Earlier this month, Wifey and I made our first trip to NYC since Magnus’s passing. It was a bittersweet weekend as you might imagine. While it was wonderful to visit with friends, eat and drink our way through New York, and check out the Book of Mormon (holy hell it was awesome), it was also impossible not to miss my friend as we strolled past bars and restaurants that I had frequented with him. Almost all of my memories in the city revolved around Magnus in some way. He was my host and guide during countless trips to NYC over the years and as silly as it is to equate one person with a city inhabited by 8 million, in my mind the Big Apple and Magnus Skullsplitter were one and the same.
Interestingly enough, one of the few types of establishments that I had NOT really explored with Sir Magnus was the New York craft beer bar scene. There are some simple reasons for this:
- The “Craft Beer Bar” as an institution is still a shockingly new enterprise. I remember frequenting the Sunset Tap & Grill in Boston and the Brickskeller in DC just a few short years ago and thinking that they were truly unique gems. It’s really only been in the past few years that the craft beer bar scene has exploded in seemingly every city in the country.
- NYC, for whatever reason, was a little slow to jump into the craft beer game. While it’s certainly a booze-laden city, its reputation revolves more around cosmos and martinis, aged Scotches and $500 bottles of wine. Beer is cheap and plebeian and NYC, a city renowned for creating trends, not following them, was oddly behind the times when it came to craft beer. I’m happy to say that things are changing VERY rapidly.
- Magnus’s love for craft beer was also a relatively new phenomenon. While he happily sampled all sorts of beers over the years with myself and others, it wasn’t until he jumped on board Aleheads that craft beer exploration became a true passion for him. In truth, Magnus drank whatever was available. Unlike yours truly, he was never an irritating beer snob that would harangue the bartender about their lack of Oud Bruins on draft. For him, beer was just an ingredient in a fun night out with friends instead of the entire purpose of the night like it is for some of us (as I’ve said before, he was a far more pleasant person to spend time with than me).
I had been to a few decent beer bars with the man over the years (I vaguely remember one particularly hazy afternoon at Valhalla in Hell’s Kitchen), but for the most part, he and I never got the chance to frequent the best the city had to offer. During the weekend trip with Wifey, the Czar awoke from his usual oxycontin slumber and had his assistant Karl escort us to the Ginger Man, a bar that would absolutely have found a slot in Magnus’s regular rotation.
The Ginger Man is actually a part of a small chain of beer bars which first opened in Houston and spread to Dallas and Austin before opening up shop in NYC in 1996. Located in Midtown, the Ginger Man is a fairly large bar by New York standards. Long and linear like so many Gotham watering holes, it has a cozy little lounge area in the back and a row of large, wooden bench tables lining one wall (which we used communally with other patrons). The wait-staff is no-nonsense (they have to be…the Ginger Man gets VERY crowded on weekends) and they seemed fairly knowledgeable when I asked for recommendations. While loud, boisterous, and packed to the gills, our group managed to find seating without too much trouble and struck up some fun conversations with nearby revelers.
The tap and bottle list was very substantial and they had a couple of cask offerings available to round things out. Our crew ordered a variety of beers throughout the weekend (full disclosure, Wifey and I ended up at the bar at the tail end of BOTH of our evenings in the city). Here are a few of my favorite brews from the trip:
1. Oskar Blues Dale’s Pale Ale: We’ve written copiously about this lovely, over-hopped Pale Ale in the past…the first craft beer to find its way into an aluminum can. I hadn’t had a Dale’s in months (Oskar Blues does not distribute in Alabama despite the fact that the founder is from here…come on Dale!), and I was as pleasantly surprised as always at how refreshing, accessible and tasty the beer was. While it’s solid enough in cans, it’s even better on tap. If it’s available in your neck of the woods, grab a pint whenever you can. A great start to the festitivites. 3.5 Hops.
2. Sixpoint Brownstone: I first heard of Sixpoint during last year’s Aleheads trip to Philly when Magnus breathlessly talked up his new local brewery (Sixpoint used to be brew entirely in Brooklyn though the bulk of their operation is now in Wilkes-Barre, PA). Sixpoint was readily available during Philly Beer Week (when the Aleheads invaded the City of Brotherly Love) so we eagerly quaffed some Bengali Tigers, Sweet Actions, and Righteous Ryes. I hadn’t had the Brownstone before, but Wifey loves a good Brown Ale so it was the first brew she ordered. An extremely drinkable, very well-executed Brown with a lovely sweet caramel and coffee aroma and a great finish. 3.5 Hops.
3. Oskar Blues One Hit Wonder: A “one-time-only” Double IPA from Oskar Blues and it was just as good as you might imagine. Rich, luxurious mouthfeel. Huge, piney hop aroma with very little astringency in the taste. Decadent, delicious, and thoroughly enjoyable. I hope Oskar Blues betrays the name of this beer and makes it a regular offering. 4 Hops.
4. Cigar City Guave Grove: A viciously tart, sour beer that Wifey and I happily guzzled, the Guava Grove is yet another stellar example from a brewery that is quickly becoming one of my all-time favorites. I have a soft spot for sours and this is one of the best I’ve ever had. A nice, candy apple sweetness counterbalanced the mouth-puckering tartness and the silky-smooth mouthfeel and excellent carbonation made this one a sensory delight. I can’t WAIT for the restrictions on bottle sizes to be lifted in Alabama so we can get some Cigar City bombers in town.* 4 Hops.
*Although, considering the massive lobbying power of Anheuser-Busch in this state, that day may never come. If anyone doubts why the Aleheads despise AB, the current situation in Alabama is a prime example. Free the Hops has proposed a bill lifting the current restrictions on beer bottle sizes. Currently, Alabama is the ONLY GODDAMN STATE in the country that doesn’t allow 22-ounce and 750ml bottles. Once again, we’re the ONLY STATE with a bottle-size restriction. AB has done everything in its power to kill the bill and has used their massive lobbying influence to essentially table the bill during this legislative session. Why? Because AB knows that large-format bottles are used by craft brewers to showcase their rare, seasonal, or specialty beers and that by keeping the Alabama bottle-size restriction to 16 ounces or below, they’re essentially preventing craft breweries from selling a large segment of their wares. Ale factories like The Bruery for example, ONLY sell their beers in large format bottles which means they legally can’t distribute in Alabama.You can buy a handle of cut-rate vodka and magnums of cheap wine, but you can’t buy a 22-ounce bottle of Imperial Stout because AB is afraid they might lose their stranglehold on Alabama. It might seem like we throw the term “evil” around a little too carelessly when talking about Big Beer, but when it comes to AB, I’m not sure that term is strong enough.
5. St. Feuillien/Green Flash Bière De L’Amitié: A collaboration beer between the ancient St. Feuillien brewery in Belgium and Vista, CA’s Green Flash Brewing company, the Bière De L’Amitié is a strong, Belgian Pale Ale that looks and smells like Duvel but with a far spicier finish and an unusual, almost pastry-dough like breadiness in the taste. It’s a little sweeter than other similar beers I’ve had and has a lovely, floral nose and excellent carbonation. A fun beer. 3.5 Hops.
6. Blue Point Hoptical Illusion: A bracingly bitter IPA from New York’s own Blue Point Brewing Company. The Hoptical Illusion comes in a funky bottle with a striking graphic anchored by that weird, Masonic pyramid/eyeball thingie from the back of a dollar bill. It’s got a very citric hop profile with minimal malt sweetness and a nice, dry finish. The Hoptical Illusion is definitely a hop-lovers IPA…a little harsh, a little astringent, but very tasty. The only other Blue Point beer I’ve sample was their Toasted Lager which I wasn’t crazy about, but after this one, I’m now very intrigued. 3 Hops.
The Ginger Man may not have been the same without Magnus serving as my host, but I know he would have been happy to see his friends drinking great beer and reminiscing until the wee hours of a New York morning. Thanks to the whole New York crew for serving as ersatz Magnus’s during our trip and to the Ginger Man for providing us with refreshment throughout the weekend. I still hate the fucking Yankees with every cell in my being, but I do love New York.