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Beer on a Champagne budget

The mainstream press loves stories about expensive beers – maybe so they can write headlines like the one above.

The Sunday Times in Britain examined beer menus in upscale restaurants yesterday, noting early on:

Rupert Ponsonby, a spokesman for the Beer Naturally campaign, set up by brewers to encourage restaurants to widen their beer selection, said: “Drinks like DeuS (from the Bosteels brewery in Belgium) show what’s possible and will help change perceptions of beer. It’s crazy that a restaurant can have 250 wines and just three beers.”

The story pays particular attention to DeuS, first because it is expensive, but also because of the way it is produced. After being brewed, DeuS travels to a cellar near Epernay in Champagne and is re-fermented like a sparkling wine to give it its bubbles. It is remains for nine months, then is riddled (like Champagne). Yeast that gathers at the neck of the bottle is frozen and removed (like sparkling wine) before the bottles are corked for sale.

Is Joanna Simon, the Sunday Times wine critic, impressed?

“It’s a very good beer. But no matter how it’s dressed up – and, boy, it is dressed up – it’s still only beer.

“The palate is creamy-smooth, fruity and malty-sweet, and the finish is clean with characteristic beer bitterness. But it’s short and that’s the problem. Why pay good money for a taste that disappears in a couple of seconds? I’d rather have half a bottle of good champagne.”

That’s OK, but it misses the point. Truthfully, I’m not a much of a fan of DeuS – the combination of many spices doesn’t work for me and the Champagne aspect seems like a gimmick.

But distinctive beers – and that means good tasting as well as unusual – push our idea of what beer should be forward, creating demand for a wider range of beers that eventually spread the category horizontally. That’s worth paying more for.

Getting your money’s worth

When should you pay $3.99 for a 22-ounce bottle of beer you’ve never seen before instead of $2.99 (or $4.99) for one you know well?

– Taste blind. Is it the label or what’s inside the bottle? Tasting blind removes a key bias.

– Taste across styles. Tast a variety of styles to find out what you like.
You might love Baltic Porters and yawn at brown ales. If you form a tasting club then each member can try a few ounces of any particular beer, and you’ll have the chance to find out what style you prefer. Consider taking notes. You don’t have to assign scores, but writing down what you discover, and what others are tasting, will help you find still more flavors.

– Taste across prices. Try beers of the same style at different price points so see if paying more is worth it.

– Be different. Consider buying what’s “out of favor.” Also don’t rush to buy every new beer or seasonal that may offered just once (for good reason).

– Christmas in July. If you are buying a beer you intend to cellar then look for years, watch for beers your retailer may have marked down because they’ve gone “out of date.”

– Pay for flavor, not alcohol. If you think only in terms of buzz for the buck you’ll overlook many excellent beers.

Up and running

Does it matter where beer is brewed?

Yes. At least that’s one of the premises behind Appellation Beer. Some of the others:

– It matters what the ingredients are and where they come from.

– Wines and cheeses aren’t the only products that can claim terroir.

– Beer should be considered in context. That context might be the food it’s served with. That context might be where the beer is enjoyed and the company it is shared with.

The rest.

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