Sunday night I had the chance to check out a little sneak preview and VIP event for the new World of Beer in Crossgates Mall. I’ve been to a couple of World of Beers while visiting family in FL and have had some fairly good experiences. It’s tough not to when you have great breweries like Cigar City to partner up with like they have down there. Here, the brewery situation is much more bleak (extremely evident on Sunday night’s tap list) which means reliance on the distributors for selection of beers and having knowledgeable staff able to curate a tap list from the beers available in the area will be crucial. We’ll get more into that when we talk about beer later.
I’ve got to preface this post with a reminder that this blog is not for everyone. As I’ve always said, this blog is about sharing the best beers, visiting the best breweries, and recommending the best bars and restaurants I’ve been to. That said, my like-minded readers drink some of the best beers in the world, hail from and travel all of the Northeast for breweries, and are avid traders in the community, as well. Some may call us beer hipsters or elitist dbags, and I’m totally fine with that. And the thing is, we are not World of Beer’s target audience; craft beer noobs are. They’re looking for the people who see 50 taps and are amazed at the selection, rather than those of us struggling to find something new of interest or something they wish to revisit from the very same tap list. So with that said, it’s really unfair to even write up my experience at all, at least with the readership here in mind.
Still, there is a level of expectation that I am not going to bullshit you guys or pull any punches, so I am going to deliver the most detailed and honest recounting of my experience and thoughts on my visit. It’s the best that I can do. I’ll admit, I have my reservations about chains, about malls, and about new establishments in the area in general, so bear with me here while I try to address some of those reservations while getting into my experience here as well.
There’s no getting around this. It’s in a mall. It’s Crossgates Mall, too, which doesn’t have that great of a reputation (“dying mall” is a term that gets thrown around often, especially when compared to Colonie Center), has had a lot of stores dropping like flies over the years and some issues with unsavory characters and children running amok in the past. Some of that has been addressed, and new businesses like Dave & Busters, the upcoming return of Lord & Taylor, and now World of Beer are nice but I do not see this as a Crossgates revival by any means. The World of Beer in Syracuse does well because it’s in Destiny USA, where people come to shop and peruse and hang for hours and hours. It’s a destination mall. Other than movie goers, the typical Crossgates shopper comes looking for a specific store or specific item, then quickly leaves.
Beyond Crossgates’ shortcomings, the environment is not very conducive to having a bar. First off the entire mall and all of the grounds are smoke-free. I don’t smoke, but I know many, many beer drinkers who do. On top of that, and I know most reviews of this particular location will not mention this, but I have no qualms: you’re drinking right next to the Guilderland Police. And not right across the street from the police like Madison Pour House, I mean literally right next door to the police, and you’ll likely be parking in the same parking lot as they do. Some might argue well that’s why you have a designated driver, or that’s why you only have a beer or two. Both great points. But the business model of a place that has 500 bottles and 50 taps and an app that rewards based on the number of beers you’ve tried is counter to both of those points, and having just “a beer or two” can still easily put you in a bad situation when some of the beers there are 10% ABV or above. Be careful, friends.
As for the location in the mall itself, it’s where the old J|A Prep Kitchen and Houlihan’s used to be, right across the from the movie theater, ideal for grabbing a beer and a bite before heading to the movies. It does not have its own exit but it’s very close to one.
The ambiance is exactly what you would expect from a chain. A little too clean, a little too calculated, a little too “a design firm came up with this after a series of questionnaires were submitted by potential customers”. Madison Pour House also suffers greatly from this, but more in the Irish/Scottish Pub/Den kinda of way, instead of the modern take on the beer bar as is done here. I wouldn’t quite call it “the TGIFriday’s of bars” as some have, but it does lack the character of a more established bar.
A range of seating is available from low tops, high tops, corner benches, to leather couches and chairs. I chose the hefty metal stools at the bar on Sunday night. TVs line the walls and many eyes were glued to them during the US game against Portugal that night.
The staff wearing matching World of Beer T-shirts are a constant reminder that this is definitely a chain. Brewery shirts, or even co-branded brewery/WOB shirts that provide a little more individuality and support of favorite craft breweries would be ideal.
The music was hit or miss for me. The band, while nice, drowned out pretty much any potential conversation you could have, either between your peers or while trying to speak to a bartender. This made ordering a beer difficult, and actually resulted in the bartender serving me another beer that I did not even order. In between sets, the volume was at a much better level, with a nice mix of tunes past and present.
We ordered a few things here to get an idea of what the menu would be like on a night with a bunch of people sharing and picking at things like we usually do. Nothing revolutionary here, but good for a crowd and compared to the other options in the mall. The sausages could use some adjustment in the presentation to make them look a little less like sliced hot dogs (cut on an angle?) but they were tasty enough. The cheese portion was huge, more than we could finish as a group, with each block taking at least two bites to finish. Pickled chips are usually not my thing but these had a nice crunchy batter on them. The chocolate cake was exactly what I was looking for, with a nice mixture of cold pudding and moist, dense chocolate cake layers topped with ganache. Other dishes on the menu comprised of sandwiches, burgers, flat breads and a few mains to round things out.
I’m not going to get into ticket times and whatnot because I know, just like any new business that opens around here, the first few weeks the kitchen is going to get slammed and staff needs time to get back on their feet. That’s just the way it is and it’s wrong to judge on that until things normalize. Give it a few weeks.
Again, World of Beer does not target the “Craft Beer Elite”, and I’m totally fine with that. Places like The Bier Abbey, The Ruck, even Madison Pour House are not necessarily as approachable as they could be to someone just graduating from Blue Moon, Sam Adams seasonals and Magic Hat 12 packs. There is totally room in this community for such a venue, and I think mall shoppers are good candidates for converting faux-craft drinkers into craft beer drinkers.
The beer list is available on both the combo beer/food menu and the chalkboard, although the chalkboard is a little small for how high it is. The selection was not what I would consider “bad” that day, but there were also little to no standouts. Way, WAY too many Brown’s beers on (you guys know how I feel about Brown’s), some craft beer “classics”, some newer stuff like Local Option and Off Color, some good locals, some shite locals. I went with a classic, Goudenband, then Shmaltz Funky Jewbelation (tickers’ gotta tick) and ended the night with a Beanhead to go with the chocolate cake above, as the menu recommended. Others in my group drank Local Option Sweet Lief, Against the Grain Brown Note, and a brandy barrel aged Hoften Dormaal amongst others, although the last one seemed the most out of place on the tap list, and wasn’t even listed on the menu although we identified it by the 12 Percent Imports tap handle.
As I mentioned, there were quite a few local beers on the tap list. The problem with supporting local in an area like this is that the quality of beers available brewed locally is quite poor, and supporting local for the sake of local is detrimental to craft beer. That means local “tap events” will lead to lineups from Brown’s like that night, Davidson Brothers, Olde Saratoga, etc. in the future. I shudder to think what the result will be. Sure, this is not nearly as bad as some of the “All New York” lineups we have been graced with in the past, but it is still a constant reminder that New York needs to step up its game. (Follow up reading here, Derek’s also covered the topic here.)
Ever on my quest to banish the shaker pint glass, I do take issue that it is the most used glassware in the house. A request to not have JVS’s Brown Note poured into one was met with confusion, a byproduct of what I’m sure is World of Beer corporate training rather than actual passion for serving craft beer in that glass type. Given its 22-25 oz size ANY bomber served should be done in a 13.5 ounce glass so you get two decent size pours out of it instead of one large one and one pitiful one. (Also if you’re drinking a bomber you should probably share it with someone but that’s on you.) I’ll be honest, if I never drank another beer out of a shaker pint glass again, I’ll die a happy man.
There is a section on the end of the beer list that can totally be nuked off the menu, as can most of the beers they use to make these creations. These “Mixed Drafts” are generally gimmicks to impress only those who are having their first craft beer at World of Beer, generally to sweeten up a stout with other offerings. I do not see this as a value add in any way.
The staff is very green, even beyond their two week “beer school” training provided by World of Beer. Most of the staff is coming from previous chain restaurant experience, and this is their first time with craft beer on this level, some even their first time bartending. They still need extensive training and I hope regular, continuing education on craft beer is provided for them so they get to the point where they know more about beer than the customers they’re serving.
I’d like to point out that while I am being critical here, it is because I’m being honest with my issues that stem from it being a chain combined with some opening night jitters, and not because I didn’t enjoy my experience there. In fact, Scot and I were some of the last of the people to leave as we stuck around to finish our last round of beers and to BS with staff as things were winding down.
Will I return again? Absolutely, if there’s something on tap I am seeking out (please keep that online tap list updated and Facebook announcing special tappings), if we’re doing some shopping at the mall, or before or after going to see a movie. Did I have any mind blowing beers or food that I’ve never had before while I was there? No, but I knew that going into this, and I think if you find yourself in a similar situation while at Crossgates, knowing what you’re getting into, you can enjoy yourself at World of Beer, too.