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Beer in the City: A guide to NYC craft beer bars

The Big Apple is more than just traffic, tall buildings and street food. It also has an expanding craft beer culture.
The Big Apple is more than just traffic, tall buildings and street food. It also has an expanding craft beer culture.
Marc Wisdom

The Big Apple, the City That Never Sleeps, Gotham City, the Empire City; whatever you call New York City, add another name to the list: New Beer City. On a recent trip I had the opportunity to visit many of the city’s craft beer spots. And the city that never sleeps knows how to do craft beer.

The Pony Bar
637 10th Avenue at 45th Street
New York, NY 10036

Located in a neighborhood of Manhattan known as Hell’s Kitchen, The Pony Bar is more like heaven for craft beer aficionados. We arrived just moments before a drenching thunderstorm shook the city and quickly noticed most of the tables and barstools were occupied. But, no worries, a long table near the door had two empty seats and, after asking if we could share the table, we were invited to sit and enjoy.

At The Pony Bar, the emphasis is on American craft beers, meaning that you may find a Belgian-style beer on tap, but you will never find an import. In addition, there are no bottled beers available other than Bud and Bud Light. The Pony Bar features 20 taps and two hand-pulled beer engines of craft beer at all times, all displayed on a state-of-the-art display that is updated in real time hanging above the bar. The bar also displays their tap list on their website in real time for guests who like to know what is on tap before stepping out into the elements.

During our visit we sampled Elysian Brewing Company’s Super Fuzz, a refreshing blood orange pale ale. We also sampled Blue Point’s No Apologies (Citra) from the beer engine. Beers at The Pony are served in their signature blue-labeled, 14-ounce glass or red-labeled eight-ounce name-sake glass. The name of the bar, is a nod towards the small, eight-ounce glasses of beer – or ponies – that were served in years past between races at horse tracks.

Along with great craft beer, the bar also serves a small menu of pub favorites like burgers, roast chicken and sliders. Like everything else at The Pony Bar, the food was served quickly and with a friendly smile.

If you find yourself in Manhattan and want a craft beer served by friendly and knowledgeable bartenders close to Times Square, The Pony Bar fits the bill perfectly.

Rattle n Hum
14 East 33rd Street
New York, NY 10016

Within the shadow of the iconic Empire State Building is an equally iconic to beer-lovers visiting the Empire State – Rattle n Hum. Do not be fooled by the narrow entry, this beer bar opens into a cavernous room that is generally packed with thirsty New Yorkers fresh off-the-clock or other colorful types simply stopping in for a cold pint selected from nearly 40 taps of craft beer and even more specialty bottles.

From the moment you walk in, this Mid-town pub immerses you in craft beer culture and friendly hospitality. Upon bellying up to the bar, guests are presented with an updated menu of the craft beers available that day. The bartenders are knowledgeable and will patiently answer your beer questions as well as provide a small taste of any beers you may want to try before committing to a full pint. And, if you still cannot commit to a single beer, Rattle n Hum offers sampler paddles of four beers chosen by you.

On our visit we chatted with a delightful Irish bartender who spent time answering our questions and even looking at our wedding photos (my wife will show anyone who stands still longer than 10 seconds our wedding pictures). Though, I do not remember her name, she was instrumental in the choices I made for my tasting paddle. Of the many fantastic choices available, I chose Brewer Ommegang’s Fleur de Houblon, Great Divide’s Orabelle, Vixnu from Cervejaria Colorado and Bacchus from Brouwerji Van Honsebrouck.

In addition to an amazing selection of craft and import beers, Rattle n Hum also has an extensive food menu and features brunch on the weekends. Think pub favorites like Baby Lamb Sliders, Shepard’s Pie and selected artisan cheeses and charcuterie.

The Stag’s Head
252 E 51st Street (at 2nd Avenue)
New York, NY 10022-7744

Down a few step off of East 51st Street you will find the bar level of The Stag’s Head, established in 2008. This popular beer bar boasts 16 rotating taps and over 50 bottles and cans of craft beers. It also features two seating areas and a roof-top beer garden.

When we arrived several television screens distributed throughout the venue were showing a World Cup soccer game to the delight of many boisterous patrons. It was a bit of a challenge to find a couple of bar stools to rest our weary feet, but after a few minutes a couple opened up. The friendly and jovial bartender appeared and took our drink orders. I went with a local brew from Captain Lawrence Brewing Company; Liquid Gold Pale Ale.

After the game ended, the place cleared out a bit and the bartender came down to chat with us a bit. He offered several great tips for where to enjoy more great, local beer that we later tried and enjoyed. Who says New Yorkers are all self-absorbed jerks? Certainly not us since everyone we talked to was more than willing to help and answer questions.

McSorley's Old Ale House
15 East 7th Street
New York, BY 10003

New York is full of history, but it is not often that you drink at a bar that is actually part of the storied history of a place. But, McSorley’s Old Ale House is certainly full of history and character. From its outward appearance in the middle of a block on East 7th Street, one can see that it has been a fixture for many years – 160 years to be exact. That is right, McSorley’s has been around since 1854 and has played host to Civil War soldiers, presidents, musicians such as Woody Guthrie and scores of visiting dignitaries.

When you pass through the door, McSorley’s is revealed to be an old, dusty, dark and musty space; and that is its charm. Hanging from the ceiling are some of the bar’s original light fixtures sporting chicken wishbones awaiting the return of the Civil War soldiers who placed them there. In the back room hangs what used to be a scandalous nude painting of one of the first female regulars to the saloon. Above the fireplace is the bar’s motto, “Be good or be gone!” A motto still enforced in the continuously-packed venue.

Beer at McSorley’s come is just two varieties; light or dark. There are no other choices so do not ask. The only other beverage allowed are sodas that can be found tucked inside the original ice box behind the bar. Beer is served in small mugs often ordered a half-dozen at a time. Grey-vested waiters will deliver your choice of beverage to your table – if you are lucky enough to score one – or you can wait your turn at the bar to order.

McSorley’s is a force all its own in a world of beer bars. It is unpretentious and simple in its approach: serve good beer fast, except no bullshit and treat everyone like a friend. The combination works and, if the size of the Saturday night crowd is any indication, will continue to do so for many more years.

Brooklyn Brewery
79 N 11th Street
New York, NY 11249

More than just a tree grows in Brooklyn; this brewery near the Williamsburg neighborhood is a hotbed of activity during the week when brewing and even more so when its tap room doors are open. At the end of a large, dark beer hall stands the tap room’s bar with its selection of Brooklyn Brewery favorites like Brooklyn Lager and Local #1 along with lesser known treats like Mister Wilson’s Western Elixir and Ridgy Didge.

But, perhaps the most striking feature are the looming stainless steel fermenters that stand just inside the entrance of the tap room and serve as the starting point of the brewery tour. The tour takes interested beer enthusiasts to the brewhouse where they can get a glimpse at the pilot system as well as their larger main brewhouse. After a quick overview of the viewing process the group is ushered to the fermentation and packaging room where the guide regales visitors with stories of how the brewery started including tales of mob attempts to shut the operation down.

Back in the tap room, lines grow quickly at the bar that accepts only tokens purchased at the small company store inside the main entrance. For just $20 patrons can score five tokens that can be exchanged for a pint of delicious beer.

Just a short subway ride from Manhattan, Brooklyn Brewery is well worth the trip off the island.

Birreria at Eataly
200 5th Avenue
New York, NY 10010

Walking in to the Mahattan outpost of the European Eataly chain is like walking in to the Ikea of Italian food. The cavernous space houses several Italian restaurants along side of every type of Italian food for sale one can imagine. There is a pastry shop, gelato stand, cheese shop and gadget store all in one space.

But, for beer lovers, it is the roof of the building that holds our attention. From the main store you must board an elevator to the roof, but the short journey rewards you with gorgeous views of New York’s skyline – particularly beautiful at night – and a gourmet restaurant developed with the help of Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head, Teo Musso of Baladin and Leonardo Di Vincenzo of Birra Del Borgo.

At the bar, imbibers can choose from three beers on the beer engine or several others on tap. While we were there we tried the Gina from the engine, a bay and rosemary spiced ale that was delicious and refreshing. The beer was also brewed just feet away at the venue’s rooftop brewery. Other choices were a selection of Italian craft beers such as Lurisia Sei and American craft brews from Dogfish Head and other regional breweries.

While all of the bars and beer halls we visited had friendly staff, the bartenders at Birreria were outstanding. Even though the place was packed and outrageously busy, they always stopped to ask if we had any questions or needed another drink. At one point the kitchen sent up a plate of grilled swordfish by mistake and the bartender presented it to us on the house. “I’d rather you ate and enjoyed it than send it back and it go in the trash, he said.

We were impressed and delighted. The fish was superb.

On our way out, we spoke with the manager to let her know about our stupendous experience and she was just as delightful to speak with as the staff. Next time we are in New York, we know exactly where we will be spending a great deal of time.

The Ginger Man
11 East 36th Street
New York, New York, 10016

Michael Jackson, the late beer expert not the one-gloved singer, is quoted as to saying The Ginger Man is, “One of finest beer bars in the world.” I tend to agree. The classy, dark wood interior exudes sophistication. Behind the bar are tap handle after tap handle to sate thirsty beer lovers’ thirsts and draw them in. as you approach and sit at the bar one is handed a beer menu that is chock full of interesting and wondrous brews.

As with many beer bars, a sampler paddle was offered and I filled it with several outstanding beers: Duvel’s Single Fermented, Peekskill Brewery Simple Sour, Cuvee Des Jacobins Rouge and a lighter beer from Cricket Hill Brewing Company called Jersey Summer Breakfast Ale.

The staff at The Ginger Man is well-versed in the beers on tap and was able to offer thoughts and insights into most. And, like The Pony Bar, The Ginger Man posts its current beer offering online at its website.

Conclusion

Any trip to New York City is going to be packed with new experiences. There is so much to see and do, so many landmarks, museums and shows that beer bars can easily be overlooked. But, for any self-respecting beer-lover, New York’s beer scene cannot be missed. The bars we visited just scratch the surface, there are so many more that we hope to drop in to on our next visit to the city. Suffice to say, that with the bars listed here you cannot go wrong.