I met with Jimmy Carbone, proprietor of legendary NYC beer bar Jimmy’s No. 43 as well as host of New York’s longest running beer podcast and a founder of the Good Beer Seal. Find out how he reacts to the accusation of being the godfather of the NYC craft beer scene…
If you’re into craft beer and you live in New York City, chances are you’ve descended the gloomy stairwell behind an unassuming metal grate on the corner of 2nd Avenue and 7th Street to experience the warm welcome at Jimmy’s No. 43. Long before there were the cutting edge beer bars that now litter the city – such as The Jeffrey, the two Pony Bar outlets, Proletariat, Tørst or The Double Windsor – there were a handful of modest bars flying the flag for good American and niche imported beer. Bars like Blind Tiger, d.b.a. and Jimmy’s No. 43.
Aside from successfully, consistently running a craft beer institution in the East Village, the eponymous owner of Jimmy’s No. 43 manages to do plenty of other stuff.
For six years Jimmy Carbone has hosted Beer Sessions Radio on the Heritage Radio Network, the longest running beer podcast in the city, over which time he has hosted and gently interrogated pretty much all the big players in the American and international craft beer scene.
He co-founded and helped launch the Good Beer Seal, a pre-Yelp scheme to recognize and call out the best beer bars in New York. And he has somehow managed to create and promote an extensive number of specialty food- and drink-oriented events and festivals, from brisket and burger festivals to celebrations of cider and chilli sauce.
“I may be known as a beer guy, but food is my big passion,” Jimmy told me when I drank beer with him in the amazing, old-world-meets-new-world ambience of his basement bar at 43 East 7th Street in Manhattan’s East Village. “I just love great food, and I love how eating great food brings people together. You can’t be unhappy when you have amazing food in front of you!”
So why, as such a passionate food aficionado (and wine – he’s a qualified sommelier – and spirits aficionado for that matter) is he so renowned in the NYC craft beer scene?
“I kind of got swept up in the beer thing. You know, I’ve been running food-focused bars for almost 22 years, which is the same amount of time that the current craft beer explosion has been happening,” Jimmy explained. “I’ve always had great food and great wine as well as great craft beer, but back when Jimmy’s Number 43 started in 2005 there were plenty of places serving great food and great wine. Only a select few served great beer.”
When I first met Jimmy I was introduced to him as the godfather of the New York City craft beer scene, because there was no one he didn’t know, and no one’s beer he hadn’t passionately championed in his destination bar. (The fact the name Carbone kind of sounds like Corleone helps too.) How does Jimmy react to this label?
“The godfather of New York craft beer? Me?!” was Jimmy’s startled response. “No, I’m more like the godson.”
“Friends of mine like David Brodrick [owner of Blind Tiger Ale House] and Ray Deter [pioneering co-owner of d.b.a. who sadly passed in 2011] were the ones who really made craft beer happen in this city; or Steve Hindy and Tom Potter at Brooklyn Brewery,” Jimmy continued. “I may have been along for the ride, but I was never driving the car. I just like drinking beer with all the fantastic people in the New York beer scene. Maybe I should stop going out so much!”
10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes with Jimmy Carbone, proprietor of Jimmy’s No. 43
- Can you describe what your company does in one short sentence?
Jimmy’s Number 43 is not your typical restaurant or bar – it’s a place for people to get together, host something and have a great time.
I’m involved in a couple of other ventures outside Jimmy’s, but they all come back to gatherings of people, celebrating good food and good drink.
- How long have you worked here?
I’m coming up on 22 years running bars, but at Jimmy’s Number 43 it’s 11 years, since 2005.
- How and why did you come to be here?
I came to New York for college, from a family that revolved around good food and hospitality. My mother and my aunts were always cooking, and meal times were a big deal. The first day I arrived in New York I had to deal with something I’d never faced before – having to feed myself!
I did a lot of traveling and thinking about food, and decided providing people with affordable, authentic food was my life’s calling. Fast forward a bit and I’m working in a restaurant here in Manhattan and I read a book called Adventures On The Wine Route by Kermit Lynch, which totally changed my life. I got into wine, trained as a sommelier and decided to open up my own wine-focused café. This was 1994.
In 2005 the lease was up, and after plenty of searching I found this amazing basement bar, which I refitted to become Jimmy’s Number 43. The craft beer thing sort of happened by accident. I always intended Jimmy’s to be about great food, wine and beer, but the craft beer trend was new and exciting and so I got swept up in it, being one of the first bars in the city to carry only great imported and local specialty beers. Don’t get me wrong, I love beer and I’m so excited to be part of the New York beer scene, but it was never the plan.
I still consider myself to be a food, wine and beer guy, and a spirits guy too, but the craft beer scene has grown up around me and craft beer became one of the reasons people come to my bar. But we host plenty of fantastic food events here too, and we’re only 18 months into our liquor license so I expect us to do some great stuff in the spirits world also.
- What is your daily routine?
First thing I do every day is take my daughter to school, which is great because it gets me up and out of the house. I’ll then either spend the morning doing emails and inventory or attending meetings or maybe working on an upcoming event somewhere in the city. The morning is a great time for getting stuff done. It’s my time for making sure I’m up to speed with personal admin and the situation at Jimmy’s.
The afternoon tends to be when that day’s business gets going, and I meet with sales reps, take deliveries and so on. By 5pm it’s nightlife time, and I’ll be in and around the bar, meeting people, making sure everything’s running smoothly. I’m at the bar at some point almost every night – sometimes I’ll have a night off, but it’s rare. I like to stay in touch with the feel of the bar as well as the numbers and the sales figures.
- What is the hardest thing about your job?
Two things. The first is the raw hours you have to put in to make a bar work – if I’m not careful that could take over my whole life. I try to put the right amount of time in to make sure everything’s working without the bar sucking up all my time and energy.
The second thing is maintaining the technology that makes my bar run. My approach to that is to keep a pretty low-tech environment, a lot of traditional practices. When your equipment breaks down you can have real problems – and the more equipment you have with sophisticated technology, the more problems you can have.
If I could have a bar with just an open fire to cook some food and heat the place, bottles of wine and a few casks of beer, I would!
- In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?
Some people might say money and capital. But I’ve never had either, so if you’re talking about me, it’s consistency and tenacity.
To have a successful bar, or any kind of business, you have to give a lot of effort all the time. Sure, you have off days, and not everyone can give 100% all the time; but you have to give at least 80% all the time. If one person comes into your bar and sees that you’re in a bad mood, or you haven’t put the effort in that day, they’ll leave. And they’ll tell other people your place sucks.
And sometimes things will get tough, and that’s when you have to give it everything. Jimmy’s Number 43 has been through Hurricane Sandy, it’s been through an explosion in the building next door that almost wiped the block out. I’ve had my back against the wall many times in the last 22 years, and the key to success is how you react in that sort of situation. I love what I do, and it’s my livelihood. I won’t let a piece of bad luck or a little pressure get in the way of my business being successful.
- What is success for you?
10 more years of doing this! It may sound flippant, but I’m doing what I want to do right now. I love the lifestyle, I love the people. I love the success the craft beer industry is enjoying, and how friends of mine are getting good business as a result. And I just enjoying hosting people: seeing people enjoy good food, good drinks and a good time is why I got into this in the first place.
- If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
Again, that’s not one for me. I’m genuinely happy with the way things are. I’m happy with New York State and how the system empowers beer bars like mine. And in New York small breweries can self-distribute, which is huge. I’m satisfied keeping one small business and living off that, and being able to work directly with great breweries, cider makers, new small scale spirits makers. They can visit me here, and I know what I’m dealing with.
And I’m very happy with where the industry’s going. I love the craft thing and the return to sourcing local ingredients, high quality food and drink. I want to see it keep moving in that direction.
- What are your three favorite beers, and why?
- Hitachino White was a beer that really put Jimmy’s Number 43 on the map back in 2006. It was so different from what else was out there and people would seek us out because we stocked it.
- I’m a huge fan of Augie Carton’s Boat Beer IPA. I mean it’s not really an IPA, it’s a very aromatic, hoppy kolsch. And it just fits what I want out of a beer. I still get excited when we get it in.
- I’m really proud of the guys at Other Half, and I love their amazing IPAs – choose any one of them. I’m proud that we have IPAs in New York City now that can stand up to the best in the world.
- Apart from Jimmy’s No. 43, where’s the best place to get a beer in New York City?
I like Spuyten Duyvil in South Williamsburg. It has a small but excellent selection of draft beer, pretty unique artisanal food, a cool atmosphere and an amazing bottle list. It’s kind of like the Jimmy’s Number 43 of Brooklyn!