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Beaumont's Journal
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)

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.

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.

So where’s the value here? Hint: It ain’t in the wine.

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 agree.

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.

 

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