Eat Drink Local Profile #35: Brown Ales & Lagers

One of Brooklyn Brewery's very first beers was in fact a brown ale.

The Ingredient:

Beer, specifically brown ales and lagers. Unlike other beer names, the overall term “brown” in beer doesn’t really refer to one single style or tradition so much as it does simply the color of the beer.

In fact there are several classic styles of brown beers: Think nut brown lagers named for their color and flavor, those intensely alcoholic Belgian Trappist-style dubbels, and of course British brown ales, which was the foundation for one of the very first award-winning beers brewed by the now internationally known Brooklyn Brewery — who singlehandedly launched the city’s brewery renaissance more than 15 years ago — by their now internationally respected brewer Garrett Oliver. (We profiled him and them just a few issues back.)

But we chose brown beers as our third of the 11 Ingredients of the Day because, well, brown beers seem harvest-like, right? And also because nearly every local brewer nearby makes a damn fine one: There’s Kelso Nut Brown Lager made in Clinton Hill, Sixpoint Craft Ales Brooklyn Brownstone Ale made in Red Hook (check their profile in Edible Brooklyn) and Brooklyn Brewery’s chocolately Brooklyn Brown Ale. There’s the incredible tasty Captain Lawrence St. Vincent’s Dubbel, a much lauded Belgian style abbey ale made just up the road in Pleasantville, N.Y., and even Southampton Publick House in Long Island, whom we profiled last year, has occasionally done what they call their Big Brown Ale.

Why It’s Important:

Why is beer important to our foodshed? There are many reasons, not the least of which are its special qualities as social lubricant and beverage of the people. But we wanted local craft beer — meaning Good Beers produced with care, quality ingredients and skill, as opposed to mass-produced brews — to be a part of Eat Drink Local week because what you drink is just as important a component of a sustainable food culture as what you eat, and not just in terms of proximity to unique or special flavors you won’t taste anywhere else.

Local beer means jobs (Brooklyn Brewery, for example, is the 17th largest craft brewer in the country) and money being put back into our community instead of someone else’s, a reduction in food miles, an increase in freshness and in flavor in our beers and a building of our bigger community, through beer tastings and brewmaster-attended parties at breweries and the pubs and events they support, through our Good Beer event each summer, and through partnerships such as the one Brooklyn Brewery is trying to develop with local farms. They provide spent grain to farms with animals — in fact plans for their current expansion include a chute that will allow farmers to back in with their pick up trucks to collect it — and then maybe host a pig roast a few months later with those excellently fed pigs.

Speaking of partnering with local farms to buy pounds and pounds of raw materials, that’s phase two for our local breweries. Right now our city’s small brewery boom means local beer is indeed easily available here after several decades (see below for more on our beery history), but our breweries can’t use local hops, barley or other grains because nobody is growing enough or exactly what they need. But there’s hope: The once powerful and plentiful grain industry in New York State is trying to resurrect itself, as we wrote about yesterday.

And there are some pilot plans in the works: In the current issue of Edible Brooklyn, we wrote about Kelso of Brooklyn and Captain Lawrence partnering with Stone Barns to grow a test batch of hops this summer, Sixpoint Craft Ales is growing hops on their new rooftop garden, and Garrett Oliver at Brooklyn Brewery has a strong desire to partner with local farms for some of their smaller batch brews. There’s also plenty of homebrewers out there growing hops and brewing right from their backyards for some real local beer (read Edible Brooklyn’s summer cover story, for more details) but sadly we’re not allowed to buy it — yet.

Why We Love It:

We love being able to run into some of the country’s best brewmasters on the streets and at parties, being able to order something made here instead of Milwaukee, or being able to taste a seasonal brew made only in very small batches and distributed only to one bar in town. But we also love that New York is finally returning to its roots as a stronghold of local brewing.

At the turn of the last century, 48 breweries were producing much of the East Coast’s beer right in Brooklyn — some of which had relocated from Manhattan when that borough started to boom. Those included Rheingold, Piel’s and Schaefer’s, which was the largest brewery in America in the 1950s and a resident of Brooklyn (just off Flushing Avenue near Bushwick Avenue) until the 1970s. Many of those breweries — several of their beautiful castle-like brick buildings still stand tall in East Williamsburg and Bushwick — we owed to the German immigrant population and their desire for cleaner, crisper, lagers. As well as to New York State’s massive hop farming industry at the time, meaning beer’s bittering agent was easily available. (Our last radio on Heritage Radio Network, by the way, was on the city’s beer history: It’s totally worth a listen.) But thanks to anti-German sentiment during the World Wars, Prohibition and the always high-costs of doing business in the city, once Schaefer’s left the city we didn’t brew beer again until the opening of Brooklyn Brewery in the 1990s.

Where to Find It:

Luckily much has changed even since that day when Brooklyn Brewery opened its doors at a rented space in Park Slope and a warehouse in Bushwick. The brewery, now on N. 11th in Williamsburg, now has one of the most commonly seen tap handles in the city, and Sixpoint Craft Ales’ star is easily spotted behind the bar as well. These days any specialty beer store or craft beer bar will have at least one beer from a nearby brewery, if not several from each of them. Check our list of Edible-approved beer bars for a start, or visit GoodBeerSeal.com for a list of the very best craft beer bars citywide.

And last but not least, several restaurants have food specials with brown beers during Eat Drink Local week: Back Forty has lager-steamed littleneck clams with Grenada peppers and speckled baby green wheat; Mas has beef short ribs braised in ale and butternut-ale risotto.; Braeburn has St. Louis ribs braised in local ale with beer-battered onion rings; at Scrimshaw they’re doing carbonnade of beef; Sotheby’s Terrace Cafe has Brooklyn Brewery Brown Ale braised BBQ pork butt on a brioche roll with Cabot Clothbound Cheddar and Katchkie Farm cole slaw, db Bistro Moderne is serving ale-battered fish and chips, pommes “pont-neuf” and sauce Gribiche; at Jimmy’s 43 Kelso of Brooklyn will be pairing their beers with local sausages tonight. Brewmaster Kelly Taylor will be on hand to discuss the pairings, and you can get three beers and three sausages for $10). Meanwhile in Brooklyn, Radish has cheesy mustard pinwheels with caramelized beer-braised onions while Rye has Long Island Duck Breast with quinoa, swiss chard and tomato chutney and beer-battered onion rings.

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.