Review: Gold Star Beer Counter, Brooklyn, NYC
This blog is mostly about travel, including use of points and miles, but when I started it I planned to write about New York City, too. You can see some of my first posts, like this one about the annual West Indian Day Parade and this one about the bombing in Chelsea.
What I'm trying to keep in mind, though, is that the two categories (travel and NYC) aren't mutually exclusive. Around 60 million people visit the city each year, spending more than $40 billion. So writing about New York City places, people, events and news is still travel writing, just from a different perspective. Beyond that, New Yorkers travel, and each person here only knows a fraction of what the city holds. So long story short: I decided to have fun and write a post a bit closer to home. Really close, actually.
Beer in New York City
Beer tourism is a big thing. More and more people are choosing vacation destinations around breweries and bars, or making plans to get a taste of the local beer culture wherever they visit. I often try to visit a brewery, or at least a good beer spot when I'm in other cities and countries, and I have friends who build entire trips around beer stops. There's just so much great craft and microbrewing going on around the city, country and world that there are virtually limitless chances to taste something new. This brings us to my favorite New York City beer bar.
The New York City craft beer scene has exploded in recent years, and nowhere is that more evident than Brooklyn. A ton of breweries have popped up, many of which operate tap rooms. Three's Brewing has gotten bigger and started canning, while Strong Rope is still a small operation with some fun beers. KCBC, Grimm, Greenpoint and plenty of others have solid brick-and-morter operations, while some like Braven contract brews for the time being. Of course, the largest Brooklyn Brewery operates a huge bar with tours, and Six Point, which is working on opening a tap room, has a huge regional distribution operation and is continuing to expand. Meanwhile, even more breweries are opening in the coming weeks.
Along with the breweries, specialty beer bars continue to pop up, and more general bars and even dives have upped their selection to include more local options.
Among the specialty bars is Gold Star Beer Counter, located at 176 Underhill Avenue in Prospect Heights. Opening on the July 4th holiday in 2015, Gold Star has become a fixture of the neighborhood and of the mid-Brooklyn beer scene — the packed crowds at last month’s two year anniversary party made that clear
Gold Star sits on a strange block, a single commercial strip on what’s otherwise a residential avenue — save for an elementary school, a playground and a couple of bodegas. That commercial island in the midst of a neighborhood was actually a big draw for owner Josh Van Horn. Originally from the midwest, Van Horn has lived across the street for years, and was always tempted to open a bar on the block. “It reminded me of how a lot of bars are in Milwaukee. They aren’t in these isolated commercial zones far away from everything; they’re right in the middle of neighborhoods, real locals.”
When the bar opened, I still lived in Park Slope, a neighborhood which had a couple of decent bars but no consistent beer option. When we heard about Gold Star, my fiancée and I walked to Prospect Heights to check it out — that walk convinced us to move to the neighborhood.
The bar has a rustic, easy-going feel. It’s the kind of place where you would feel comfortable pulling up a chair and making yourself at home. The wood-paneled walls, counters, tables and bar evoke a living room with the vaguest of 70s vibes. There is a row of 16 taps behind the bar, all unmarked (save for tags too small for customers to read), with a row of glass growlers on a shelf above and a shelf of glasses underneath. A turntable sits halfway down the bar, with a few shelves above holding a growing record collection. An easel just to the right shows the current album playing, as well as what’s on deck.
Don’t get the wrong idea, though; Gold Star isn’t one of those pretentious hipster spots. Customers vary but it's an affable vibe. On weekdays there might be a few people reading books or typing on laptops (I'm editing this article at one of the tables while enjoying a fantastic imperial IPA from Pizza Boy Brewing Company), and I've enjoyed conversations struck up with strangers on the high-tops at the bar. A couple might drop in with an infant in a stroller, and a new mom or dad might pop in to grab a growler or a quick drink on the way back from daycare pickup, with baby sitting in a front carrier. In some ways, Gold Star feels kind of like a beer cafe rather than a bar.
Of course, the beer makes the bar as much as the atmosphere. The 16 taps rotate constantly; as one keg kicks, it’s replaced with something different from the deck. Whoever opens the bar each day prints new menus, reflecting the rotating beer on tap. There’s a shelf directly opposite the bar on the far wall with a handful of bottles for sale — most are also available cold, and there are often cans of limited-edition beers sitting on the bar (and more of each in the fridge) — as Van Horn’s relationship with various distributors has gotten closer, those cans have gotten more plentiful and more interesting.
Something Gold Star achieves well which other bars sometimes struggle with is having a good mix of unique local selections and out-of-region beers, as well as the occasional international craft picks. At least two or three taps usually represent city-based brewers, as well as a good percentage of the can stock. Regular breweries from Brooklyn and the city include Other Half, Grimm and Interboro. Other beers make it from around the country, with Vermont recently popping up on the menu more frequently (on a related note, keep an eye out for my coming post on my Vermont brewery day).
Despite the constantly changing rotation on the taps, the menu is curated to always have a similar flow, starting with easier ales, moving to various sours and saisons, on to the pale ales and IPA varieties, ending with a few darker stouts and porters. “The idea is that regulars can come in and know where to look on the menu to find what they’re in the mood for,” said Van Horn. While that kind of menu curation takes some planning, making sure to have a good variety of beers stocked and ready to go, the acquisition of those beers is a little less regular — which helps Gold Star's patrons enjoy its constantly-changing variety.
“Most of what smaller craft breweries put out these days, besides a couple of standbys, are available on a limited basis,” Van Horn explained. “A lot of the breweries around the country and the city, like Other Half and Threes, are always doing new things. When the distributors come knocking, you either jump on what they're offering or you don’t.”
Gold Star’s relationships with several distributors, as well as the local breweries that self-distribute, mean that if the bar ever finds itself running low on a certain style, Van Horn can put the word out and see what breweries and series come back. The bar works with four or five main distributors, as well as the smaller breweries which have self-distribution schemes, like LIC Beer Project and Finback (both based in Queens).
The bar has a few snacks, like smoked fava beans or meat and cheese boards, as well as a few sandwiches. My personal favorite is the beer cheese, which is made right in the shop whenever the stock is low, using one of the beers on tap.
Last thing to note: prices. They tend to be on the higher side, though are pretty on-par for craft beer in New York. To be fair, the menu in the picture above lists slightly higher than average
The beer industry in New York City is rocking, arguably nowhere as much as Brooklyn. With three new breweries opening this season alone, there are a ton of local options, and with them, plenty of great places to drink. As far as local craft beer bars and pubs go, Gold Star does a great job of checking all the boxes: local craft beers, non-local craft beers, wide variety, comfortable and friendly atmosphere, snacks and light meals. A neighborhood fixture, it isn’t necessarily the kind of place you’d see beer tourists flock to — but if they were in the area anyway and chose to stop by, they certainly wouldn’t be disappointed.
P.S. Points and Miles
Gotta bring the blog back on topic, so: for what it's worth, Gold Star, like many bars, codes as "dining" for credit card transactions. That means 5x points this quarter on the Chase Freedom. Bonus points and beer...what more could you ask for?