Sure, it’s easy to heed the refrain “Buy local!” when you’re an elitist living in an awesome major city enclave that has awesome food and drink. But what if you live in a real shithole? I’ve lived in places where buying “local” would mean picking up a pack of franks and a Sno-cone at the corner gas station. Luckily, I live in a place now where I could probably solely exist by eating and drinking local (if only it wasn’t for my pesky love of camel burgers, d’oh!). New York state is one of top five craft beer states in the nation, and even though Southern Tier in Lakewood is further from me than Richmond, Virginia and Ommegang in Cooperstown further than Philadelphia, they are still part of my state and them’s the rules. So, with that, and with NYC Craft Beer Week beginning today, I give you…
New York’s Best Beers
Note: I’ve only included yearly releases. I don’t care whether they are seasonal or even ultra-rare, so long as they are released each year, I have considered them in the rankings. This, unfortunately, eliminates one-off experimental stuff like Brooklyn’s great Brewmasters Reserve series. Additionally, in the fine print at the bottom I list some notable NY beers I’ve unfortunately never tried.
For better or worse, the best beer in New York state is also probably the most expensive. If you can still find it. Black Ops sold for around $25 a bottle–in a gorgeous bowling pin of an engraved corked-and-caged 750 mL–when it was released last winter, and it completely lived up to the hype. Now, no longer able to be found in stores, your finer local groggeries still have some jacked-up-priced bottles hanging around in the back room and indeed I’ve since had it several more times. Aged for four months in bourbon barrels, bottled flat (no clue what that means), and re-fermented with champagne yeast. A filthy black pour that instantly stains the sides of your glass. A deliciously boozy aroma of chocolate, vanilla, and much roasted coffee. The oaked bourbon sensations absolutely pummels my tongue. I half-expect to piss stout ever time I finish a bottle.
Surely one of the most economical great beers in all of America as a six-pack–seriously, what 10% beer comes in a six-pack?!–usually only runs around $12. That thriftiness could surely factor into one’s rankings, but it in no way factors into mine here. Here we’re only talking about taste and, luckily, Black Chocolate Stout packs a ton. Six varieties of chocolate, black, and roasted malts, complex and perfectly balanced, smooth and drinkable with no alcoholic bite whatsoever. I slightly prefer Black Ops, but I drink Black Chocolate Stout by a degree of ten more. Recently, I’ve started seeing vintage kegs of this–ones as old as 2006–at the city’s more respectable watering holes such as Blind Tiger and Downtown Bar & Grill.
When I made the trek out to the Southampton Publick House just over a month ago, never did I think I would fall in love, but I did, with this masterpiece of a beer. Absolutely packed with flavor and complexity, tastes of dried orange peel, coriander, star anise, pineapple, mangoes, a touch of sweet malts, and a slight delicious mustiness, the Grand Cru is about as tasty as beer gets. Not to mention, for the ABV (9.8%) this is as drinkable as lemonade and I had to slow myself down so I could actually properly savor it. I’d really like to have a bottle of this in my apartment at all times as it is perhaps the best American “Belgian” beer around.
My #5 beer gets all the buzz in the New York state wild ale game, which is weird considering this is a Beer Advocate Top 100 beer…and it’s actually better than the Cuvee de Castleton. Brute, from Ithaca’s Excelsior! line, is fermented in oak with three champagne yeasts rendering it sparkly, carbonated, and effervescent. The nice sweet citron tastes of it makes Brute almost like a beer mimosa. Of course it has a subtle sourness and maybe lacks a little complexity but this still remains one of the most balanced yet flavorful wild ales I’ve ever had.
Perhaps New York state’s most annually anticipated beer–one has to stand in a long line in a parking lot with enormous nerds in order to score a rare and highly coveted bottle–this limited release lives up to its hype. On its label it is enticingly described as a “…combination of Belgian style ale which has been re-fermented with hand picked Muscat grapes & aged in wine barrels. As the beer ages in the oak it undergoes a secondary fermentation using the wild yeast known as Brettanomyces.” Very carbonated and with some great bite, it smells and tastes of white grapes and spices too, lemons and green sour apples. You’d have a hard time convincing a lot of people that this is actually beer, but that’s a great thing in this case.
6. Southern Tier Unearthly/Oaked Unearthly (bottled and tap)
Southern Tier’s “regular” DIPA, Unearthly, is arguably the best of its style on the East Coast. It tastes so fresh and so clean, with a malty booziness that almost makes it into a barley wine. Oaked Unearthly is even better. Sweeter and even maltier with strong vanilla flavors from the oak, though some zesty citrus and pine comes through. Both of these are “state-of-the-art” pushing the envelope outside the box IPAs from the always-inventive Southern Tier. But the best compliment I can give them is that–despite the fact I am a man that is always looking to try something new–if I enter a bar with either of these on tap, there’s no fucking way I can neglect to order a glass.
7. Ommegang Hennepin (bottled and tap)
Probably New York’s most purely drinkable beer, I usually order this 7.7% saison for my macro-beer drinking friends after “forcing” them to go to my nerdy beer bars. Sweet and fruity with just the slightest and most subtle spicy funk, this one drinks like a bottle of Gatorade. Another great Belgianized beer from New York, I honestly think this might be the best saison on planet earth nowadays. I’m always happy to have a glass.
The other beer in the debate for New York’s best DIPA, the Captain’s Reserve is much hoppier in taste than the Unearthlies and smells like a sack of fresh weed. The fact that it was, until very very recently, only available on tap, meant that it was as fresh-tastingly hoppy as can be, having been “born”–as those charlatans at Anheuser Busch might say–at the source just days earlier.
With a third beer on my top ten list, Captain Lawrence could most certainly reign supreme as the king of New York breweries. Nor’Easter is their special winter release, a sui generis Belgian dark ale brewed with elderberries (whatever the fuck those are) and aged in bourbon barrels. This is a beer that as you’re drinking it you aren’t unequivocally wowed, but once you’re done, you can’t stop thinking about how goddamn impressive it was. You’re also silly drunk.
10. Brooklyn Local 1 (bottled)
Both the third Brooklyn Brewery beer on my list and the third American “Belgian” as well. I never particularly loved this beer upon its initial release several years ago but as time has gone on, and with this past year’s release of Local 2, I revisited the Local 1 for comparative purposes…and was floored. Spicy, yeasty, and candied, brewmaster Garrett Oliver considers this beer his “strong saison.” I consider it imminently drinkable and delicious and I’m thinking that perhaps its awesome tastes were just too subtle for my immature palette back when I first slugged it.
Brooklyn Intensified Coffee Stout (tap)
Ithaca White Gold (bottled)
Middle Ages Wailing Wench (bottled)
Ommegang Rouge (tap)
Southern Tier Choklat Imperial Sout (bottled)
Southern Tier Pumking (bottled and tap)
The Top Highly-Accessible Beers
Solid brews that can be located at pretty much every bar, restaurant, bodega, deli, gas station, and massage parlor in this fair town. These are also lower ABV beers you can drink dozens of in a night.
If and when Captain Lawrence ever starts bottling and distributing its full line, I am almost certain this beer will become an iconic session beer in America, akin to, say, a Dogfish Head 60 Minute. Belgian pale ale Liquid Gold is so damn tasty and so unbelievably drinkable, I am always excited when a bar I’m drinking at “just” has this on tap. Why thank you very much and keep ‘em coming!
This was the beer I always ordered “way back when,” nearly a decade ago, when I didn’t know shit about beer and kinda just cared about getting drunk. It seemed to taste good enough back then. Nowadays, every time I’m “forced” to get this at a bar with the most meager of tap lists, I’m certain my sophisticated–nay, pretentious–tongue will no longer enjoy this. But, boy, am I always wrong and my eyes are always opened again and again by what must be the tastiest pure lager on the east coast. This could easily be called the official beer of New York City.
3. Sixpoint Bengali IPA (tap)
Why order a single IPA when you can order an asskicking double instead? Because Bengali exists! Incredibly balanced in both hops and malts, this tap-only selection from straight outta Brooklyn is as fine as they come.
I remember the first time a girl told me to try this on tap. I wanted to fornicate with her so I placated her and ordered one. And my eyes popped out of my head. I couldn’t believe how refreshing, flavorful, and subtly fruity this was. Like a liquid Eggo waffle! I must have drank 500 pints of this back in the summer of 2006 and though I eventually got burned out on it a bit, I still greatly enjoy it from time to time.
I don’t particularly love wheat beers, but damn if this one isn’t tasty. A great smell with a refreshing yeasty taste, slight banana flavor, citrus esters, and even hints of bubble gum. And, of course, some full-bodied wheat potency. This ain’t no watered-down hefeweizen. Simply delicious.
Others of note: Blue Point Hoptical Illusion, Blue Point Toasted Lager, Brooklyn Brown, Ommegang Witte, Saranac Pomegranate Wheat, Sixpoint Sweet Action, Southampton Double White Ale, Southampton IPA.
This was a fun little exercise. I’d greatly encourage my readers and other beer bloggers to do the same. I’d love to hear other’s thoughts on their fine states’ Top Ten brews (California? Pennsylvania? Colorado? Michigan? Minnesota?). So have at it!
Cheers and happy drinking!
*Notable beers I have yet to try (ie. please find them for me and send them to me too!):
Blue Point Old Howling Bastard, Brooklyn Blue Apron Ale, Captain Lawrence Little Linda’s Liquid, Captain Lawrence Rosso E Marrone, Captain Lawrence Smoke from the Oak (any and all), Ithaca Alphapha, Ithaca ELEVEN, Southampton Imperial Russian Stout, Southampton Saison Deluxe.