2005 | COLUMNS | BEAUMONT
Let's Keep This Between Us, Shall We?
Recently in the pages of the esteemed conservative broadsheet
The Wall Street Journal there ran a story about the
rising price of beer. Within the first two paragraphs, the
writer, Ken Wells, a WSJ contributor and author of
Travels with Barley: A Journey Through Beer Culture in
America, poses the following question: Can beer —
any beer — be worth $16.50 a bottle?
Well, let’s see. First, the beer Mr. Wells cites as
the basis for his query is a 750-ml bottle of Rare Vos from
the Cooperstown, New York–based Brewery Ommegang, purchased
at a Manhattan bar. Highly rated both on the major consumer
beer review Web sites and by the critics, myself included,
it is an ale of significant style and complexity, not to mention
6.5% alcohol, and as such, should be properly sipped and savored
slowly and with respect, rather than gulped as a whistle-wetter.
In other words, Rare Vos is not so much a beer crafted in
the grand tradition of the Falstaff on which Mr. Wells states
he cut his beer-drinking teeth, but a wine replacement that
harmonizes well with a variety of foods, from pork dishes
to simple sandwiches and even some salads. Which makes one
wonder what kind of a wine might be bought at a downtown New
York City bar or restaurant for $16.50.
(In fairness to Mr. Wells, I should pause here to point out
that his article is actually quite positive towards beer,
affording much credibility to the merits of paying well for
quality ales and lagers. I use his example in this context
only to make a point.)
So I stop in at the legendary Oyster Bar at Grand Central
Station and take a look at the wine list, discovering that
if one wants to pay $16.50 for a bottle of red, white, pink
or sparkling wine, one may select from … well, from
nothing. There are no $16.50 wines among the Oyster Bar’s
192-bottle selection. In fact, the cheapest bottles available
in the heart of Grand Central, of which there are just five,
will cost me exactly $8.50 more than would Mr. Wells’s
“expensive” bottle of beer, and $9 more than the
Oyster Bar charges for 750-ml bottles of the exceedingly fine
Belgian ales La Chouffe and Moinette.
"One theme to which
I find myself returning time and again is that of high-end
beer being one of the most affordable luxuries the astronomic
world has to offer."
So where’s the value here? Hint: It ain’t in
One theme to which I find myself returning time and again
is that of high-end beer being one of the most affordable
luxuries the gastronomic world has to offer. Take, for example,
Moinette, that excellent saison-style organic ale sold for
a mere $16 at the Oyster Bar. In this beer from Brasserie
Dupont, one finds fruity, hoppy, herbal and floral flavors
layered one over the other in a sophisticated and quite elegant
fashion, resulting in a taste far removed from what most North
Americans think of when they imagine “a beer.”
It’s an ale that may by enjoyed as one would a Champagne.
Speaking of Champagne, Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, a nonvintage
label of which I am quite fond, is priced at $75 a bottle
at the Oyster Bar, or well over four times the price of the
Moinette. Food selection notwithstanding, and particularly
in light of the ubiquity of Yellow Label relative to the rarity
of Moinette, I know which of the two I think is by some length
the better value, and which I’ll pick nine times out
of 10, probably 19 times out of 20.
The key to this rather illogical disparity is the way in
which people generally view beer, a stance reflected beautifully
in Mr. Wells’s opening query. For most, the idea of
a beer being worth $16.50 makes about as much sense as does
a $20 hotdog (although, in this era of $50 gourmet hamburgers,
I’m certain such a thing does exist). Were I a consumer
of Bud Light, MGD or Smirnoff Ice, I’m sure I would
But I’m not, and likely, as a Celebrator reader, neither
are you. We recognize immediately the answer to the WSJ’s
$16.50 question, knowing that while we might from time to
time gripe about having to pay a given price for a bottle
of beer, likely because we know its retail cost or have enjoyed
it for less at another bar, we’re still fortunate as
savvy beer drinkers to be able to experience some of the world’s
finest beverages at prices that are relative bargains.
Returning one last time to the Oyster Bar’s wine list,
I note that a nice bottle of 1997 Côte de Beaune is
priced at $120, well over the barroom cost observed by Mr.
Wells for a jeroboam, or three-liter bottle, of Oaked Arrogant
Bastard Ale, a beer of some refinement and very short supply.
And I ask myself, “Were I in a celebratory mood, with
money in my pocket and ready to splash out for a bottle of
something special, which would I choose?”
Once again, I immediately know my answer. And once again,
I feel just a bit smug knowing that I am one of the favored
few with an insider’s understanding of one of life’s
least expensive indulgences.
CBN Associate Editor Stephen
Beaumont brings his passionate and unapologetic opinions
to the Internet each and every month at WorldofBeer.com. His
most recent book is The Great Canadian Beer Guide, Second
Edition (McArthur & Company, 2001).