Ray Deter was the heart and soul of D.B.A., and the original D.B.A. was the first beer bar—or bar of any kind, for that matter—I visited in New York City.
I’d heard of D.B.A. spoken of with the reverential tones reserved for Gotham landmarks like C.B.G.B.’s and Siberia (the old one, of course), and so on a hot July night in 1999 I piled in a cab with a couple of high school friends living in a ramshackle office building in Little Korea and headed South to find it. We did and we stayed later than we should have, which is usually the case with a visit to 41 1st Avenue. I found this reverence entirely justified—look at that beer list! The whisky, the Kentucky Bourbon!—and in all seriousness D.B.A. became one of the reasons I moved to New York City. But unlike the punk clubs and gutter dives D.B.A. was about sharing knowledge, not posing on a stage or getting wasted. I knew that no matter what else happened, I could at least count on one really good place where I might find common cause, a decent beer, a good conversation. That hasn’t changed, of course, but it will never be the same, because Ray Deter won’t be standing down at the end of the bar, with his steady attention to the main thing—the beer.
I didn’t meet Ray until many years later, around 2004. A writer friend, Seth, had gotten to know Ray, who invited us both in for some beer tasting. That tasting led to many more; Ray was deeply passionate about craft beer, and like us, lived in a city almost entirely oblivious to its charms. The fact is that were it not for Ray Deter and D.B.A., the good beer renaissance that has transformed Manhattan into an isle of beery joy may never have happened at all, or at least not for many years. A trip to the candle-lit, copper topped tables and those chalkboards was a golden promise every time.
That first night I met Ray he blew us away by pulling dozens upon dozens of beers out for us to try from his cellar, and there would be many other such nights when his generosity flowed like the East River. There was the photo shoot when he kept running back up and down from his stash with new treats, regardless of their value and rarity, making the work light and laughter-filled.
And there was another fine early summer evening, after a party at The Blind Tiger Alehouse, when it was time to relocate. Deter, along for the ride at his friends’ bar, invited the revelers to reconvene at D.B.A., which was, naturally, packed. Ducking inside, Ray reemerged with bags and bottles under each arm, and began handing them out until he’d supplied the whole lot, and then led us all, Peter Pan-like, to his own roof top apartment in the East Village.
It was 2005. I recall the limpid quality of the air and the orange-teal-grey-blue views we took in from that spot, looking West. Soon were listening to a series of hilarious stories from a German brewmaster wearing lederhosen (he’d flown that day from Munich for the party carrying only bottles of beer as luggage). Seth and I and a girl I was falling for and everybody stayed too late and talked too loud. Herr Lederhosen recounted his affinity for heavy rock (“especially The Slipknot!”) and trundled off into the night at about 3:30AM, looking for life, and then we left Ray’s place too, weary with laughter. The promise of everything I had come to seek in New York hovered in my hands like fireflies.
And there was the night about a two years later when Ray and a few close friends gathered in the back garden of D.B.A. to toast another very special person making what would be his last visit to the city: the late beer writer Michael Jackson. Just as he had always loved to do, Ray shuttled back and forth making sure we were all comfortable and well-supplied. Of course we were. And a few months later when Jackson died, there was a nationwide toast being organized by Monk’s Cafe owner Tom Peters, beer importer Dan Shelton, and others. I headed to D.B.A. to find Ray and a friend of his, and there the three of us stood for a couple of hours trying to make a measure of things. We did a lot of looking down into our beers.
Ray’s death this week was needless and random and many decades too early. My sincere condolences to his family and friends.
One mutual friend of Ray’s I called when I heard the news said a Belgian brewer friend had thought of Ray as the ultimate incarnation of American freedom. Idealistic, forgiving, a bit reckless at times, joyful, and more than anything else, generous. Ray was all those things. This July 4th, instead of tanks, keep a tankard in mind, and toast Ray, for all he did.