Thursday, 17 October 2019

Is New York's trendy sour-milk IPA a step too far?

I had evenings free before and after last month’s conference in New York City, which was my chance to try a couple of craft beer bars, one in Manhattan and one on Long Island. Both of course had ‘regular’ brews on, but quite a bit was gimmicky and adjunct-laden or simply fashion-crazed – the latter mainly meaning hugely-hopped hazy IPAs and the like.

The range in Long Island’s Amity Ales was fairly seasonal, with Hofbrau Oktoberfestbier and the first couple of pumpkin spiced beers ahead of Halloween, for example. A couple of hazy IPAs nodded to fashion, as did the sole dark craft beer – a 6.2% Chocolate Peanut Butter Porter from Maryland's DuClaw Brewing, called Sweet Baby Jesus (left), which proved remarkably tasty and drinkable for all that they seemed to have emptied the kitchen cupboard into it.

Also very drinkable was the house Amity Pale Ale, now contract-brewed across town rather than in the pub’s basement. Although described as an American Pale Ale, it is deep brown and much closer in style to an English Bitter, though of course with US hops and an American sensibility (it's 5.5% for example!). It’s a great twist on an old familiar.

Less impressive was my first experience of where New England fashion has taken hazy IPA. Juicy IPA from nearby Montauk was a bit untidy – not so bitter, but with sweet tropical fruit jarring up against aggressive vegetal hoppiness.

Worse was to come a couple of days later, however, when I met Lactose IPA. In a way it should have been expected – I mean, New England IPA as a style already emphasises the fruity-hoppy notes over the bitterness. Then came the trend to make it even fruitier by, er, putting real fruit in. So sweetening it up with milk sugar to complete the transition to hoppy sugary fruit drink was the obvious next step, am I right? Add in the fashion for ‘sour IPAs’ – sour in this context usually meaning just a little bit tart and tangy, rather than bracingly mouth-puckering – and the weirdness is complete.

DIY beer and cheese pairing
This was at Milk & Hops in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, which by chance was having a festival of beers from breweries in Upstate New York – that’s to say, from up north beyond the city suburbs. As the name implies, the bar’s schtick is gourmet cheese and craft beer, although unfortunately the tap takeover meant that the regular pairing plate wasn’t available that night.

Sadly, my first three choices were all drinkable but unimpressive. Obercreek’s Fall Into Place hazy DIPA seemed unbalanced and a bit harsh, and both Mortalis’ Tears of the Goddess and Beer Tree Brew’s Slightly Fuzzy were absurdly over-complicated. The former was a ‘sour IPA’ with lactose, fruit, vanilla and granola(!), and the latter a mango-lime Berliner Weisse, where the lime almost out-tarted the beer.

I could have stopped there – especially there wasn’t much under the equivalent of £10 a UK pint. It was tipping down with rain outside though, so I plugged on – and I was rewarded… Everything else I tried that evening was good-to-excellent, including the cheese plate above! District 96’s dry-sweet, fruity and funky Summer Campaign was, at 7.2%, a fine example of a strong Saison, and Mortalis redeemed itself with Hazel, an excellently complex Imperial Coffee Stout – syrupy sweet yet warming and cocoa-bitter.

The one brewery to really score was Prison City, which is a brewpub just south of Lake Ontario, in a small town which does indeed possess a ‘correctional facility’. Quite a few of their beers have crime-related names, including the duo on the bar that night: In Prison Again (left) and Wham Whams, which is apparently US prison slang for the little goodies inmates can buy from the canteen.

Several also have hop bills that change from batch to batch – this version of In Prison Again, a very nicely balanced 6.7% hazy IPA which almost had an internal glow, was brewed with Galaxy & Waimea. At the other end of the beer spectrum, Wham Whams is their Imperial Stout, this version having been aged in Woodford Reserve bourbon barrels coconut and vanilla, and weighing in at 11%. It was rich and very impressive, if a little cloying on the finish, with so much chocolate and coconut character it was a bit like Bounty bars melted in a heavy dark beer. Lovely sippin’ stuff!

Next it was time to move upstate myself. More on that in a future blog...

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