The Simple Joys of the Expensive Commuter Beer
Because sometimes you just need an $8 can of IPA for the long train ride home
In New York’s Grand Central Terminal, in the Graybar Passage in the northeast corner of the building, directly across from Track 13’s New Haven line, sits Beer Table To Go. About as big as a supply closet, if you stumbled upon it in the middle of the day you’d find a few employees and hardly any customers, but a beer selection incredibly esoteric (saisons from Quebec!), and insanely pricey (that will cost you $47!!!).
We all love a good train beer, but who would buy an $8 can of Kent Falls Line Aversion IPA for the ride home?! Go back around 5PM and you’ll see. A massive line of suburban commuters, each grabbing a single can of craft beer so they can drink it on their return train to Pleasantville or Chappaqua, White Plains or wherever. This nightly tradition of the commuter beer is truly one of the most unique drinking experiences in America.
“When I lived in the city, you got arrested for drinking on the train. Now, its welcomed, it’s celebrated,” explains James Glover, a senior client partner at Google, who started the nightly ritual after moving from the Upper East Side to Pelham in 2013. Every single evening he tries to time it so he can grab one can of craft beer just before the 6:20 New Haven line departs. Industrial Art Wrench NEIPA is a current favorite.
“We’re not like a neighborhood beer store,” explains Justin Philips, who opened the spot in 2011. It’s aesthetic is distinctly no-frills; since just about every inch of wall space is covered by brown wooden shelves holding beer, there’s absolutely no room for any sort of decoration. “We have five-days-a-week regulars. What other beer store can claim that?”
On a random Tuesday around 5:45, nearly twenty customers stood in line. Most were men who appeared to be in the finance industry. Philips had warned me it would be “very much a crowd of suited dudes.” While there might be a single employee working during quieter hours, during rush hour that’s bumped to as many as five — one at the door, one or two on the floor, one or two at the register. They were all incredibly quick at remembering regulars and what they typically order, suggesting options for first-timers (“Have you tried Molotov Lite?”), grabbing cash and swiping cards in mere seconds, and quickly getting people off to their trains.
“A phrase I hear all the time is, ‘You guys make my commute through Grand Central Station a little easier,” Felicity Doyle, an employee for the past two years, told me. “It’s nice to be able to get a good beer before I get on my train.’”
Previous to Beer Table opening, commuters had long utilized bar cars for their imbibing needs — train cars with a bar literally in them — or the cash-only bar carts at the end of most platforms. Phillips lucked out when the final four bar cars was decommissioned in 2014 (a few were brought back in 2016) and even more so when the union-run bar carts were all removed in 2017 under fraud allegations — those 18 carts used to bring the MTA around $7 million per year. That money had to be shifted somewhere, and the bulk of it has seemed to have headed toward pricey IPAs in 16 ounce cans.
“We ask customers if they would like a paper bag [to cover the beer so it’s not apparent they’re drinking], and more than half say no. It’s really a non-issue,” explains Phillips, noting that, while it’s not legal to drink in most of Grand Central, it is legal to drink once on the Metro-North trains.
Aside from the New York City area, there are very few other places in America where commuters can legally imbibe on their ride; mainly, because so few Americans commute home via train. The Long Island Railroad and New Jersey Transit also allow drinking on-board, and their shared terminal, Penn Station, is rife with plenty of convenience marts and quick-grab spots hawking cans of Bud Light and Heineken from coolers near the register (though, they too lost their bar carts in 2018). Washington D.C. and Baltimore’s MARC also allows drinking on-board; though the D.C. line into Virginia doesn’t. Alcohol is allowed on Chicago’s Metra, though not Philadelphia’s SEPTA system.
Even when he had initially opened his original Beer Table Pantry in the quiet Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn in 2008, Philips had always had an eye on opening “teeny tiny bottle shops in high traffic locations.” Transit hubs were the obvious choice and when he could finally afford it, he jumped on a space at North America’s most trafficked train station, with an average of 750,000 visitors per day. [Beer Table Pantry closed in 2013.]
“I was able to prove the model,” Philips told me last year, “And it made me realize we want to be in the transit business.”
Beer Table expanded to the World Trade Center near the PATH terminal in 2016, but a surprising lack of foot traffic led to its closure earlier this year (you aren’t allowed to drink on the PATH any how). Philips had also let me in on the fact he’s had a lease for another location at Penn Station since 2013, though has been so far unable to overcome red tape. He’s looked into expanding the model to D.C.’s Union Station and has even explored Europe and Japan, where some Tokyo stations have 3 million people pass through them a day. For now, though, it’s all about Grand Central. Though, as Philips explains:
“America is probably the most difficult country to be trying to do what we are doing.”
The customers are grateful. For many of them, a mid-life move to the ’burbs may have put an end to after-work gatherings at midtown pubs and downtown cocktail bars. But that doesn’t mean it put an end to the reason they wanted a quick drink after work in the first place—to take the edge off another intense day in the big city, before transitioning back to home life, wherever that may be.
“Me, my phone, and my beer — a 29 min happy hour,” Glover tells me of his ride back to Pelham to see his wife and two kids. “I’m walking into a house that’s just finished dinner, practicing piano, baths and bedtime. A little beer beforehand helps with the chaos!”