Somewhere along the line, beer became as viable an option as wine for something to bring to a dinner party in New York. So be it.
Now what? Faux pas await you, ones you’d never find with wine.
For one thing, wine has labels to give even the cheapest hooch the veneer of respectability. No one ever has to know, do they? It’s provably difficult to tell the $7.99 bottle from the $79.99 one. Unless your host insists upon an on-site Google search, you can shield yourself with a label from any cries of penury. All those cursive fonts! Foreign words! Warm backstory from family vineyards! In places you or your hosts will likely never, ever visit! Or, if they are not ornate and foreign-seeming, they are achingly postmodern, with clean vistas punctuated by too-cute names like “Fire Engine” or “Red Truck,” or, as if daring you not to get the joke, “Table Wine.”
And, finally, the adjectives! “Velvety,” “notes of graphite,” “effervescent yet heavy,” “black currant,” “black cherry,” “black licorice,” “blackberry.”
You can’t pull this with beer. The cheaper brands are easily delineated; people are going to know when you show up with a Budweiser or a Miller. The labels are plain and simple, and to the point. Big Beer throws its shoulder into advertising, not design. Besides, not much backstory to a can of Old Milwaukee; not many adjectives to describe a Genessee Cream Ale (“old cleat” perhaps).
What to do without shellacking the bank? (Because that’s the thing with beer at dinner parties—you must bring more of it: “You need two six-packs for every one bottle of wine,” observed a friend of mine, a made member of that Brooklyn family some call Brobo. “And the sixers have to be two different varieties!”) One solution, and it’s virtually failsafe: Turn to Belgian beers.
“Types of beer to bring to a dinner? Most likely I would bring a Belgian beer,” Dawn Gabriele Land, a Brooklynite who works in the wine industry, said over email. Besides going good with an array of foods, “Belgian beers usually have the cleanest, nicest labels—they look expensive. The bottles are corked and caged like Champagne—it makes a good impression.”
A lot of other beer bottles, however fine the contents inside, wouldn’t cut it. Craft brewers are inconoclastic people, bad asses all. “If you wouldn’t feel comfortable giving a host a bottle of Woop Woop Shiraz,” Ms. Land explained, “you won’t feel comfortable giving a bottle of Hop Stoopid either.”
There is the alternative, though: to plunge straight ahead with such seemingly crazed bottles and to confront the task of managing expectations through information. In other words, show up with Lagunitas‘ Hop Stoopid and expect to explain things.
Perhaps, then, the etiquette’s simple, but circuitous, like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books from adolescence. If you’re going to bring beer to the dinner party and you don’t mind a flush few moments as the center of attention, then bring the great beer, regardless of the label. If you want to just plant the bottle(s) in the host’s hands and make a beeline, a la wine, then opt for the quiet dignity of a Chimay or an Ommegang.
Also, remember that one caveat: “One 12-ounce bottle isn’t going to cut it,” warned Carolyn Edgecomb, president of the Malted Barley Appreciation Society, over email. “Bring at least a bomber, a 750-ml or a six-pack. A growler is another excellent option, just make sure you bring it fresh.”
And I hope this goes without saying, but don’t drink it all by yourself—no more than you would uncork a bottle of 2000 Saint Emilion Grand Cru, and casually down it throughout dinner. People, please.