Quit Your Wining: How The Brewmaster’s Table Got Great Restaurants to Start Selling Great Beer

Feature by | Jan 2007 | Issue #1

Warren Steenson, Beer Steward, and Greg Higgins, owner of Higgins. | Photo by Martin Thiel

Remember the days when the “beer list” at restaurants would fit on a matchbook? (Bud, Bud Light and Heineken? Wow, thanks guys! How do you find space in the fridge for all that?)

Fortunately, things have changed dramatically in recent years. Higgins, one of Portland, Oregon’s finest restaurants, carries a changing draft list that almost any beer bar would be proud of. Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan just debuted a vintage beer list of rare, aged beauties.

Why is beer suddenly grabbing the attention of chefs and bar managers at the hoitiest and toitiest places in the nation, after being cruelly relegated to second-class libation status for so long? There are a lot of intangible reasons (better distribution of craft beer, curiosity on the part of the public, the thick fog of ignorance gradually breaking), but there’s a more tangible one as well: Garrett Oliver’s The Brewmaster’s Table, 372 pages of inspired and inspiring writing about beer and food that’s doing a job on the bogus notion that wine is the ultimate companion to a good meal.

“The white linen restaurants are our prime target,” says Matthias Neidhart of B. United International, a consortium of international breweries. “We want them as new customers. You know, it’s difficult to quantify, but the effect of Garrett’s book has been huge. It has information on how to pair and how to taste, and it is very fun to read.”

“It’s very nice of him to say,” Garrett, who is also the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, responded. “I have found, speaking to other brewers and people in the beer-selling business, that it’s a standard tool for them. [Importer] Merchant du Vin bought literally thousands of them for staff and to give to accounts. It’s turned into a resource for brewers, generally. If it keeps good beer in restaurants, that’s a win for everyone.”

Brewery Ommegang’s marketing director, Larry Bennett, sees the influence as well. “We’ve sent a lot out to clients. I’ve read it, I know people in the restaurant business who’ve read it. He’s touched a lot of people in the New York City restaurant business, and that touches all the restaurant business. He’s the only beer guy I know of who gets regularly mentioned in the New York Times food section. He’s just one part of it, but he’s made a difference. Can I quantify it? No. Do I believe it? Yes.”

“If you can convince the chef and the staff what you can do with great beer out in the kitchen,” Garrett says, when asked about the importance of restaurants in spreading the better beer message, “all kinds of great things happen. The server gains a new relationship with the customer. The customer gets a new thing to enjoy. And the restaurant gets a higher check and a happy customer at the same time; and that’s the gold standard for a restaurant.”

The effect is real from the restaurateurs’ side, too. Jon Myerow’s Tria Café in Philadelphia focuses on the “three fermentables”—wine, beer and cheese—and he was definitely affected by Garrett’s food-first beer writing.

Courtesy Garrett Oliver

Photo courtesy Garrett Oliver

“I bought a copy for everyone on the staff,” he says. “It’s had influence on the way I train. I give them the book, and they read from it. We have twenty- six weekly lessons from the book, and rotate them through the year. We use it for cheese and beer pairings; that’s been very helpful.”

James Murphy, co-owner of Mrs. Murphy & Sons Irish Bistro in Chicago (and member “murphysbleachers” on BeerAdvocate.com) used Garrett’s book and BeerAdvocate to set up the beer at his business. “When we were first opening, I liked good beer, but I was a novice. Then I read Garrett’s book. It’s the bible for beer and food pairing—the definitive source. I beermailed Garrett through BeerAdvocate.com for cheese recommendations to go with our beers.”

Murphy uses local food as much as possible, and craft beer marries as well with that idea as it does with the flavors. “What’s driving beer’s new acceptance is how people in the industry are looking at it,” he says. “Chefs, cooks, and bartenders are looking at it as part of the Slow Food movement—locally produced foods—and the beer thing flows right with it. Customers, too. They want a story with their food, and they want the same thing with their beer. They especially like to know it’s coming out of their own backyard. We’re doing great with Two Brothers beers on that; it’s a great story.”

It’s hardly all Garrett, of course. There are certainly fine dining restaurants that have come to better beer on their own. Perhaps the best known is Higgins, in Portland, Oregon. The man who runs the beer there is Warren Steenson. What does he think about Garrett’s book?

“Truthfully, I’ve never read it,” he says. “The influence is from Greg Higgins. He’s a huge fan of beer and brewing. He’s got his fingers in all the local producers, trying for local, organic, sustainable. We know the name of the fisherman who pulled our fish out of the ocean. And beer easily pairs with that great food as well as wine does.”

The restaurant wasn’t always that way. Twelve years ago, even in beer- enlightened Portland, Steenson says, “People weren’t really ready to pay twelve dollars for a beer. Beer and food was not at the forefront, it was always wine, wine, wine. But people are always looking for better matches, so beer slipped in. It was a slow process. I put myself in the educator role. People realized it was a better bang for the buck, and a better match than wine with many dishes. It’s been a slow process, even here in Beer City, USA.”

David Ridel, bar manager at the Flying Fig in Cleveland, Ohio, who was also unfamiliar with Garrett’s book, had a similar experience, even right across the street from Midwestern beer pioneer Great Lakes Brewing.

“At first, I was kind of disenchanted by the lack of response to the new beer list, and the owner was pretty nervous, with all the money we spent on beer and not much money coming back in. But the numbers are going up. You’ve got to teach people, tell them that there are a lot of people out here who like this. Don’t be afraid, you’re not alone.”

David had a great reason for adding great beer to the Fig’s offerings: differentiation. “Cleveland is a small but very competitive restaurant market; what do we have to bring to the table? It was beer. We have a great crew—front of the house, the kitchen, even the busboys—and everyone is excited about the beer program. It’s not pretentious, it’s not forced. It’s just how we feel here. If you set standards, and give people information, they respond.”

“It is working,” Garrett says about getting better beer into restaurants. “It’s a slowly-but-surely kind of approach. The biggest thing, as much as we like fine dining, is that I’m getting a lot of attention from casual dining chains—Red Lobster, Applebee’s—about what they could do with a better beer list. That’s what’s going to have a truly transformative effect … When that starts to happen—and it’s going to happen soon—they’ll see that it’s better business for them, and it will change Americans’ thinking about beer the way Starbucks has changed thinking about coffee.”

Garrett pauses, and laughs. “You can say the same things about beer for years and get nowhere. But you put out this big piece of wood, and suddenly you’re a genius. It’s kind of galling; as if publishing a book made you smarter than you were. But I’ll take it.”