One day last winter, a large crowd lined up single-file down Orchard Street and around the corner to Broome Street for hours. It was not a casting call or a concert ticket sale. Beer-lovers from across the boroughs, Jersey and Connecticut had come to Top Hops, the Lower East Side’s two-year-old center of beer geekdom, for the chance to buy a rare beverage called Westvleteren.
Brewed and controlled by monks in Belgium and extremely hard to obtain in the United States, the beer costs $85 per six-pack, with a limit of one per customer–that is, on the infrequent occasions it’s available at all.
Top Hops proprietor Ted Kenny had begged the monks’ distributor for as much as he could get. He got 40 cases—more than all the other outlets in NYC, combined—and still sold out in 90 minutes, leaving many hopefuls empty-handed on the sidewalk.
A few years ago, such devotion to craft beer was largely unheard of in Gotham. But right now, small-batch beer is having a moment in New York City, and Top Hops is at its epicenter.
“The Lower East Side is growing, every day, into more of a mecca of the New York City beer scene,” Kenny said. “This is the up-and-coming neighborhood for beer in Manhattan.”
Bell’s Brewery, a small Michigan company whose products generate almost as much fervor as the Belgian monks’, finally ventured into the New York market last month, to the delight of devotees who regularly crossed state lines to find it. When Bell’s owners planned their citywide kickoff, they focused heavily on the Lower East Side and East Village: Top Hops hosted a packed, standing-room only “tap takeover” Feb. 11, and bars such as One Mile House, The Randolph and Idle Hands also put on events.
Thanks to the booming interest in craft beer, Kenny says Top Hops’ first two years have surpassed even his ambitious vision, which was to establish a “cultural center for beer.”
“What Murray’s is to cheese, we wanted to be for beer,” he said one recent afternoon sitting at the long bar that traverses his deep, narrow space and dispenses 20 specialty brews at a time. Each offering is detailed on a giant blackboard: name, brewer, style, state of origin, alcohol content. Drafts are also available in tasting flights, and in to-go growlers. At the rear of the storefront, refrigerated cases hold more than 600 more varieties in bottles and cans, which you can drink at the bar for a small capping fee, or take home in custom-mixed six-packs.
It’s not just about selling beer, though. There are classes about beer taught by experts. A library of books about beer-making and beer history line the shelves, for reference and for sale. Kenny occasionally dives into food pairings, including one memorable project with his Orchard Street neighbor, Melt Bakery, which last summer combined beer with artisan ice cream sandwiches.
Kenny, who lives on the Upper East Side, left a career with a multinational beer giant to pursue his dream. So far, he says, it’s working out just fine.
Press coverage in industry publications, as well as The New York Times and the Village Voice, have put Top Hops on the craft beer map. In naming Top Hops to its list of the 100 best beer bars in America last year (a list it made again in 2014), Draft magazine said: “A former Anheuser-Busch distributor took every guy’s beer-cave dreams and brought them to life in this minimalist Lower East Side tasting room.”
On any given evening, the clientele includes a handful of solo drinkers who have traveled from afar to taste, talk and commune with fellow beer geeks they just met.
There’s usually a healthy contingency of locals, and occasional tourists who wander in from the Tenement Museum across the street. If there’s one thing that has surprised Kenny about the people who flock to his place, though, it’s the gender split. Considering the glowing reviews in male-targeted media like Men’s Health and GQ, he’s hosted a lot more bachelorette and birthday parties for women than he ever predicted, he says.
There’s been another surprising turn in Kenny’s fledgling business model. Anticipating that craft beers would be the majority, but not the entirety, of his retail business, Kenny’s refrigerators hold a few offerings from the big corporate breweries.
“We stock them,” he said. “But they don’t move.”