Dynamic duo at Twenty21: Fine beer with fine appetizers

FOR THOSE who are utterly convinced that it doesn’t get any better than beer and pretzels, allow me to point you in the direction of Twenty21, the modern-looking bistro hidden at the base of one of those ugly office buildings on West Market Street in Center City.

This is a tony joint that was once known primarily for its 15-foot-high bar, a rather silly inconvenience that occasionally provided the exciting glimpse of barmaids climbing a ladder to fetch top-shelf whiskeys.

The ladder’s still there, but these days the tastier treat can be found at floor level, in the form of a fresh glass of Old Rasputin, the Russian imperial stout from Northern California, and chocolate-covered espresso beans. We’re talking reams of mouth-watering, bittersweet arousal.

The beer-and-chocolate pairing is part of a well-conceived $20 appetizer plate that matches a flight of premium beers with a variety of finger foods. This is just the ticket for discovering, for example, how the aromatic wheat in Bells Oberon Ale is enhanced by a slice of fresh fig.

It’s a long way from Old Milwaukee and Doritos.

And it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

This simple serving of drink and appetizers is part of an important evolution that could redefine how Americans regard beer. Take a look around town, and you’ll see the glass of suds we always thought was there only for pure, youthful refreshment is growing up.

In Northern Liberties, the new Bar Ferdinand (1030 N. 2nd St.) – exactly the kind of fashionable place that would’ve ignored beer 10 years ago – has the imagination to pair Petrus Oud Bruin, a sour brown ale from Belgium, with its mussels and chorizo tapas.

At Philadelphia International Airport, the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel has joined the chain’s nationwide beer cuisine program, offering a wide-ranging menu that pairs its entrees with imported and local beers.

Interest has been building for years, largely on the back of the craft-beer movement, which from the start sought to link good beer with good food.

The earliest beer guides by author Michael Jackson, for example, included traditional recipes with beer as a focal ingredient. Then, in 2003, Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver published “The Brewmaster’s Table” (Ecco), which argued forcefully that beer is a better accompaniment to good cuisine than wine.

Once you discover great beer, Oliver wrote, “your ‘food life’ will be transformed into something fascinating, fun and infinitely more enjoyable.”

If you’ve been paying attention to the craft brew scene, the evolution is old news. It’s so old, in fact, that beer freaks hammered the Inquirer in online forums earlier this month when it published a clueless travel story that seemed astonished to find beer being served in stemmed glassware.

But the transition is only now spreading into the mainstream. And by mainstream, I mean Budweiser.

In the face of flat-lined sales and pressure from anti-alcohol groups, the beermaker that once depended on talking lizards and farting horses is looking for help from chicken cordon bleu.

Earlier this year, Anheuser-Busch launched its “Here’s to Beer” campaign, which seeks to do nothing less than redefine the kegger. Its Web site touts the social value of beer and suggests food-and-beer pairings.

This is very reminiscent of the campaign that elevated California’s wine industry 30 years ago from rotgut Boone’s Farm to $100 bottles of Napa Valley red.

Back at Twenty21 (2005 Market St., Center City), sommelier and general manager Gordana Kostovski started seeing the change in the last year.

“Just recently, beer has been just exploding the way the wine world did years ago,” said Kostovski. “All of a sudden, people are more attuned to listening to what kinds of interesting beers we have.”

Rather than mindlessly pour from a line of trendy, expensive drafts that might languish from inattention, the restaurant promotes the diversity of its short but unique beer list – German kolsch beer, blueberry ale from Maine and more – by pairing samples with a fun selection of starters.

Sitting in the bar, I was awed at the beer flight in front of me. It’s a smart, lip-smacking combination of flavors that shows off the kitchen and the beer taps: Smuttynose Pumpkin Ale and spiced almonds with pumpkin seeds, for example, or Blue Point Hoptical Illusion with seven-spice Togarashi chips.

Beer Nuts will always have their place at Joe Sixpack’s bar, but the times are a-changing. Over the next month, I’m going to take a look – and a taste – at this evolution. Stay tuned.

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