Beer Culture’s Second Wave

The craft beer movement has brought with it a new breed of beer bars that eschew the "more is more" tap line approach for elevated surroundings and tightly curated menus. Zachary Sussman on how this trend has manifested in New York, and what it signals for beer culture at large.

As a general rule, New Yorkers assume that we’re at the vanguard of beverage trends. Usually, we’re right. But history proves how woefully late we embraced one of the biggest trends of all: the rapid ascendancy of the craft beer movement.

Improbable as it currently seems, especially now that at least one brewery (micro, nano or otherwise) operates in each borough, there was a time not too long ago when New York’s craft beer scene barely appeared on the radar. “Around the year 2000, I moved to New York from Colorado, one of the foundational places for craft beer and craft beer culture,” recalls David Flaherty, former operations manager and beer and spirits director at Hearth restaurant and the Terroir wine bars in Manhattan. “I was shocked at how little of it existed during my first five years in the city.”

There’s no single reason why, but the most obvious culprit is geography. Given craft beer’s strong West Coast and mountain region origins, it took time for awareness to migrate east. Then there’s the deep legacy of New York’s Irish pub culture, with its longstanding allegiance to big, multi-national brewers. Employing all kinds of kickbacks and “pay-to-play” antics (think free Superbowl tickets in exchange for exclusive draft lines of Coors and Coors Light), these corporate behemoths intentionally blocked small breweries from gaining market share. Finally, many New Yorkers—always an aspirational bunch—simply found more interest in traditionally “fancier” beverages like wine or cocktails. “The average guest put wine on a pedestal,” Flaherty explains, “whereas we had to work to elevate beer’s status.”

Since then, this dichotomy has started to break down. As sommeliers and retailers have worked to demystify wine, making it more accessible, beer has shed its “everyman” image and even acquired its own brand of snobbery. Boosted by a rash of local breweries and an increasingly obsessive beer-geek community, the craft beer scene has become a central feature of New York’s drinking landscape. What’s more, it has recently shown signs of a cultural evolution of its own. Now that the first generation of craft beer drinkers has come of age, they’re not just expanding their repertoires far beyond the standard roster of IPAs, they’re also engaging with beer in ways that are altering its culture.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the New York City’s latest generation of high-end beer bars, which break from the genre’s lingering (i.e., still kind of fratty) stereotypes in favor of a different paradigm. “Most people think of the beer bar as all dark wood and TV screens,” explains Mike Amidei, beverage director for Greenpoint’s Tørst. “At least, they imagine something that is definitely a lot ‘bro-ier’ than what people like us are doing.”

Opened in 2013 by Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergso, the acclaimed Danish Brewer behind Evil Twin, the space brings the latest haute Brooklyn aesthetic—rustic Nordic décor, refined small plates—to bear upon the beer bar or brewpub model. This translates to a diverse range of global styles interspersed with cult offerings from local breweries—like Carton Brewing’s Boat Beer and Other Half’s Chesterfield Dreams—all served in custom stemware.

A similar commitment to beer’s seriousness can be found at Proletariat, a dimly lit cubbyhole of a bar in the East Village. Despite its populist name, it displays none of the pub-like trappings of the beer Meccas of old. In fact, you’d probably just assume it was another one of the neighborhood’s craft cocktail bars, until you sat down, perused the ambitious bottle menu or list of tap offerings and listened to your bartender lay down knowledge about the differences between “gueuze” and “gose.”

Destinations like these, as well as places like Mikkeller Bar in San Francisco and Bangers & Lace in Chicago, among others, represent case studies in the ways the larger world of beer has “opened up,” much like wine did a decade or so earlier. Just as American wine taste emerged from what PUNCH senior contributing editor Jon Bonné has called its “Big Flavor Era” by minimizing oak and extraction in favor of balance and freshness, craft beer’s allegiance to the excessively-hopped IPA has gradually given way to a lighter and more restrained—or to adopt beer-speak, “sessionable”—approach. By the same token, audiences have been busy exploring a broader range of styles than ever before, many of which have resurfaced after decades of neglect.

“The speed at which the industry is moving forward is astonishing,” says Cory Lane of beer-centric restaurant The Cannibal, which will soon add an LA spot to its two Manhattan locations. “The popularity of sour beers is a perfect example. When Westbrook first came out with gose [a German-styled sour ale] in a can, the initial reaction was ‘What the hell is this?’ Then within 24 months, there were thirty new ones on the market. It’s been ‘gose gone wild.’”

This cultural shift registers in the way beers are being presented as well. With exponentially more options to choose from, the latest challenge is how to stand out in an increasingly crowded landscape.

While part of this, as always, involves accessing the most prized and rare possessions—“Now you have to get the most limited beers from the most obscure local breweries, like Bridge and Tunnel out of Queens, or Other Half or Folksbier from Carroll Gardens,” says Jimmy Carbone of Manhattan’s pioneering Jimmy’s No. 43—the larger issue is one of curation. Just as wine lists have recently skewed shorter and more concise, the current movement towards more condensed, meticulously edited beer lists reflects a similar need to communicate a particular vision and establish a focused identity.

“Ten or fifteen years ago, a great beer bar was looked at in terms of how many draft lines it had,” David Flaherty says. “The more draft lines, the better you were perceived to be. Now I get nervous when I see a bar with that many lines, because it’s not the size of your list that counts. It’s about creating a tight list that meets all the parameters for profitability while showing that you have a unique take on the world of beer.”

Are cicerones, those charged with this curation, now poised to be the next sommeliers? Possibly. But if all of this represents a new level of sophistication for beer—a process that some have resentfully dubbed “wine-ification”—it both misses the point and undermines beer’s rich history to conflate this transformation with the aspiration to be like wine. As Brooklyn Brewery brewmaster Garrett Oliver pointed out in a letter originally posted to the Brewers Association Member Forum, wine holds no special claim to connoisseurship or refinement. “Museums in Europe are filled with ornate gold and silver beer vessels,” he writes, “and beer has always been on the tables of kings and peasants alike—just like wine.”

Rather than treating beer like wine, the city’s best craft beer destinations are simply showcasing the complexity great beer always possessed and according it the respect it deserves. At the same time, if this renewed reverence means serving beer with the same level of professionalism and attention to detail found in New York’s top restaurants and wine bars, that can only be a good thing.

“What’s happening is that consumers are getting served better beer by more knowledgeable people than ever before,” says David Flaherty. “They’re not just drinking something great, they’re also getting educated. That’s what great wine people do, and we’re doing it for beer too.”