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Searching for Good Beer in New York's Ignored Borough

February 15, 2017

By Aaron Goldfarb, February 15, 2017

The Italian tourists tentatively approach me, struggling to find the right words:

“We can do...do we stay...on ferry...to go back to Manhattan?”

I tell them I’m not sure. My photographer Cory Smith and I actually seem to be the only people actually getting off the Andrew J. Barber ferry as it pulls into Staten Island’s St. George Terminal around 8:45 AM on this chilly Tuesday morning. While ferries heading into Manhattan at that hour are packed to the gills with construction workers, firemen, and businesspeople, few take the so-called “reverse” commute. That’s aside from tourists trying to filch a free peep show of Lady Liberty as the boat passes nearby on its 25-minute voyage. We debark in Staten Island, though, because I’m searching for good beer in the city’s oft-ignored borough.

These are halcyon days in New York City beer. Brooklyn has become a mecca for great beer bars like Tørst, brewpubs like Threes, and breweries like Other Half where geeks line up overnight to score pounder cans of juicy (and highly-tradeable) IPAs. In Manhattan, world-class beer can be found in cat-crawling corner bodegas up to Michelin three-star restaurants and everywhere in between. There’s a little stretch of Queens, from Long Island City to Astoria, that has become dotted with stellar breweries like LIC Beer Project and Singlecut. Even the Bronx — the borough most New Yorkers only visit to watch the Yankees play — is now home to award-winning breweries like Gun Hill.

But, Staten Island…?

“There’s definitely a stigma,” says Jay Sykes, one of the owners of Flagship Brewing Company. “Whenever people hear I make beer in Staten Island they joke, ‘What is it, brewed with dump water?!’”

Whenever people hear I make beer in Staten Island they joke, ‘What is it, brewed with dump water?!”

You often wonder if Staten Islanders know that the rest of New York sees them as a punching bag. I quickly learned yes, yes, they absolutely do. And they’re sick of it. In fact, “stigma” (usually pronounced stig-marr) is a word I will literally hear from every single person I talk to during my day on Staten Island.

Flagship’s taproom is just a brisk 12 minutes from the ferry terminal, walking along the eastern North Shore of the island toward the emerging Tompkinsville neighborhood (door-to-door from Park Slope, I was there in about an hour).

Coming from tight-and-cramped Brooklyn, Flagship’s space feels huge. Though the ceilings are low, the brewhouse has a 15-barrel high-gravity brewing system with eleven 30-barrel fermenters. The taproom is big as a bowling alley, with a unique bar made of halved whiskey barrels, communal picnic tables, and stag’s heads hanging from the walls – a gift from fellow partner Matthew McGinley’s father-in-law who no longer wanted them in his hunting cabin.

“Staten Island is a difficult nut to crack,” Sykes explains to me as I sit at the bar. “It’s still very much a macro town.”

Cory Smith / Good Beer HuntingAt Flagship Brewing, the stag on the wall has heard it all.

In fact, Staten Island was once literally a macro town, home to five breweries starting in the 1850s and continuing all the way ’til Piels (“It’s a good drinking beer”) was shuttered in 1963. Staten was once a land of German immigrants who loved lager and had settled on a hilly island with great access to fresh water and caves that could produce it. When Flagship opened in 2013 it was the borough’s first craft brewery (ignoring Old World Brewing Co. which opened in 2001 and quickly flopped).

Flagship's area is still fairly industrial, rife with ’diggers and ’dozers, but it seems destined to be hip one day. It’s only a block from the bay and will connect with the Lighthouse Point development project which will supposedly bring forth a lovely pier, bars and restaurants, and luxury high-rises. A 350,000 square foot “designer” outlet mall is soon to come, hoping to inspire those Italian tourists to maybe get off the ferry and stick around for awhile; ditto for the in-the-works New York Wheel. Literally everyone we meet will mention this ferris wheel with the sort of naive optimism that makes you wonder if Lyle Lanley sold it to borough.

Though the taproom is quite inviting, and Sykes clearly knows his shit, I must admit to not expecting much from Flagship’s beer. Even I can’t help myself from buying into the stig-marr. Flagship’s styles aren’t flashy, nor are their names, but the beer is truly excellent. IPAs shmIPAs, right?

But Flagship’s (simply called “IPA”) has an interesting earthy quality, reminding me a bit of eating Play-Doh as a kid, and I say that in a most positive way, I swear. Sykes claims that’s due to a unique French hop they employ called Triskel.

I’m also particularly enamored by DAM, a 4.5% dark English mild ale with strong notes of coffee and pipe tobacco. When’s the last time you’ve been enamored by an English mild? Surprisingly, only around 30% of Flagship’s beer is sold on Staten Island with the bulk selling in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where it’s in every single Whole Foods.

Cory Smith / Good Beer HuntingA split-oak bar and exposed brick make the Craft House beautiful, but it's still about the beer.

“We don’t have to be a ‘Staten Island brewery,’ we can just be a brewery that happens to be on Staten Island,” Vinny Lima tells me. He’s one of the partners in the yet-to-open Kills Boro Brewing Company, located in the 1,100 square-foot back room of his Craft House gastropub.

It had begun snowing while we were inside Flagship, making the would-be quick walk around the block to Craft House a tad more arduous. This bar is located in the middle of a sleepy neighborhood that Lima explains once had “a crack house, a whore house, and degenates up and down the block.” He claims his popular bar and BBQ joint has helped change all that since it opened in 2013.

Craft House is one of the most handsome beer bars I’ve ever been in. The el-shaped bar is made of a split oak tree, the walls are exposed brick from the 1880s, and Lima’s office is actually in a secret cave in the basement (you can still see the outline of the “escape” door for the owners of the speakeasy that once sat in this spot during prohibition).

The beer list is excellent with limited offerings from Hill Farmstead, Grimm Artisanal Ales, and Brasserie de Blaugies. Lima claims he gets a lot of “BeerMenus tourists” and that his bar is the only spot in Staten Island without a single macro beer available.

“Anyone who asks for a Bud, Coors, Corona, you know...I tell my bartenders don’t ask questions and just put a ‘line 1’ in front of them,” Lima tells me. Line 1 being permanently committed to Narragansett Lager. “If they don’t like that, don’t charge ’em.”

I’m here to taste Kills Boro’s beers, though, which I’m able to once Sean Torres arrives. He’s a bit flustered, an ID badge still clipped to his pea coat, having asked for an hour off from his day job in digital marketing for a health care group. The beers Torres makes along with partners Phil Gardner and Patrick Wade aren’t legally for sale yet — they aren’t even named yet — but he’s brought a few growlers so I can taste them.

They are all ambitious and outstanding. Kills Boro has a pleasantly phenolic hoppy saison, a no-adjunct Russian imperial stout, and have already received some awards for their coconut cream ale and no-frills Irish dry stout.

Kills Boro’s strawberry Berlinerweisse is the real standout though. Many brewers struggle with incorporating strawberries into beers, but this one nails it, a fragrant fresh-fruit aroma with a jammy taste balancing the slightly-acidic base beer. Both Lima and Torres believe these are the kind of “refined” beers that will impress Manhattanites and Brooklyners who think they’re above drinking Staten Island brews. I have to agree.

Cory Smith / Good Beer HuntingSuper hops, super heroes, and skeeball – The Hop Shoppe may have a handle on the secret of the universe.

It’s just past 11 AM as we enter The Hop Shoppe and the borough’s bars are finally starting to fill up. To be clear, Staten Island may not quite yet be a craft beer town, but it is very much a drinking town. In a way the borough almost hearkens back to yesteryear, when there was nothing wrong with having a toot or two midday, even if you have more work left in the afternoon.

These aren’t Don Drapers at The Hop Shoppe though. I meet an older gentlemen named Lee, with a mustache like Super Mario, who’s a self-employed contractor working on the house next door to the bar. Since he’s been on the job, he’s been coming to The Hop Shoppe every unchtime for some chicken fingers and IPAs.

The bar’s tap list is impressive and the bottle list is even better. I spy several bottles in the cooler (Cigar City Marshal Zhukov Vanilla Hazelnut, Goose Island Bourbon County Brand Coffee Stout) that wouldn’t last a full day in a Brooklyn beer bar. I opt for a Windows Up IPA from Alpine Beer Co. and the bartender Meg (literally the only female we will see inside a bar all day) pulls me a draught from a tap handle topped with a Lion-O action figure.

Lee isn’t leery or uninviting, but he can clearly tell we aren’t from the borough. Not a lot of people must come into The Hop Shoppe in jeans as tight as ours, making notes in their Moleskins, lugging around a bag full of different camera lenses. When he learns why we’re in town, he instantly begins recommending the places we should truly be drinking at, many not on my list. We’d had plans to head out to the South Shore to do some drinking, but Lee scoffs at that notion. Too far.

North Shore residents seem to rarely visit the South Shore of Staten Island, a place even they find insular, lacking in diversity, and often embarrassing.”

In fact, it seems most North Shore residents seem to rarely visit the South Shore of Staten Island, a place even they find insular, lacking in diversity, and often embarrassing. More than once, I hear a North Shorer derisively refer to South Shore residents as “Trump voters.” (Trump won Staten Island by 17%, the only borough he didn’t get destroyed in). The snow is now coming down hard, and when we’re unable to find an Uber — no, I didn’t #deleteuber — Lee feels our plight.

“C’mon, I’ll take ya’ around,” he says as he dunks his final chicken finger in some honey mustard and throws a twenty on the bar. “I can’t paint while it’s snowing any how.”

Lee drives us through the winding roads of the North Shore pointing out this bar and that; he’s a wealth of Staten Island drinking information, having lived and drank in the borough since the 1980s. He’s even accidentally owned some bars after “deadbeats” were unable to pay him for work he’s done. He tells me he’s become tantalized by the bitter taste of IPA of late, but he’s still not opposed to bellying up to many of the borough’s top dives for a few cold pints. But first, he wants to show us his house.

 OK...

Next thing I know we’re getting the tour of Lee’s gorgeous four-story house (“Not even worth a million!” he laments) and hanging in his backyard where he’s built his own bar and pizza oven. I have to say, there are certainly worse places in the world to drink than Lee’s home bar.

Cory Smith / Good Beer HuntingThe writer takes notes in his moleskin and tight jeans as the snow comes down around him.

The snow has calmed and Lee has to get back to painting, so he drives us to Nürnberger Bierhaus, the top German bar in the North Shore (I had wanted to also visit the legendary Killmeyer’s Old Bavaria Inn on the North Shore, but it was simply too far away and would have put us off schedule). As I prepare to slam his car door, I want to thank Lee properly, so I ask if he has a business card to contact him latter. He smirks in my face.

“Do I look like the kinda guy with a business card?”

It’s past noon now and we’ve been drinking for several hours. It’s time to eat. Luckily, Nürnberger’s has an ample selection of authentic German delicacies. I opt for a jagerschnitzel with a side of potato pancakes while Cory goes for the Black Forest ham sandwich. Both are excellent. For beers I’m heartened to see Ayinger Celebrator, the world’s best dopplebock, on tap, something I rarely see in Brooklyn or Manhattan. It even comes in a branded pokal-style chalice. Delicious.

I’m starting to feel buzzed which is the only reason why I’m thinking about putting some action on the Super Bowl box pool hanging above the register. How much for a box, I ask the old man behind the bar, pulling out some cash.

“Five-hundred bucks.”

Per box?

Indeed. $25,000 in winnings if you have the final score correct.

Too rich for this writer’s blood, but some Bitburger-swilling local will surely be ignoring the IRS come Sunday evening.

Cory SmithA place untouched by time?

We head to Duffy’s down the street, per Lee’s strong recommendation, passing some absolutely giant houses lining Bement Avenue en route. Duffy’s is famed for “Staten Island’s best burgers” — they come on English muffins. The whole bar is packed but not with burger-and-soda customers. The clientele is literally all men, mostly white- and gray-haired, all with big bellies, all drinking macro beer as their lunch entree. I order an MGD and after a sip I wish I hadn’t.

Duffy’s is the kind of bar I really wanted to see in Staten Island. A pristine dump untouched by any sort of gentrification or dive bar tourists. Duffy’s does not have a website and I guarantee Cory and I are the only customers in the bar with Untappd accounts.

I’m soon having my ear talked off by the kind of man who you can’t tell if he’s super nice, or trying to con you out of something. At the least, I can immediately tell he’s fucking with us. He has a couple of beers while we’re there, then tells us he has to get back to work. He hands me a business card with a bottle of furniture cleaner and dish soap on one side — “It’s my “pride and joy,” he jokes. I flip the card over and learn I’ve been talking to “S.I. Tony,” the island’s most infamous realtor, his signs spotting the area.

Our next stop takes us the furthest we will get out on Staten Island in Mariners Harbor, mid-island. When our car drops us off, at the correct address according to the internet, all that is there is a Volvo dealership. I have no choice but to go in and ask a salesman:

“Any clue where Staten Island Beer Company is?”

It’s around the corner, in a non-distinct warehouse out back. Staten Island Beer Co. is the second brewery to open in the borough and will complete our set of having seen them all. Its space is not massive and glossy like Flagship’s, nor is it sleek and chic like Kills Boro, it’s just a nice homey brewery run by a nice Jewish family.

Cory Smith / Good Beer HuntingIt's around the corner, the sign's on the fence, you can't miss it.

The taproom isn’t open today, but Dave Schulman and his brother Maury have already gotten off from their day jobs (dog groomer, English teacher/baseball coach) and are able to give us a tour. Unlike most of the people we have met today, the Schulmans were not born and raised in Staten Island, having actually grown up in Canarsie, Brooklyn.

When that neighborhood got too rough and tumble, Jonathan and his wife Karen moved the family to Staten Island so Maury could finish high school. (“Fucking gross,” he tells me was his first thought of Staten Island). Jonathan has actually been homebrewing for nearly twenty years as a member of the famed Pour Standards homebrew club. Bored in retirement after working years at the New York Times, he took a job moving Hertz rental cars around the country. Eventually he decided to get more serious with his homebrew habit.

Eventually, his sons got even better than him at brewing.

“I had only one beer I brewed well…most of the time,” Jonathan humbly notes.

That beer was his Victory Blvd. Pale Ale which remains the brewery’s flagship. They have another ten beers on tap and, yes, let’s try them all. Again, I can’t help but stigmatize Staten Island but, yet again, the beer is good. My favorites are their sugary dubbel Breaking Belgium and a Wee Heavy made with butternut squash. In their I Hear Voices IPA, the brothers even prove they can brew a juicy, New England-style IPA just as well as their more acclaimed inter-borough brethren.

The brothers insist we let them take us to a bar down the block that their friend owns, Bootleg Mannings Bar & Grill.

Cory Smith / Good Beer HuntingTrust the locals. Trust them.

I must admit, that bar never came up in any of my online research and our schedule is tight, but I trust them for some reason. I’m smart to. Located in a decrepit strip mall next to a store called Crib Outlet, Bootleg Mannings Bar & Grill has a cool, dark interior and an extremely impressive beer and whiskey list. You can’t beat the prices.

“This used to be a trailer trash bar, dudes ordering four chicken wings and drinking free soda all day,” Dave tells me, almost shocked what it’s now become. I bypass beer and decide to have an E.H. Taylor Cured Oak bourbon to clear my palate, then play a quick game of Pop-A-Shot to get in my fitness for the day. It’s dinner time by now.

Everyone often jokes that Staten Island smells... and I will learn they’re right. It doesn’t smell like the dump, though. I’m starting to notice the whole town smells like pizza. Delicious pizza. I had wanted to go to the legendary Lee’s Tavern for their famous bar pie, but David thinks it’s too far away and, any how, he knows a better spot. He drops us off in Port Richmond at Denino’s, “since 1937.”

Though it’s happy hour by now, the pizzeria/tavern is oddly empty. We sit down at the faux-marble bar top and order some Buds. The draught lines are clearly dirty and the beer has that sickly sweet apricot taste to it. But we’re not here for beer; we’re here to get a bar pie. We split a half-clam, half-shrimp pizza and it’s perfect, fueling us up for one final stop.

Cory Smith / Good Beer HuntingStay warm and fuzzy at Adobe Blues, a pour away from St. George Terminal and the way home.

I’ve wisely plotted our day to make sure our final bar is closest to St. George Terminal so we can simply pour ourselves onto the ferry at the end of the night. Luckily, our final spot is also the most famed, the only famed craft beer spot on all of Staten Island.

Adobe Blues sure doesn’t look like we’re on Staten Island, though, what with its New Mexican motif with ranch-style fencing surrounding the bar, Georgia O’Keeffe-esque cow skulls on the walls, and a turquoise and pink color scheme. The clientele is straight Staten Island though, all men, t-shirt-clad and large, drinking heavily from five well-curated taps that include Hudson Valley sours and Bell’s Hopslam.

Cory and I split a 750 mL of Fantôme Pissenlit, a dandelion saison whose name literally means “pee in bed.” We haven’t wet the bed or barstool just yet, even after twelve straight hours of drinking, but by now we are drunk enough to realize it’s probably only about a $30 Uber ride back to Brooklyn, so screw the ferry.

As our Lincoln Navigator speeds over the Verrazano Bridge and back home, Cory and I look at each other with pure surprise. Surprise with how much fun we’ve had. Surprise with how great the beer in Staten Island is. Surprised that, yes, we are surely going to actually return to Staten Island to drink it one day. Stig-marr be damned!

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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