gin and tonics

My Brewed Awakening

Note: This story was supposed to run in Our Town Downtown's print edition. It was cut. Alas! Instead, it ran online.

In the beginning, I took a dive. Rather, I took to dives, spending my early twenties wrapped in the stiff embrace of cheap gin and tonics served by bartenders with one foot in the grave, the other itching to kick misbehaving boozers in the can.

Though I’d like to recall this era otherwise, the fact is that I was miserable. I worked a dead-end gig at a porn publisher, cranking out fantasies that’d make my mom blush—especially the mother-son scenarios. I earned just enough to buy the post-work drinks that numbed the pain of writing about the sex I wasn’t having. It was an ugly circle that ensured a steady diet of hangovers and self-loathing.

After summoning the guts to quit, I appraised my life: I liked drinking and I liked writing. Why not combine the two passions? I dragged myself out of bars long enough to pitch magazines, websites and newspapers. Most turned me down. One took a flyer on an unknown writer: the New York Press. Then-editor Jeff Koyen gave me a weekly column on a subject dear to my liver—bars.

From the start, my stories focused on downtown dives such as the Holiday Cocktail Lounge, Welcome to the Johnsons, Blue & Gold Tavern and the dearly departed Village Idiot honky-tonk. They’re the brand of bars where $20 buys a blinding buzz with enough change left for a slice of pizza and a passed-out subway ride home.

But as the years disappeared and both my liver and skin hardened in response to New York, dives lost their filthy luster. I soon understood why $3 mixed drinks were so cheap and that a $6 pitcher of Bud was no bargain. This was quantity-over-quality consumption, a lingering habit from my days attending a public university in Ohio.

Over time, I gravitated less to bottom-shelf Georgi vodka and more to craft beer. I began savoring the flavorful intricacies of crisp Victory Prima Pils, Brooklyn Brewery’s stomach-warming Black Chocolate Stout and Dogfish Head’s nicely bittered 60 Minute IPA.

I sought out bars serving better beers, turning my back on the city’s down-on-their-luck Blarney Stone dives in lieu of new-wave alehouses such as the West Village’s encyclopedic Blind Tiger Ale House and the underground 124 Rabbit Club. In the East Village, I sipped coffee-tinged stouts and hopped-up ales at d.b.a., Standings, Jimmy’s No. 43 and Drop Off Service. On the Upper West Side, I bent elbows at Dive Bar—despite its name, it served dozens of carefully curated craft ales. Pint by pint, I entered a portal into an ever more delicious, carbonated world.

Quickly, craft beer became all-consuming. Work and pleasure became hopelessly, happily mixed. Was I visiting the Hudson River-hugging Chelsea Brewing Company for another assignment or because I craved a fresh pint of the pungently bittered Hop Angel IPA?

“It’s research,” I’d tell my wife, toting home six-packs sourced from the Lower East Side’s cavernous New Beer Distributors and, later, the East Village’s excellent bottle shop Good Beer NYC. “There’s no more space in the fridge,” she’d moan, forcing me to get my beer fix at spots such as the Upper East Side’s Earl’s Beer & Cheese or Rattle N Hum, a good beer refuge in Midtown.

Over time, these beers served as a drinkable lesson plan. I learned to differentiate earthy Fuggles hops from the piney Chinook. I understood how used bourbon barrels transformed humdrum stouts into a snifter-worthy indulgence and how wild yeasts and bacteria created sour beers that hit my sweet spot.

To share this knowledge with inquisitive beer drinkers across the globe, I stepped away from bars and into breweries, interviewing brewers and spelunking deep into the trends driving the craft beer revolution. And drinking. Oh, did I drink. The result of all that aspirin-popping work was my first book, Brewed Awakening, which was just released in November. To celebrate, I think it’s high time I had another beer. I doubt my craft beer curiosity will ever be quenched.