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Beer geeks introduce America to sophisticated suds culture

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Burp Castle in New York is a self-proclaimed temple of beer worship and a beer geek favorite. (Lorenzo Morales)

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Beer geeks are introducing America to sophisticated beer culture. (Lorenzo Morales)

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Burp Castle in New York serves up to 12 different drafts and hundreds of bottled beers. (Lorenzo Morales)

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The sales of U.S. craft beer, which is produced with 100 percent barley or wheat malt, rose 29.5 percent from 2003 to 2006. (Lorenzo Morales)

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Chef Bruce Paton pairs chocolate desserts with trappist beers. (Courtesy of Jay Brooks )

Last winter, Daryll Henrich and his girlfriend decided to go abroad for a vacation. When she suggested the Caribbean, Henrich pictured himself drinking Corona and Red Stripe beer on the beach.

He thought it would be an awful experience.

“If I was going to take the plane, I wanted to go to a place where there was good beer,” said Henrich, 28, while drinking a Double India Pale Ale in a brewpub in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The couple ended up flying to Munich, Germany, where they spent hours in taverns and breweries, drinking pints of Bavarian pilsners with sausage and potatoes.

Like Henrich, a growing number of Americans are avoiding Budweiser and sampling imported or craft beers, which are made by smaller breweries with all-natural ingredients. For these aficionados, beer is as complex and delightful as wine.

With sales booming, a rise in beer tasting events and the recent launch of new magazines, American beer geeks are a thriving tribe.

“There are now more beer connoisseurs in the United States than there have been for many years,” said Richard English, a British “evangelist for real ale” who travels frequently to the United States and writes about beer in online forums like realbeer.com.

The movement started in the 1980s when microbreweries became popular. But today, beer geeks are more sophisticated and informed than they used to be, said Jay R. Brooks, a freelance beer writer who lives in California. There has been a renewed interest in craft beer in the past three or four years, he said.

Slowly, the beer geek community is developing an elaborate drinking culture. Beer geeks speak a language that novices might find hard to follow. They discuss different types of hops, make distinctions between malty and yeasty beers and check for hints of coffee or coriander. In beer festivals and magazines, they rate their favorite brews, describing body and color.

For them, beer can be an absorbing hobby, sometimes even a way of life. Henrich, an operations manager for Google, has tried about 500 different beers in his life. He tasted the darkest beer in the world, peanut butter beer and blueberry beer served with fresh blueberries in the glass.

Brooks, a more serious beer snob, spent his honeymoon visiting breweries, has a wardrobe primarily composed of shirts from breweries and named his son Porter, which is a style of ale.

These devotees are still a minority, because craft beer represents only around 5 percent of the total beer market. But craft beer sales are at a record high, said Julia Herz, a spokeswoman for the Brewers Association in Colorado, with sales rising 29.5 percent from 2003 to 2006.

Noticing the craft beer trend, Anheuser-Busch, which makes Budweiser, is testing two organic beers that are brewed in smaller quantities: Wild Hop Lager and Stone Mill.

The interest in craft beer is part of a general change in American food culture that began in the last decade, said Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at the Brooklyn Brewery and author of “The Brewmaster's Table.” People are looking for fresh and locally made products, he said, and the younger generation often goes straight to craft beer, skipping industrial, homogenized beer altogether.

Oliver has conducted hundreds of beer dinners and tastings all around the country. “Even large corporations are replacing wine tasting with beer tasting as favorite corporate events,” he wrote in an e-mail message.

At beer dinners, a different draft accompanies each dish. The Belmont Brewing Co. in Long Beach, Calif., for instance, serves shrimp gazpacho with Smoked Black Lager, followed by marinated salmon with Beer Mountain Rustic Brown Ale.

Upscale restaurants have started taking beer more seriously as well. The Cafe d’Alsace in Manhattan just got its first beer sommelier, while Gramercy Tavern, another Manhattan institution, recently added 25 aged beers to its menu.

In brewpubs and restaurants from Washington to Florida, beer experts pair beer with the right cheese or chocolate dessert.

The goal of these tasting events is to convert newcomers to “real beer,” Brooks said. And it seems to work. In San Francisco, chef Bruce Paton organized a 2007 Valentine’s Day beer/chocolate event that sold out a month ahead of time. Half of the hundreds of customers were novices.

“We want to convince people that beer can be more than pedestrian swill,” Brooks said.

As beer tasting becomes trendier, new publications are targeting this beer elite. Beer Advocate and Draft each published its first issue this winter, and Imbibe, a drinks magazine with regular articles on beer, started in spring 2006.

The average reader of All About Beer, one of America's oldest beer magazines, is a man in his 30s to 40s, college-educated, with an income of around $80,000, who travels frequently and looks for good beers abroad, said Julie Bradford, an editor at the publication.

For many beer snobs, avoiding big company beer is not only a question of taste, it’s a matter of principle, according to Maureen Ogle, who wrote a book about the history of beer in the United States.

Among other things, beer geeks think that advertising from large beer companies perpetuates the idea that beer is just a common drink that comes in cans and is drunk while people watch football, Brooks said.

In this context, beer geeks often feel their mission is to give beer an upscale image. Although Brooks doesn’t want to put beer on a pedestal, he said it should be seen as a complex beverage, not a watery drink.

To prove their point, beer geeks even organize beer versus wine contests, in which competing beer and wine sommeliers each pair a drink with a type of cheese. Customers then rate the combinations.

“Beer almost always wins," Brooks said. "Wine and cheese don’t really go together.”

E-mail: ccl2119@columbia.edu