Like many, Thomas Barris first learned about beer in college. Unlike many, Barris’s education wasn’t confined to frathouses and rubber funnels: He took some time away from school to travel Europe, where he learned about the Continent’s cuisine and drink. There, he also got gigs organizing pub crawls, booze tours popular with backpackers and hostel dwellers. Barris, whose brother runs L’Asso, is studying to become a cicerone — a beer sommelier — and has developed the pizzeria’s brew program at its new, East Village location. He splits his time between New York and Florida, where he works at a craft brewery. Barris talked recently about the relationship between mead and meat — and why domestic lights taste bad but still deserve respect.
So what’s the deal with the cicerone program?
It’s basically an accreditation — they’re trying to make the beer sommelier a reality. There’s a lot of people that claim to be experts in anything — especially beer. So this really great beer expert Ray Daniels started this thing called Cicerone.org. It brings validity to a claim of expertise. You have to pass a test.
Seems like a lot of work — how did you get so involved with beer?
I’ve been working in beer for years, doing beer festivals down in Fort Lauderdale. That’s where I learned all the stuff. At first, people would hang up on me — I was asking for an insane amount of beer — I didn’t know anything then.
Did you learn about food and booze in college?
I was at Florida Atlantic University. I was a film major, and then I bounced around. I traveled Europe and worked on a pub crawl — we’d bring tourists to five different bars every night. But in college, I did mostly history, communications, marketing, film, and music. It was an interdisciplinary degree.
What kind of work do you do at the brewery?
At Florida Beer Company, out of Melbourne, we work with the Key West brands. The company bought all these brands in the late ’90s, early 2000s, when the craft-brewing bubble started to go under, and are working with them now. I do style treatments. I homebrew, and I bring them a recipe, and I bring them these ideas. I do marketing and branding as well. I’m actually using my degree. Finally my dad was like: “Oh, you’re using your humanities degree.” I’m like: “Oh, thanks, Dad.”
What else did you do to learn about beer?
I went to all these homebrew meetings. I bought every beer and ingredient book possible, and I started brewing. Then, I went up to New York for a month after graduating. I met all these brewers, at Brooklyn Brewery and Sixpoint.
How does L’Asso’s menu impact your beer choices for the restaurant?
When they started using unbromated, unbleached flour, I said: “Let’s get rid of these mainstream beers, and let’s go super-local.” You have some of the best beers being made in the city and the state right now — in the whole country. So we get them and we rotate them constantly, and we stick to loyalty as well — like we always have Shmaltz Brewing. Their beer is phenomenal, made with some of the best ingredients. It’s regionality — that’s what it’s about, local beers. We should ask: What are they brewing in Brooklyn or in Queens? That’s the big movement that’s happening right now.
Do you pair certain varieties with specific foods?
Kind of the way big, earthy wines go great with meats, it’s the same principle. Your real hoppy beers, like IPAs, go with spicy food and pizzas. They really play up the spiciness. White pizzas go great with white wine, so we’d go with a Belgian wheat. We try to pair desserts with something sweet.
Any other options?
We’re going to be doing beer cocktails and nonalcoholic cocktails. I don’t agree with putting blueberries and stuff in a beer cocktail, because it’s stupid. But these cocktails are a very Italian kind of thing. A little champagne, Prosecco, and Hefferveisen. Also, we’re going to have beer-education nights. We’ll have 10 bottles and 12 taps, rotated by season.
How do you train the waiters to help people pick the right drink?
There’s a basic thing that I try: I tell the staff three simple things to tell the customer about the beer, and then things like “This is like a Yuengling” or “This is like a Brooklyn Lager.” We try not to do too much: A lot of people are intimidated by this whole thing –they think it’s all weird, and they think these beers are weird and get scared. That’s the dark side of what we do, so we try to have fun with it.
If craft brews are coming back, what’s the future of cheap domestics?
The retro beer movement was pretty big. Rolling Rock, Amstel came back pretty strong. That whole retro high-volume beer — you have it everywhere; it’s cheap. We drank it in college. That fad is a fad. When you start drinking some of these high-grade beers that are 12 percent alcohol, and have high-quality ingredients, do you go back to the cheap beers? But I don’t know if the fad is dying.
How is it changing?
You’re going to see more and more craft lagers. You’re going to see great beers that have 5 percent alcohol. That’s the new phase — smaller craft breweries making high-volume beer.
If you had to drink one high volume?
Ugh, cheap domestics. Wow! None of those. If I was stuck on an island, and I had to choose one domestic, to drink to survive on. Oh God. That’s really hard. I loathe Budweiser, but we have to give credit where credit is due. That’s actually the hardest beer to make, because every batch is the same. I’d say Yuengling in a can, in a lager can. It’s more of a Florida thing to me. I like craft beer in cans to take to the beach, go on the boat.