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When These Drinkers Crack Open A Cold One, It Can Cost $75

August 18, 1995

At New York’s Cafe Central, the beer list includes Coors Light at $3.25, Amstel Light at $4.75 and a Belgian import called Duvel _ at $75 for a three-liter bottle.

Yes, $75. And it sells. ``We see a considerable willingness to pay more for interesting beers,″ says John Harding, marketing director for the cafe’s owner, Restaurant Associates Inc.

Some drinkers who several years ago abandoned Coors and Budweiser for microbrewery lagers and ales are increasingly willing to spring for something even rarer _ luxury beers. There’s Duvel, fermented three times and, like champagne, often sold in the corked, oversize bottles called jeroboams. Other restaurants offer such beers as Samuel Smith’s Old Brewery ale, at $6, Orval Trappist Ale, at $9.50 per 11.2-ounce bottle, and Boon Marriage Parfait Gueuze, at $21.50.

Beer appreciators are rising to the rhetorical levels of oenophiles. ``A strange nose,″ says Debby Schuerman, rolling a sip of the ’90 Thomas Hardy’s Ale around her mouth, ``a combination of musty leather shoes and chocolate.″

The prices such beers fetch amaze even brewers. ``If you’d have told me five years ago I could walk into a bar and see people paying $10 for a beer _ let alone $20 or $30 _ I’d never have believed it,″ says Nancy Ponzi, owner of Bridgeport Brewing Co., in Bridgeport, Ore., which makes its own vintage barley wine-style beer, Old Knucklehead. Brewers say that the popularity of microbrews has helped make drinkers more receptive to higher prices and stranger beers.

Boston Beer Co. says its Samuel Adams Triple Bock, which it says is the strongest beer sold, at 17.5 percent alcohol, has been retailing for far more than its suggested price of $4 a bottle, fetching ``as much as $30 a bottle in some markets,″ says Boston Beer spokeswoman Lucy Sholley.

Certainly, luxury beer hasn’t caught on everywhere. It isn’t in evidence at a men’s softball game one recent night in Longmont, Colo. Offered a sample of Lindeman’s Framboise, a raspberry Belgian lambic ale, several players oblige _ then recoil at the taste. ``This is beer?″ asks Mike Grubbs.

More surprising is its price: $128 a case. Jeff Kissner says: ``We’d have to hold a fund-raiser to be able to get some.″ Mr. Grubbs notes: ``This isn’t the kind of beer you’d drink all day at a picnic.″

Such beers are a small part of the beer market in the U.S. However, in an otherwise flat market, the volume of microbrewery beers grew 50 percent last year, according to the 1995 Impact Databank beer-market review.

Growing demand has led breweries from Belgium to Brazil to resurrect defunct brews and invent new ones. Among the trendiest imports from Belgium are the lambics, often excruciatingly sour. Some beer drinkers say the lambics’ popularity has more to do with fashion than flavor. Mark Johnston, a writer and certified beer judge, says most lambics taste awful _ but as a judge, he has hesitated to admit it. ``Instead of saying it tastes infected, I say, `Hmm, that’s one complex beer,‴ he jokes. ``To me, they just taste sour.″

But beer boosters say luxury beers are misunderstood. ``They really deserve their place next to the finest wines,″ says David Ruggerio, chef and a partner at Le Chantilly, a tony New York restaurant that now offers Belgian and Flemish beers. ``Some of them are very complex,″ he adds.

Indeed, three years ago at a Sacramento wine festival, the gold-medal winner for ``Best Wine″ turned out to be the Belgian raspberry lambic, Lindeman’s Framboise. Six years ago, Christie’s, in London, auctioned 30 numbered bottles from a limited one-time production of Cornish Brewery Co.’s Domesday Ale, then the world’s strongest beer, at 17 percent alcohol. The first bottle went to an unnamed British collector for $1,500 _ making it the most expensive beer ever sold.

On a recent evening in Emmaus, Pa., drinkers gather for a beer dinner at the Farmhouse, a country French restaurant that carries more than 150 varieties of beer. Courses arrive accompanied by beers from Austria, Bavaria, Belgium and the U.S. ``This is why we’re here, so we can find stuff we wouldn’t have known to try,″ says anesthesiologist Bill Frame, a regular at these dinners.

A waitress pours the fifth brand of the night, Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat. Dr. Frame swirls it, sniffs, sips _ and makes a sour face. Another diner says it reminds her of Amaretto liqueur. ``More like Robitussin,″ Dr. Frame says.

After dinner, a small party troops back to the home of John Hansell, who hosted the dinner. The publisher and chief beer critic of the Malt Advocate, a quarterly magazine dedicated to beer and whiskey, Mr. Hansell has more than 900 beers in his cellar. He pours out beers for his guests, including a ``young″ two-year-old Gueuze Boon, a winy lambic. Inhaling deeply, he says, ``this is the traditional leathery horse-blanket barnyard smell _ that’s good.″

He finishes with three vintages _ ’88, ‘90, and ’94 _ of Thomas Hardy’s Ale, from the British brewer, Eldridge Pope & Co. Mr. Hansell confides that he recently opened one of his last two bottles of the ’68 Thomas Hardy’s Ale, a rare vintage that commands $100 or more for a 6.5-ounce bottle. ``That was spectacular,″ he sighs. ``I’m saving my last bottle for the millennium.″