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McGill grad starts his own big city beerfest

At your average beer festival, a ticket gets you a plastic mug and some tokens allowing you to join a few hundred like-minded individuals in two-ounce samples from more breweries than you can count – all under a tent in some park. Nothing about the experience jibes with the way beer is meant to be drunk.

Enter Josh Schaffner McGill grad (’06, Geographical urban systems) and wavemaker on the New York beer scene. At just 24-years-old, he has conceived and brought to fruition NY Craft Beer Week, featuring 95 beers from the northeastern United States and happening right now in New York. The festival is organized around a number of events, including bar crawls in nine neighbourhoods, partnering craft beer with specific watering holes that exemplify that neighbourhood. The result is a festival where it is as much about where you are drinking as it is about what you are drinking – championing the local allure of craft beer.

I caught up with Schaffner at the height of Craft Beer Week to talk about the work he’s done and how his motives relate to beer culture, and specifically that of Quebec.

The McGill Daily: Did your affinity for beer have an outlet during your time in Montreal?

Josh Schaffner: I never lived in rez, but instead made a home at Dieu du Ciel. I lived only a couple blocks away in each apartment I moved to over the years in Montreal; an unintentional circle around the place was a side benefit.

MD: What challenges do you see for craft beer culture, both in general and in Quebec?

JS: There’s the main challenge of craft beer being relatively new and so successful that it’s creating its own hurdles. It’s a crisis of identity for a small brewery to ask, “What does it mean to have national distribution? How does that change the identity of your brand and your product?” [Ed. Point of Reflection: How does this crisis affect a brewery like Unibroue, now available all over the U.S., but with roots in rural Quebec?]

MD: Could Craft Beer Week happen up here?

JS: I think it would happen in a different format, but with the same goal of promoting the idea of better beer. I got the idea from Philadelphia, adapting it to fit New York, and since then San Francisco has a beer week slated for February. More and more cities have expressed interest. I think that one of the motives for me doing this is that there is no reason for it to be specific to one place. There are so many places with great beer culture and there’s always room for more.

MD: How do you see the role of geography, your field of study, in beer culture?

JS: Actually, it’s rather profound. In the U.S., and also internationally, beer has a history of being extremely regional. At its current stage, it is at this point of transformation where you have beer identified as being local distributed nationally, and beers that are found to be regional distributed internationally. There is a strong association and identification of place with beer. As much as certain breweries being distributed nationally has blurred regionalism, it is still rather definable and stark.

MD: How does this feed the “local appeal” of craft beer week?

JS: I am rather proud of the expression of “local” in this festival; be it the local neighbourhood, be it the local community, be it the local brewery, be it the local food that is being paired with the local beer. My over-arching goal, though, is simpler: to promote better beer to more people. Bringing the concept of enjoyment and flavour behind beer to as many people as possible.

MD: Given the amount of time and money you have expended getting Craft Beer Week off the ground, would you say it has been a success?

JS: If you mean that after devoting thousands of dollars and hours, I’ve turned a profit, then no, but in terms of my over-arching goal, yes it has been a success. Beer has been brought to the table, both literally and figuratively, and I think Craft Beer Week will be around next year.

For a roundup of some bars, featured in Craft Beer Week, not to missed on your trip to New York, see below.

All Hopped Up appears every other week, serving up a frosty mug of beer news, commentary, and culture.


Where to drink if you’re in New York and it isn’t Craft Beer Week

or, What Josh Schaffner taught me about getting drunk in the Big Apple

The Diamond
43 Franklin Street, Greenpoint, Brooklyn (718-383-5030) thediamondbrooklyn.com

The industrial warehouses that make up this area of Greenpoint make this bar a diamond in the rough (pun very much intended). The essence of this bar is a lowkey establishment that doesn’t have the longest tap list (8), but certainly one of the most carefully crafted. Pairing regional brews from the northeastern US and beyond with time-tested staples from Europe, The Diamond is often a smaller brewery’s introduction to the New York beer scene.

388 Union Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn (718-302-6464) barcadebrooklyn.com

Appealing to the beer drinker’s inner child, this bar juxtaposes old-school cabinet-style arcade games with an imposing selection of craft beer on draught. You wanna rock some classic Super Mario Bros? They got it. How about trying your hand at Tapper, Budweiser’s 1983 video game where you play a bartender slinging suds for thirsty customers? Just don’t drop your beer while shooting for that high score.

Blind Tiger
281 Bleeker Street, West Village, Manhattan (212-462-4682) blindtigeralehouse.com

Voted one of the top ten beer bars in the country by Beeradvocate Magazine, The Blind Tiger has been a champion of the New York beer scene for 12 years. Besides having 28 taps (including three casks) and a long bottle list, their cellar has been aging beer for many years, giving you the opportunity to try something like a 2000 JW Lees Harvest Ale. With such quality, it’s easy to see why this bar has lasted as long as it has.

George Keeley’s
485 Amsterdam Avenue, Upper West Side, Manhattan (212-843-0251)

Imagine an Irish pub with a scope beyond Guinness and Smithwick’s. Rather than a bunch of drunks sipping their Jameson and beer-backs, there’s a bunch of beer geeks debating the differences between a black and tan and a half and half. Euro football on the tube, 21 taps, and some fine pub fare from the kitchen draw in the crowds.

Chelsea Brewing Company
Chelsea Piers, Pier 59 (18th Street), West Village, Manhattan (212-336-6440)

New York’s ONLY BREW PUB. Yes, the only bar where the beer is made and served on the premises. They have the monopoly on a market where, in cities one-third the size of New York, there is five or six times as many brewpubs. Needless to say, this beer is good, fresh and has dominated the scene since the mid-ninties. What’s more, that view over the Hudson can’t be beat.