Like many New Yorkers, Joshua Bernstein drinks a lot of beer. But Bernstein doesn't just drink beer. He knows beer. He knows the history, the traditions, the technique, the brewers, and where to find the best pint. Bernstein has built what many consider a dream career for himself, as a beer journalist and occasional beer tour guide. He's also celebrating the release of his first book, "Brewed Awakening: Behind the Beers and Brewers Leading the World's Craft Brewing Revolution," whose title is fairly self-explanatory. We sat down with Bernstein at one his favorite local haunts, Minor Arcana in Prospect Heights, to talk shop.
So Josh, who is your book for? Beer geeks? Beer newbies? Somewhere in the middle? The craft beer market is just seven percent of the US right now. For all the media and all the hype that gets done about it, it's just a small part of the beer that people are drinking. So the way I tried to write the book was this: seven percent of America is going to find out stuff that they didn't know and it's going to interest them, but for the rest of the people it's going to give them the confidence they need to go into a beer store or go into a bar and say, "I know what that beer is now." There are so many different styles being produced all the time.
What exactly is craft beer? It gets thrown around a lot, but is there a specific definition? Craft beer—well the term everyone used years ago was microbrew. No one really uses "microbrewery" anymore because these small breweries aren't so small anymore. I mean, Sam Adams only has one percent of the American beer market, but that one percent is a giant percentage of beers so you can't really call them a microbrewery anymore. So craft beer, to me, is just beer that's created with a bit more care, a bit more integrity, a bit more attention to flavor and detail. The craft brewing industry was built upon the backs of people that wanted to make beer that they couldn't drink, which was just trying to find beer that the entire country couldn't drink. It was a slow, natural growth.
I'm interested in the history of the craft brew movement. Could you talk a little bit about when craft beer started getting popular in America? As far as I know there were a couple of waves of craft beer. Back in the early '80s that's when Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams kind of came on the scene with a few other ones. They were these really original linchpins of the movement. Then in the '90s craft beer kind of became this really cool thing and so brew pubs started popping up all over the place.
What about in New York? In New York City there were about ten different brew pubs creating beer. What happened in New York City, along with a lot of other places, was just that people were really jumping on this bandwagon and just creating craft beer and creating microbrew because it seemed cool and so it was more about marketing and more about visuals and logos and less concern about what the beer taste like. It was enough back then to have an interesting label to be on a shelf. Bartenders didn't really know the beer, the stores didn't really know how to sell the beer, so it'd be on shelves and it'd go bad.
There was a bit of a crash by the mid-to-late-'90s. Craft brewing had pretty much petered out. So what you're seeing now is the second wave of that. They've taken the mistakes that people made in the first wave and finding where people went wrong. You can't just throw a kooky label on there and expect to survive right now. It has to be a well-crafted beer, it has to be something that people enjoy and not just something to have in the fridge or bring that six-pack up to a party and say this is awesome.
So where does New York stand today in terms of the craft beer movement? There are a couple of things conspiring against New York City. Real estate. Look at Sixpoint: they started out in Red Hook and already the outgrew their space. They have their beer brewed over in Greenpoint Beerworks, which is in Clinton Hill, which also makes Heartland and Kelso's beer, and then they outgrew that, and now their beer is being brewed out in Pennsylvania. They expanded recently and started doing a lot more specialty beers in Brooklyn now. There just isn't the space in New York City. That's not to say that New York's got a bad beer scene. The way it is, like with anything else in New York, if New York falls behind in anything it's going to find a way to do it bigger and better. It's just this swagger thing. You're seeing all of these great bars popping up and you're seeing breweries that are arriving in an appropriate vicinity.
People must be constantly badgering you for recommendations. Where in the city you like to go to drink? I live in Crown Heights, Brooklyn and if I work at home and I don't want to go super far, especially in the summer time, then I go to Bierkraft. It's a beer supply store with a great tap. They have 16 beers on tap and you can buy a growler, which is a glass jug just for beer, and I bring to their backyard. It's just a really communal way to share beer with people. If I go with three or four friends then I can just sit there and each person takes a turn buying the growler and we get some potato chips. If I'm up in Williamsburg Barcade is always great for American craft beer. They do a fantastic job there. And then down the road, there's Spuyten Duyvil, if you're looking for Belgian beers. My favorite place in Manhattan, it's kind of an off beat choice, but it's Drop Off Service over on 13th Street, on 13th and Avenue A. It used to be a laundromat. I would say it's not a selection of craft beer that changes wildly like something like a Rattle and Hum in Midtown.
What kind of beer do you bring to parties? I do a lot of traveling and when I'm in San Francisco or Portland or other places I try and leave like half of my suitcase empty. And for me, the best part of craft beer is being able to share it with people so I try to bring something that they can't get. That way they're really able to explore and find out what's great in that part of the country so that way everyone can just explore.
But for go-to beers, what's crazy is that bogedas in Brooklyn have amazingly good selections of beers. For example, I've lived in my apartment in Crown Heights for nine years now and it used to be all tall boys for a dollar and that was all well and good, if you had to get beer. But now I can go in there and get great beers from Scone and Bear Republic, nice West Coast breweries, the whole Brooklyn Brewery selection and Cigar City which is a nice brewery from Tampa, Florida. New York City makes it really easy to be a drunk.