We Love Drinks continues our series where we look behind the bar, profiling the many people – from mixologists to bartenders, sommeliers to publicans – who make your drinks experience happen.
When I sat down with Thor Cheston, the beer director at Brasserie Beck, our conversation centered on the future. Not that I necessarily meant for this to happen, it just did. Frankly, the future’s an exciting place. The future is place where beer is wine’s equal (almost). The future is a place where beer de cuisine is an art form. The future is a place in which DC has a local brewery (!!!). Thor wants to be at the center of this future, making sure that everything happens according to plan.
Before we get to the future, though, we should establish a few things about the past. Thor loves beer and prior to signing on with Becks he had already left his mark on the DC drinks scene. Thor started at Pizza Paradiso as part time help in order to support himself while he studied medicine. This was in the days when Pizza Paradiso was just a really good pizza restaurant and not a beer drinkers destination. This was also in the days when the Brickskellar was the only real beer bar in town. The frustrating lack of diversity in DC’s beer scene inspired Thor to talk to Ruth Gresser, Pizza Paradiso’s owner, about starting a beer bar in her restaurant. “I used places like Whole Foods to convince her that there was a market for the finer things,” Thor told me. Luckily, she agreed, Berreria Paradiso was born and given to Thor’s care.
Thor started the new bar relatively small, with just over a dozen drafts and a decent bottle selection. The well curated and descriptive menu appealed to hardcore and casual beer lovers alike and Birreria Paradiso developed a name for itself, becoming one of DC’s top bars. Thor eventually left Pizza Paradiso to work for a Belgian restaurant in Philadelphia as its beer buyer. This helped him develop relationships with brewers and distributors, granting him the opportunity to travel to Belgium a few times. “I just love Belgian beer” is how Thor puts it.
With a proven vision and experience as a buyer, Robert Wiedmaier brought Thor on to his fledgling restaurant, Brasserie Beck. Thor jumped at the chance; “Chef Wiedmaier isn’t someone you say ‘no’ to.” He worked at Becks as a bartender for a few years before eventually ascending to be the beer director and GM of the restaurant. In this capacity he manages the alcohol stock, maintains relationships with distributors, recommends beers for his customers, and generally takes care of all things beer related. His work has been noticed, too. In September, Thor was knighted into the Brewers’ Mashstaff in Brussels. As he put it, the title is mostly honorary but “I get to drink free at Belgian festivals, which is awesome.”
But now, onto the future. The position of Beer Director at a fine dining restaurant is something of a novelty. It’s more common now than it ever was, but wine is still the name of the game in most establishments. I asked Thor if he thought that beer would ever be equal to wine in the mind of diners. “Yes, but it will take a while,” he responded. His thoughts are basically that beer has a stigma to overcome, to the point that “it might be a good idea to change the name.” Most people don’t associate beer with food, or if they do, not as a compliment to the meal. That needs to change in order for beer to take its rightful place. Fortunately, Thor sees hope. “There are some great breweries out there, places like Russian River, New Belgium and Lost Abbey,” notably, all of which are American breweries. I pointed this out and Thor agreed. “America is the best country in the world for beer,” he told me. He sees truly good beer as the game changer, and once people try one that truly excites them, it will open up a world of possibilities.
Interestingly enough, this is what drew Thor to DC. “DC’s really a rising star in the restaurant world,” he said. This, coupled with an entirely decent beer scene in the city means that there’s a real possibility of marrying fine dining with beer. If Brasserie Beck’s is any indication, Thor should have little trouble molding the city into what he wants it to be. Beer with food isn’t a foreign concept to most Washingtonians.
So, what’s next for Thor and Beck’s? “We’re opening a mussel bar in Bethesda, soon, which is kind of a more casual spin off Becks,” he told me. And, the big (and breaking) news: “A brewery is in the business plan.” Yes, that’s right, a native DC brewery is in the works! “We’re obviously going to focus on Belgian styles,” he said, “We’ve got some great minds behind this. I’m ridiculously excited about it!” The idea is to marry the mussel bar concept with the brewery to create a gastro-brew pup, of sorts. Now that is exciting!
Thor Cheston has done great things for the DC beer scene. He’s doing great things for the DC beer scene. Expect the future to hold even better things for the DC beer scene.