The 5 best beers at NYC Craft Beer Festival (Fall 2016)

The NYC Craft Beer Festival has proven itself one of New York City’s most consistently enjoyable events, as it encourages beer fans, both novices and die hards, to step outside of their malted comfort zones to sample new beverages—even those that appear unappealing on the surface. I’m a prime example of this of this idea. I really, really hate IPAs, but will give one a chance if it carries a particularly interesting flavor hook. Plus, to quote the great Space Ghost, “I will put anything into my mouth that is given to me. Whether it’s supposed to go there or not.” Such gusto opens the door to many discoveries. 

Fortunately, the event boasts dozens of tasty, sample-ready craft beers, including ales, lagers, porters, and stouts. My 2-ounce tasting glass leaned heavily toward the heavier brews, but I made certain to sample as much as I could before Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” blared throughout the Lexington Avenue Armory, signaling the festival’s end. I admit to a certain bias for drinks with gimmicky flavors, which is evident in my five beers-of-the-show picks.

Abita Peach
It’s difficult to find a brewery that crafts a truly excellent fruit-based beer, as many overwhelm you with sweetness or skimp on the flavor so that you can barely recognize the fruity elements. Yet, Abita finds that balance with this peach lager, a refreshing treat that’s brewed with fresh, handpicked Louisiana peaches.

Breckenridge Vanilla Porter
I didn’t know what to expect from a vanilla porter, but Breckenridge Brewery delivered a pleasant surprise with this excellent blend that combines the chocolate and roasted nut flavor of a classic porter, with a vanilla punch.

DuClaw Sweet Baby Jesus
Sweet Baby Jesus can be summed up in four words: Chocolate Peanut Butter Porter. Oh, and “delicious.” It’s smooth and thick, with a creamy chocolate, coffee and peanut butter flavor that makes for a perfect after-dinner drink. Pairs well with vanilla ice cream, too.

Guinness Antwerpen
The Guinness brand is forever associated with its classic stout, but the company has made strides in the last two years to expand into the craft market. The result is handful of flavorful beers, with Antwerpen being one of my favorites. Light and creamy, this sweet stout boasts vanilla, butterscotch and dark fruity flavors.

Southern Tier Pumking
I’ve professed my love for this gem last year, so I won’t do so again here. Just click here. And then buy a six pack. TRUST ME ON THIS ONE.

Sweet beers ruled my tongue this time out, and will probably do so again when the NYC Craft Beer Festival Spring 2017 show rolls around.

Happy trails, Harpoon Arctic Ale

My experiences with Harpoon’s brews amount to nothing more than bad luck.

The first time I sipped one of the company’s beers, its delicious Chocolate Stout, I learned hours later that it had been retired and the last batch that was in the wild was truly the last batch in the wild. I was incredibly disappointed.

Harpoon Arctic Ale

Pictured: Harpoon Arctic Ale, a rich combination of coffee, chocolate, and fruit flavors.

So, imagine my surprise when I learned that my second Harpoon beer, Arctic Ale, a delightful drink that blessed my tongues in ways I didn’t know it could be blessed, was also retired. That’s not misfortune; it’s a hop-infused curse.

They say it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all, a sentiment that rings true in this scenario. Harpoon’s Arctic Ale is one of the best beers I’ve ever tasted. To the eye, Arctic Ale’s dark body may recall a chocolate or oatmeal stout, and it certainly possesses those flavors, but when the liquid hits the tongue, the beer shines with cherry and raisin notes. Each sip brings multiple flavor layers and, due to its fruity elements, lots of sugar. Arctic Ale is a quite a sweet drink.

Yet, Arctic Ale isn’t particularly heavy. It doesn’t have a Pumking-like mouth feel; it’s thinner, but certainly not light. Bud, Arctic Ale is not.

However, the beer is heavy in one area: alcohol content. Arctic Ale weighs in at a very respectable 13 percent ABV, which means that this isn’t a session beer. In fact, I sipped it. Between the alcohol volume and sweetness, Arctic Ale is a beer that you proudly nurse.

So, if you can find Harpoon Arctic Ale in the wild, grab it and down it. The brew is remarkably smooth and potent, which is what I consider the twin winning elements of an alcoholic beverage. And enjoy it while it lasts.

How I learned to love craft beer

True story: I didn’t begin regularly drinking until I was 29 years old. Not at all coincidentally, that was my foray into the world of professional writing.

Also a true story: At age 14 or so, some friends and I managed to purchase a crate of beer from a location in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn that shall remain nameless. We downed so many brews on a scorching summer day that the resulting hangover made me vow to never drink again. Hence, the age 29 thing above.

Founders Nitro Oatmeal Stout

Pictured: Founders Nitro Oatmeal Stout, a remarkably smooth craft beer.

So, yes, my relationship with beer was a complicated one until very recently. It was a devil’s brew that brought teen me to a condition that I considered near death. But even after giving beer a second chance in 2003, I still didn’t love it. Or even like it. Everyone around me downed Budweiser, St. Ides, Michelob, or some other swill. But I kept at it, sampling things here, sampling things there, because I figured that there was a reason otherwise sane adults returned to the stuff.

Thankfully, living in New York City gave me the opportunity to discover liquid gems. Frequent visits to beer halls, such as Brooklyn Brewery and Paulaner NYC, introduced me to quality beer. I had yet to learn the term “craft beer,” but I knew those establishments carried suds that were above the common ones you’d find in your local corner store. And they had cool names! Ale! Bitters! Lager! Pilsner! Porter! Stout! I tried them all, and slowly eliminated the awful ones (usually the  hop monsters) from my taste catalog. I became literally and figuratively intoxicated with the discovery of new beers and breweries. In fact, whenever I step into to a bar, the first thing that I order is something unfamiliar. Listen, I’m about that beer life.

It wasn’t until I cracked Jeff Alworth’s The Beer Bible that I discovered why I became so enamored by craft beer. As I sat reading, often late at night, I found myself hanging on his every word as he walked me through the history of beer. Alworth’s descriptions of the brewing process, ingredients, colors, flavors, and heads made me realize something: beer drinking is a truly sensual experience. Your eyes react to the color as it’s poured, and the resulting head. Your nose catches scents as they rise from the glass. Your tongue snares the taste and aftertaste. Your tongue registers the feel.

That may sound odd, but when you down something as silky as Southern Tier’s Imperial Pumking, the liquid glides over the tongue with a richness that you just won’t get from a lower-class beer. It’s a “mouth feel” that once experienced, takes beer drinking to another plane of existence. There’s no other consumable that dazzles those four senses as sexily as craft beer. Pizza, one of my former favorite edibles, doesn’t come close.

I must admit that I’m a borderline beer snob, and I see myself traveling that road as I discover new breweries, styles, and flavors. I even went so far as to order a set of beer glasses, because I read that drink wares’ shapes can enhance aroma and taste. It may or may not be true, but I’ll take the chance with the beer glasses, as I simply want the best possible pour.

And, lastly, I can’t discount the freshness factor. Though I genuinely enjoy exquisitely made beers based on the brews’ merits, I must acknowledge the joy that comes with participating in any new, exciting activity. A craft beer aficionado, at least this one, enjoys the deliciousness and the thrill of the hunt.

And as a New Yorker, with access to hundreds of bars, it’s a splendid chase.

R.I.P. Harpoon Chocolate Stout

The Barcade chain receives a heap of well-earned attention for keeping the arcade scene alive in a world where home video game consoles produce graphics, sound, and gameplay that we couldn’t have imagined in the 1980s and 1990s, but it doesn’t get enough props for the other part of its portmanteau-powered moniker. Barcades, as a whole, are rather impressive bars that boast a surprisingly robust craft beer selection.

A week ago, a friend and I visited the St. Marks Place Barcade, because I had a hankering for a cold one after reading Jeff Alworth’s The Beer Bible.  The establishment’s beer menu read as quite delicious, but it was Harpoon Brewery’s Chocolate Stout that caught my eye. The brew’s official description is one that no person of drinking age could resist.

A chocolate stout is a beer with a noticeable dark chocolate flavor. This flavor is created from the use of darker, more aromatic malt that has been roasted or kilned until it acquires a chocolate color. Harpoon Chocolate Stout is brewed with an abundance of chocolate malt and a touch of chocolate.

I had to try it. And after downing a sample served by a perky barkeep, I ordered a glass. And after ordering a glass, I was in love.

I’ve had the opportunity to taste just three chocolate beers in my lifetime, and Harpoon’s joint is easily the best of the lot. The first chocolate beer was so bad that I should  remember its name, but I don’t. The second was DuClaw Brewing Company’s Big Baby Jesus, a tasty 6.2% chocolate-and-peanut butter porter that fell just short of greatness. And now this.

I thoroughly enjoyed Harpoon Chocolate Stout. It’s one of those beers that dazzle the senses with its inky flow, chocolate scent, smooth feel, and, of course, rich taste. The cocoa beans-and-roasted-malt combo is potent one that hits the tongue with a jab and cross—there’s no question that you’re drinking a chocolate-based beer. The chocolate flavor is an immediate one, unlike Big Baby Jesus’, which has a flavor that sneaks up on you. Still, it’s not overwhelming. Harpoon Chocolate Stout isn’t a liquefied candy bar; it’s a beer through and through. Sadly, Harpoon Chocolate Stout is no longer with us.

Maybe the beer is simply too good for this world.

I intend to make my return to St. Marks Barcade sooner than expected to salute a wonderful beer. I would pour out my next sip for the gone-too-soon brew, but that would simply be a waste of valuable drops.

The Pumking rules at NYC Craft Beer Festival (Fall 2015)

Hipsters are the one demographic who New Yorkers publicly shame and ridicule without remorse, but I give my bearded, tight-pants-wearing friends credit for delivering the five boroughs from beer hell. The Big Apple once suffered the plague of Budweiser, Michelob, Colt 45, and the like, but it now drifts in a sea of tasty beverages that delights and amazes.

Halloween weekend’s New York City Craft Beer Festival celebrated the renaissance. My $55 general admission ticket granted access to drinks from breweries within city limits, upstate, and across the country, and supplied me with a small, commemorative 2-ounce tasting glass. I initially thought the glass was too diminutive for proper tastings, but when my eyes fell upon the dozens of vendors, and even more drinks, I realized that it was the perfect size to sample suds without getting absolutely hammered within the first 30 minutes.

Southern Tier Imperial Pumking

The Southern Tier Imperial Pumking at the New York City Craft Beer Festival.

There were many delightful brews in Metropolitan West’s two-story space, but the one that I deemed the best of show was Southern Tier Brewing Company’s Imperial Pumking. The seasonal wasn’t the only pumpkin-flavored beer at the festival, but it was the one that instantly made me James Franco.

Imperial Pumking tastes like a liquefied slice of grandma’s pumpkin pie that was given a proper chill. I was shocked by its robust pumpkin flavor during my first tasting; rich and sweet, but not at all a candy-like. Many pumpkin brews taste like they are made with pumpkin spices; Imperial Pumking tastes like it’s made of real pumpkin, and has a consistency to match. It’s a heavy beer, with a heavy flavor.

Pumking is best sipped, not guzzled, as the taste comes in waves. The first is the strong ale flavor; the second is  the delicious pumpkin. Drinking Pumking was not unlike drinking two beers at once, and that is not at all a slight.

I’m not so bold as to say that Imperial Pumking is now one of my all-time favorite beers after sampling just four ounces, but it’s certainly a drink that I’ll be searching out in the very near future. In fact, I may order a case, or five, from a distributor, so that I’ll have the deliciousness at hand throughout the holiday season.