Caught by the River

Pint by the (East) River: Brooklyn Lager & Brown Ale

23rd March 2011

by Roger Clapham

The common conception in the UK of American beer is that it’s all weak, anaemic, flavourless cat piss, served brutally chilled to ensure you wouldn’t taste anything anyway. Harsh, but that’s the way a lot of people feel. Fact is, the smaller scale, local producer-led and craft beer scenes are alive and kicking in the US, particularly on the East and West coasts, and some of the more successful operators are exporting their beers around the world. The Brooklyn Brewery in New York is just one of them.

In the late 1800s Brooklyn was brewing a lot of beer, with 48 active breweries that employed and served a big population of mainly German immigrants who appreciated a decent beer and knew how to brew one. Sadly this didn’t last, and during the next century or so, which included the Prohibition Era and later the rise of the cheap mass produced beers from the Midwest, all these breweries closed, putting an end to locally produced and regionally distinctive beers in the area until 1987 when the Brooklyn Brewery opened in upstate New York. Having dodged various criminal elements and persuaded enough hard-nut bar owners to sell their beer, the Brooklyn brand thrived and in 1996 opened up a new brewery in Williamsburg, and now their beers are available in the majority of the US as well as over here.

Their first beer, and the best known, is Brooklyn Lager. However, it’s not really lager as we generally know it here. It smells like lager, but it has a malty taste, with some hints of floral hops, and despite its 5.2% strength there’s a lingering smooth aftertaste, rather than the almost chemical, cloying burn some so-called lagers can give you. It’s brewed to an old Viennese style and is labelled as “the pre-prohibition beer”, this kind of brew having been a favourite in New York before the 1920s. Oddly, I was a bit fixated on its colour – the very same shade of amber as that deadly prehistoric globule in Jurassic Park – however that’s far from relevant, and there weren’t any age-old insects in the bottle I had either.

Now the lager is pretty good, however Brooklyn Brown Ale is something else. Thick, smooth and delicious, and nothing like the usual English versions are (including the world famous Geordie export Newcastle Brown that was an underage favourite when I was growing up). To taste, it’s a slightly fruity, rich dark bitter, with the vaguest hint of coffee and chocolate in the background – almost a porter flavour – so describing it as a brown ale hardly does it justice as only the deep nut brown colour is characteristic of that name. It really is a great beer, it’s only fault being that it comes in the US-standard smaller 355ml bottle. That said, it’s 5.6% so you don’t want to be knocking back too much of it, otherwise you might find yourself in full “I’m walking here!” mode like Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy.

Look out for either of these anywhere that sells a good range of imported beers, and certainly in London at places like The Lexington in Islington or the White Horse in Parson’s Green. Cheers…