Monday, October 22, 2012

In Search of the Perfect Beer Bar

“What’ll ya have?” 

I look over the beer menu quickly, discover one that I knew was not yet available bottled, and decide to go with it.

“I’m really into barleywines, so I think I need to try the Charlie 1981.”

A few minutes later the bartender returns with three glasses.

“You guys seemed pretty serious about your beer, so I thought I’d let you try this and see what you think.  We have three versions of the Charlie here.  First we have it from a keg pushed with CO2, like normal.  Then we have it pushed with nitrogen, so it’ll have a different feel.  Finally, we have it cask-conditioned.  Let me know what you like.” 

I have finally found nirvana, the greatest beer bar on Earth.  Here I am sitting on a patio across from a working fish wharf at 11:30 in the morning.  Brewer, a labrador retriever, is lying down between me and John Meier, the brewer of Rogue Ales.  A gorgeous Oregon July day doesn’t hurt.  The food menu also says they are serious about beer.  Beer pairings are suggested, and classic pub food is offered.  I go with the fish and chips which turn out to be among the best I’ve ever had.  The bartender is attentive and continues to be friendly, even after business picks up.  The d├ęcor says this place is serious and passionate about their beer.   Once the lunch crowd fills the place it is obvious that locals and tourists alike feel comfortable.  Regulars sit at the bar, and converse with the bartender. 

A few years ago Ken Wells wrote a book about finding the perfect beer bar, Travels with Barley.  While there was much I disagreed with Walls about, his task was admirable and fascinating.  Frankly, I am a little jealous.  It was a book I had hoped to write one day.  Great conversation, colorful locals, charismatic publicans, televisions, and music may make a bar - it's a great read.  But a great bar is a different beast than a great beer bar.  What would the perfect beer bar look like?  What and how would it serve?  Who would hang out there?

In another bar, Clark’s Ale House in Syracuse, New York, I entered at opening and found the staff talking about beers they had tried recently in another bar.  And they weren’t talking about Coors Light and Bud.  They had this conversation standing beneath the Ale House’s own beer menu.  On a chalkboard behind the bar was a list of beers to weep for.  Rather than being listed alphabetically or by nation or region of origin, they were listed by serving temperature with a few other key measures such as International Bittering Units and specific gravity. 

The Rogue Public House in Newport, Oregon and Syracuse’s Clark’s Ale House are great examples of phenomenal beer bars.  A great beer bar must serve beer for beer lovers.  That means something with flavor, something that might even challenge me.  They have to serve it right.  Every beer need not be served ice cold.  The British have a saying…Why do Americans serve their beer ice cold?  So they don’t have to taste it.  Fortunately, this description of American beer culture is far outdated.  The United States is now home to the most vibrant and varied beer culture in the world, even if craft and microbrews still account for less than 10% of total beer sales.  And the best bars are respecting this small segment of the industry as well as its consumers.  That respect includes not serving a $4 to $10 beer in a frosted mug.  

A great beer bar also serves as much as possible on draft.  But they recognize that some beers, bottle-conditioned Belgian ales particularly, are actually best served from the bottle. Into an appropriate glass – yes, like wine, glassware can dramatically alter the beer experience.  A great beer bar also has the sense to serve good food that goes with their brew.  Think fish and chips, good burgers, bratwurst, hearty meats, rich desserts, big flavors.

What Walls got right was that a great beer bar is welcoming to everyone.  Conversation is more important than televisions and music.  There are regulars that give the place some local flavor. There’s a bartender that knows the community and his brews.  There’s a staff ready to help you try something new, or stick with something comfortable.  A great beer bar is a community in and of itself. 

Go find the best beer bar in your community and let me know about it.    
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