Charm City: Beer on Baltimore’s Waterfront
One of the best parts of beer traveling is finding neighborhood watering holes that you wish were in your own neighborhood. And find them we did in Baltimore. Or, as the locals pronounce it, Bawlmer.
Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods—more than 300 districts, each with its own culture and identity. Of course, no neighborhood would be complete without its collection of corner taverns. We found plenty of small, friendly and often inexpensive places with outstanding beer lists and knowledgeable bartenders. And yes, there are breweries too. There’s something for every beer lover, so let’s begin our journey just to the southeast of the city’s famous Inner Harbor, in the areas known as Fells Point and Canton.
Fells Point, a community lined with cobblestone streets, was once a hub for shipbuilding. In fact, some of the first vessels commissioned by the U.S. Navy, including the USS Constellation in 1797, were built here. The shipyards are perhaps most famous for producing topsail schooners that were used as blockade runners during the War of 1812. Today, the area is home to over 120 pubs.
One of the best, Max’s Taphouse (737 S. Broadway), is right on the main square. It’s a comfy, lived-in place whose slogan is “You’re Here for the Beer.” The list of what’s on tap, as well as the bottle list, is extensive. You can order something local, or many of the finest beers from around the world. There aren’t a lot of places that can boast having Cantillon’s Framboise and Kriek, as well as Chimay White on tap.
Make sure you look around. The place is full of interesting things: tap handles line the shelves just below the tin ceiling, just as other bars line up bottles and cans; the beams are painted with sage quotes about beer from everyone from Plato to Frank Zappa; glass display cases house vintage ales, including a collection of JW Lees; and the t-shirts in the “pro-shop” display an interesting sense of humor with words of wisdom such as “Beer is cheaper than gas. Drink don’t drive.” and “I’m probably lying.”
Max’s has a pub grub menu and wireless internet so it would be easy to stay forever. But there are other places you should visit, too.
A Walk to the Wharf
Walk a few blocks in either direction and you’ll find two establishments owned by breweries. The first is The Wharf Rat (801 S. Ann St.). The beer is brewed not far away at The Wharf Rat/Oliver Brewery (206 W. Pratt St.), not far from Oriole Park at Camden Yards. The look and feel of the Fells Point location is reminiscent of an old English pub. The hanging baskets of flowers greet you as you walk down the street. The interior has everything from an old English telephone cabinet to model ships above the working fireplace. There are two rooms and the ceiling beam between them sport wood-carved gnomes that depict the seven deadly sins.
Oliver is the house beer and they serve a solid collection of ales. We enjoyed a Best Bitter and an ESB on cask that was poured to perfection. There is a small collection of guest ales available too. Unlike the Camden Yards brewpub, the Ann St. location’s menu is limited and you’re likely to find the bartender pulling double duty as the cook.
Also along the waterfront is the DuClaw Brewing Company (901 S. Bond St.) on the Bond St. Wharf. DuClaw, which has three other locations in the suburbs around Baltimore, is a little more upscale and modern. Sitting at the large oval-shaped bar, you can look out the large picture windows and watch the hubbub as friends meet outside. When the weather is nice, as it was the evening we visited, the main attraction is the large outdoor seating area. This is definitely a place where people go to be seen.
Not only were we lucky with the weather, but when we arrived we realized that happy hour lasts all day on Tuesday. In addition to the attractively priced brew, we munched on reduced priced appetizers. Sipping the IPA and schwarzbier under the stars provided a perfect end to our day in Fells Point.
Immediately to the east of Fells Point is the neighborhood called Canton. It’s a lot less flashy and doesn’t draw hordes of tourists. Block after block is filled with Baltimore’s iconic row houses. Canton’s were built in the late 1800s for the industrial waterfront’s blue-collar workers. For years it was the quintessential East Coast ethnic neighborhood; Polish, German, Irish and Welsh immigrants who disembarked in Baltimore made their home here. In recent years, Canton has gone through a re-gentrification of sorts, with new housing and marinas going up along the waterfront. But Canton’s heart and soul remain local.
Some of the corner bars here are places we’d like to transport—clientele and all—to our hometown, which is coincidentally enough also called Canton. Not only is the beer good, but they have bartenders who know just the right way to chat you up and make you feel right at home. We bet you’re wondering if these places could possibly serve anything but macro brew, with a regional favorite or two thrown in. The best way to convince you to take you to a few.
The Baltimore Taphouse (600 S. Potomac St.) is a must visit. Look for the navy canopy in a sea of white buildings as you drive down the street. The rotating tap selection is listed on the blackboard as you enter. The selections tend to be hoppy, and you’re almost certain to find something from Sierra Nevada at this tiny bar which only seats about 15. The day we visited the list included Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, Sierra Nevada Celebration and Harpoon IPA.
Locally-brewed products were well represented too, including Brewer’s Art Resurrection and Clipper City Pale Ale. It’s easy to cool off here on a hot day while taking in some sports on the big screen TV behind the bar. It’s easy to love a place that hangs up pictures of the regulars’ kids.
Another must visit in Canton is Mahaffey’s Pub (2706 Dillon St.). They rotate their tap list weekly and have a generous happy hour, which the bartender was quick to point out to us. They serve three glasses of beer for $4. We counted 16 tap handles, plus a hand-pull, and happily perused the extensive bottle list while we enjoyed Lagunitas Hop Stoopid, Rogue Latona 20th Anniversary Ale and Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA.
The sign above the bar says it all: “Mahaffey’s Neighborhood Pub where good friends hang out. Cold beer here!” And there were indeed groups of friends meeting there, many on their way home from work. The conversations were about baseball, politics and the economy, all with that unique Bawlmer twang. And speaking of baseball, be sure to check out the Oriole bobbleheads above the bar.
Mahaffey’s is a small place with a lot of character. They also have an interesting food menu, much of which is prepared on the tiny grill next to the front door. It was wing night when we visited and those fryers were doing some heavy duty work. This is another place where you can stay all night. And, we almost did.
One of Baltimore’s most famous writers, H.L. Mencken, once wrote “A home is not a mere transient shelter: its essence lies in the personalities of the people who live in it.” A great description of the neighborhood bars in the town he called home.
Paul Ruschmann is a writer, editor and researcher. Maryanne Nasiatka is a writer and photographer. They travel as much as their budget permits visiting many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed.