Last month I did my first ever book tour of North America. I had intended to blog the tour as it progressed, but the sheer amount of time and effort it took, combined with limited access to wifi, meant I couldn’t do much at all while I was over there. So here, on the faint off-chance that it might be interesting, is the first part of my highlights of a beery ten days over the pond.
Part One: New York, 14th-17th October
When you fly into the US from Europe, beating jet leg is easy: you just have to stay up really late the first night. (It’s so much more difficult the other way round.) For this trip I’m staying in Queens. I’ve only ever stayed in Manhattan before, but in terms of affordability, that may as well now be Mars. Most of my events are in Brooklyn, so it makes sense to stay close. An AirB&B just over the border in Queens is the limit of affordability on this trip.
Queens reminds me of parts of North East London where I live: a highly ethnically diverse population (in this case Latin American) with the first signs of creeping gentrification. The first of these signs are, inevitably, the artisanal coffee shop and the craft beer bar. There are plenty of the former around my apartment (some doubling delightfully as second-hand bookshops) and there’s one of the latter just at the bottom of the road I’m staying on, amid the 24-hour delis selling six-packs and microwavable heart attacks. The coffee shops are all closed by the time I’m settled in, so it looks like it’s going to have to be the craft beer bar.
Craft Culture has only been open a few months. It follows the craft beer bar template: brightly lit, minimally modernist, with big fridges, a wide array of taps and a generosity with the wifi password I never find in more traditional bars or pubs. (Bars like this recognise that the punters’ Instagram accounts are their primary marketing channel.)
I ask what’s local, and among the suggestions is a ‘gose cider’. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to create this particular combination, so I have to give it a try.
‘Peaks and Valleys’, from the Graft Cidery in Newburgh, New York, is one of a range of ‘Gose ciders’ that is itself part of a broader range of sour ciders. It’s another lovely example of what can happen when you start messing with stuff where you don’t have established traditions to hold you back. There’s a trend for sour beers. A lot of farmhouse and a great deal of Spanish cider has sour characteristics. What happens if you play in the space between the two? This seasonal, ‘Not Pumpkin Cider’ has been created with the addition of birch bark, cinnamon, anise & sea salt. They say it ‘tastes like a spiced birch beer!’ I say it’s one of the most absurdly refreshing drinks I’ve ever tasted and should be given out as a mandatory tonic to any non-teetotallers immediately at the end of a seven hour flight. I have no idea what a traditional West Country cider maker would say about it, but I imagine you’d have to stand well back while they were saying it.
I move on down the road to the Ridgewood Alehouse, for my traditional New York ritual – namely, sitting at the bar late at night, trying to understand the sports on the banks of TV screens behind the bar, insisting on figuring it out for myself and resisting the friendly attempts at explanation from my fellow bar flies, and just soaking up the atmosphere.
The commercial breaks come every five minutes, and every time it’s the same ads. There’s one for Taco Bell, showing a quesadilla being made with a ton of cheese, covered with deep-fried chicken nuggets and then folded over. My arteries fur just watching it. The strapline at the end is ‘Live Mas!’ or ‘Live More’. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an advertising line that’s more at odds with the product it’s showing.
Most of the other people here are drinking shots now rather than beers, bourbon poured into chunky glasses that shape the liquid within into a brown bullet. The proprietor of a blog called naughtygossip.com is being interviewed about Harvey Weinstein. California is going up in flames and Donald Trump still hasn’t mentioned it. The new Lexus ad is an action movie with a constant stream of subtitles such as ‘Professional drivers, do not attempt,’ and ‘collision damage not covered by warranty.’ Another ad for college football cuts between images depicting an ancient battlefield, corpses lying with feathered arrows in their backs, and the football team striding purposefully towards the camera. This is the land of the free, whose origin story is defined by scarcity, and now allows us to let loose our appetites like nowhere else in the world. The whole country hankers after excess. Trump waddles to a podium, and I realise the only thing he cares about is being top of the news cycle, all the time. He doesn’t care why he’s there, he just has to be. Melania stands behind him, a waxwork in big dark glasses.
I’m not drunk. I’m not tired. I’m in a grey limbo beyond both, my sober mind locked in a panic room, believing it’s still calling the shots. But I’ve made it. It’s late. I have no idea how long I’ve been awake, how long ago that first drink in the departure lounge was. I can go now, back to my studenty apartment. If I want to. I’m not sure I do. The capacity to make decisions has long gone.
The next day I kill my laptop. I spend two hours walking across Brooklyn and realise that on its own, it’s bigger than most other cities I’ve ever visited. I take the subway into Manhattan, ready to spend a day being a tourist. I have one column to write before I can relax into my schedule here, and decide to do it sitting at a bar watching the ballgame. As I finish the column, I reach for my pint of IPA, go in a little too high and tip it over, pouring it into my keyboard. Over the past decade I’ve done this twice before. I turn the computer off, flip it upside down, stuff it with paper towels, but I know it’s pointless. It’s dead. I need to work while I’m here and I need to present the slides for my talk tomorrow night. So I spend my one touristy afternoon in New York spending money I don’t have on a new laptop, going back to my apartment and downloading my life back from the cloud. And then rewriting the bastard column.
Monday, it’s time to get to work. Back over in Brooklyn I’m due at the Heritage Radio Network. Just around the corner is a ramen place, where I stop for lunch. Back in the nineties I ate in the first branch of Wagamama just after it opened, when there were queues around the block. I thought I knew what ramen was. Now, I can never eat in Wagamama again. Ichiran is a traditional ramen place opened by a family that immigrated from Japan and does Tonkotsu ramen and nothing else. You’re directed to a private booth, separated from the kitchen by a bamboo screen. You order a customisable ramen, where you can choose the softness of your noodles, the heat, the richness of the stock and additional toppings and sides, by ticking boxes on a slip of paper. You hand this over, and the bowl arrives within five minutes. The servers – whose faces you never see – then bow deeply and lower the bamboo screen, and you eat your ramen in splendid isolation.
I will never eat ramen again until I can be assured it will be this good. It’s a terrible curse: taste it once, experience bliss, knowing it’s changed you and made things that were once OK taste like ash by comparison. If I have to sell my house in London and buy a shoebox in Brooklyn to eat this again, it would be worth it.
On to the radio station – deliciously situated in the back of a wonderfully homely pizza restaurant and bar broadcasting Halloween movies, with a courtyard featuring an extra pizza grill and a tiki bar. Heritage Radio is an entire network devoted to praising the joys of local food and drink. With its origins in the Slow Food movement, it’s as if the BBC Radio 4 Food Programme gets to take over the entire schedule.
And then, straight into a presentation of Miracle Brew to the Legion of Osiris. This is basically a group of beer fans masquerading as some kind of freemason cult. They’re hilarious, passionate about beer and insanely welcoming. I’d put up a link to them singing their song, cribbed from this Simpsons scene, but I fear I might be breaking some rules of the ancient order of Osiris if I did so. It’s a brilliant event – a great start to the tour. And it ends with Brooklyn brewmaster Garrett Oliver pouring secret, unlabelled bottles from his experimental stash until I can no longer see.
Next day it’s over to Jersey City for a tour with my friend John Holl and a look around the Departed Soles Brewery. Saying you tasted wonderful IPAs in this country is like saying the sun rises here, but these guys make a really wonderful IPA. So there.
Back over to Brooklyn and Heritage Radio, to do Beer Sessions, with Jimmy Carbone. This is my third programme talking about Miracle Brew in two days, but everyone has wanted to explore different things within the book, and I’m on the programme with Jason Sahler, the founder of the Strong Rope Brewery, which makes a point of using ingredients entirely from New York state, so we have a great chat about terroir and the role of place in beer ingredients. Jason’s stuff really is worth checking out. You can listen to our show here.
Afterwards, it’s great to go out and explore a few bars with Jason, Qurban Walia from Crafted Exports, who ships beers both ways between the UK and US, Ed Valenta of Harpoon Brewing who flew down from Boston to have a beer with us, and Qurban’s friend who looks eerily like Eric Cantona, and has no idea who that is until I spend all night telling him how much he looks like Eric Cantona.
And that’s New York. A whirlwind of breweries, bars and banter, and hardly any of it in Manhattan itself. It’s so nice to get a picture of the broader city, the different rhythms and textures within it. Does it make any difference to book promotion? I have no idea. But Miracle Brew was already being stocked in Barnes & Noble, and being able to see that alone made the trip.
Next Time: Boston and Vermont.
Miracle Brew is my third book to receive a bespoke US publication, but the first where the publisher has devoted so much time and expense to promoting the title. I’m enormously grateful to Chelsea Green Publishing for flying me across and organising my itinerary. Thanks so much guys.