Wednesday, August 10, 2011

La Birreria: What About The Beer?

WFMU's Beer Hear! with Bob W. and B.R. from 8/10/2011

To paraphrase their own website, LA BIRRERIA is Eataly’s rooftop restaurant and brewery created in collaboration with American brewery DOGFISH HEAD and Italian breweries BALADIN and DEL BORGO, brewing unfiltered, unpasteurized and naturally carbonated cask ales, served through traditional hand pumps.
BR, always happy with beer; Bob, who punched you in the face? WANDA?!?
We're not going to waste your time telling you about the famous people involved with LA BIRRERIA -- and there are plenty of 'em. We're not going to fill the post with 41 pictures of Martha Stewart in the 3.5 barrel (roughly 110 gallon) brewhouse, the bar or dining area, encompassing 4,500 sq ft as reported by others. All of that info is readily available at the establishment's own website, and a pile of other blogs and websites. But what the others don't have is what we're aiming to provide -- what the heck is the beer like?!?

O.K. -- I hate to be negative. And even when commenting on the occasional gag-inducing infected homebrew when judging at a contest, I try to find something positive to say. "Nice choice of bottle! Excellent capping job! The beer had really good carbonation! You totally nailed the temperature!"

So, to delay the criticism a bit... we entered the Italian food wonderland known as EATALY at 23rd St. and 5th Ave. A Disney World of Italian cuisine? I don't know. I just know that if I didn't have blinders on and was not pointed at the elevator entrance to the brewpub, I'd probably never make it to the brewpub. There's just too damn much amazing looking and smelling stuff, going on there... for acres. It's truly a spectacle. Tourists-taking-photos kind of spectacle (which we did indeed witness).

The pub is on the roof, 15 floors above. Sidenote: others have mentioned that it's the "highest brewpub in the world!" -- well, guess what? At over a mile high, some folks in Denver, and brewers in other elevated locales, would be quick to disagree. Anyway... There are two elevators that can get you there. Finding them might require some assistance, as they're tucked away into an obscure corner, though, appropriately, it's a corner in the beer section of the über-gourmet-mall. On a busy day/night, it can take some time to get roughly 150 people (their stated capacity) up to their seats, at 8 passengers per lift. But once you're on top -- beauty. The pub/restaurant has a retractable glass roof. And if the weather is right, the view is inspiring -- one of those "only in New York" things.

On Tuesday night, in the middle of a typical NYC "out of town" summer, after a day-long rain, we figured that it would be kind of quiet. I think that it actually was, though we still found it too crowded and noisy for our gentle demeanor. This is not a place you'd find us lining up for on a Friday night. But what do you want -- NYC, trendy spot, rooftop viewing, big name chefs, yadda yadda yadda. You just deal with it.

And despite all that -- the crowded bar and noise -- we were still able to get the attention of an astute bartender named Brad who managed to communicate with us past a thicket of barside customers and the din that they generated.

We expected to find three of the pub's offerings on cask, but one was out, and its replacement was yet to be tapped, so we had the WANDA and the GINA to sample. At $10 per 16-ounce pint, it's a pricey ride, but it's likely that a healthy percentage of that price is paying for the real estate.

First impressions...

Wanda, a chestnut mild ale: thick and murky with the aroma of someone's second batch of homebrew -- yeasty and earthy. So, they're going for a real old country experience?

Gina, a thyme pale ale: certainly more clear than her sister, but with an appropriate clarity for an unfiltered cask beer, with a subtly spicy nose.

On tasting...

Wanda: oh dear. My most positive comments could be that it tasted "rustic." B.R. kindly said "watery". When was the last time that you heard someone sidle up to the bar and say, "Barkeep! Pour me a rustic beer! Or a watery beer! WAIT -- a rustic watery beer, if you've got that rare vintage!"

At first it seemed drinkable. You know -- you made a special trip to try a special beer in a special place for the first time. You want it to be... special. But as the critical mind takes over, "special" takes on a darker meaning. Frankly, it just wasn't very good. (And "very" was an unnecessary adverb, I'm sad to say.) The one benefit of the doubt that I'd grant is that the bartender seemed to have had trouble pulling the pint, and he dumped his first attempt. Was the cask at its dregs? I sincerely hope so.

Looking at the picture of the two pints side by side, you can see what I tasted.
Mud-thick Wanda and beer-like Gina.
Gina: ok... I could be convinced that there's thyme in there. It seems "spicy", hoppy, estery. By the by, why would you put thyme in a pale ale? Were they out of oregano? I'll let B.R. expand on the Gina experience. In her own words, BR grows her own thyme, and had some earlier in the day, and she wasn't impressed with the thyme presence in the Gina. The thyme presence was so subtle that it could easily be thought to derive from the spicy, herbal notes of some hop varieties. While I generally prefer non-spiced beers, when I do drink them I like it when the spices are subtle and well-integrated, complementing rather than overwhelming the base beer. But in Gina's case, the thyme was beyond subtle to be practically non-existent. And as a pale ale, the beer lacked the biscuity, chewy malt character and hop crispness.

All in all, I feel like I need to return to this place, at the very least, to try their SOFIA, a BELGIAN WIT beer, which is due to be tapped soon. It seems unfair to write off a place based on one not-so-perfect experience. Believe me -- I want their beer to be good, because I'm an optimist, and I'm thrilled that BEER is such a central focus of such a big-deal food spot. And that said, it should be noted that there's LOTS more on offer on tap and cask, in terms of craft beer and cask wine at La Birreria. Check their menu. Though, in summary...

You know, you can eat a hotdog on the boardwalk at Coney Island, and it'll be the most amazing hot dog you'll ever savor for your entire life. And yet that exact same hot dog eaten at the Grover Cleveland Service Area on the NJ Turnpike could send you to the hospital. It could be said that 99% of the "experience" is everything surrounding the core of the experience.

At this point, I get the feeling that La Birreria may be just another ride in the theme park. And for some people to be satisfied, the core of the experience doesn't have to be that good or even that real. It just has to be an "experience". The stuff surrounding the beer at La Birreria might be enough to make it work for most people. We'll give the Italian Brewpub ride at the Italian Gourmet Food Disney World one more shot.

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