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Mar 18, 2009 06:51 AM

Brooklyn Beer Bars Part 1 - Waterfront Ale House

To those who don’t follow this sort of thing closely there might be some confusion between a bar with a nice beer selection and a dedicated beer bar. A quick way to distinguish between the two is to look at the number of draft beers on offer. A good bar will have 6 or 7 - a beer bar will have around 20.

Having a lot of bottled beers doesn’t make you a beer bar. It doesn’t take all that much effort to maintain a large inventory of bottles – it’s a low maintenance undertaking. Having a large inventory of draft beers, on the other hand, means that the owners are willing to invest considerable energy and resources in making a wide range of fresh beers available to their customers. Draft beers are high maintenance. They need to be kept at the proper temperature, the pipes need to be kept clean, and because they’re unpasteurized, they have a limited shelf life. Any bar that offers 20 brews on draft is telling you where their heart is.

Enough with the definitions; on to the beer.

A few weeks ago I decided to do some research. I started at the Waterfront Ale House, at 20 years old the granddaddy of all Brooklyn beer bars. I hadn’t spent any quality time there in awhile and I wanted to use them as a benchmark to measure the newcomers. It also didn’t hurt that they sell a first rate burger. Rating beers is not something you want to do on an empty stomach.

Then it was on to an edgy area of 4th Avenue that contains no less than 3 beer bars in a one block area – Pacific Standard, Cherry Tree, and the 4th Ave Pub. I call it the Beer Triangle.

This was an ambitious agenda but then, I like to think that I’ve been training my whole life for this type of thing.

Waterfront Ale House
155 Atlantic Avenue (Between Henry & Clinton)

One of the opening shots of the beer revolution was the founding in 1989 of the Waterfront Ale House in Brooklyn. This coincided with my return to Park Slope from points south. I refuse to believe this was a coincidence and like to think of it as a “Field of Dreams” moment – they built it and I came.

At first glance the WAH could pass as a neighborhood bar. As beer bars go it’s more brightly lighted than most others although if you’re over 40 you wouldn’t want to try and read a newspaper. The bar area is separated from the dining area by a 6 foot partition which makes for a slightly cramped aisle as people pass behind the seats at the bar.

The Ale House first opened across the street in a smaller space that has now become Last Exit. When they transferred to the larger quarters that they now occupy they brought along the stylized three dimensional model of the lower Manhattan skyline. It’s illuminated from the rear and after 20 years it’s nice to see that it’s still around.

Some of them are still around after 20 years too. I recognized bartenders and servers that I first saw in the early 1990s. It’s pleasing to see that level of stability. They’re all efficient and friendly.

The Crowd
Call it a Neighborhood Mix. The age range runs from early 20s to late 60s with the median at 35. In the adjoining dining room are some families with children. It was a lively but well behaved crowd. I arrived at 7 on a Friday night and there looked to be a sprinkling of after work parties mixed in with regulars who seemed like they are there for the long haul. The bar was crowded.

Van Morrison’s Greatest Hits.

The Beers
I counted 17 beers on draft although there could have been more. It’s an extensive selection. They’ve got a few passable wines by the glass and I was stunned to see that they are now offering cocktails. This is worrisome but I suspect that nobody takes this seriously. They also serve absinthe.

I started with a Pennichuck IPA which I found only decent. It wasn’t particularly hoppy for an IPA and my notes say “watery.”

Things got better with the Harpoon Celtic Ale. It was balanced but a little thinner than I prefer. It was certainly more than drinkable.

The best was my 3rd selection, the Harpoon Leviathan. It was rounded and creamy with a pleasant hoppy undertone. I could drink a lot of this if given the chance.

Extra Points
For 20 years the WAH has been offering free help-yourself popcorn from a freestanding popcorn stand. It’s salty and addictive.

They have a full menu and serve above average pub food. The burger is quite good. I had one at the bar.

In preparing this post I researched absinthe on Wikipedia. Among other things the article says “Absinthe traditionally has a natural green color but can also be colorless. It is commonly referred to in historical literature as "la fée verte" (the Green Fairy).”

I thought you should know that.


Tomorrow: On to Cherry Tree

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  1. Great report, looking forward to the follow ups. You may want to throw in Henry Street Ale House in Brooklyn Heights on Henry St. They have a great beer selection and have also been around for a while, which should serve as a nice contrast to the newer beer bars.

    1. Great write-up! I really love Waterfront Ale house for all the reasons you just mention - the beer selection is terrific, the burger is great and so is the popcorn. It was the first place I drank Brooklyn Chocolate Stout and realized that 2 of those is more than enough to start off a mini bender for the rest of an afternoon. I lost a pair of sunglasses because of that stout.

      They surprised me quite a few visits back when I ordered Steve's Key Lime pie for dessert. It was taking what seemed to be a pretty long time to get dessert, although we didn't mind so much since we were perfectly happy to extend our stay sitting at the bar. The bartender came over at one point and apologized and said that the kitchen was making whipped cream and they were a little behind. We could hardly be impatient at that point - I don't encounter many beer bars that would do something like that.

      Look forward to your review of 4th Ave Pub. I haven't been in awhile but I liked that when I used to go, they had Hitachino White Ale on tap which I don't see very often - bottles for sure, but having it on tap is the best.

      1. Thanks for the report. I don't live in Brooklyn, but as a musician get to rehearsals in the neighborhood now and then...and sometimes stop in at WAH. Very comfortable place, good beer, good atmosphere. Nice, and nice that it has a history on the block.

        In your excursions, don't forget Brazen Head, not too far away in Boerum Hill (?) Been there only once, myself.

        2 Replies
        1. re: comestible

          I've been to Brazen Head many times and enjoy it very much. The excursions this time around were to new places so it wasn't on my list. Now that I'm all psyched up I'll add it to the 2nd round. That will also include Bar Great Harry and Draft Barn.

          1. re: Bob Martinez

            Wish we'd get a good beer bar here on Staten Island. There was once a bar that called itself an ale house, but it was a joke. I'm personally more interested in wine, but there's nothing like a fine beer...used to homebrew back in the day.

        2. Terrific report, Bob. But what else would we expect from you?

          I could not agree more with your comments and sentiments about WAH. It's been one of my all-time favorite pubs for years now.

          But I haven't visited any of the other three places you mentioned, so I'm looking forward to your comments on them.

          What a great idea, and what a wonderful hobby...