave, something hot, new, trendy, like TORST. But we’ll also go to a neighborhood standby like the Diamond, places that are maybe a little more under the radar, more local. They’ve been around for ten years or more and are serving amazing beer, but they’re not necessarily the trendiest.
The way craft beer exploded in the last 10 or 20 years kind of mirrors the way a lot of Brooklyn has exploded. I mean, there’s nothing more hipster than craft beer. For better or for worse–that’s neither a compliment nor an insult. But you can see the evolution of the neighborhood through its beer bars and through the kind of things that people are selling and drinking.
MH: What kinds of beers will you focus on?
OS: It’s actually going to be pretty improvisational. I’ll know where we’re going to go and I’ll have a sense of what these bars tend to serve, but I’m not going to know exactly what beers we’re going to drink before we start. The point is to go to places that have menus that change every single day. Part of the fun will be to show up together as a group and talk about the menu, see what they have on today, go through the list and pick something together.
For the most part, it’ll be a shared tasting experience. We’ll all be drinking the same thing, but we’ll kind of play it by ear at each stop. I’m hoping that at the less crowded places, we’ll be able to have a one on one, like, “So, what are you in the mood for today?” We’ll mix it up.
MH: I like that. What do you see as your target audience here? Who do you envision signing up for these tours?
OS: Oh man, I mean, I used to be able to say “Oh, beer nerds.” But today, it’s everybody. It’s a good time for it because truly everyone is curious about beer and has the same kinds of questions about it. There’s certainly a stereotype about what a beer nerd looks like, but when I teach my classes at Murray’s or at Bedford’s, the classes are always so diverse.
MH: That’s good to hear! I’ve never taken one, but I always assumed those classes were pretty white dude heavy.
OS: No way–they vary in age, in where they’re from, and it’s definitely not just guys. We’re at a point now where you can get good beer everywhere, so everyone is faced with it constantly and everybody wants it and that means that those people, more and more, will have questions about it.
MH: Agreed. Are you going to be talking about the brewing process at all? Kind of like a beer 101, or is it more about the bars and beer in the moment?
OS: That’s a good question. I think the answer is–I could. We could talk about brewing, we could talk about beer history, we could talk about what we’re drinking now or the bars. I think we’ll mostly focus on the beer in our glass and the place that we’re in, but I’m flexible enough that I can answer questions about anything beer related, whether it’s like, “Is it okay to ask for a taste at the bar?” Or, “What does Imperial mean?” Or, “What’s an I.P.A.?” I’ve been doing this long enough that I know how to make it a little more interactive. It’s not just going to be a lecture.
MH: Totally. What are you excited about in terms of the New York City beer scene right now?
OS: Oh, my God. That’s why I’m setting up two and a half hours on the tour to talk about this! It’s ridiculous right now. I mean, even five years ago, New York was kind of just okay, to be honest. There were a couple bigger breweries like Sixpoint and Brooklyn Brewery, but you could count them on one hand. And now it’s almost hard to keep track of them all, and they’re making better and better beer. The local beer scene is by far the most exciting thing happening in New York right now. A lot of that is in Greenpoint, so that, to me, is just the most exciting thing.
The other cool thing is now that good beer is mainstream, it’s expected. Just like you expect a good restaurant to have decent wine and seasonal produce, they’re also expected to serve good beer. It’s no longer a niche thing and you don’t have to go to a fancy beer bar to have good beer. Just about any place up here is going to have something interesting.
MH: Besides being a beer expert and a Greenpoint local, why do you think you’re the best person to lead these tours?
OS: Whenever I’m out with friends, everyone asks me, “Oh, what should I get here?” We’ll be at TORST or some place like that with 20 beers and most people have never heard of half of them. That’s my favorite thing to do–to help people to find a beer they love.
In fact, my dad will text me from the grocery in Pennsylvania and be like, “Hey, you know what I like, what should I get?” Or, “We’re going to our friends’ for dinner tonight and they like darker beers, and your mom likes something the sweeter side, but I don’t like anything too hoppy. What’s new, what should I get?” And I’ll be like, “Take a photo of the shelf and text me it…Okay here’s what you’ve got to do.”
MH: Oh, I know that conversation — my dad does the same thing everytime we go out.
OS: Oh, really?
OS: It’s the best! Imagine if you could do that every day as a job. If I could be a private shopper, like a beer concierge, I would totally do that.
MH: There’s a market for that I bet. That’s actually a pretty good idea.
OS: Well, I see this as the first step.
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