So what beers does a seven-star hotel serve?

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.

Afternoon tea at the Burj Al Arab

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.

0 thoughts on “So what beers does a seven-star hotel serve?

  1. You would expect a hotel bar like this to stock the most unobtainable and rarest beers in the world! Just like they’ve done with the whiskey. I imagine the wine list didn’t consist of Blossom Hill and Jacob’s Creek? Interesting insight and highlights what ‘beer’ means to a vast proportion of the world.

  2. Lots to muse there… I’m not sure BeerAdvocate and Ratebeer are ‘consumer movements’ as such, and are far too US- and ticker-centric to be an effective voice.
    I suppose this is an extreme illustration of how beer is usually a lazy afterthought in posh venues. The place will no doubt develop its rep on the wine and spirits, and the collusion of top-end journos who also don’t care for beer. Makes me wonder which doors need to knocked down to change thinking? Then, since I’m never likely to find myself at the Burj Al Arab, I wonder if I care what they sell?
    Nice post, Martyn. What WERE you doing there?

  3. When the arguments over the term craft beer were running it was this sort of environment that kept popping into my mind. At the front line there is a very real if hard/impossible to survey division between ‘normal beer’ and ‘craft beer’. Here in NZ for awhile the term bouteque was in ascendancy , a term I hate, I think craft is much better.

    I think there is a hell of alot of advocacy and battling to do, but Im not sure that this necessarily should have any impact on arguments within more enlightened beer communities.

    If there were a broader based beer advocacy group in the UK would this have any effect on what was on offer at the Burj Al Arab? I suspect not.

  4. I applaud their selection of beers. It perfectly belies the real taste of the type of moron who would spend time at a place like this. I’m sure their music and art (if any is displayed) is just as crass and insulting. Turns out money can’t buy taste, eh?

  5. A sad realisation that beer culture is still not taken seriously by most people when compared to the cultures of wine and whiskey…

    Once more, a very interesting post!

  6. Whilst I agree, I personally find it more surprising that many posh hotel bars in England don’t do decent local beers. Don’t they think that someone visiting Yorkshire might want a pint (or even a bottle) of bitter, never mind something more exciting?

  7. I’m not Ron, but I think the phrase you’re looking for is “decent brewers”.

    The point is to label as good what we think is good – not to find a whole new label for what we think is good, then persuade other people that our new label means “good”.

  8. I think you’re barking up the wrong tree here Martyn. I don’t think the reason that quality beers don’t have premium brand value is due to the failings of any voluntary association or professional body. I think it’s because multi-national corporations haven’t thrown huge amounts of money at them to build them up into big brands.

    Though if it makes you feel any better I do know that the Ritz Hotel has recently sourced beer from a British micorbrewery to stock in its rooms.

  9. Nothing shits me more than a 15 page wine list and a 5 beer total selection when they are all basic variants of a larger. It really dosent make a whole lot of sense either, the financial outlay to a venue to have a great beer selection is a hell of a lot cheaper than some of the wines they stock.

    We are starting to get a change in Melbourne but the dinner I was at on Friday (a work do) had Cornoa as the “fancy beer”. I stuck with whatever was on tap (probably Carlton Draught) and switched to the red wine later in the night but would have much prefered a hef, or an IPA or even some thing Belgian with my steak.

    Ah well, I suppose we cant really blame the guys at the Burj Al Arab, they done really have a big beer culture over there (yet)

    Cheers D

  10. Reminds me of going to a very swanky wedding (in Yorkshire) and being told there would be a couple of real ales in the traditional hotel, I thought it could be good.

    Black sheep in a bottle – £5.00 for a bottle……. 🙁 ….nuff said!

  11. You can take the Arab out of the desert but you cannot take the desert
    out of the Arab. A sad state of affairs when a culture has been denied one
    of the few quality pleasures of life.

  12. While I agree that the Burj Al Arab’s beer list is a pisspoor state of affairs, I’m surprised you come to the conclusion that beer bloggers and consumer groups should do more to change it. Surely someone closer to the problem could speak to the food and bev manager at the hotel? Or alert a multinational brewing company that there is a spectacular PR coup there for the taking, mention no names but follow my eyes *cough* Molson Coors *cough* Kristy McCready *cough*

  13. Do they still charge to enter the hotel to look around? I seem to remember sipping a Rochefort 10 in the bar while my partners sucked on Cuban cigars. That was around 5 years ago.

  14. Even the crappiest hotels usually leave ‘comments’ forms around, let alone good hotels. And my experience is that managers do generally read them and act on them.
    Not Eurostar though. I’ve been waging a ten year campaign for them to improve their beer selection. Lunch and dinner on the trains is accompanied by well-chosen wines from France and well-chosen cheese from England, France or Belgium – complete with tasting notes. Ask for a beer though and you are limited to cans of Stella or Kronenbourg lager. They even agree with me when I point out that the train passes through some of the best beer producing country in the world. The beer list never changes though.

  15. At the end of the day, if the greatest stock of ales known to man was there, and not somewhere we all know and love, closer and friendlier, wherever that place may be – would the world be a better place? If it were, would our place in that better world be quite as comfy? What’s so awful about an accidentally well kept, but still pretty wondrous secret?

  16. Thank you very much for the very helpful insight!
    If you order a beer in a hotel bar, all around the world, you want a cool and refreshing drink. That is what they think, from 1 to 7 stars. You might not like to hear that, but for the bar keeper asking for a beer is like asking for a coke.
    The situation in Germany: Not very different. Small hotels have a contract with a regional wholesaler/distributor, which automatically limits the offering. The big hotel chains have a direct contract with just one of the top 10 breweries, which simply “buys the bar” for there products.

    1. I would agree here.

      Asking for a beer is in most cases just perceived as ‘don’t care for taste, want something cool and bubbly’ or, even worse, just as ‘need cheap alcohol’.

      You have a longer way to go than you imagine …

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