While the Bronx might be best known for the Bombers, there’s a new reason to believe its taps and growlers will soon be famous, too. Enter Pinch American Grill, a new restaurant managed by Ducasse Studios (headed by famed French Chef Alain Ducasse) at the Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway. The 245-seat grill boasts 100 taps dedicated to craft beer and cider from New York State and is quickly becoming a premier destination for craft beer drinkers in NYC.
A hundred taps would be a challenge to properly curate for most bars, but James Tai, certified cicerone (a beer sommelier) and head of Pinch’s beer program, has each of them down to an exact science. Every tap at Pinch is managed in a special temperature-controlled room, where tap pressure is checked daily to ensure proper pours. As for the selection, you’ll find many breweries not yet available in NYC, like Rushing Duck. If you’re looking for a more interactive craft beer experience, Pinch has several draft tables with four taps each, right at your fingertips. Pinch also has a growler station, featuring eye-catching palla-style growlers (made famous by West Coast breweries like Russian River and The Bruery), so you take a pinch (or a few pints) of your favorite brew home with you.
New York craft beer might have a footprint carved out in Brooklyn and Queens, but the Bronx and now southern Westchester is almost certainly the next stop for craft beer in New York. Bronx Brewery, already a staple on tap in the city, and Gun Hill Brewing Company are both set to open their doors in the next year. Yonkers Brewery is another to look out for, and while they don’t have a physical brewery in the Bronx they’ve found a home as a regular pour in Pinch’s taproom. Yonkers will be poured alongside other excellent New York breweries including Broken Bow, Defiant and Newburgh at Pinch’s Tap Attack event on December 11th from 7-9 p.m. (tickets are available here). Getting to try some excellent beers, most of which aren’t available in NYC yet, should be enough to get you on a 20-minute train to Yonkers, but as extra incentive you’ll be able to meet the brewers, too!
In the meantime, meet the mind behind Pinch’s beer program, James Tai. We chatted over five expertly paired courses prepared by Pinch chef Fabienne Eymard (and plenty more beer!) about becoming a cicerone and what's trending in New York’s craft beer scene.
What really stands out to you about New York craft beer?
On the whole, it’s surprising that New York brewers are making really good stuff. When it comes to craft beer, people think about the West Coast or maybe Michigan, but New York really stands up to the best. What stands out is that a lot of people are doing stuff that makes sense for them, but not commercially or even financially. The beers that they choose to make and the styles they choose to make are really about who they are. It’s been said to death, but great brewers make stuff that they would like to drink.
The other thing that kind of surprises me is there are places that you’d never expect. You just turn your corner and there’s another brewery making noise. It’s not just in the city, it’s not just on Long Island, the Hudson Valley or western New York, it’s everywhere.
At what point did you decide to go pro and study to become a Cicerone?
I heard about the program in late 2008. The first thing I did was become a Certified Beer Server, then in 2009 felt confident to take the cicerone exam in Boston with a couple of people in the craft beer world, most notably [co-founder] Shane Welch from Sixpoint.
Why are you called Cicerones and not “beer sommeliers?”
I feel like part of why founder Ray Daniels called it the Cicerone Certification Program is because we’re like guides of antiquities. He wanted to take that as someone who would guide you to something you want to drink, not tell you what to drink. If you talk to a lot of the beer guys, it’s not so much about what I like as it is about what you like, and why.
What was the hardest part of the Cicerone exam?
The hardest thing about the certified exam is knowing the beer styles; it’s where a lot of people fall short. One of the examples Ray Daniels likes to point out is the difference between a Bohemian Pilsner and a German Pilsener, but that’s something that you should probably know even at a certified level.
Do you have a favorite pairing at Pinch?
The sweet and spicy glazed chicken wings with sesame seeds with SingleCut Beersmiths’ Jan Olympic White Lagrrr is a fantastic pairing specific to Pinch. In general, I might have to fall back on oysters with dry Irish stout. That’s a pairing that (for whatever reason) works but it shouldn’t, which is the fun thing about it. That’s why you should always be experimenting — it’s not an exact science. Have an open mind!
What’s something you’d like to see brewers do in the next year?
More brewers are making beer specifically designed for food, and many of them have a culinary background. You know IPAs go well with BBQ but if you have something like a Carolina pulled pork, they have something to go with it. That’s really exciting to me. There’s a fellow named Jared Roubin with Moody Tongue Brewing Company from Chicago who’s brewing specifically to pair with food. Another thing that excites me is seeing more historical styles like Burton Ales and Gratzers.
How important is it to have at least one or two ciders on draft available?
There’s a growing cider movement as well, and that’s something we have to respect. Specifically to the ones that we have, I think Naked Flock is doing some fun stuff. You see a lot of ciders that are reflecting a European sensibility and more dry offerings, so there’s a more nuanced approach.
What would be one wish as a cicerone or just a craft beer drinker for this year?
As a craft beer drinker, I think we are living in a golden age of craft beer. I love seeing that. I want to see improved execution, I like to see the creativity but I’d also like to see a more conscientious approach: not just using unique ingredients for ingredients’ sake but for precise execution.
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