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Beer Is Going Highbrow (and Why That's a Good Thing)

Beer connoisseurs have come to expect restaurant pairing menus, tasting notes and crystal glassware. Here, a look inside their rarified world.

When I first walked into Tørst, a bar that opened earlier this year in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, I thought I'd stumbled into a dark, modernist lair designed to seduce blue-chip wine collectors. With its buttery lighting and polished wooden tables, the room is minimalist, elegant and hushed—not quite fussy, but unapologetically serious in a way familiar to seasoned oenophiles. Behind the bar, I could see the entrance to a hidden semi-secret restaurant called Luksus, which serves only a five-course tasting menu. Above the glossy marble bar are a variety of stemmed glasses, the only drinking vessels on the premises, twinkling like a postmodern chandelier.

Then I sat down and opened the drinks menu. Beer, beer, beer. Only beer: a selection of esoteric bottles, some in the eyebrow-raising $25 to $50 price range, and an equally obscure draft selection. All were curated by Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø, the brewmaster of Evil Twin Brewing. He is also the beer consultant at Tørst, which is owned by Daniel Burns, the former head of Momofuku's test kitchen.

Of course, bars specializing in strange brews have been going kudzu across America since the 1990s. The explosion of microbreweries pushed craft beer into the mainstream, introducing casual lager drinkers to the joys of Belgian saisons and Russian imperial stouts. But as I settled in for an elaborate tasting at Tørst, it was clear I was getting a glimpse into what might best be described as the "wine-ification" of high-end beer culture: a growing push to shed both the trappings of the pub and the extreme-sports mentality long associated with hard-core hopheads. Instead, aficionados are approaching beer with the care, sophistication and theatrics formerly relegated to the world of fine wine.

There is more than a bit of theater at Tørst. The 21 draft beers are delivered by an elaborate custom-built system that looks like a cross between a nuclear reactor and an antique pipe organ. It makes the ceremony of decanting a rare St-Émilion seem almost pedestrian. "We call it the 'flux capacitor,' " the bartender said, dropping the Back to the Future reference while starting me off with a small tulip glass of Evil Twin's Bikini Beer, a citrusy IPA. "It allows us to control the temperature and carbonation of each beer, so we can optimize the flavor profiles." He smiled, perhaps detecting a note of cynicism in my expression. "You roll your eyes, until you realize the difference it makes."

Tørst may be an outlier in the particular world of beer bars, but its attitude isn't uncommon. At Brooklyn's Bierkraft, a store manned by clerks as dauntingly snooty as those in any wine shop, you'll encounter shelves lined with the slim, 750-milliliter wine-like bottles designed to appeal to high-minded drinkers. In Asheville, North Carolina, a shoebox store called Bruisin' Ales sells more than 1,000 different beers, including bottles that cost up to $300. Glassware company Spiegelau, owned by Riedel, has begun focusing on intricate beer goblets, like the recently introduced IPA glass. It was created in partnership with Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada to "showcase the complex and alluring aromatic profiles" of the hop-powered American favorite. "It now outsells our wineglasses," says Matt Rutkowski, Spiegelau USA's vice president. "Brewers have been making complex beers for a while now, so it's about time the rest of us stepped up and gave them the respect they deserve."

Meanwhile, diners at Manhattan's Eleven Madison Park can opt for "custom beer pairings" to accompany the $195 tasting menu, and even those that don't will get a taste of a Picnic Basket pale wheat ale created exclusively for the restaurant by the Ithaca Beer Company to complement the cheese plate. (The cheese's rind is washed with the same beer.) Indeed, convincing wine drinkers that beer can be an equally refined complement to food has become something of a sport in the restaurant community, as evidenced last year when Marc Vetri, one of Philadelphia's most prominent restaurateurs, opened Alla Spina. The restaurant is centered around Italian craft beers like L'Equilibrista, a fizzy pink brew that tastes more like a distant cousin of rosé than Budweiser's sophisticated older sibling. "We present the bottles with the same rigmarole as we would wine—decanting, swirling, all of it," says Steve Wildy, the beverage director of the Vetri group. "It helps educate people on what beer can be."

Just how curiously entangled have the rituals of wine and beer become? Consider that the Massachusetts-based Skinner auction house recently made the unorthodox decision to add lots of beer to its wine auctions. "If I had tried to do that five years ago, I would've been laughed out of the room," says Michael Moser, Skinner's fine wine specialist, who pushed for the inclusion of beer after noticing the underground market for vintage brew taking over the forums of websites like beeradvocate.com. "But something has shifted. A lot of it has to do with the fact that wine has just become exorbitantly expensive, while for $20, you can try one of the best beers in the world. And the notion that spending $20 for a bottle of beer is ridiculous has more or less eroded." Moser proudly tells me that, at the house's May auction, a 2008 spontaneously fermented bottle of Don Quijote, from the Belgian brewery Cantillon, sold for a dizzying $1,586. "Part of why it's so desirable," he says matter-of-factly, "is that it will keep getting better over the next 10 to 15 years."

To me, a proud connoisseur of Miller High Life, hearing about beer in such grandiloquent terms is odd. Is it necessary, or just another way that the food-obsessed elevate every element of dining and drinking to a fine art? But when I talk with Greg Engert, the beer sommelier of Birch & Barley and ChurchKey in Washington, DC, he informs me that the current phenomenon is best understood as having its roots in the past as much as the present. Prior to 1920, America enjoyed a diverse beer culture much like the one we're seeing today, with thousands of small breweries crafting a wide variety of styles inspired by Europe. "Then came Prohibition, which ruined most of the smaller breweries, and it has taken years to get back to where we were," says Engert, who designed the first temperature-controlled draft system in the US, and was one of the earliest pioneers in pairing beer with food. "For me, it was something of an epiphany to discover that, historically, beer was always as noble a beverage as wine."

Back at Tørst, my own education took place over an extensive tasting session, as the bartender poured me sips of a variety of beers so diverse and peculiar that the word "beer" soon began to feel like an inadequate term to describe what I was drinking. I was encouraged to detect the notes of "salt and coriander" in the $24 bottle of Goseator, a Gose-style beer aged in tequila barrels, as well as the "nutty, licorice flavor" of a 2011 No. 136, a rare Danish dark ale that Tørst is proud to be the only bar to serve on draft. After a few pours, I was led into the restaurant, where chef Burns serves $75 Nordic-inspired tasting menus, featuring such items as lamb breast marinated in yogurt and burnt hay ashes, offered with a $45 beer pairing.

Down in the basement, Tørst has carved out a "beer cellar"—a small room lined with rare beers for private events. Here, I started to see a future of possibilities: A New Year's party kicked off with a delicate flute of fizzy, tart Cuvée des Jacobins Rouge; an anniversary dinner topped off with a snifter of espresso-black Harviestoun Ola Dubh; a winter celebration with Smuttynose's hearty Baltic Porter.

The wine-ification of beer isn't without some irritations, of course. The craze for acquisition, the ostentatious language, the pretentious experts—no one wants that to multiply. But standing in the temperature-controlled cellar, there was no denying the pleasure of having my brain rewired, of beginning to see beer as more than just a beverage designed for quenching thirst and delivering a buzz, but one fit for accompanying those meals and rituals that mark our lives.

David Amsden contributes regularly to the New York Times and Rolling Stone.

The New Beer Glass

The sloping shape of this crystal Rosenthal stemware pushes the aroma of the beer upward. $26; fitszu.com

The New Beer Bottle

Produced in small batches, White Gold comes only in 750-milliliter, wine-style bottles. The big size makes the message clear: This beer isn't for chugging. ithacabeer.com

The Evolution of Highbrow Beer

1999

Sonoma County's Russian River Brewing Company starts aging Belgian-style ale in old wine barrels, creating tart, complex beers using Brettanomyces yeast.

2007

The debut of the Cicerone Certification Program, a system to classify beer experts. Master Cicerones must be able to identify 87 beer styles.

2011

The Oxford Companion to Beer brings academic rigor to the beer world. The 868-page book features 1,100 entries and took five years to produce.

2011

Iconoclastic Delaware brewery Dogfish Head creates Noble Rot, a beer made with Viognier and Pinot Gris grapes from a Washington state winery.

2013

Massachusetts auction house Skinner, the first to sell rare and aged beers, offers Belgian bottles that date back to 1978.

—Caroline Hatano

Published October 2013
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