Last Updated :03/07/07
his is the tale of my first trip to the USA, specifically to the north-east corner. It was primarily a railway bash, but with the intention of visiting any bars or brewpubs that happened to be near the key railway stations – hence the subtitle! In deference to those who are only interested in the beer, I have kept the railway stuff to a minimum (railway report/phots at www.theevilempire.co.uk) except where it forms part of the move to the beer. Unfortunately, I spent so long planning railway stuff that I didn’t do any beer research until the day before I went, not helped by the fact that my employer’s web server blocks most beer related sites! D’oh! As an after-afterthought, I also e-mailed ex-pat Alex Hall, who has lived in NYC for the last seven years.
Having put off visiting the States for so long, partially due to financial constraints, partly through not wanting to be treated like a criminal, I finally decided to take the plunge when my ‘trains only’ accomplice Damian suggested a trip. Displaying all my usual luck in these situations, we booked a couple of weeks before the alleged August alleged terror alleged plot (which was not a convenient excuse to bring in more security restrictions, no not at all, what, us, more restrictions? Never…). Fortunately, by the time we actually travelled, the restrictions had been eased somewhat, though the liquid ban was still in force, meaning we had to leave without toothpaste, deodorant, water, etc – just what you need when you’re planning ten overnights in a row! By the time we returned, liquids were allowed again, but under cretinous new legislation (ooh, little bit of politics there…) only in bottles not exceeding 100ml – so no more bringing back beer/spirits from abroad unless I wish to entrust them to the farce that is baggage handling (dinner in New York, breakfast in Manchester, luggage in Murmansk…).
Sorry, drifted off on a tangent there, can’t have that on Gazza’s website, simply wouldn’t be in keeping at all…
Wednesday 25th October 2006 – 4 continents down, 2 to go!
Anyway, after a 4.30am start from my gaff, via an extortionate £20 return to Manc airport, we caught our Continental 757 to ‘New York’ Newark (even Ryotscare haven’t managed AFAIK to market an airport on a city in a different state to the airport), with passable food and rubbish films. An on-time arrival gave us about an hour and a half to get through immigration, get to the station and sort our tickets. Unlike many of our fellow passengers, we’d had the foresight to fill in our green immigration cards at MAN, so were not sent away to do so when we reached the passport control desks. I went first, Ada having a good glare at my passport, before taking a digital phot and scanning both my index fingers (what next, polygraph tests? A blood sample? A personal cop to follow you round?). She then started the interrogation, and after the standard questions started grilling me about our destination – the immigration form demands an address for one’s stay, so we had filled in a hotel Damian had previously used. Unfortunately it was in the middle of nowhere, so Ada was incredulous as to why we wanted to go there.
Eventually were got our stamps, and headed to catch the optimistically named ‘sky train’, a similar arrangement to that used between Birmingham International station and the airport, only further and infinitely slower. The airport has the cheek to charge $5.50 for this, through a surcharge on all New Jersey Transit (NJT) and Amtrak pieces to the airport shack – however, we were exempt as we were using Amtrak tickets costing $0.00, as they came with the pass ($200 for 15 days around the north-east corridor – not bad, but steep when compared to $215 for the whole east side of the country). We picked up our passes, and about 30 tickets each (an Amtrak pass is not a ticket, you have to book each individual journey, but present the pass instead of money). All the formalities completed, we jumped on a lunchtime regional Amtrak to Ardmore via Philadelphia, grabbing food at the latter while the can was swapped for a diesel, despite the line being electrified. I was impressed with my first Genesis – living in Europe you forget that a lok built in the late 1990s can chug like that! We caught an EMU back to Philly, and after leaping a few SEPTA sparks and covering the four NJT F40/GP40 diagrams on the Atlantic City line, it was time to open my American BEER account (those of you who skipped the gibber can start reading again now), courtesy of the Independence brewpub at 1150 Filbert St. Reachable loco hauled in the rush hour, and by EMUs at other times, from SEPTA’s Market East shack, leave the shack on the Filbert St (i.e. north) side, turn left, and there it is. As the railway moves had taken up most of the evening, we were a tad short of time, as we wanted to be on the 2330 to Washington, so we partook in the sample tray. Sadly no cask beers were available during our visit, but we did score Kolsch 4.3%, which to be honest disappeared so fast I hardly noticed (by this stage I’d been up 24 hours, after 4 hours sleep…), though it was rather refreshing so can’t have been bad. We then moved onto Ale 5.2%, a light brown beer, with none of the overpowering hop I’d come to expect from American beer, rather it was well balanced, if a little cold to really analyse. Next up was Scotch 7+%, an attempt at a Belgian beer style as opposed to anything to do with any Celtic nations. Having never really done Belgium I’m not overly familiar with the style, but it certainly punched its weight, being quite malty and warming (despite being served ice cold!). Next was IPA 6.5%, and this introduced me to the infamous American world of hops – whatever you say about the yanks, they’ve retained the true concept of the IPA far better than most British breweries. A pale offering, yet with a serious alcohol punch, to some extent masked by the massive hop aroma and flavour. This was my personal favourite of the offerings here, given more time I’d have happily drunk a pint or five… Finally I tried the Oatmeal Stout 5.0%, which I’d deliberately left ‘til last as I expected it to be my favourite, yet somehow it didn’t live up to expectations. It certainly wasn’t bad, but it just seemed to lack something, yet also tasted a bit rough, rendering it less than easy to drink. Possibly overuse of burnt malt, or maybe just the effect of yeast being pitched too hot, or maybe something completely different!
Given the previous night’s lack of doss, I was ready for a quality, long, overnight – but that was not the plan! The last southbound to Washington DC, for a ‘plus-hour’ connection at 2am (during which I sought and located the Capitol City brewery (opposite the main entrance, in the post office building I think) for later reference) for a train back north to Baltimore Penn to cover the MARC commuter services.
Thursday 26th October
(Fast forward through another 16 hours of cranking…) We had a quality overnight planned, the 9½ hour journey to Boston, leaving Washington Union at 2200 (or 10.00pm as the yank timetables so archaically put it). As the overnight arrives in Washington behind one of the hellfire Genesis locos (Washington-Boston is Amtrak’s only electrified line), we headed 10 miles south to Alexandria (thus ticking off Virginia on the state list) on a Miami-bound Amtrak to pick up the overnight there, reasoning this would still allow time for a relaxing drink in the brewpub as the train sits in Union station for 100 minutes. Or rather, should. When I got to Alexandria, the overnight was 45 minute late, and got steadily later, eventually arriving 1hr 15m late, though thankfully Amtrak timings account for this (away from the NE corridor, they are at the mercy of freight operators who own the tracks), and as well as the 100 minute stop the train is timed 40 minutes for the 8.3 miles into Washington. Arrival at 2131 gave me 29 minutes to harvest as many beers as possible – now there’s a challenge! I stormed over to the Capitol City brewpub (the train having inconveniently arrived on the furthest possible platform!), ordering a sample tray, which consisted of five beers. First up, Pale Rider, nothing like the beer of that name from a certain Sheffield brewery, but still rather pleasant (though again, after my fast stagger it didn’t last long enough to fully appreciate). Next I tried the Prohibition Porter, somewhere in the 5-6% range (like many American bars, ABVs are not publicised), and tasty with it. Slightly lighter than a stout, with a pleasant almost-black ruby colour, it had the roasted taste I like as opposed to burnt, which made it much smoother than the Independence stout. I followed this with Capitol Kolsch 5%, a crisp, light, lager with a pleasing hop aroma. Amber Waves was next, being (surprisingly enough) an amber-coloured ale, seemingly aiming for a balanced flavour, though in my opinion lacking any distinctive taste. The seasonal Pumpkin Ale was included, so I tried it even though it’s not a particular favourite style of mine (see, it’s not just Church End that mess around!), actually finding it reasonably pleasant provided I didn’t try to equate it to beer – as well as pumpkin it also featured cinnamon, vanilla and a few other things, so although a nice enough drink in its own right, it bore as much resemblance to beer as mulled wine does to a normal wine. Upon seeing me taking an interest in the beers, the bartender (oh all right, barman) gave me samples of the two remaining beers, for which I was most grateful as I didn’t relish the prospect of trying to bosh pints of them (ok, American pretend pints, but even so… have these people never heard of a half?!) and get back to the train in the 10 minutes remaining. Bull Run Bitter 4% was a reasonable attempt at a British bitter (well, probably wasn’t attempting that at all, but that’s what it tasted like!), plenty of hop aftertaste, though in my case cut short by the final beer of the evening, Blackout Stout, somewhere in the 5.5-7% range I think. Now this is what I’d been waiting for, a heavy, yet smooth, stout with rafts of roasted barley balancing some serious hop action. I almost regretted not having that pint… for all of the 30 seconds between me boarding the train and it leaving. Right, doss…
Friday 27th October
Refreshed after a decent-ish night’s sleep, then worn out again by a morning harvesting MBTA GMs, around lunchtime I declared it to be beer time. Fortuitously, near North Station, at 112 Canal St (from North Station, turn right out of entrance, past metro shack, turn right onto Causeway St, Canal St is first left, pub 200 yards on right) can be found a branch of Boston Beer Works. Here I found no less than 13 beers on, along with a wide selection of reasonably priced food. The problem? My next move was in half an hour! Fortunately, sample trays of 4 x 4 ounce tasters are available, in any combination of beers. Ok, three American pints in 25 minutes? Tight but doable!
I kicked off with Boston Garden Golden Ale 4.5%, which basically did what it said on the tap. Not overly hoppy, but not sweet either. Next up was Bunker Hill Bluebeery Ale 4%, with the addition of, you’ve guessed it, Blueberries (see what they did there?), which seems to be a common adjunct in America. A few fresh blueberries are also added to the glass. I must confess I quite like the style, and fruit beers in general, even if it comes nowhere near the ultimate fruit beer, Cantillon Rose de Gambrinus. I followed this with Curley’s Irish Stout 4%, a fairly dry example of the style. Keeping the stout theme, I then tried Buckeye Oatmeal Stout 5%, a much nicer attempt at the style than the Independence one in my opinion, certainly smoother. Right, rack one down, more drinks! Unfortunately, the serving Ada had chosen this moment to disappear, losing five more of my fifteen remaining minutes. Upon her return I therefore ordered two more racks simultaneously, and paid up (the Light being ‘unlucky thirteen’ that I didn’t try). Once suitably furnished with beer once again, I moved onto to Centennial Alt 5.5%, a reasonably good attempt at the style, and which is so named as they brew it every hundredth brew. Another seasonal offering next, Oktoberfest 6%, a pale lager-type beer though probably top-fermented. Boston Common 5% was next, and was fairly unremarkable as I can’t remember anything about it! Victory Red 6.5% was a red ale (funnily enough) in the Irish style, deep ruby colour with plenty of crystal malt, but not overly sweet. Another seasonal next, another Halloween job, Pumpkinhead Ale 5%, with an even more exotic list of adjuncts than the Capitol City offering – a poster on the wall listed about twenty spices and plants including vanilla, cinnamon and nutmeg. Right, three beers left and ten minutes to get to North Station. Back Bay IPA 6.5%, was quickly boshed, being easy to drink despite the enormous quantity (1½lbs per barrel!) of hops involved. Patriot Pilsner 5.5% was another lager-style beer, though not really like anything from Plzen I’ve ever tried (though being nothing like Gambrinus is no bad thing!). And finally, as I entered my last five minutes, Fenway American Pale Ale 4.5% was a similar colour to the IPA, but considerably weaker, and less hoppy, using Cascade and Cluster hops. Right, three minutes – I made the train with seconds to spare for a quick spin to Chelsea – well, I say quick, I was only on the train for a few minutes, but it was a half hour fester at Chelsea (a bit more desolate than the Chelsea over here!), as we were using $7.50 visitor passes which are not valid any further. I then headed back to South Station for some more GMs, before catching the overnight to Philly, for the 0515 back to New York Penn.
Saturday 28th October 2006
No brewpubs, but I did make two worthwhile finds:
Firstly, NJT’s main diesel station at Hoboken (from where one can catch a ferry to Manhattan, or get a decent phot of same) has a shop dispensing a range of bottles, ranging from the absolute dross (duly flagged) through the semi-decent such as Sam Adams to a couple of decent beers including Flying Fish offerings Belgian Style Dubbel, Extra Pale Ale, ESB Pale, and Grand Cru Winter Reserve. I also picked up Sam Adams Cherry Wheat (disappointing, enough cherry to render it different to a normal beer, but not enough to give the powerful flavour one expects of an American beer), Brooklyn Brown Ale, Yuengling Black & Tan, and Magic Hat #9 Not Quite Pale Ale, with a hint of apricot, though like the Sam Adams it falls between a hint and a full on flavour.
Later on, I found myself in search of food at New York Penn station. While in the queue at a pizza stand, Damian pointed out the draught beer at the opposite stand. Alongside B*dw**s*r was Red Hook Blonde, and beside that were two beers from Blue Point of Long Island. First I tried Toasted Lager, a fairly decent beer for a lager, with a nice hop aftertaste. Next, and better, was Hoptical Illusion, at 6.2% falling into the IPA category, with the characteristic hop aroma and taste. Despite drinking alcohol being illegal on Penn station (and pretty much every other station) except in designated areas, they had lids for the plastic pint glasses, and people were wandering around the shack drinking, fooling the feds by the ingenious disguising of the drink with a brown paper bag – drink? No officer, this is, erm, er, well, it’s not drink anyway, and you can’t see it so you can’t prove anything…
Sunday 29th October 2006
During the day I celebrated my 100th American loco (Metro North Genesis 206) with Blue Point Blueberry Ale 4.6%, obtained from a shop on Penn station. This was my only beer during the day, as I was attempting to save myself for what was to come that evening….
I had arranged to meet Alex in Heartland at 7pm, but he’d texted to say it was wedged, and gave me directions to the Ginger Man (34th St, just off 5th Avenue) instead. Here I was presented with a staggering 66 taps and handpumps. Hmmm, I’m gonna have to be selective! First up I tried cask Captain Lawrence Captain’s Reserve Double IPA, at a mere 8.0%. The pub’s standard measure is a proper pint i.e. 20oz. They don’t do halves, but did say they could do 13oz. So, minimum measure 2/3 pint, and most of the beers 6%+. Oh dear… I followed this up with Dale’s Pale Ale from Oskar Blues, and then Wolaver’s Organic Brown, before we adjourned to the superb Hop Devil Grill.
Not as many taps as the Ginger Man, but still a formidable list for one evening’s drinking. They serve sample trays, or ‘flights’ as they call them. However, this turned out to mean five half pints. Right, good sense out the window, here we go… For my first flight I started relatively sanely with Harpoon Munich Dark 5.6%, a dark malty beer. And that was the end of single-digit ABVs for this flight… next up Schmaltz He’Brew Genesis 10:10 at, you’ve guessed it, 10%. Brewed to celebrate the brewery’s 10th anniversary, it apparently contains 2-Row, Caramel 40, Munich, Dark Crystal 80, and Black Malts plus Wheat., along with Warrior, Centennial, Cascade, Willamette, Simcoe, Crystal and Mount Hood hops, all finished off with some pomegranate juice (why?!), though I confess I wouldn’t have noticed the latter had I not been told. Another 10th Anniversary next, namely Stone 10th Anniversary IPA 10%. Copper in colour, this beer had massive flavour, with a huge hop aroma and taste balanced out by the sheer force of the alcohol. Right, the only way is up (ABV-wise, at least)…. Victory Old Horizontal 10.5% being the weapon of choice. Very fruity, but again well balanced. It was about this time I decided that a seminar was in order, before texting Gazza about all the hellfire Barley wines, safe in the knowledge he was an ocean away and wouldn’t be stumbling round the room bellowing about them this time! Right, last of the flight, and talk about saving the best ‘til last. Avery The Czar Imperial Russian Stout 11%. It looks like oil, it pours like oil, hell, it’s probably flammable like oil. Fortunately, it doesn’t taste like it. Massive alcohol and fruit aroma lead to a smooth roasty beer with just enough hop to prevent it slipping over the edge into sweet territory. An absolutely hellfire beer, shame we can’t get it here instead of certain other American beers (using the definition loosely) inflicted upon us.
Right, time for another seminar, after which Alex showed me the outside of the pub, which is decorated with half a cask either side of the door. The one on the left is embossed ‘Dar’, and on the right is ‘k Star Brewing’. Oops.
More drinks! My second flight was a little more sensible, but not much. Starting with Climax ESB, ominously no ABV available, it was silly time, with Dogfish Head 90 Minute Imperial IPA 9%, with possibly the most intense hop taste I have ever encountered. At he other end of the scale, I then tried Lagunitas Censored 7.7%, a malty copper coloured ale. More hops next, firstly with Mendocino White Hawk Original IPA 7%, brewed to a very hoppy recipe from 1880. And finally, Weyerbacher 11th Anniversary IIIPA 11.7%, Made with UK Phoenix hops, and frighteningly easy to drink given the strength. Well balanced, yet with almost over the top hops. Now this is what an IPA should taste like, not some bland 4% shite (Gr**n* K*ng kindly take note).
Despite the number and strength of beers consumed, and the fact I’d had no more than four hours doss any of the previous four nights, I remained stone cold sober all night, and was the epitome of decorum. Yeah right… I remember very little between getting into a taxi at the Hop Devil, and waking up on a bench on Sayville station on Long Island. I should point out, however, that this at least was planned, the only way to cover the inbound LIRR commuter trains the next morning was to be on the 0035 unit from Penn for a long fester.
Monday 30th October 2006
After awaking at Sayville at ridiculous o’clock, I checked my moves book, finding that I’d scored two engines in the night that I didn’t remember. After a spin that netted twelve LIRR locos, I found myself at Penn once more, at 9.30am. I grabbed bottles of Anchor Liberty Ale and Porter, which were to be my only beers of the day as it was my first weekday with NJT validity and I intended to make full use!
Tuesday 31st October 2006
No beers, too busy spinning and viewing the local talent in their Hallowe’en costumes (they take it very seriously over there!).
Wednesday 1st November 2006
More NJT in the day, then a few drinks with Alex in the evening. Met in Collins Bar on the corner of 42nd St/8th Av. Here I was presented with a selection of Rogue beers, many of which were somewhat massive. No ABVs were provided, but in some cases I think ‘high’ sums it up! I opened my November beer account with Hop Heaven, an IPA with the hop power to which I had become accustomed. I followed this with I2PA at a mere 9.2%, another powerful hop explosion. Next was Monk Madness 7.4%, a good American Brown Ale. Brewer followed, and my notes are illegible so can’t add much enlightenment on this one. Love and Hoppiness was a much lighter beer, but still with OTT hops. Finally, Juniper Ale was risked, and to be honest was not too bad (I’m not a big fan of juniper, hence gin is the one drink I can’t stand!), with a fairly subtle (blimey, an American brewer that knows the meaning of the word!) hint of juniper in an otherwise well balanced beer.
We then moved around the corner to House of Brews, where Chelsea (now New York’s only brewpub) Black Hole XXX Stout and Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale were sampled (from a selection of 25ish draught), along with a truly massive burger, much needed after all the cranking and beers!
Finally, we dropped in at the Times Square branch of Heartland (beers brewed by Greenpoint, Brooklyn), where I had a sample tray consisting eight beers. They also have a branch on the ground floor of the Empire State Building, five minutes walk from Penn Station. I decided to get Smiling Pumpkin 5.5% out the way first, being yet another pumpkin beer. I then washed it down with Oktoberfest Lager, and Cornhusker Lager 4.75%. I then moved on to Harvest Wheat 4.5%, Indian River Light 4.0%, Indiana Pale Ale, Red Rooster Ale 5.5%, finishing with Farmer Jon’s Oatmeal Stout 6.0%. All the beers were competent, though not spectacular. By this stage I was worn out, and probably more than a little pissed, so I ambled back to Penn for the Boston overnight, only to find the train was over an hour late. Although this wouldn’t delay departure, it did mean an hour’s doss was out the window as the stock would now not sit in the platform for an hour.
Thursday 2nd November 2006
Friday 3rd November 2006
This was the one day I took an extended break from trains (and had a bed instead of an overnight train!). I got back to Penn around 8pm, and jumped straight onto a southbound Line A subway to Jay St-Borough Hall. From there, a short walk downhill before turning right onto Atlantic Avenue brought me to the Brazen Head, where Alex’s cask beer festival was being held. Although the list included 26 beers, about a dozen were on at once. I started with Sixpoint Ginger Righteous 7.2% and Grand Crue (Merlot Cask) 13.1%! I also had Legacy Brown Aled Girl 4.5%. Kelso (brewed at Greenpoint) Chocolate Lager 6.5%, Defiant ESB 6.5%, Stoudts Juniper Scarlet Lady 5.0, Captain Lawrence Pleasantville Smoked Porter 6.4%, Sly Fox Magnum IPA 5.2%, Paper City IPA 5.2% and Winter Palace 7.6%, Defiant Christmas Ale 8.4% (bah humbug!), and Chelsea Cream Stout 7.5%, while from the main bar I tried Brooklyn Blast Double IPA 8.0%. A 2am taxi back to Alex’s place, for four hours doss, plus an extra hour when I managed to doss through the alarm clock!
Saturday 4th November 2006
No bars as we were flying home, but did drink the Defiant Porter 6.8% that Alex had bottled for me!
As ever there were lots of places I was too busy to try. The one that elicits the biggest ‘d’oh’ is Poughkeepsie, where there’s decent bar five minutes from the shack (down the approach road, turn right towards river), which I completely forgot about in the 45 minutes I had there between trains!
On NJT, Pearl River on the Pascack Valley Line has the Defiant Brewing Co across the road from the shack, while 15 minutes walk from Hoboken is Mile Square, Washington St, a bar with several good draught beers. On the Morris & Essex line, there is a brewpub at South Orange, a ten minute walk from the shack.
On LIRR, Captain Lawrence is ten minutes walk from Pleasantville. Brick House brewpub is ten minutes north of Patchogue shack (Montauk line), while Blue Point is 12-15 minutes west. Further up the same line, at Southampton, an eponymous brewpub can be found ten minutes from the shack.
The north east corridor has loads of bars to try. I was trying to fit them around some serious cranking (218 locos in 9½ days!), and still scored 86 beers. Someone going for just beers could easily clock up a couple of hundred, though be prepared for a walletectomy – pints (16oz) seem to average about $5 so even with the current strong pound works out well over £3 a pint (real!). Add to this the cost of getting to the places (the Amtrak pass remains good value, but the commuter line pieces soon add up!). And if you reject our cheapskate ‘Hotel Amtrak’ option, expect a hotel to set you back a load more ching. On top of this, tipping the norm everywhere – bars, taxis, cafes, the lot.
Hopefully my next states trip will be in 2007, involving a week in Chicago, before taking the 959 mile Genesis run to New York for another week there. I also really want to cover the Great American Beer Festival in Denver – pay once to get in, then all beer included, plus perfect for Peter Two-Sips as you get a 1oz tasting glass, so could probably try 200 beers in a day (with 1,000+ to choose from!)
Many thanks are due to Alex Hall for supplying the gen, and for piloting me around New York twice! His cask festival at the Brazen Head was also hell, though strictly falls outside the scope of this article as it is a subway ride from either of the main New York stations.
Dave Unpronounceable, Dec 2006. V1.1 03/07/07