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General Geekery’s Beer Tour: The Top 10 NYC Beer Bars

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By Jeremy Herrig on December 29, 2010

If you missed the complete five-part series of Jeremy Herrig’s NYC Beer Tour, all you beer-lovers will want to go back check out our Portland, OR beer snob’s archive right here.

Hopefully by now you’ve read all five parts of my series. And now, here’s what you’ve all been thirsting for all along: The Top 10 Beer Bars in New York City. All of these are more than worthy of drinking away your entire day, and the top 3 are easily interchangeable depending on one’s mood and personal preferences (largest selection/atmosphere/food). So belly-up, and comment away. Cheers!

10. The Pony Bar – 20 All-American taps, $4 happy hour pints.

9. Spitzer’s Corner – 40 taps, solid bottle selection, quality food.

8. 124 Old Rabbit Club – Rare Belgian bottle list, speakeasy entry, dungeon-like atmosphere.

7. d.b.a – 16 taps, 2 casks, extensive bottle list, Tarzan.

6. Spuyten Duyvil – 100+ rare/hard-to-find bottles, 6 taps, a cask, hipsters, huge outdoor patio.

5. Barcade – 24 taps, old-school arcade games.

4. Rattle N Hum – 40 taps, cask bar, huge bottle list.

3. Bierkraft – 14 taps, 3 casks, 1000+ bottles, meats, cheeses, chocolates, A+ staff.

2. The Ginger Man – 70 taps, 2 casks, 160+ bottles, tasting flights.

1. Blind Tiger Ale House – 28 taps, 2 casks, a gravity keg, 120+ bottles, tasting flights, A+ staff, delicious food, outstanding atmosphere.

Now, the breakdown:

10) The Pony Bar – Hell’s Kitchen (45th St. & 10th Ave.)

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Dislike anything foreign? Tired of buying products manufactured overseas? The Pony Bar and it’s 20 taps and two casks of exclusively American craft beer will have you buzzed with patriotic fervor in no time. Featuring one of the best happy hours in Manhattan from 4:20-5:20 daily ($4, 14oz pours), the finest in U.S. brewing is plentiful and affordable.

Large sliding chalkboards clearly displaying each available beer adorn the walls behind the wooden bar. Every time a new keg is tapped, the barkeep rings a bell and announces the joyous event to the room. If you’ve got a small party, grab seats at the bar or one of the wooden barrel tables in the center of the room. For larger parties, head to a booth lining the outside of the room near the windows.

Although The Pony Bar is located in a bit of no-mans-land, it is worthy of a happy hour stop if you’re trying to drink good beers on a budget in the city. Beers guzzled in the name of the stars and stripes included Southern Tier – Farmer’s Tan Imperial LagerKelso – Kellerfest, and Brooklyn – Detonation Ale.

9) Spitzer’s Corner – Lower East Side (Ludlow & Rivington)

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Unfortunately, the ex-governor of New York and his harem don’t frequent this diamond-in-the-rough Lower East Side establishment, but the revamped former sewing shop (of no relation) serves up 40 rotating taps and enough bottles to make you forget all about those pesky federalies getting up in your business.

Open, airy, bright, and featuring lots reclaimed wood accented by concrete and steel, Spitzer’s Corner manages to keep a modern feel without seeming manufactured and stuffy. If you’re a people watcher, grab a seat at the long tables lining either window. Otherwise, head to the bar to ogle the tap wall and talk food pairings. Tons of regional Northeast selections here – definitely worth swinging by if you’re in the area checking out Chinatown and Little Italy.

Beers enjoyed included Southhampton – Double WhiteOmmegang – Hennepin, and Captain Lawrence – Liquid Gold.

All three of these embody a wonderful trend in U.S. brewing – reviving traditionally foreign styles (Dutch and Belgian here) and ramping them up (double wheat/white), tweaking them slightly (saison/farmhouse), and/or hybridizing (Belgian/pale). With over 180 beer varieties being churned out worldwide, tasty forays into the historic and esoteric like these make beer geeks feel like a kid in a candy store with every sip.

8 ) 124 Old Rabbit Club – Greenwich Village (MacDougal St. at Minetta Ln.)

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Disguised amongst the backdrop carnival atmosphere of MacDougal Street near NYU, a single black door below street level with a white buzzer is all that separates the curiously thirsty drinker from ultimate satisfaction. If enjoying rare and unique European beers in a dungeon-like atmosphere is your thing (it’s certainly mine), you’ve come home. With no windows, minimal lighting, ample exposed brick, and a long copper bar, the term ‘hole-in-the-wall’ never seemed so apt.

The claustrophobic should stay away – there are seats for maybe 25 people, and not much room to maneuver once those are occupied. Avoid this place like the plague on Thursday-Saturday unless you like your drinking experiences hot, cramped, and with minimal service. Visit at any other time, however, and the only thing limiting the mind-blowing, sudsy bliss is your bankroll (bottles typically run from $6-20).

Other than the fact that I’m generally anti-crowd (I go to bars to converse with friends), the main point of visiting almost all of these establishments during off-hours is top-notch, personal service. That rings especially true with a bottle list like the ORC’s, where recognizing and pronouncing most of the beers is just the first step. Enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and friendly are the words for the staff here. Ask lots of questions, state what you enjoy or don’t about each beer, and they will guide you on a sensory experience to remember.

Beers savored included Petrus – Oak Aged PaleDe Dolle – Oer Reserva, Ambertanterik – Double Porter,Emelisse – Imperial Russian Stout, and Hambleton – Nightmare Porter

7) d.b.a. – East Village (1st Ave. between 2nd and 3rd St.)

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Just as well known for being a stand-out whiskey and burbon bar, d.b.a. doesn’t slouch on the beer either. 16 taps, 2 casks, and one of the more extensive bottle lists in the city make this New Orleans style bar more than worth a visit. It’s very dark inside, even during the day, but walk out back to find an outdoor courtyard worthy of casually drinking away an afternoon.

Nearly every style imaginable is featured on the bottle list, and the draught selection spans Europe to the west coast. Chalkboards above the bar display what’s available, although if you don’t have 20/20 vision, some of the tiny writing crammed on them may be difficult to decipher.

Beers for the evening included Dogfish Head India Brown Ale and Stoudts APA.

The evening (early morning) I bellied up to the bar, an 80-some year-old dude comes in and sits next to me. We strike up a conversation, and he tells me, “my cat Maggie will be coming at any moment to occupy the seat next to me.” I reply, unfazed, “that sounds good to me, as I’m half drunk and this is an idea as plausible as any.” He immediately exclaims, “I’m always half drunk!” We toast to this. Two minutes later, a cat shows up and sits in the seat.

I’ve gone from thinking this is a crazy old man off the street to thinking he’s a psychic cat master.

It turns out the guy is Tarzan aka Taylor Mead. He’s a d.b.a. regular and East Village staple. I start taking iPhone notes on the bar and the beers I’m drinking and he chimes in, “all you young people are slaves to technology!” I agree with him and set down the phone to continue our conversation. Perplexed, Tarzan says, “it’s all so confusing. You know there’s something called wikipedia that has a page on me. I haven’t seen it but I’m apparently a big thing on the internet.”

Over the next hour, we end up talking about everything from Andy Warhol, cockroaches in NYC and rent control, to bed bugs, technology, and politics. Absolute classic random NYC occurrence for me. I love this city.

So yeah, stop in d.b.a. for the great selection and courtyard, stay for Tarzan and his faithful cat Maggie!

6) Spuyten Duyvil – Williamsburg (Metropolitan Ave. at Havemeyer St.)

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One would think a Belgian beer bar in the too-cool-for-school Williamsburg section of Brooklyn would repel hipsters like mosquitos from DEET, but after all, it does cost a lot of money to look that poor, and apparently it’s becoming ‘in’ to dig world-class beer. If that’s the case, consider me the most bed-headed, waxed mustache-sporting, thrift store T-shirt and tightest pants-wearer of them all, because Spuyten Duyvil delivers the goods like an erudite Pitchfork album review.

In reality, with over 100 rare/unique bottles, six ever-changing taps and a cask, this place could be located just about anywhere and people would come. Snuggle-up to the bar right in front of the taps and chalkboards for the best seats in the house, sit at the cobbled-together garage-sale furniture (also possibly why hipsters aren’t scared away), or stroll out back to the expansive beer garden if the weather’s right.

If you’re confused, perplexed, and overwhelmed by the selection, do not hesitate to ask your friendly barkeeps for guidance. They’ll do everything from choosing beers to fit your palate, pair with meats and cheeses, and if you’re considering a session, put everything in the proper order to maximize deliciousness.

Beers consumed included: Lowenbrau Buttenheim – Ungespundetes LagerHopfenstark kam + Fredrich Stout

5) Barcade – Williamsburg (Union b/w Ainslie & Powers)

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For all of you Gen-Y/Millennial arcade game and divey-beer-bar aficionados: this is your paradise. From Joust to Moon Patrol and Allagash to Green Flash, these guys do it so right it’s scary. Tourists beware: The clientele tends to be of the gangly hipster variety; but don’t fret, while they may give you ironic looks of condescension, they won’t bite.

Grab a pint from one of the 24 constantly rotating taps and start gunning down aliens in Contra, avoiding traffic in Frogger, or settle in for the evening and try to get yourself on the High Scores board (see photos – not an easy feat).

As with any bar on this list, one can easily spend an entire day in here and barely dent all of the sensory delights on offer. However, unlike many of the establishments across the East River, Barcade is actually navigable during peak hours and on weekends do to its spacious layout and grittier location.

4) Rattle ‘N Hum – Murray Hill (33rd between Madison & 5th Ave.)

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Sitting in the shadow of the Empire State Building, the surprisingly non-U2-themed Rattle ‘N Hum boasts 40 constantly rotating taps, a cask bar, and a substantial bottle list. On a nice day when the front is wide-open, it’s wise to snag the few seats facing the street to people watch and gauge the hour – because one can easily spend an entire day in here (believe me).

Entering the front, a long wooden bar highlights the taps, and then the room opens up a bit to several barrel-tables in the back along with the cask bar. Lots of old wood, dim lighting, and top-notch selection – this is my kind of beer bar.

My only complaint is (and, to be fair, this can be said of just about any bar in that general area) that it gets extremely crowded in the evenings when the throng of midtown workers decide to quench their thirsts. The thin profile of the room near the bar makes for some interesting shoulder-to-shoulder maneuvering to save every drop of your precious beer from spilling…which is exactly why I went back on a lazy Sunday afternoon.

As for the beers, I started off with a couple from Captain Lawrence (KolschXtra Gold). Both were stand-outs for their styles. After trying many different CL brews over my trips, I can safely put these guys into the “they don’t make bad beer” category, which isn’t a lengthy list.

Next up, I strayed from my local mantra because they had an event for Stone Brewing just days before, and good grief they busted out the big guns! Vertical Epic 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010 on tap in the same place! Beer geek or not, the chance to try five different vintages of any type of alcoholic beverage built to age is something special. They also had a 2006 Double Bastard American Strong Ale on tap. I think it moved.

As an aside, beers with higher ABV percentages tend to age well because alcohol acts as a preservative. Over time, the bite or ‘hot’ alcohol taste takes on a much more rounded, subtle characteristic, bringing out the other flavors in the beer to even greater degrees.

Rattle ‘N Hum also scores points in the tech-savvy cateyory: they have an iPhone app.

3) Bierkraft – Park Slope (5th Ave. between Union St. and Berkeley Pl.)

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Part taproom, part bottle shop, part deli, and all win, Bierkraft is a one-stop-shop for unabashed deliciousness in Brooklyn. Standing in the back-center:

Look forward – fourteen taps and three casks running the gamut of styles available for in-house consumption and growler fills to go;

Look right – 250 artisan cheeses, 100 gourmet chocolate bars, and sandwiches made-to-order with top-notch charcuterie and locally baked bread;

Look over your shoulder to the left – 1000 bottled beers lined up in coolers and on the wall;

Look over your shoulder to the right – picnic tables set against an exposed brick wall to enjoy it all.

Combine that with some of the nicest, most knowledgeable beer/food geeks you will ever meet… They’ll expertly pair any beer with chocolates, meats, and cheeses. You can sample most everything to find what suits your palate best. When you get a growler to go, it’s pressure filled to stay fresh for up to a few months instead of a few days. One of the beers on tap is dry-hopped (run through a large tube/filter containing whole-hops) on the spot. Did I mention this place is dripping with triumphant win?

The first time I strolled in here to try a couple beers, I ended up chatting with the staff for about an hour and then promptly got sucked into a Trappist ale tasting (twist my arm).

While enjoying a pint of Two Brothers Heavy Handed Fresh Hop IPA (also put through the dry-hop magic-machine), we started discussing wet/fresh-hopped beers. These seasonal tasty treats are created by adding fresh hops to the boil within hours after harvest, giving the beer a wetter, grassier feel, and allowing one to taste the essence of the hop in its prime. The other 99.99% of beers use hops that have either been dried, vacuum sealed and refrigerated or processed into pellets for preservative and shipping purposes. Time is of the essence here: hops will oxidize and lose much of their bittering, flavoring, and aromatic characteristics within a short time after harvest if not properly preserved.

Turning our focus back to winning, the second beer I went for (after realizing I was sticking around for a while): Birro del Borgo My Antonia – an Imperial Pilsner clocking in at 7.5%ABV. A colaboration between an Italian Brewery and Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, the Bierkraft guys tell me the brewers used huge amounts of warrior and nugget hops to impart apricot and peach characteristics which tickle the senses from the nose to the taste to the finish. This is a truly unique, stupendous beer.

Just when I’m ready to head out, it turns out a Trappist ale tasting starts in five minutes. This is not losing. While sampling a variety of mind-blowing brews such as the Westmalle Trappist Tripel and listening to Madeline Scherb, author of “A Taste of Heaven: a Guide to Food and Drink by Monks and Nuns“, discuss her travels, she starts a story about Our Lady of the Mississippi Caramels.

These fine delights are hand-made by nuns just outside of Dubuque, IA, my hometown. I do a double take, uncharacteristically raise my hand to interrupt, and ask her to confirm that she did in fact, say Dubuque, IA. Turns out I have several distant relatives who were actually nuns (since passed) who made caramels there. I have memories as an young child before they passed away visiting there and learning about the process, eating way too much caramel for my own good, and driving my parents nuts for the rest of the day on a sugar high.

Needless to say, both Madeline and I were quite excited about the amazingly random occurrence of me stopping in there and deciding to stick around for her talk. I purchased 4 of her books and had them signed for my living grandparents on both sides of the family, my parents, and one for myself. They made for some epic Christmas gifts.

2) Ginger Man – Murray Hill (36th between Madison & 5th Ave.)

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The J.P. Donleavy approved, Manhattan version of the Houston, TX original features a monstrous 70 tap, 2 cask, 160 bottle selection that would leave Sebastian Dangerfield weeping into the East River without having to make another stop. With the largest and most diverse draught selection in NYC, one could come here for a decent session every day for weeks and never finish the constantly updated list.

The open, airy main room focuses on the long wooden bar and the plethora of taps showcased by a well-polished copper backing. Chalkboards adorning the wall above advertise seasonal, local, organic, and special selections. With this much choice, it’s just as easy to feel overwhelmed as excited. Your best bet is to belly-up with a seat so you can ask your friendly barkeep questions about the all the world-class brew you’re about to try. With a larger party, don’t overlook the comfy back room with couches for a more laid back experience.

While my preferred method of beer consumption is the trusty pint, when presented with dozens of brews I’ve never tasted before, flights prove the best way to maximize drinking efficiency. Four, six-ounce pours of anything on the draught list are available for $12.

As a tasting note, the best order to consume multiple varieties of beer is to start out lighter and/or less hoppy and move toward darker and/or hoppier. Funky Belgians, lambics, and sours fit in toward the end, depending on the beer. Picking out the subtleties in a good Kolsch or Pilsner is a much more difficult task after your palate has been blazed over by a thick stout or heavily hopped IPA.

Keeping in mind I tried all of these over several visits, the glorious beers:

Flight 1: Southampton – Double WhiteCaptain Lawrence – NY3 SaisonAllagash – Fluxus SaisonTröegs – Javahead Stout

Flight 2: Victory – Scarlet SunsetBFM – DouzeMikkeller – Nelson SauvinBirra del Borgo – 25 Dodici

Flight 3: Mikkeller – NuggetRodenbach – Grand CruNøgne Ø – Porter‘t Smisje – Catherine the Great

With Ginger Man just a three block stumble away from Rattle ‘N Hum, Murray Hill can rightfully lay claim to one of the best beer neighborhoods in NYC. However, as with RNH, GM’s greatest drawback is the frequently packed house on evenings. Waiting in multi-person-deep lines stretching the length of the bar isn’t my idea of a good time, so most of my visits were early to mid afternoon on weekdays, which is when I’d recommend showing up if you want quality question & answer time as well as flights (not served during peak hours).

As a point of disclosure about myself, I am generally the anti-crowd. If there’s any possible way for me to visit a place during off-peak hours when the atmosphere is most relaxed, the bartenders least stressed, and beer quickest to my taste-buds, that’s when I’m showing up. Granted, if I’m going out with friends for a night on the town, that rule gets relaxed for their sakes, but all things considered, the less people around who I don’t know preventing me from getting and learning about my delicious brew, the better.

1) Blind Tiger Ale House – West Village (Bleeker & Jones)

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Inconspicuously snuggled just east of 7th Ave. on the West Village’s famed Bleecker Street, this speakeasy namesake doesn’t actually have a live tiger on display, but it could certainly leave one blind with delight after a serious session. BT’s 28 taps, 2 casks, a gravity keg, and 75+ bottles are expertly chosen to represent the highest quality and rarest selections available on the world market.

On a fair day, light and oxygen penetrate open shutters into the otherwise dimly lit, old wooden interior. If West Village people-watching is your thing, pull up some chairs and watch the cavalcade pass. On darker, drearier occasions, snag a table close to the fireplace, or belly up to the bar and get familiar with your knowledgeable server for the most expedient personal service.

If you’re lucky enough to catch the owner Alan, talk shop with him for a bit and ask to see the beer book – a near all-inclusive list of the brews they’ve served over the past 13 years. This is not only a veritable cornucopia of geektastic beer stats, but it cements BT’s reputation as purveyors of only the choicest suds.

Once again, visit this place during off-hours (weekdays before 5 or after midnight) if at all possible, because it turns into a scene not entirely metaphorically different from the nearby meat-packing district warehouses on nights and weekends.

Also, come hungry – everything on the menu is delicious, fairly priced, and pairs fantastically with several offerings at any given point, so mix and match at will to discover your favorites.

Pints consumed (over several visits – I’m not that much of a champ) included: Southampton – Special Hop,Sixpoint – Bengali TigerWeyerbacher – Imperial PumpkinClipper City – Heavy Seas Imperial Pumpkin,Chelsea – Hop Angel IPA (Gravity)Chelsea – Cream StoutSixpoint – Masons Black WheatStone – Cali Belgique Belgian IPACaptain Lawrence – Smoked PorterSly Fox – O’Reilly StoutFlying Dog – Dogtoberfest,Ommegang – WitteOtter Creek – Imperial IPASouthern Tier – 422Two Brothers – Cane & EbelVictory – Hop Wallop, and Coney Island – Geektoberfest (obviously).

Thanks again for reading, everyone. Next up, Chicago! Join me.

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