If you think the phrase “craft beer” has been watered down, ask Kelly Taylor about it.
“The term ‘craft beer’ has been used almost to death over the last few years,” says Taylor, president of the NYC Brewers Guild, which promotes the city’s craft breweries. Friday begins his busiest time of the year: New York City Beer Week, which is actually 10 days of events all about the small-batch brews being made around the city.
The message is the same at every one of the 400 or so tastings, talks, dinners, tap takeovers and more taking place through Feb. 28. “To a certain degree, we’re trying to reassert what it means to be a craft beer,” Taylor continues. “It’s made with a certain purpose and a certain degree of character that comes out in the beer, and it’s gotta be presented in a way that elevates the discourse.”
To that end, Beer Week is all about getting beer fans face-to-face with brewers and more knowledgeable about the huge variety of beers being turned out by local producers — the guild has 23 member breweries and several more that don’t have a permanent facility (yet).
At Greenpoint’s Keg & Lantern brewpub alone, Patrick Allen turned out more than 90 varieties of beer from the three barrels in the basement. “I don’t want to get bored,” Allen says about the turnover, which sees ingredients like cilantro (inspired by the nachos served upstairs) and mushrooms make it into his brews. “The whole fact that I’m enjoying it is the creativity and getting to experiment. If I was making the exact same beers all the time, I think I’d lose a little bit of my passion for it.”
Keg & Lantern didn’t start out that way — the bar used to serve mostly the mass-market beers preferred by the Polish and Korean after-work crowd. It took time, and a lot of experimentation, for Allen to win over the clientele. Now, almost all of the taps are his own brews, which are only available at the bar.
“The people that make the craft beer, their personalities come out in the beer,” says Taylor, who is also the co-founder and brewer at Brooklyn’s KelSo Beer Co. “They’re always trying to make something that’s got a little bit of a twist to it, a hook, a flavor, a depth of character. Every brewer has got their fingerprint that gets put on the beer.”
A great way to get a sense of that during Beer Week is on opening day, when 12 breweries across the city will be tapping their SMaSH (state malts and state hops) challenge brews all day long. These beers were all made using the same New York state ingredients, created from concept to tap in about six weeks.
But just because there’s a ton of individuality among brewers doesn’t mean trends don’t emerge. Right now, fully a quarter of all craft beer being sold nationally is an IPA, threatening the dominance of that most American of beer styles.
“It used to be that IPA was the third or fourth seller, and now it’s right up there neck-and-neck with the lager,” says Taylor. Drinkers who used to prefer witbiers are “skipping right over those and going straight for the intensity of a good IPA that’s got tremendous flavor and mouthfeel. It tastes like a classic beer style.”
Credit some of that to East Coast brewers, who have been tempering the hops’ bitterness, says Allen. Though hisGreen Eyes IPA, one of only two beers that Keg & Lantern always keeps on tap, has the dry, clear and bitter style of the West Coast, he’s been trying out the new “softer, juicier” methods as well.
Whichever you prefer, malt is far from out of style. A good IPA still needs a good malt behind it. “If it’s played right,” Taylor says, “you don’t notice it.”