Q&A: Blue Hill's Katie Bell on How to Create a Stellar Beer List
After securing a finalist spot for several years running, Blue Hill picked up a James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant earlier this week, putting it in the company of Eleven Madison Park (2011), Daniel (2010), Jean Georges (2009), and Gramercy Tavern (2008). For those who have followed the restaurant (or, rather, pair of restaurants -- one in the West Village and one upstate at Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills), the accolade may seem a long time coming: Chef and co-owner Dan Barber is one of the defining chefs of this generation. A pioneer in the locavore movement, he championed the virtues of farm-to-table cooking long, long before farm-to-table became so ingrained in requirements for new restaurant openings that calling it out as a mantra seemed cliché (in fact, he was instrumental in that shift in our food culture).
Courtesy Katie Bell
Blue Hill embodies that spirit of forward thinking in all aspects of the restaurant. Case in point: While trumpeted for its wine program for years, over the past year, under the eye of beer buyer Katie Bell, the tiny West Village restaurant has vigilantly created a well-edited and concise beer menu to delight everyone from geeks to novices. When we bellied up to the bar of the subterranean spot recently, she talked about personal favorites and poured an unforgettable lineup while we nibbled vegetables-on-a-fence and other snacks.
How did you get into beer?
My first restaurant job in Colorado was in a building that housed Bristol Brewing. Those guys really took me under their wing. I was in college, so the head brewers built me a kegerator. It was my first realization that beer was really made somewhere. After college, I moved out to SoCal, where I took over the bar program at Ford's Filling Station and made it all local. It was a cool time in California beer. Brewers were coming in to sell me their beers personally.
How did the beer come to be a focus at Blue Hill?
Dan's really gotten into beer in this last year, and as with any department, if the kitchen is into it, it's better. He started saying, "Bring me something cool." I saw that as a challenge!
How did you create the program from there?
We started by highlighting cool local stuff. There are a lot more funky small-batch European breweries in New York. And there's a lot of great grain in this state. But as with the kitchen, we're also okay supporting people from around the world who are doing really cool things. I started working with the distributor 12 Percent, and I absolutely adore them -- the people there really love beer. They introduced me to European brewers taking inspiration from American craft brewers and doing things that were more experimental. They were using wild yeast. I started bringing in some funky things.
What do you think about when you're deciding whether a beer belongs on your list?
We generally have a six-beer list, and we keep an additional six off-the-list choices for beer pairings and people who are really excited about beer. Because our space is so small, we really value every spot on the list. I look for things that are food-approachable, so I stay away from really hoppy and high-alcohol beers, though beers with some hop are good because that goes nicely with food. The benefit in fine dining is that we get to talk people through beers, so we can bring in strange stuff for a small list. It's not like someone is coming in and looking at the chalkboard and ordering something random.
How is your beer program different than Stone Barns?
We work together, so we have the same philosophy. But they have more space, so they don't have to edit as much.
What are your favorite beers on the list right now?
The Gueuze Tilquin, because sour beers pair perfectly with food and are often a great way to introduce people to something they haven't tried. The Westbrook Bearded Farmer Saison from Charleston. It's made with white, green, and pink peppercorns. And the Perfect Crime Smoking Gun, a collaboration between Stillwater and Evil Twin, which recently moved to New York and opened Tørst [a beer bar in Greenpoint].
What local brewers are you most excited about?
Bronx Brewery, Pretty Things, Sixpoint, Kelso, and Stillwater out of Baltimore.
Where do you drink when you're not drinking at work?
Tørst for fancy beers. Skinny Dennis [in Williamsburg] for cheap beers. And my all-time favorite, Bar Great Harry [in Carroll Gardens] for great beers. The bartenders there are so great. They just effortlessly know about beer. When I'm drinking at home, I buy almost exclusively from Bierkraft in Park Slope, though sometimes I go to the Whole Foods on Houston Street. I'm sad that Whole Foods shut down its homebrew store.
What beer did the staff celebrate your Beard Award with?
I bought a bunch of Sixpoint!