Nicer Restaurants Are Finally Taking Beer Seriously

No more bland beers for high-end restos: Now it’s all about local craft and coveted imports

Eight bucks for a bottle of Bud? Seriously? That’s how plenty of otherwise excellent restaurants have traditionally dealt with suds: mass-market choices, and at steep prices. Many fine establishments are still stuck in that rut, but it’s 2016: Frat-boy swill doesn’t cut it anymore. Instead of giving beer drinkers the short end of the swizzle stick, a growing number of contemporary restaurants are putting as much thought into what’s on tap as what’s in the cellar. (Oh, and there’s beer in the wine cellar now, too.)

In Ottawa, Union Local 613 gives beer major props on their drinks menu with a diverse selection of predominantly Canadian craft brews, both on tap and by the bottle – Pink Fuzz, a grapefruit-infused wheat beer from local brewer Beyond the Pale, is a crowd favourite. The restaurant also indulges in some pub-like geekery by listing the alcohol by volume (ABV) and international bitterness units (IBUs) – an objective measure of bitterness – for each beer.

“It starts a conversation between the customers and the server,” says Tristan Bragaglia-Murdock, Union’s barman in charge of all things beer. “If someone says they don’t want something hoppy, explaining what IBUs mean is always a beneficial point. It’s about educating guests on beer in general, while trying to avoid any potential snobbery.”

Bragaglia-Murdock takes the beer program one step further with small batches – 120 litres at a time – of one-off brews that he makes on site with two partners, under the name Dog & Pony Brewlab. “We brew once a week on Sundays after brunch, which is the only time we can use [Union’s] kitchen,” he says. “We wheel our tanks in, and eight hours later we’re mopping up.”

The tiny scale allows Dog & Pony to experiment with some unique brews, including Deli-Cinq (French for “Five Alive”), which employs the juice from citrus fruits whose zest has all been removed – a by-product of Union’s bar.

Some restaurateurs run their beer programs with the kind of zeal usually reserved for obsessive sommeliers. When Toronto’s Bar Isabel was getting ready to open in 2013, chef and co-owner Grant van Gameren was adamant about paying equal attention to beer, wine and cocktails. He hired Tomas Morana from Bar Volo to consult with then-general manager Guy Rawlings to assemble the kind of list that would make a beer geek’s heart fibrillate.

Isabel’s taps flow with more offbeat brews from local outfits including Folly Brewpub down the street. But it’s their enviable selection by the bottle, assembled by manager Alec Colyer, which draws the most attention. It’s stacked with hard-to-find beers, with a particular strength in Belgian ales (beloved by beer fanatics for their sourness), many in sharing-size 750-millimetre bottles. “We have a good list of lambics and sours that have the acidity to stand up to a lot of foods,” Colyer says.


Eric Vellend/Billy

A glance at the beer menu at Bar Isabel

He stresses the food-friendliness of beer: With some dishes – particularly with cheese – beer is a better choice than wine. “Something like the Westvleteren 12 with a robust cheese plate would be great,” he says of the highly coveted quadrupel ale brewed by Trappist monks in Belgium. “With that fattiness you want something refreshing, something to cleanse.”

In order to secure a steady supply of cult brews, Colyer occasionally has to buy two years’ worth at a time. Fortunately many stronger beers mellow and evolve with a little bottle age, just like certain wines. “We’ve got the Omnipollo Marshmallow Stout that says to age it to 2029. Drinking it now? It’s really intense. I’m curious to try it in 10 years.”

Despite Isabel’s Euro-centric list, Colyer is increasing featuring the fine brews of Quebec. “Le Trou du Diable, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the best breweries in the world,” he says. “Their Mellifera, a honey sour, is outstanding – it’s lactic, it’s sour, but the honey comes through.”

At Agricola Street Brasserie in Halifax’s North End, it was a no-brainer to give beer its due. All 12 taps are hooked up to kegs of premium beer from local craft brewers. “Nova Scotians are a proud bunch,” says Brent Darbyson, Agricola’s bar manager. “With so many new breweries opening up in the last few years, it would be foolish to ignore the trend and just offer domestic beers.”


Courtesy Agricola Street Brasserie

Wine and beer, standing as equals at Halifax’s Agricola Street Brasserie

As for local favourites, Darbyson is particularly keen on the Daytime Berliner Weisse from Halifax’s Unfiltered Brewing. “It’s a 4.2% [alcohol] kettle-soured white beer that’s dry hopped with Mosaic [a variety of hop],” he says. “It is the perfect summer beer.”

Like Colyer, Darbyson believes that beer is often the best option when it comes to matching drink with food. If a customer orders Agricola’s pork belly and kimchi appetizer, he’ll steer them towards the Tatamagouche North Shore Lagered Ale. “Kimchi can be like kryptonite to a lot of wines, so a light, crisp ale is a much easier pairing.”

Agricola still offers a few of the usual suspects by the bottle, but most of the time brand-loyal customers can be convinced to forget about Keith’s and try something new. “Drinking the same beer all the time is like eating the same meal every single day,” says Darbyson. “I’d say 99% of our guests who ask for a domestic beer leave the Brasserie with a new appreciation for craft beer.”

Nicer Restaurants Are Finally Taking Beer Seriously
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