Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Beer Revolution

As anyone that works in the wine industry will tell you, when the time comes to relax after a long day, wine professionals reach for a beer. But isn't it our duty to devote all alcohol consumption to the noble grape? Au contraire, I think we should appreciate all forms of quality fermented and distilled liquids. A good Lagavulin single malt whisky with a good Monte Cristo is a fine thing indeed. One of the most enjoyable aspects of life in New York is simply 'choice'. There is a staggering degree of choice in everything, and this definitely includes beer. And it seems restaurants and even the corner bodega have caught on and aside from the standard plonk beer (e.g.Bud, Miller, Coors, etc) now offer a diverse selection of beers to cater for all your barley, malt and hop needs. Thus "the little guy" brewing companies, known as microbreweries, are doing very well. Brooklyn Brewery is a case in point, growing at a staggering annual rate. Their Brooklyn neighbors, Six Points, are also growing at what is according to them, "a dangerous rate", since they are now struggling to find affordable space within Brooklyn for expansion. Other American craft breweries popular these days are Rogue, Flying Dog, Smuttynose and Magic Hat to name but a few.

Many of these companies produce beer that resembles those created by Farmhouse style breweries in the UK, where the craft beer genre began in the 1970's. The Belgian Trappist ales, dark and rich beers (Orvel, Chimay) that make the common lager seem pathetically simple, are perhaps the original craft brews - they date to the early 1100's.
These days I can get a pretty good sense of how much thought a restaurant or bar put into their beverage program simply by looking at their beer selection. Those that offer the standard Bud, Heineken, Amstel Light, Cornona and maybe token "quality beer" like Stella Artois, haven't made an effort, or their clientele would reject better beers (meaning I probably wouldn't dine there anyway). Those that embrace the new beer revolution will have beers from several craft breweries in the US, UK, across Europe and maybe even Japan. I'm not talking Asahi or Sapporo here - the Bud and Miller Japanese equivalents. I had a Hitachino Nest White Ale the other day and it was incredibly smooth and satisfyingly full flavored. An impressive Japanese craft ale.

The world of beers has moved away from the big and embraced the small. One of the reasons this has taken hold is the greater appreciation of beer as a food-pairing alternative to wine. The various styles of beer now offer far greater potential on the dinner table than ever before. The next hot Sunday afternoon you're about to crack open a chewy Cabernet to enjoy with that grilled steak, perhaps consider a Brown Ale instead. Or when you have smoked salmon or Asian -style duck consider a Pale Ale. Or instead of a gin & tonic as your Saturday afternoon aperatif, try an original shandy: half beer, half Schweppes' lemonade or Ginger ale in a tall glass with a thick slice of lemon. Now that's refreshing.

Beer can be more versatile than wine in many ways, and there's nothing wrong with that. As long as you're back to the wine every now and then of course!


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