As a writer for Sports Illustrated—or, wider and more formative in scope, as a fan of four-plus decades—Jay Jaffe has watched a lot of baseball games. “Probably thousands,” he initially estimates while we’re drinking near his apartment at St. Gambrinus last week, before curiously grabbing a napkin and Good Will Hunting it to calculate an estimate. After a few minutes of scribbling, he arrives at 4,000 and passes me the cloth chalkboard to review like it was his homework. (The bar was too dark to decipher any specifics, but I definitely identified the use of division. A+, either way.) 4,000? Okay. Jay Jaffe has watched 4,000 baseball games in his life.
Before his mathematical napkining, when we were just a couple of Southies bullshitting about Gordon Wood and Daniel Vickers, I asked Jaffe about his drinking habits at baseball games. He still remembers his first ballpark beer vividly. It was May 5, 1989 at Fenway Park: Boston vs. Texas, or the Red Sox against the Rangers—or, how he and most fans viewed it, Roger Clemens vs. Nolan Ryan. Clemens derailed The Ryan Express that game, much to the liking of Jaffe, who was finishing his freshman year at Brown University in Providence. Oh, right, his first at-a-ballpark beer–it was Budweiser. “Probably a few too, though how exactly we procured them without ID remains a mystery,” Jaffe recalls. “I remember they were definitely cold. And I probably enjoyed them.”
Jaffe has closely monitored the ongoing attempts of many MLB stadiums, at varying levels of earnestness and success, to add craft beer to their longtime-homogenous, macro-driven menus. A self-proclaimed “dark beer connoisseur” now, this shift has somewhat mirrored his personal path toward, as he refers to it, “beer enlightenment.” After that Red Sox/Rangers game in ’89, Jaffe gradually moved from drinking anything affordable (most often, a since-discontinued beer called Ortlieb’s Lager) to Samuel Adams and Harpoon, two strong local breweries pushing into New England. And when he moved to New York City in 1995, he frequented the East Village’s d.b.a. and became acquainted with other regional players: Pete’s Wicked, New Amsterdam, Brooklyn Brewery. “It was like stepping into a candy store,” says Jaffe. I loved trying everything.”
Jaffe credits his father’s father for instilling a love of baseball. Bernard Jaffe was a native of Brooklyn before relocating to Los Angeles, a cross-country move that preceded the Dodgers’ by more than a decade, and a serious ballplayer who was allegedly offered a professional contract in the 1930s (the whole story is here). As a result, and if pressed to answer, Jaffe’s personal allegiance affectionately leans toward the Dodgers. But the Yankees are also close to his heart. When he moved to Brooklyn, he would subway to the Bronx to watch those formidable teams of the 90s. This was around the time he started a blog, Futility Infielder, and started writing about baseball. Jaffe still updates Futility regularly, though now he devotes posts to discuss beer.
When I initially approached Jaffe to collaborate on something, he suggested the something should relate to Opening Day. “It should be a national holiday, and we drink on a lot of other national holidays. It’s a perfect fit.” I agreed, so here are Jaffe’s “starting rotation” of beers to kickoff another season of baseball. These recommendations are meant for fans of any MLB team, no matter how bleak their future is.
Other Half Brewing
Other Half IPA (7.1% ABV)
“The hottest local brewery is within walking distance of my house in Downtown Brooklyn, and last year I got into the habit of swinging by their tasting room on my way back from feasting on tacos and pupusas at Red Hook Ball Fields (alas, it’s soccer there, not baseball) to sample a beer or two and fill a growler to take home. Other Half has an experimental bent that’s led them to make around 45 different beers within their first 12 months. And while I can’t speak for all of them—some are too rare for me to bother tracking down, others too funky for me to get into—their IPAs really shine. Partly because my fiancée Emma Span, senior baseball editor for SI, is a devoted hophead. We cycle through a lot of IPAs at home, generally settling down for a couple while watching the West Coast baseball games late at night. I’m going to make a point of ensuring that this straightforward West Coast-style IPA finds its way into our rotation more often because I love its well-balanced blend of Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, and Simcoe hops. It’s heavy on the citrus with grapefruit and orange notes as well as pine, delivered via a light body that belies its alcohol content.”
Third Rail Beer
Bodega Pale Ale (5.6%)
“A few years ago when I was covering the Yankees for a site called Pinstriped Bible, I became friends with Larry Koestler. He wrote for the Replacement Level Yankees Weblog but caught my attention as a beer scholar who would chase down IPAs that I had never heard of—and some that I still can’t get my damn hands on, like Heady Topper. PB and RLYW are both gone; I’ve moved upwards to SI.com, and the responsibilities of job and family carried Larry away from New York City. But he’s maintained a presence as part of a local startup called Third Rail Beer with a couple of his longtime friends. They launched last year and have gotten lots of great press to go with their great offerings, with Bodega being my favorite. It’s a pale ale heavy in Citra and Centennial hops and bitter enough that it often gets referred to as an IPA. It has bursts of orange, lemon, and tropical fruit in a pleasantly light body. It tastes like summer, and some day, I hope that I’ll be able to drink one at Yankee Stadium as the sun beats down. I know Larry would want that. I enjoy this one so much that Emma and I are getting a keg to serve at our wedding later this month.”
Sweet Action Ale (5.2%)
“When Sixpoint first appeared on the scene in New York City, it was the greatest thing since Baseball-Reference.com (deal with it, sliced bread). It marked a new era in the local craft-brewing scene. And when the brewery put their product into 16-ounce cans it was even better, as their beer made inroads into places like Citi Field. (Yankee Stadium? Fuggedaboutit.) But with the local scene now flourishing, Sixpoint seems to be going through an identity crisis, reformulating and repackaging their beers, retiring great ones like Righteous Rye and Brownstone, and introducing products that just don’t work, like Beast Mode. They’ve tinkered with this cream ale to make it a bit more hop-forward, but thankfully they haven’t messed it up entirely; it’s a wonderful session beer with the sweetness of the caramel malt still getting the upper hand on the citrus. I promise it won’t weigh you down by the late innings of any game you watch.”
Rich and Dan’s Rye IPA (6.9%)
“I graduated from Brown University in 1992, just as the craft beer movement was picking up steam in New England, and spent a good part of the next year commuting back and forth to Boston to visit my girlfriend and work an internship at Boston Rock, a music magazine. Along with Sam Adams, Harpoon was instrumental in turning me onto craft beer instead of the cheap swill I drank in college. Their IPA was probably the first of that style I ever tried, and unlike some other New England craft breweries from that era (RIP Catamount), they’ve remained strong and are easy to find in New York. I’m a big fan of the peppery spice provided by rye in general, and this IPA is a fine example of the style.”
Kalamazoo Stout (6.0%)
“For years, Midwesterners—and particularly, Tigers fans—would tell me how great Bell’s is, but it took my fiancée smuggling some Oberon in her suitcase on the way home from covering the 2012 World Series to convince me. In late 2013, the Michigan brewery’s products finally became available in New York and they’ve added some great beers to our scene. While Two Hearted Ale may be a more frequent go-to, I’m a huge fan of this medium-bodied stout, which blends a bit of brewer’s licorice for a finish to its bittersweet chocolate and coffee flavors. It’s perfectly drinkable even in summertime, and some of the bottles have an old-timey baseball player on the label, which adds to the charm. It’s like they’re telling you right there that this is approved for baseball. What more could you ask for?”