My “beer sensei”, the gentleman who taught a beer appreciation class last year that was so enlightening it gave rise to this blog, had one bit of particularly nasty criticism that he leveled early and often throughout the class: that New York City was “the worst beer city in the United States”. Per capita, and based on my experiences in NY to that date, I had to admit at the time that there was probably something to his strong and surly words of condemnation. Now it just so happens in my line of work that I get “called away” reasonably often to that fine city, and I reckon in the past 18 months I’ve made at least ten different visits to New York. I made a vow recently that on future trips I was going to “go deep” into the City’s beer culture and sample every microbrewery in town (all 3 of ‘em!) and find the pubs that would shine a light of personal experience on my sensei’s assertions.
Two weeks ago I sprang into action at the HEARTLAND BREWERY at 51st and 6th, right across from Radio City Music Hall. I will say that I actually tried Heartland a few months before this but was so hungry at the time of my 9:30pm dinner that the beer was a quenching afterthought only, but if I remember anything from that visit it was that their chicken pasta was actually damn good. Good food at a brewery? Are you kidding me? I chalked it up to being famished and figured that was that. Don’t even remember what beers I ordered. Now I’ve got a blog to take care of and a readership in the low dozens, so I HAD to take notes this time. Let me say this – Heartland Brewery’s cooks have got it going on. For less than $20, which is exceptionally infrequent in New York, you can get a steak dinner with a fine, juicy piece of meat & mashed potatoes that taste like mama made ‘em. Soggy vegetables? No way man, Heatland’s grilling up asparagus spears like they’re in the South of France and the whole family’s coming for Easter dinner. OK, so I exaggerate a bit, but I can’t tell you how many mediocre-to-godawful brewery meals I’ve suffered through in order to enjoy quality beer – no doubt you have many tales to tell on that end as well.
So it was disheartening to say the least that of the 3 Heartland beers I tried, all 3 were varying shades of blah, with one being tolerable in the right circumstances. First up was their INDIA PALE ALE, the beer snob’s brew of choice. It was a far cry from the MAGIC HAT IPA I had just two days later – duff, lifeless and lacking any kind of hop-laced zing at all. I gave it a 4/10 and figured anyone can make a bad beer, let’s move on. Next up was the one they were flogging all over the restaurant, the SUMMERTIME APRICOT ALE. This was better for sure, but again, how could something with the promise of the tart/sweet apricot be so bereft of any kind of hops or complex malts to balance it out? I gave it a 5.5/10 but that seems too generous. Guess I was in a summery mood or just excited to be in New York. Finally, looking for redemption, I ordered up the FARMER JON’S OATMEAL STOUT. Why, this one actually won medals at the “Great American Beer Festival” in 1995, 1997 and 1999 – that wasn’t too long ago, was it? Afraid so. This was the worst of the bunch, a barely-drinkable dry concoction of dark black water and alcohol that left me sad and dejected. I “awarded” this beer a 3.5/10, which is dangerously close to Miller Genuine Draft country and is definitely my personal signal to “never order this one again” (I keep a list, you know). So I feel like I gave the Heartland Brewery a pretty good college try, but I came up short on game day. This is, let it be said, a “chain brewery”, but I don’t remember being this disappointed in beer at the ROCK BOTTOM BREWERY in Cincinnati, Ohio last year. Ah, Cincinnati! A story for another day!