As the beer gods would have it, the Twin Cities are now home to quite a few boutique beer bars -- places where a good brew is as coveted as a fine wine. While these spots stand out among metro bars, one destination sticks out even more.
It's not everywhere you can order a premium Belgian beer with a plate of Ethiopian food, but the Blue Nile isn't your average bar. After more than a decade on East Franklin Avenue, it still looks like an Ethiopian restaurant hiding behind a Mexican facade, and it still offers great live music, from African and Caribbean to hip-hop and spoken word.
But how did an Ethiopian restaurant end up with one of the best beer selections in town? Owner Fahmi Katabay points to one man: His bartender, Al.
Al McCarty came looking for a job in the late '90s, intrigued by the restaurant's East African cuisine and worldly music. When Katabay put him in charge of the restaurant's bar, McCarty felt like a kid in a candy shop -- or in this case, a beer lover in charge of drinks.
The craft-beer revolution was just catching steam here. There was no Bulldog, Happy Gnome or Muddy Pig yet. McCarty points to only the Bryant-Lake Bowl and a couple of other bars as craft-beer havens. Regardless, he started asking the local beer distributors for the good stuff: Belgians and boutique American brands.
He only had 10 taps and a couple of big coolers under the bar, but McCarty worked with what he had. Today, he changes the tap selection regularly and has about 50 bottled beers, many of them imports. He does carry Miller and other mass-market beers -- club nights demand it -- but he stacks those bottles on their sides, packing them in to save room for the good stuff. He dreams of installing another 20 or so taps to compete with other beer bars, many of which have 25-plus.
One of his proudest moments was in 2002, when he took a perennial mainstream beer off the tap line: "I dropped Budweiser and replaced it with Maredsous, a Belgian Abbey beer. We got rid of the most ubiquitous beer in the world for a family-owned brewery."
Katabay said McCarty is like family and he supports his bartender's ambition. Plus, the range of beers matches nicely with the restaurant's mix of spicy meat dishes.
However, Katabay joked, "I did not think he would take it to this extent." McCarty will even age certain bottles, allowing the beer to develop more flavor (this works best with darker beers, he said).
He's had release parties for local breweries such as Surly. Lately, he's been trying to introduce a Sri Lankan beer called Lion Stout to the large African-Caribbean crowd that comes in on Thursdays for reggae night. They drink primarily Guinness Extra Stout, which is similar.
McCarty also pushes the importance of serving beers in their proper glassware to amplify the taste and aroma. Of course, some people would rather chug straight from the bottle. But sometimes, he'll get a novice beer drinker who wants to experiment with taste and presentation. And that makes this beer crusader feel good, as if world peace were next on his checklist.
"Every once in a while, you make a little difference," he said.
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