These Cocktail Bars Give Beer the Credit It Deserves

December 11, 2017

By Gray Chapman, December 11, 2017

How many times have you joined your friends out for a drink at a fancy cocktail joint, only to be faced with a lackluster beer list after pages and pages of cocktails and spirits? At some cocktail bars, beer is clearly treated as an afterthought – but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Dandelyan, a hip lounge in London’s Mondrian Hotel, is one of the most celebrated cocktail bars in the world. With an award-winning, inventive drink menu and a sleek back bar lined with niche spirits, it’s certainly the kind of bar any cocktail nerd would love, but also where a beer-drinker might expect to feel lost at sea. Ryan Chetiyawardana, the bar’s founder, has made sure that isn’t the case.

“Although our focus is on cocktails, we never wanted to alienate beer – or wine, or boozeless – drinkers, so we've always tried to make sure we put as much consideration as possible into our beer list,” explains Chetiyawardana. “To me, putting the consideration into [serving a beer], and suggesting the appropriate product for the person and the occasion is a cocktail. So we put the same attention into it.”

So much attention, in fact, that the bar created its own brew: Lyan Lager, a passion fruit ale created in collaboration with Scotland’s Old Worthy Brewing Company and, for boilermaker fans, designed to partner perfectly with Ryan’s Mr. Lyan Bourbon. The project came about after Ryan’s friend and former whiskey colleague, Nick Ravenhall, began brewing beer meant to be served alongside whiskey. The two decided to try the same for Ryan’s bourbon.

“We wanted something sessionable and universally appealing,” Ryan explains. The result: a pale ale that drinks like a lager, with a touch of tropical flavor from fresh passionfruit. “The beer has body, but doesn't hit you over the head with bitter hops, or fruit for that matter, so it makes for an amazing beer to have in our mix,” Ryan says. (It’s now a shift drink favorite among Dandelyan bartenders, too.)

It is my belief that as restaurateurs, we need to attempt to be as inclusive as we can.”

Meanwhile, over in Seattle, Canon is definitively a spirits-lover’s bar: the “whiskey and bitters emporium” stocks the Western hemisphere’s largest collection of spirits, including a number of rare and vintage bottles, like a 1940 Pernod Tarragona absinthe ($522 per pour), an 1890 Amer Picon ($950), and dozens of vintage bottlings of Chartreuse, all outlined in alphabetical order in the bar’s 175-page “Captain’s List.” But, despite having a clear focus on booze, Canon doesn’t leave their beer-drinking brethren in the dust.

“We try to be inclusive to all, and therefore try to ensure that we will have something close to what you're hankering for, regardless of what that may be,” explains Jamie Boudreau, Canon’s owner. “We are limited by space but we try to keep the range interesting.”

The bar’s Booze and Bubbles menu features eight beer-liquor combinations, from a classic rye-and-pilsner pairing to more surprising options, like Chartreuse and root beer or Amaro Montenegro and IPA (a personal favorite of Boudreau’s).

Why boilermakers? Boudreau sees it as the perfect way to welcome a beer drinker into the spirits nerdery of Canon: an opportunity to educate without foisting upon them a drink they don’t actually want. It’s also, in his eyes, simply another opportunity for good hospitality.

“It is my belief that as restaurateurs, we need to attempt to be as inclusive as we can, without sacrificing one's vision,” he says. “This means that a restaurant or bar should pay equal attention to all aspects of service and the food/drink program, and that includes having well rounded wine, beer and spirits programs.”

Emily Hagen

On the east coast, The Hawthorne at Boston’s Hotel Commonwealth, recently crowned America’s best hotel bar, has been a cocktail destination for five years. Spirits and fine wine are their calling card; it’d be easy for a place like that to arbitrarily slap a light beer, a dark beer, and an IPA on the menu and call it a day.

“Some bars choose to go that route,” admits Jared Sadoian, the bar manager. But the Hawthorne is all about giving guests an excellent experience, he says, and that goes for beer drinkers, too. Plus, he adds, “we're in a time and place where, now more than ever before, there is such a multitude of amazing brews that are available to us. So, why not?”

The Hawthorne’s menu now has about two dozen beers. While not all of them are obscure or esoteric, each is meant to steer someone toward a brew they may not have tried before. Clever, often playful tasting notes help with that, while also alleviating potential apprehension: Logsdon Seizeon Bretta is billed as “a farmhouse ale made on an actual farm – huh,” while Freigeist Abraxxxas is described as “as freakily drinkable as it is challenging." 

“Even if it's a pretty straightforward category, like light beer or pilsner or IPA, we want to find some things that will be exciting for someone who comes in,” Jared says. He adds that in staff tastings and training, beer is given the same kind of attention any new wine or spirit would be granted. A daily pre-service meeting gives everyone a chance to try a new brew, or revisit one that might have been overlooked, asking the same questions they might ask about a new spirit: “Who is coming in who might want to drink this, and why would they want this particular beer over all the other ones in the category?”

Why, then, should any award-winning cocktail bar take the time to pick quirky, interesting beers, train its staff on them, and even craft witty tasting notes for each brew on the menu?

Says Jared, “if you're the resident beer nerd and you're out at a bar with your cocktail-drinking friends, why do you have to end up being the afterthought when there could be some really fantastic gems out there you can explore, with just as much excitement as someone talking about that new gin with 300 botanicals or whatever? That's where we come from.”

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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