Brooklyn neon sign. Photo: Alamy
Barry Divola samples the bounty of a craft beer revival that is restoring this once-thriving pocket of New York.
He is German, he is thirsty and his T-shirt has these words printed across the front in block letters: "WHO NEEDS A BEER? THIS GUY."
His name is Max and it is his birthday. His wife, a chatty blonde New Yorker named Debbie, had bought him tickets for a tour of Brooklyn's beer heritage. She had picked him up in 2001 in a Manhattan bar called Off the Wagon and they've been together ever since. I get the distinct impression this "present" is as much for her as him. "Before we had our kid I was a career bartender, so I know a lot about beer," she informs me.
The facade. Photo: Mario Tama
The jottings I'm making in my notebook are getting a little hard to decipher by this stage. Will the combination of educational tour and beer crawl end up more hangover than history?
Our group congregates at high noon on a Saturday at Brooklyn Brewery in Williamsburg. There we meet Laura, a tour guide from Urban Oyster tours. She fills us in on Brooklyn's beer backstory. In the early 1900s, beer was this area's lifeblood. There were 48 breweries dotted throughout the borough, kick-started by German immigrants in the mid-19th century. With the introduction of Prohibition in 1920, the thriving industry hit a wall. By the time Prohibition ended 13 years later, only nine breweries remained. In 1976, with mass-market beers such as Budweiser, Miller and Pabst squeezing out the smaller operators, the last Brooklyn brewery closed. For 20 years, the place was dry.
The reason that changed is right in front of us. Laura passes us on to Dan, a guide at Brooklyn Brewery, who looks like he's right out of hipsterville central casting - moustache, black-framed glasses, tattoo of a horse on his forearm.
He tells us the Brooklyn beer industry's saviours were an unlikely duo. Steve Hindy worked in the Middle East as a foreign correspondent for Associated Press. When he returned to live in Brooklyn after 15 years overseas, he pursued his love of home brewing and invited neighbours to sample his wares. One of those neighbours, a banker named Tom Potter, was so impressed he suggested they go into business together. The duo started brewing in upstate New York in 1988, finally building enough capital to convert this former matzoh factory in Williamsburg into a brewery in 1996.
"May New York never again be without a brewery," Hindy declared at the grand opening, officiated by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani.
As Dan shows us a room full of silver fermentation tanks, each holding 200 barrels of beer, he runs through statistics that suggest this part of Brooklyn will not be dry any time soon. In 2010, the brewery produced 15,000 barrels. In 2011, that increased to 40,000.They're aiming for 100,000 by the end of this year. Brooklyn Brewery beer is now sold in 25 US states and exported to 18 countries, including Australia. Dan's quick to point out that other craft breweries have popped up in the area, including Kelso in Clinton Hill and Sixpoint in Red Hook.
"There's more a sense of camaraderie than competition between us here in Brooklyn," he says. "It's all of us craft breweries versus the big guys like Budweiser, who make something like 100 million barrels a year."
We're led through to the tasting room, where he directs our attention to framed advertisements on the wall. When Hindy and Potter were considering their packaging, they approached graphic designer Milton Glaser, who co-created New York magazine and is responsible for the city's most iconic branding symbol, the I (HEART) NY logo. Glaser agreed to do the job, but in lieu of his usual fee he agreed to a small percentage of the company and free beer for life. Smart man. He devised the iconic scrolled "B" logo and has been responsible for their advertising ever since.
"And now it's time to drink some beer," Dan says. "At last!" Debbie says. It's 12.30pm.
Sitting at wooden picnic tables in a large communal warehouse space teeming with beer enthusiasts, we taste eight different beers from the stable, including Radius (which is only available in Brooklyn), Weisse (a German wheat beer) and Sorachi Ale (a dry beer based around a Japanese hop). By the time we get to the eighth, a 9 per cent alcohol IPA (India pale ale) appropriately named Blast!, it's time to test our legs and go for a walk.
Laura leads us to Meserole Street in neighbouring Bushwick. Little remains of Brooklyn's brewing history, but the building at No. 620, the former Huber/Hittleman Brewery erected in 1875, is a lasting reminder of the area's beery past. Laura points out the beer barrels high up in the building's facade and the carved letters "O" and "H" representing the initials of former brewery owner Otto Huber. The building now houses a recording studio, a dumpling manufacturer and, in a nod to its past, a bar called the Well, which features 60 beers on tap and 250 different types in bottles.
"See this stretch of Meserole Street?" asks Laura, pointing into the distance. "Over 100 years ago, there were 11 breweries over the space of 12 blocks."
"This is making me thirsty," Max says to Debbie.
"Me too, honey," she replies.
They don't have to wait too long. We wander to more sites over the next hour-and-a-half - the places where rich brewers lived; the churches where the workers went every Sunday; the old train depot that transported the beer - stopping for lunch at Danny's Pizzeria, a joint opened in 1984 by a Neapolitan who didn't speak a word of English when he arrived in Brooklyn.
Of course, we all drink Brooklyn Lager to accompany our slices.
Our final stop is Barcade, which has hit on the magical formula of combining a huge list of local craft beers with walls lined with 1980s vintage arcade video games. I happily sip a Long Ireland Pumpkin Ale ("hazy amber with aromas of sweet malt, cinnamon and pumpkin") while soundly beating Max and Debbie at Galaga, a video game I was last acquainted with in about 1981.
"You haven't drunk enough!" Max says.
"More beer!" says Debbie, fishing around in her purse for more quarters to sink into the machine.
Getting there United Airlines has a fare to New York from Sydney for about $1540 low-season return, including tax. It is a non-stop 13hr 30min flight to Los Angeles and then non-stop to New York (5hr 17min). Phone 13 17 77; see united.com. Melbourne passengers pay about the same and transit in Sydney. This fare allows you to travel via San Francisco. Australians must apply for US travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
Staying there Roomorama is an online marketplace for short-term apartment rentals. Listings come with photos, guest ratings and a secure online payment system. See roomorama.com.
Brooklyn Brewery runs free tours of its plant and small-batch tasting tours for $US8 ($7.77). N11th Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Phone +1 718 486 7422; see brooklynbrewery.com.
Urban Oyster's Brewed in Brooklyn tours cost $US60 and include a tour of Brooklyn Brewery, a beer tasting, a walking tour of Brooklyn beer historical sites, a pizza and beer lunch, and a craft beer at a local bar. See urbanoyster.com.
Barcade, 388 Union Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Phone +1 718 302 6464; see barcadebrooklyn.com.
Barry Divola was a guest of United Airlines and Roomorama