Six years ago, Keith Schlabs sat inside a small Brooklyn, New York, restaurant, marveling at the intimate eatery’s enterprising beer list.
Though Schlabs was no stranger to the craft beer marketplace—he had, in fact, been an active participant in the craft beer scene since 1993—Schlabs had to pull out his smartphone and Google many of the selections.
“I had only heard of about 10 percent of them,” he admits.
When he asked staff about the options, he encountered intelligent replies and keen recommendations, servers later delivering Schlabs’ beer in a wine glass.
“This was a place focused on finding just the right beers, walking guests through decisions, and presenting them in a professional way,” Schlabs says. “And, honestly, I had never seen anything like it.”
Schlabs, like so many others, was accustomed to such things with wine, with sommeliers and servers detailing a wine’s vintage and taste with aplomb and accuracy. This, however, was a new beer experience for Schlabs.
Inspired by the adventure, he returned to Dallas and, about one year later, helped launch the Meddlesome Moth. With 40 taps, two cask ales, and an ambitious bottle list some 85 options deep, the chef-driven restaurant brought beer selection and sophistication to a new level in Dallas, proudly proclaiming itself as the city’s foremost home to fine and extraordinary beer.
“Chances are if you’ve seen it in a commercial, we don’t serve it,” the Meddlesome Moth proclaims on its website.
It’s representative of beer’s new wave, the common man’s drink that has become anything but common in 2015.
Edging up in consumer perceptions of luxury items, beer has entered the worlds of white tablecloth and staff certifications, food pairings and tastings, educational events and intimate experiences. Stepping out from wine’s lofty shadow, ales, lagers, stouts, and their brewed friends have embraced artistry, refinement, and a quality-over-quantity mindset to capture consumers’ imaginations, spur brewmasters’ innovation, and compel restaurants to keep pace.
“The beer world has completely changed,” Schlabs says.
Beer’s rise explained
Beer’s climb in the public’s consciousness and ascent into concepts heretofore reserved for wine and craft cocktails has been swift and spirited.
Homebrewing has exploded, currently representing more than 1.2 million people in the U.S., the American Homebrewers Association reports, while underground communities of collectors swapping vintage or limited-run bottles in beer cellars or at bottle-sharing events have emerged.
The number of craft breweries, meanwhile, has soared in recent years, nearly doubling from 1,754 in 2010 to 3,418 in 2014, according to Brewers Association data.
At many newfangled breweries, innovation and artistry combine in a mission to push beer’s longstanding norms. Experimenting with everything from ingredients to storage methods, both established and new brewers are driving beer’s complexity in new directions.
And consumers have largely responded in earnest. Increasingly curious about beer’s many variables, many are ditching their Budweisers and Miller Lites to embrace distinctive, esoteric styles and a willingness to pay more for well-built beers, barrel-aged brews, or limited-production offerings.
“After all, when you get a taste of something really good, it’s hard to go back,” Schlabs says.
In Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood, The Publican built its business on a bold gamble that Windy City diners would accept its intrepid beer-forward program. At any given time, The Publican hosts 12 draft handles and up to 75 bottles, the trendsetting eatery championing seasonal, rather than annual, productions.
Seven years after its opening, The Publican’s daring bet has produced remarkable results, a seemingly unthinkable turn in an old-school town well known for favoring Old Style over imports, the High Life over the highfalutin.
“The level of connoisseurship with beer has increased immensely and that’s helped us become a destination restaurant that people make a point to visit and try beers they haven’t ever seen,” The Publican’s wine and beer coordinator Rebekah Graham says.
As much as artistry and innovation account for beer’s surge to unforeseen levels, so, too, accessibility matters. Whereas the globe’s best wines enter six-figure territory, the finest beers run a fraction of that cost. Moreover, beer lacks the pretentiousness of wine, better matching society’s movement toward more casual, laid-back endeavors.
“Beer doesn’t have the stigma of wine,” Pene says. “Something in beer’s light-heartedness and lack of pretension appeals to people.”
It’s particularly true at Eleven Madison Park, a Michelin three-star restaurant that weaves beer seamlessly into a fine dining space that preaches—and practices—technical precision.
Eleven Madison Park has ditched draft beer in favor of a bottled beer list featuring 180 selections from around the globe. A by-the-glass program allows servers to recommend exceptional offerings—a 750ml 175th Anniversary Carnegie Porter from Sweden-based Pripps for $105 or a $245 imperial stout from Italy’s LoverBeer, for instance—and guests an opportunity to taste rare, unfamiliar brews alongside cutting-edge cuisine.
“It’s what we think fine dining should be: more comfortable than rigid,” says Matthew Pene, the beer director at New York City’s heralded Eleven Madison Park.
Selection and staff
Undoubtedly, selection has become a key driver of beer’s rise in the restaurant space, as in-the-know professionals curate beer lists with the same attention, detail, creativity, and adventure sommeliers have long employed to construct prodigious wine lists.
At Daniel Boulud’s DBGB in New York City, the beer selection is both extensive and dynamic, featuring more than 150 beer selections, 20–22 of which are on draft. DBGB head sommelier Ian Hood blends old-world, terroir-driven selections alongside more basic styles and an expanding list of ciders that acknowledges accelerating consumer interest in the apple-based concoctions. There is also a collection of keg and bottle-conditioned brews purposefully omitted from the beer list and reserved instead for those discerning drinkers who value rare and unique options.
“[Even] the selections that we have that are more easily appreciated by the average consumer still tend to reflect a sense of artisanship by the brewery,” Hood says. “We seek craftsmanship and balance in every style.”
Like wine, DBGB presents its beers by identifying the producer, the vintage (if applicable), and the region. Staff will later take a diner’s selections to a side station and taste for evaluation before pouring for the guest’s approval. The process piques guests’ curiosity, Hood says, and helps diners understand that beer is no less important than wine.
“We explain that all the love and care that go into wine production also go into beermaking,” Hood says.
Along the Rocky Mountain’s front range in Colorado, a region some term the “Napa Valley of Beer,” Denver-based Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen divides its elaborate beer menu into three categories, assistant GM and beer coordinator Jules Bouchard explains: an everyday collection largely favoring Colorado-based brews; a second batch featuring rare beers often global or seasonal in nature; and a third category, the cellar group, highlighted by aged or vintage beers as well as one-offs that the restaurant has procured.
“If we get an ambitious table, it’s fun to bring something up from the beer cellar and introduce a beer people have never tasted before,” Bouchard says.
At an increasing number of restaurants across the country, meanwhile, these ambitious beer lists are being decoded and served for guests by Cicerone-certified staff. The Chicago-based accrediting group has established itself as the industry standard for knowledge in beer sales and service.
At the Publican, all front-of-the-house staff, including servers, bartenders, and managers, are Cicerone certified. Graham says the certification, which covers topics such as beer styles and culture, flavors and food pairings, brewing ingredients and processes, provides Publican staff a common foundation and language that cements the restaurant’s beer credibility.
“From the service standpoint, having Cicerones has been unbelievably helpful,” Graham says, adding that the certification helps staff understand, discuss, and better recommend offerings from innovative breweries that play with styles and ingredients.
At Euclid Hall, meanwhile, ownership reimburses staff members who earn Cicerone’s entry-level Beer Server credential. That, in conjunction with a weekly beer class for staff that includes tastings, a discussion of flavors, and tips on how to sell beer, helps ensure the Euclid Hall team is prepared to speak with knowledge, insight, and authority about beer and its place at the table.
“It’s not uncommon to see a group of beer nerds engaged in deep talks with one of our servers,” Bouchard says.
And often, Bouchard adds, Euclid Hall seats a guest who doesn’t identify as a beer drinker. With sincerity and smarts from the server and a bit of adventure on the diner’s part, however, staff can coax a trial.
“Nine times out of 10, we find a beer they like,” Bouchard says.
While deep, ambitious beer menus and knowledgeable staff highlight beer’s sophisticated ascent in the restaurant beverage world, restaurants have become increasingly intentional about showcasing beer as a premier piece of the table as well, most notably with suggested beer-and-food pairings that mimic wine’s entrenched coupling with cuisine.
Seeking to deliver the right complement between food and beer, the Meddlesome Moth suggests a style of beer with key dishes on its menu.
“Customers like this idea, and when they choose a dish and see a beer next to it, it starts a conversation,” Schlabs says.
At The Publican, beer and food menus are intertwined, not independent. Kitchen staff are involved in the pairing process, and Graham calls the restaurant’s back-of-the-house team “critical to creating the right mix.”
“We want everyone to see what’s happening on both sides of the plate, which helps create the cohesive, strong experience we want to provide all of our guests,” Graham says.
It’s a practice consumers continue to embrace to the point that Pene says a swelling number of visitors to Eleven Madison Park specifically request a beer pairing with their meal.
“And that’s groundbreaking,” Pene says.
Consumers have also flocked to restaurant events that celebrate beer, ranging from beer dinners to brewer’s weekends—gatherings that put beer’s artistry and elegance center stage.
Each year, Meddlesome Moth hosts 6–8 beer dinners, as many as 135 guests attending the special events headlined by craft brewing leaders such as Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman or Dogfish Head founder Sam Calagione. The restaurant selects 5–6 beers from the featured brewery and curates a multi-course dinner with mindful food-and-beer pairings.
In North Woodstock, New Hampshire, the Woodstock Inn promotes hands-on educational experiences, following a tradition established by vineyards and wineries.
Each day, Woodstock Inn runs a noon brewery tour. During the 60-minute voyage, guests climb ladders and view open fermentation, gaining an intimate, firsthand look at the brewing process. The Woodstock Inn also hosts about a half-dozen brewer’s weekends each year in which about 20 attendees—from avid homebrewers to novices—learn how to brew beer alongside established brewmasters.
“Many of these folks don’t know about craft beer and our job is to educate them, which helps breed deeper connections and create greater interest in craft beer,” Woodstock Inn owner Keegan Rice says.
Earlier this year, Fortune magazine wondered aloud about a craft beer bubble, not the first mainstream media outlet to broach the issue. With a new U.S. brewery launching every dozen hours, in fact, one craft beer veteran said the industry was “nearing a crisis point.”
“Expansion, after all, is good–but uncontrolled expansion could be a warning sign of a craft beer bubble,” Fortune scribe Chris Morris opined.
Euclid Hall’s Bouchard and others acknowledge that some sub-par product has hit the market, but says “those are getting weeded out” by individuals committed to perfecting the craft. Increasingly, she notes, breweries are becoming science labs studying bacteria and organisms and testing yeast cells in an effort to deliver optimal consistency and flavor.
“It’s a remarkable marriage of art and science,” Bouchard says. “There’s just no room in this marketplace for mediocre product.”
Despite talk of a craft beer bubble, consumers, breweries, and restaurants alike continue charging ahead.
While Schlabs acknowledges that it takes time for some consumers to embrace craft beer, he does not see those who have tasted well-built brews returning to mass-produced options.
“Customers want good beer and I only see that expanding,” he says. “They’re not going backwards.”
As guests’ knowledge and interest in craft beer expands, their expectation for selection and service at restaurants surges in tandem. Graham says she cannot remember the last time she visited a strong independent restaurant that lacked a dynamic menu of craft beers.
“Craft beer is not going anywhere,” Graham says. “It’s proven it’s amazing with food and, now, it’s part of the conversation.”
Many restaurants are intensifying their quests to discover novel beer selections, hiring certified beer aficionados, developing rich food-and-beer pairings, and working alongside breweries to bring compelling options to table. Some are even purchasing their own bourbon barrels, sending it to a local brewer, and having the brewery age beer for the restaurant, thereby heightening the connection point between brewmaster and restaurant to create a rich tableside story.
“Savvy businesses led by those who are passionate in their field will be pushing to set up innovative programs in this burgeoning subsect of the beverage industry,” DBGB’s Hood assures.
On the production side, craft also shows no signs of slowing.
“The fact that gigantic corporations are getting into craft speaks to the potential longevity of the movement,” says Pene, specifically noting Anheuser-Busch InBev’s $38.8 million acquisition of Goose Island in 2011.
In the coming years, restaurant beer directors anticipate seeing a litany of developments: more delicate beers; brews crafted solely from local ingredients; more barrel aging and lagering; differentiated hop strains sourced from around the globe; more sour and wild beers; storage innovations that deliver fresh beer beyond the harvest time; and, just perhaps, $1,000 kegs.
Whereas wine has been through centuries and continents, advanced beermaking is largely a recent global phenomenon, one that has propelled beer’s marketplace profile and standing.
“So many things about beer are untouched,” Rice says, “and that should be exciting to everyone who loves beer.”