Saturday, August 22, 2009


A few doors down from the almost barren corner of Adeline and 40th in Emeryville, California, stands the Café Biere, a friendly gleam of Europe that livens up the neighborhood and may be the next mecca for the Bay Area’s large swarm of serious beer connoisseurs. Its cozy room serves up one of the largest and most eccentric beer menus I’ve seen.

Ivan Hernandez, the café’s owner-operator, wasn’t even a beer lover when he arrived in the Bay Area in 2000. Born in Chihuahua, Mexico (where his mother, Rosa, sagely advised him, “If you want to meet nice girls, learn how to cook.”) Ivan immigrated to Toronto, Canada, in the 1990s. There he started in the restaurant business as a dishwasher in a Mexican restaurant and joined a group of friends who made regular tours of Toronto’s restaurant scene.

Over time, Ivan evolved into a restaurant manager and troubleshooter. Upon his arrival in the Bay Area, he became a restaurant consultant and eventually took over his first restaurant, Café Cacao, in December 2007, a breakfast-lunch spot in Berkeley (on Heinz Street, right around the corner from the newly opened Berkeley Bowl West grocery store).

“I started out not liking beer at all,” Ivan confesses. But then a friend poured him a light, sweet brew called Duchesse de Bourgogne--it was love at first taste. By the time he downed the last cool drop of the Duchesse, he’d become a convert equal in passion to readers of the Wine Enthusiast.

He next toured the Bay Area’s numerous beer bars. From conversion to café took him only three to four weeks. He opened his new place in 2008 at the former site of a Pacific-Asian tapas place that had previously been an Emeryville institution, Moon’s Chinese, for almost 60 years.

The café’s interior is European in atmosphere, with illustrated yellow-gold and copper-plated walls intended, according to Ivan “to turn non-beer drinkers into beer drinkers.” It doesn’t look big enough to hold everything on its menu, but somehow it manages quite well.

The Café Biere’s menu (“Our Little Beer List”) reads like the wine list at a four-star restaurant. All the beers are artisanal and each is described with the kind of loving caressive detail that might cause snobby swill-loving egalitarians to take offense. If it reminds you of the fanatical obsession you encounter with wine connoisseurs, you’re right. (A New Yorker article from November 2008 describes brewing good beer--not the modern industrial product--as a bigger challenge than wine-making.) Indeed, quite a few of the brews on the café menu rise to the high side, a glass costing as much as $40.

But the cafe more than makes up the high prices on some of its brew with many moderately priced varieties and a happy hour featuring a selection of tap beers from 3—7 PM, Monday thru Friday. Free beer tastings are held every Wednesday night around 8:30.

Ivan originally planned to feature only around 50 beers, but the list is now foaming up toward 150. The café stocks beers from Eastern and Western Europe, a large number of U.S. microbrews, plus a number from Canada, Mexico, and Japan. While the Czech selection is small, the Belgium selection dominates (including the crisp, addictive Duchesse de Bourgogne).

Smaller, but equally impressive, are the Trappist ales. These beers are all brewed by, or under the direct control, of Trappist monasteries. European monasteries have been brewing beer since the Middle Ages. Today, only seven Trappist breweries remain. All five of the Trappist ales served by Cafe Biere originate from Belgium.

In the future, Ivan plans to expand Café Cacao’s hours into the evening as a Latin lounge and is mulling over expanding Café Biere’s space into the building’s second floor. “Maybe I’ll start a brewery, or open the kind of place where local brewers can bring their own beers.” An impish look enters his soft brown eyes: “When I get good at brewing, maybe I’ll brew something with chipotle and balsamic vinegar. It sounds weird, but it could turn out tasty.”

The café also serves a light dinner menu designed to compliment the beer menu. The joint fills up quickly, especially on Friday and Saturday, so you’d better call ahead or arrive early. I’ve found it SRO more than once. Not surprising The café gives a genuine lift to a neighborhood in bad need of one.

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