The Burj Al Arab – the second-tallest hotel in the world, and deliberately designed to be an architectural icon in the same world-class league as the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Opera House – is a spectacular place to take afternoon tea. The arrogant, curving exterior, more than a thousand feet tall, demands that you admit you’ve never seen any building like it. The blingtastic interior is a triumph of money over taste, with 20-feet-high aquaria in the lobby, gold leaf on almost every surface, fancy fountains and waterfalls. Book a table in the Skyview Bar, 27 floors up, just below the helipad, about half an hour before sunset. To the east you’ll see out of the ceiling-to-floor windows the Burj Khalifa, half a mile high from tip to sandal-sole, flare orange-gold as it catches the descending sun’s rays. Look west, and the Palm Jumeirah, a three-mile-wide collection of artificial islands covered in expensive homes and more expensive hotels, is gunmetal dark against the gleaming deep turquoise of the early evening Arabian Gulf.
The Burj Al Arab in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, calls itself a “seven-star hotel”, though official designations only go up to five stars. Its labours in attempting to give guests a seven-star experience include having the names of everyone who books afternoon tea (at £70 a head – though to be fair this is only a little more than the Ritz in London charges for the same experience, and a much poorer view) mapped to a specific table, and that map then memorised by the staff, so that even the smiling Filipina who comes to top up your Darjeeling will address you by name. The food was, as it should be, excellent: the slice of pastry-wrapped salmon served before the sandwiches and pastries came up on a Burj Al Arab-shaped cakestand was perhaps the most perfectly cooked fish I have eaten, whipped from the chef’s domain and arriving on my plate at exactly the correct second. I have rarely enjoyed teatime food more: as both a gastronomic experience and hotel theatre, it gave value for every dirham.
But as you politely refuse the last proffered chocolate, lest you do a Mr Creosote, there is the opportunity to finish with a flourish: how about a beer at the bar itself, as the sun’s final gleam disappears from the darkening sky somewhere out over Qatar? The chance to sip something foaming and hoppy on a barstool 660 feet above the sea probably won’t return for a long time. What acme of the brewer’s art does the Burj Al Arab offer its seven-star customers?
At £10 a bottle.
You don’t fancy Corona, possibly (in the face of heavy competition) the worst widely available beer in the world? No problem, in the Skyview Bar you can also choose – Bud. Or Peroni, or Becks, or Heineken. And, er, Erdinger Weissbier. For £11.50. That’s it. This is a bar that has on display one of only 330 bottles in existence of The John Walker whisky, £2,000 per 75cl hand-blown Baccarat crystal decanter, and it has a poorer beer selection than my corner grocery store in Teddington. I went for the Erdinger, as seemingly the least offensive choice, and while the pour was just as it should have been if you’re being charged that much for a beer – correctly badged glass, label of bottle facing customer, bottle spun between palms of bartender’s hands to mix up the yeast in the final few centilitres of beer before they were added to the glass – the taste was stale and sour, suggesting something had gone very wrong on the long supply-chain journey between Bavaria and Dubai.
Does it matter that people who can afford the sky-high prices in the Skyview Bar are given only a crappy selection of dull beers to “choose” from? Yes, it matters enormously, because what it shows is that while beer aficionados squabble like Trotskyite splinter-grouplets, particularly in the UK, over what should, or should not be regarded as “good beer”, there seems to be 95 per cent of a planet out there that does not even realise such a delight as “good beer” exists. It’s not the battle over the validity or otherwise of “craft keg” that is important, it’s the battle to get “good beer consciousness” so widespread that a place like the Skyview Bar would no more serve Corona than it would sell supermarket own-label whisky or a bottle of Blue Nun wine*.
A beer selection anywhere that consists solely of five effectively identical industrial beverages and just one outlier is an utter joke, an unbelievable insult to consumers and a fail so appalling as to wreck any pretension an establishment might have to “seven star” status. A proper Czech lager, an IPA, something or three from Belgium, a decent stout: surely these would be the minimum any “seven star” bar would carry? Yes: but only if the person doing the buying knows about the choice of excellent beers available even in the UAE, where you can find, if you know where to look, Cooper’s Extra Stout, Worthington White Shield and Duvel, among other classics.
If the food and beverage manager at somewhere like the Burj Al Arab, with all its effort to make guests feel they are being given the very best, knows about The John Walker and thinks having a bottle available at the Skyview bar enhances the “seven star” ambience the hotel is attempting to achieve, why doesn’t he/she know about Samuel Adams Utopias? Because the craft brewing industry** has failed completely in convincing all but a small slice of consumers that beer is more than “beer”, generic and industrial. I didn’t actually want a Samuel Adams Utopias on top of my afternoon tea (not least because it would have cost about £100 a glass), but if the hotel’s F&B person had been aware of its existence, then the entire Skyview Bar beer list might have been better than Becks, Peroni and bleedin’ Corona. Because awareness of something like Utopias means awareness of beer as a potentially thrilling product, not merely something to satisfy a thirst for which any brand will do.
Is this the Burj Al Arab’s fault? No, it’s our fault, informed beer drinkers, and dedicated beer brewers alike, for being too inward-looking and not promoting our favourite beverage enough. We do a tremendous amount of talking to the converted, and arguing among ourselves, but nowhere near enough talking to those who aren’t just unconverted, they’re unknowing. Organisations that speak for the committed beer brewer and the committed beer drinker need to be doing more. I know there’s the Beer Academy in the UK, and it looks to be doing a good job as far is its budget will carry it, but that doesn’t carry it very far. I know many brewers DO make an effort, but it seems to me that those efforts are piecemeal and bitty and lacks real impact because of that. On the consumer side, I would suggest, Beer Advocate isn’t doing enough advocating in places outside the ranks of those who doing need any advocating done to them, Ratebeer wants to do more to get non-beer geeks to rate beer in general highly enough, and the Campaign for Real Ale’s narrow agenda, whether you agree with the need for it to be narrow or not, means there is no group in the UK promoting good beer in general to the broader populace, “opinion formers” and ordinary drinkers alike.
*Although apparently ten years or so ago it DID sell Blue Nun, at £55 a bottle.
**OK, Ron, I know you hate that expression, but find me a better set of words meaning “people who brew other than industrial muck” and I’ll use it.