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Riding the (r)ales

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Getting drunk via mass transit helped me fall in love with New York City. As a 22-year-old temp receptionist with little money and even less responsibility, I wasted eves at dives where $2 bought canned beer, $3 netted rotgut cocktails, and $20 equaled oblivion. The city was an amusement park of alcohol, and I drank in every attraction.

Armed with an unlimited MetroCard, I’d subway it to Harlem’s A Touch of Dee, soaking in gin and tonics and Stevie Wonder tunes, before trundling to Williamsburg’s Turkey’s Nest for a Styrofoam boat of Bud. On weekends, 8 p.m. effortlessly blurred into 4 a.m. After last call—my wallet empty except for the MetroCard—I’d ride the subway back to my apartment, emerging from underground to sunrise’s first searing rays. I can’t wait to do this again tonight, I’d think in my bed, safely thudding into dreamland.

The key word is safely. In New York, there was no need for automobiles, much less a pricey cab ride. The noodle soup of subway and bus lines ensured that nearly all of NYC’s infinite watering holes were accessible. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority was my willing chaperone, on sleepless call any minute of the day.

In time, my desire to binge-drink lowbrow lagers in low-life dives shifted to a quest for craft beer. Today, my Brooklyn neighborhood’s cut-rate bodegas stock the likes of Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Sumpin’ and Stone IPA. Good beer is but a dog-walk away. Ten years earlier, NYC’s craft-beer landscape was far more fallow, with hoppy oases as scant as rent-stabilized apartments. In other words, finding fresh pints of Bear Republic Racer 5 IPA required travel.

Once more the subway was my chariot. The R train deposited me in the East Village, where d.b.a. and Jimmy’s No. 43 showcased cask ale’s subtle pleasures. The L train led me back to Williamsburg, where I’d pop by Brooklyn Brewery for a pint of East India Pale Ale, before strolling to Barcade to sample Victory, Tröegs and Southern Tier. The 4 train flew to downtown Brooklyn, near which Pacific Standard poured West Coast breweries such as North Coast and Firestone Walker. The subway rumbled me to novel beer experiences and unexplored precincts, the IPA as compass. I began eyeballing subway maps not as a utilitarian tool, but as a guide to new worlds where beer always awaited my journey’s end.

I was not alone in my worldview. In 2006, San Francisco’s Gail Ann Williams and Steve Shapiro, both writers for Celebrator Beer News, took the train to a beer festival at the Bistro in Hayward, located some 20 miles southeast of the city.

“We started having conversations with people about how nice it was not to have to drive,” Williams recalls. Smitten by the freedom of mass transit, the duo returned home, calculated the number of good-beer locales near train stops (“Within half an hour, we had 25 or 30 places,” Williams recalls), and soon launched the website Beer By BART—Bay Area Rapid Transit, the transportation system linking Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco and surrounding suburbs.

For each BART depot, the duo list the fine-drinking options within walking distance. Pop off at Powell Street to hit the buzzy Mikkeller Bar for Faction’s hoppy Negative Ghost Rider stout. Afterward, ride one stop to Civic Center to stock up on Drake’s Denogginizer double IPA and Calicraft’s sparkling Buzzerkeley at City Beer Store, as well as growlers of Cellarmaker’s Tiny Dankster pale ale.

“We rarely drive anywhere in the Bay Area to drink,” Williams says.

Championing the concept of mass-transit-led alcohol consumption, men’s lifestyle website Thrillist.com has transformed the transit maps of 20-plus global cities, including Toronto, Chicago, Paris and Berlin, into bar guides. Each map pinpoints the best imbibing option within a quickstep of each stop. Thrillist highlights the fact that Los Angeles’ Culver City station is close to Father’s Office (try the famous caramelized-onion-crowned burger with Craftsman’s 1903 Lager), while Chicago’s Blue Line California stop is five minutes from Revolution Brewing (the warming, chocolaty Eugene Porter is a must-order).

“Most of the time, people are using public transportation for really boring stuff,” says Thrillist editorial director Ben Robinson. “You’re going to work or you’re going to Bed, Bath and Beyond. This allows you to look at a map from a different perspective. All of a sudden, the subway map has a new meaning.”

Beyond transforming a transit map into a drinking itinerary, Robinson sees Thrillist’s guides as prodding users to explore their cities and alternate modes of conveyance. In metropolises like London and New York, subterranean trains are arteries essential to everyday life. In car-heavy cultures like L.A. and Atlanta, Robinson says, “Public transportation is often looked at as a novelty. Now we’re giving you the best excuse to use it.” He adds that “if going out and getting a couple of beers is what it takes to explore the city, we’re more than happy to provide you with the framework.”

While the MTA still helps me navigate NYC’s expanding beer universe, bending elbows at Bronx Brewery’s new tasting room after a 6 train to Cypress Avenue, I also utilize regional trains for far-afield brewery adventures. The Long Island Railroad brings me to Barrier Brewing for Money IPA and Greenport Harbor to taste Black Duck Porter, while the Metro-North line leaves me at Hudson River-hugging Peekskill Brewery for the melony Amazeballs pale ale. I’ll chase that with the Brettanomyces-driven Simple Sour and Citra-stuffed Eastern Standard IPA, which—why not?—I’ll also buy by the growler. On New York state’s regional railroads it’s kosher to drink beer, as it is on Amtrak. Its trains might be my most favorite place to drink a mobile beer in America.

Whenever I ride Amtrak to Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., I hit the bar car. There’s Coors Light and Corona, if that gets your blood flowing, but I buy one of East Coast rail travel’s singular pleasures: Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA. As the miles tick past, I’ll stare at the blurring scenery and savor the IPA’s assertive blend of pungent hops and malt sweetness. The beer melts my stress, the train’s hum as soothing as a mother’s lullaby. Another round? Sounds swell. After all, it’s not like I’m driving. •

4 great beer destinations in train stations:

Terminal Bar // Denver
At the stunningly revamped Union Station, Terminal pours more than two dozen Colorado-focused drafts from the likes of Funkwerks, Prost and Denver Beer Co.

Beer Table To Go // New York City
Tourists and locals alike pop by Grand Central Terminal’s closet-size craft-beer pantry for growlers and mason jars full of draft beer from the likes of Barrier, Allagash and Stillwater.

Bridgewater’s Pub // Philadelphia
Snug inside the 30th Street Station, Bridgewater’s offers voyagers an A-plus lineup of American craft (Finch’s, Founders, New Holland) and plenty of Euro imports.

Flossmoor Station // Flossmoor, Ill.
Housed in a 1906-built station for the Illinois Central Railroad, the brewpub has won loads of awards for beers like Shadow of the Moon imperial stout and Killer Kowalski Baltic porter.

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