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It's not exactly a bar. Yet walking into Brooklyn's cave-like Beer Table, there's a welcoming familiarity—something warm and right about the small shared tables and lanternlike light that makes you feel maybe a little less weird about nestling up with a $30 beer.
Justin and Tricia Philips' South Park Slope nook might be better understood as a tasting room rather than a tavern. Beer Table's constantly rotating, tightly curated list of bottles and draughts—only three lines for this tiny spot—is accompanied by exactly the kind of small-plate, high-end comfort food (think white beans, cheddar toast, puddings, cheeses, and lots of bacon) you'd want to pair with, say, a 13% bottle of oaky Italian beer. Operating at a level far beyond a "beer bar" catering to ratings-watchers and collectors, Beer Table is a culinary experience and an adventure for anyone who loves beer deeply—and prefers not to see the usual labels on the menu.
"I don't think I ever got sucked into beer to the point of considering myself a beer geek," says Justin Philips of his venture into deep, out-there brews.
"But I always felt that there was a missed opportunity in the way it is presented and the way it's consumed. Beer is a largely misunderstood, or maybe mis-cared-for, product."
And to care for beer correctly, Philips believes in not only creating a conducive environment to enjoying it, but wants to see a growth in the craft industry that focuses more carefully on delivery from the tap as well as the truck. When an exclusive beer is deployed to his establishment—do brewers follow up? More quality control monitoring at the consumer level, as is attempted by coffee roasters at cafés, would be a welcome sight to him.
But back to the stuff itself: a recent visit found Beer Table's three taps occupied by representatively quirky and intense selections: Mikkeller Monk's Elixir (Quadrupel, Denmark), Hopfenstark Kamarad Friedrich (Russian Imperial Stout, Canada) and Birra Del Borgo Gina (Ale, Italy). Gina's thymey overtones sting a little, but it's the first cask that came over from Italy, and unless you live near one of those Trappist-monk-fanbars on the West Coast, Beer Table is likely your only chance to taste the herby wheat beer. Speaking of Monk's, the Monk's Elixir starts sweet and wallops heftily on the end—while Kamarad Friedrich's deep bitter notes ring a little more gently on the palate. Of course, by tomorrow or the next day, all the selections will be renewed with new, different, beers.
And what's Philips looking forward to as he goes on to the next one?
"We're starting to see more stuff again from England, which for years hasn't really been an exciting new place for breweries. Thornbridge are just killing it. They're not doing anything weird at all, just beautifully balanced beers, but they don't miss the mark. And there has definitely been some exciting stuff from Denmark and Norway," says the proprietor.
"I'm excited about some of the little guys that have definitely gotten attention lately, like Barrier—a one-man show, a one-barrel brew house. It's a 55-gallon steel pot, on a burner. It's not even really a brewery."
As business models go, Philips conceived of Beer Table as a new sort of place, with a few pieces of borrowed inspiration.
"There are a couple places internationally that I wanted to steal things from," said Philips. "Verre Volé, in Paris, it's a wine bar, it's sort of a restaurant, but it walks the line. There weren't really any beer places that I was modeling it after. If people here ask me where to go, I say Spuyten Duyvil, but would I build that? No. I always think of something like an oyster bar, super specific, you have one thing in your palate and that thing you play with."
Even once people have made it over the threshold, it can still be a challenge to open their minds, and palates, to beer.
"A lot of people are biased against beer, when they're pretty open to the same flavors in food. It's a daily experience for people to tell me they're not a beer drinker," said Philips with a bit of exasperation.
"I'll say, what does that mean? And they'll say 'Well, I'm a wine drinker,' and once we get into it I can at least talk about acidity or fruitiness and we can get started. I don't like it, because we're not comparing apples to apples, but at least it gets beer in their mouth, and once it's in their mouth, then we can talk beer!"
And in between nibbles off the cheese plate and forays into arugula, indeed, the conversation at Beer Table continues at its own unique pace.
"When I started, I still had the idea that maybe I would be able to have things that no other beer bar can get. And yes, we do that, that happens, but that's not the thing that makes it special to me. What is really important to me is just the way the place feels, the service style, giving people an experience. I recognize that's much more important than having the most rare wacky beer out there," Philips pauses.
"Which I guess we still do."