It was weeks before St. Patrick’s day when I sipped my first green-labeled beer. I was at the Pony Bar, an American-beer-only spot (favored by the staff of Esca of late) tucked amidst Hell’s Kitchens gas stations and nascent condos.
I was there for the rollout of the Southampton Publick House’s seasonal Biere de Mars, its bottle decorated with trees leafing out. (Edible Manhattan profiled the Long Island Brewery last year.) A week or so later I came into a few bottles of Sam Adams Nobil Pils, available only for the first three months of the year, made with hops from five of the world’s oldest hops fields, and also bearing a verdant label. And then, a few nights ago, thrust into my hand, like some kryptonite I couldn’t avoid, was Blue Point Brewing Company’s Spring Fling, a bottle the hue of salsa verde.
Just as dandelion greens and rhubarb begin to perk up, these beers are timed to welcome us into the warm weather. All three were fresh, creative and delicious. And they looked like they could have shared a graphics designer or at least a color-coordinator.
These sorts of seasonal offerings used to be a lot more common than today–pre-refrigeration, all batches of beer were small-batch and seasonal, enjoyed until the barrels ran dry . “The history is sketchy,” Publick House brewmaster Phil Markowski told me of his Biere de Mars, or March Beer, between bites the prosciutto stuffed peppers, fried oysters, and Salvatore ricotta paired with the Biere at the Pony Bar. This farmhouse-style ale, noted the tradition-minded brewmaster, is thought to originate in Alsace, where it was made on farms and at small community breweries in the winter, when cellars were cool enough to encourage the sort of beer-making we now associate with the crisper, cleaner taste of lagers.
At the time, they were the most coveted brew of the season. “These were prototypical lager beers,” said Markowski, “before it was really exact.” Markowski has a sweet spot for these rustic brews. His modern interpretation makes generous use of wheat and barley with a small amount of spice, resulting in a fruity, spicy aroma and flavor notes of pear and honey. It’s also hoppier than its predecessor, as befits contemporary American beers. It’s being sold in bottles for the first time this season, part of a springy 12-pack alongside the Publick House’s Double White, IPA and Altbier.
Better still, the Pony Bar has it on tap for the remainder of the month, alongside its usual pours from Sly Fox (Chester County Bitters was still scrawled on the chalk board) and other domestic breweries.
“Twenty years ago, New York was a different market,” Sam Adams founding brewer Jim Koch recently wrote me in an email. He recalls certain New York Times wine critics refusing to review, much less taste, beers. They were put off by the staleness of imports and assumed nascent American beers weren’t even worth the time.
But now, Koch notes, “New Yorkers have an incredible appreciation for American craft beer. They support and embrace it because they understand the literal craft and art that goes into beer’s creation.”
Koch has been making seasonal beers for decades, which he says resonate not just with food seasons–beers for winter cassoulets vs. beers for summer clam bakes–but also the follow-your-ingredients-back-to-the-source thinking that pervades how we now eat.
The Noble Pils, which recently replaced Sam Adams White Ale as the company’s spring offering, fits this bill. So do the fresh hops beers that more and more breweries–from the Publick House to Sam Adams to Sierra Nevada–are making each fall. So does Koch’s Utopia series, very high alcohol beers that are blended and aged in the barrel room at the Boston brewery, and deliver the big rich flavor you might expect in a sipping bourbon. And so does Brooklyn Brewery’s latest Brewmaster Reserve, Sorachi Ace, another golden farmhouse ale made with Japanese hops grown on a single Oregon farm that will be released in April.
Brews like that one, Koch notes, “appeal to the palate of the better beer drinker.” And with so many great beers available right now, it’s a perfect time to become one of those.