On Tap: Chef Drawn to Good Beer

As a young man, Derek Wilbur delighted in the myriad of flavors of food and beverages, a trait that would serve him well in his career as a chef. Eleven years ago, Mr. Wilbur and his wife Sarah O’Neil opened Fiddler’s Green restaurant in Southwest Harbor, a step that gave him an expanded palette with which to further delight his own palate and those of his customers.

Mr. Wilbur, admittedly, is not one to explore his interests halfheartedly. His latest obsession is beer, and Fiddler’s Green has become a soapbox where he preaches the benefits of craft-brewed beers to anyone who lifts a mug.

As he did when learning to smoke meats and fish for the restaurant and, later, when developing an extensive wine list, he immersed himself in his subject, learning all he could, down to the minutest detail.

“I always had five or six off-the-wall beers you didn’t see anywhere else,” Mr. Wilbur said. But, within the past two years, the list of beers served at Fiddler’s Green has grown to more than 40. “It just started picking up more and more steam,” he said.

To help diners make a decision and, more importantly, to educate them, Mr. Wilbur has compiled a “beer book,” which provides descriptions of the taste, color and other characteristics of each beer on the menu. The book also has suggestions on which beers pair well with certain foods.

If this smacks of beer snobbery, consider the fact that the beer list also includes a few plebian brews, notably Bud Lite. Fans of this lackluster brew should avoid reading its description in Mr. Wilbur’s book. His tastes run toward more heady stuff, especially to beers produced in Great Britain. He got his first taste of British brews during a trip he took as a young man to England.

“I was surprised to find how different an animal it was,” he said.

The taste of the beer in that London pub would stay with him. He later learned he had been drinking a cask-conditioned beer, a process in which unpasteurized beer is naturally carbonated through the fermentation process. Unlike most beers served on tap, there is no addition of carbon dioxide or other gases to cask-conditioned brews.

Over the winter, Mr. Wilbur was sitting in a New York bar, savoring a glass of cask-conditioned Old Speckled Hen when he had an epiphany that only a beer-lover would manifest.

“At that point, I knew I was going to get my hands on a beer engine,” he said.

Simply, a beer engine is hand-powered bellows pump that moves beer from the cask to the tap and into a glass. An essential part of a British pub, beer engines are more difficult to find here in the United States. Mr. Wilbur was able to obtain a model from the late 1920s from Brian Smith at McKay’s Publick House in Bar Harbor, the only other location on Mount Desert Island serving cask-conditioned beer. After rebuilding the pump, Mr. Wilbur installed it in the bar at Fiddler’s Green. The addition was an instant success.

“We’ve had more people say they feel like they’re at an English pub,” Mr. Wilbur said. “If this keeps going like the way it’s been going, I’ll add a second engine in the fall.”

Right now, the cask-conditioned offering is Gritty McDuff’s Best Bitter. Mr. Wilbur said he hopes to have cask-conditioned Old Speckled Hen available in September. Cask-conditioned beers are not easy to obtain, he said.

“Right now we’re at the forefront of the cask-fermented ales getting through the doors,” Mr. Wilbur said. “It’s not cost effective for the big brewers.”

Mr. Wilbur said he is satisfied with the beers available at the restaurant, a list he calls his “beer program.”

“It’s finally come into its own, by my standards,” he said.

Now, it’s time to make the public aware of what’s available, he said. On Friday, July 10, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., Fiddler’s Green is featuring a tasting of some of its best brews. Flights of five 4-ounce servings are available for $1. Along with the cask-conditioned Best Bitter, a flight includes samples of Einbeker Pilsner, Allagash White Beer, Old Speckled Hen and Atlantic Brewing Company’s Real Ale. Flights are restricted to one per person. Pints are available for $3. Appetizers also will be available for $5.

Mr. Wilbur, who grew up in Southwest Harbor, said one goal he has set for the restaurant is to attract more year-round residents.

“There’s no reason people have to travel so far to get a great pint of beer and good food,” he said.

Fiddler’s Green is open Tuesday through Sunday from 5:30 p.m. to close.

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