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On Tap: Restaurants Test Market for Fine Beer

West Lebanon — This July, Anthony Gayne offered his boss at Lui Lui restaurant a beer he wanted him to taste.

Gayne was still relatively new, having started as a server at the West Lebanon Italian eatery in February and becoming bar manager in July. But Gayne wanted to share with Lui Lui’s customers his passion for beer. Good beer. The kind of stuff he was drinking back in Maine before he uprooted to the Upper Valley.

The beer he wanted general manager Anthony Dolan to taste was Allagash Curieux, an 11 percent alcohol Belgian-style tripel ale aged in Jim Beam bourbon barrels. Gayne wanted to try selling high-end beer at the restaurant by the Powerhouse Mall, but first he needed to convince management.

Dolan, who was used to pushing wine with dinner, was skeptical but gave it a try.

“I was very impressed,” Dolan said one recent afternoon at the restaurant. “I had never actually had a beer that was aged in bourbon barrels.”

Thus began Lui Lui’s exploration of adventurous beer. At least, more adventurous than what it had previously sold, mostly standard pale ales and lagers that were good, if safe. Now, however, you can find experimental stuff on tap like Dogfish Head Burton Baton, another strong ale aged on oak, Russian imperial stouts such as Old Rasputin and hoppy India pale ales like Green Flash West Coast IPA. The bottle selection has expanded, too, and includes the world-class Trappist ale Orval. And on Thursday, Lui Lui is hosting a beer-pairing dinner with Harpoon Brewery, during which it will serve a new house offering — a hefeweizen called Luiweizen” — made by Harpoon.

To be honest, this is not the kind of thing I expect from a mid-priced restaurant where patrons may be looking for a good value rather than culinary experimentation. But I’ve been surprised before by the places where top-notch beer is sold in the Upper Valley.

Pizza joints. Gas stations. A little corner store near me in Canaan sells Victory’s Golden Monkey, a strong Belgian-style ale spiced with coriander, and once had a display of Brewery Ommegang’s Three Philosophers, with vintages from past years.

Lui Lui is just the latest establishment to discover that people around here will pay for quality beer.

“Bringing in all this stuff is fun to do, but we have to make sure we can support it fiscally,” Dolan said.

A year and a half ago, another restaurant owner wondered how much people around here would be willing to spend for good beer. He knew that he couldn’t demand the same prices as those at his other restaurant in New York City. So, he proceeded with caution.

“At the (Blind) Tiger (in New York City), I can sell anything that’s good,” Dave Brodrick told me in June 2012, a couple of months before he opened Worthy Burger in South Royalton. “It’s fun, because you can get the most esoteric beer — stuff you’ve never heard of — and people will go crazy. Here, I don’t know.”

Well, people did turn out for Worthy Burger. A lot of them. So many, in fact, that Brodrick and his partners opened a second craft beer-focused restaurant, Worthy Kitchen, in Woodstock several months ago.

Gayne, the Lui Lui bar manager, may be new to the Upper Valley, but he didn’t seem all that surprised at how well the enhanced selection has been received. He saw the phenomenon in Maine, particularly Portland, a city brimming with exceptional beer.

“I get the sense that that’s what people want and they’re willing to pay for it,” Gayne said. “I get tired of going into a supermarket and seeing a run-of-the-mill beer selection.”

There may come a time when consumers have reached their limit, when the prices and pretense get a bit much to stomach. Earlier this year, The New York Times wrote about the “wine-ification” of beer, in which the industry was trying to boost the image of beer so that it would be seen as a beverage worthy of pairing with fine cuisine. Wine-sized bottles, some with corks like the Allagash Curieux, and prices that top $20 were among the evidence cited. Critics complained that beer was becoming prohibitively expensive and too boozy.

As long as there is a spectrum of options, I don’t really care. Sometimes I’m looking for a $5 pint. Other times, I’d be willing to put down an Andrew Jackson for a bottle of something I’ve never tasted. I suspect other Upper Valley residents feel the same, and like Gayne, I’m not all that surprised that customers have embraced a more exciting menu.

As long as the beer sells, Dolan said he will give Gayne leeway to bring in new beers. He’s running a business, after all, and money matters. But the bottom line, so far, has been that diners want the good stuff and are willing to pay for it.

“The proof is in the pudding,” Dolan said.

Valley News staff writer Chris Fleisher is a beer judge and the founder of the website BrewsReporter.com. He can be reached at 603-727-3229 or cfleisher@vnews.com.