Where Real People Drink Real Beer
Twenty-plus years ago, one of America’s favorite cult beers often was “smuggled” east of the Mississippi. “It was heavenly, like everything else in Colorado,” Jim Robertson wrote in his Connoisseur’s Guide to Beer in 1983.
Today, tourists to the Rockies often go with instructions to bring back a beer with similar cache. It isn’t Coors, which long ago initiated national distribution, but the coincidence leads to a fair question: Has anything really changed about drinking beer in America? The three largest breweries, producing the least flavorful of beers, make a greater percentage of American beer than ever before. The best selling imports are as dangerously mainstream. A beer’s name and image are often as important as its flavor.
To answer the question, try a can of Coors next to a glass of New Belgium’s Fat Tire, the cult beer de jour. The difference between these two is much greater than the distance from Golden, where Coors is made, to Fort Collins, where Fat Tire is brewed (in the shadow of Anheuser-Busch).
Not only have our beer options changed but so have the places where we drink beer. It would be simplistic to give beer all the credit.
When we visit a favorite aunt and uncle, we often head to their “local”—it is vaguely Irish—in time for happy hour and dinner. The range of beers there is acceptable and the food is solid, but neither is the real reason we go. For our relatives, it is what author Ray Oldenburg has described as a “great and good place,” a community of which they are a part.
At mid-morning, we will head to the coffee shop with our aunt and, without fail, meet a different friend of hers for the first time. The coffee is better than you’d buy at your local diner 20 years ago, but that’s not why we are there any more than the beer was the No. 1 reason we were at the pub the night before.
But back to the places where we buy and, most often, consume beer.
There were no brewpubs 20 years ago, and now there are more than 1,000. They cover the spectrum in beer, food and atmosphere. They certainly aren’t opening at the rate they did in the mid-1990s, particularly the independently operated pubs that moved into renovated, interesting buildings (not that chains can’t so the same thing—witness the recently opened Gordon Biersch in Washington, DC).
However, not only are there so many more brewpubs than 10 years ago, but generally the beer is of higher quality and more interesting. Then you could still walk into a pub and find only three or four beers on tap, and they weren’t necessarily much different from those at the brewpub in the next town. Many pubs since have mastered the balance of producing less aggressive beers that appeal to a wider audience with special offerings that keep the beer lovers coming back.
Germans long ago learned that if they wanted to drink a great alt they had to head to Dusseldorf. In the early days of the American beer renaissance, if any brewery made an exceptional beer, it was a temptation to bottle it up and ship it to beer drinkers many states away. Now pub brewers make single batches, often a modest seven or 10 barrels. It’s not an accident that in the last three years, eight of the nine medals in the experimental category at the Great American Beer Festival have gone to brewpubs. One brewer, Todd Ashman of Flossmoor Station in Flossmoor, IL, has even won twice.
Example: Pizza Port in Solano Beach, CA (135 N. US Highway 101). Brewer Tomme Arthur has to brew the popular honey ale many times in a month, but he also finds time for (and loves to make) beers out of the ordinary. For instance, Cuvee de Tomme won a silver medal in the experimental category at the 2000 GABF. It was taken from a batch of Pizza Port’s Belgian Quadruppel and allowed to age in an American oak barrel, where a healthy dose of sour cherries and three strains of Brettanomyces were added. Ingredients included eight different malts, four adjuncts, four varieties of hops and four yeast strains.
This label often seems unfair, because it implies that an establishment focuses only on beer. Clark’s Ale House in Syracuse, NY, showcases beer, but also serves a killer roast beef sandwich. Manhattan’s d.b.a. 41 1st Ave. puts beer on a pedestal but also tequila, single malt whiskies (more than 100), and other spirits. These places have been absolutely essential in introducing American beer drinkers to the new variety of beers available.
Example: The Great Lost Bear, Portland, ME (540 Forest Ave.). Four taps in 1979, now more than 50, plus four hand pumps. The focus is on beers of the immediate region, and brewers are often on hand to talk about their products. Everything else is done as well as the beer.
Also known as neighborhood taverns. This is not a growth category, and certainly the American tavern is not the place it was when matters important to the community were discussed and decided upon there. The good news is that flavorful beer does give regulars an excuse to visit their corner bar, and it gives the owners a product they can sell with a decent profit margin, keeping a few more in business.
Example: The Northeast Tap Room, Reading, PA (1101 N. 12th St.). The beer is better than when this description appeared in Bars of Reading and Berks in 1988, but the description is appropriate: “Pete is the answer—but we forget the question.” Real people drinking real beer.
They don’t make these any more, but they come in two flavors—truly historic, like Longfellow’s Wayside Inn north of Boston, and neighborhood historic, like the rundown place on the corner with a great back bar and pressed tin ceilings. Finding good beer in either is a delight but seems to be a matter of pure chance.
Example: McGillin’s Olde Ale House in Philadelphia (1310 Drury St.). The city’s oldest tavern, with licenses on the wall dating to 1860. Ticket lunches and a modern day draft selection that includes the best micros of the region.
Now, this is a growth area. Since the Irish Pub Co. built its first faux Irish pub in Atlanta in 1996, these Irish imports—complete with furnishing and memorabilia from Ireland—have popped up faster than brewpubs. We wrote about the appeal of Irish pubs in March 1999 (AABM Vol. 20, No. 1). Despite the arrival of the faux pubs, the stalwarts that have been serving Irish-Americans for decades seem to be doing fine.
Example: Doyle’s Cafe in Boston (really Jamaica Plain, 3484 Washington St.). It’s also historic, serves the neighborhood and qualifies as a fine beer bar, but first of all it’s Irish. It’s only a short distance to Brendan Behan’s, which is too small to be a tourist trap and has a directional sign to “Uaghna Mna Moire (Long Woman’s Grave).”
Always popular in Florida and southern California, pubs that call themselves British have benefited from greater interest in British beers. Now they can offer a wider range of beers, usually fresher. The wiser ones have learned that traditional pub food doesn’t have to be terrible and they are family friendly.
Example: The Old Toad in Rochester, NY (271 Alexander). When this pub opened May 8, 1990 (the anniversary of V-E Day), everything from the ceiling down came from England—even the wait staff of students in their junior year of college. Setting out to dispense cask-conditioned ale the right way, the owners sent the bar’s manager to England, bought firkins, added a temperature-controlled room just for the cask beer, and convinced regional breweries to put “live” beer in the casks.
Talk about dependable. You can usually count on a place with a name like Der Rathskeller to serve food and beer of substance. This was true when it was next to impossible to find places serving flavorful beer, and in the Midwest many German places offered a selection of microbrewed beers in bottles along with the German beers on tap. We sometimes wonder why there aren’t more such places—particularly when we see the positive reaction a place like Ludwig’s in Philadelphia gets when it opens.
Example: The Black Forest Inn, Minneapolis (1 E. 26th St.). The background music includes the top tunes from 100 years ago and earlier, and the 16 draft choices are mostly German with a couple of local micros thrown in. The best seats are in the beer garden, which is voted best in the Twin Cities every year. The menu includes Hausplatte (sauerbraten aspic, rippchen, bratwurst and Polish sausage served with red cabbage, sauerkraut and potato salad) and four different tortes for dessert.
There are more liquor stores offering hundreds of beers than before, and it certainly is breathtaking to walk into a place such as Chevy Chase Wine & Spirits in Washington, DC. But just as important are the supermarkets—particularly ones like Whole Foods and Wild Oats—with a solid to very impressive collection of flavorful beer, and more wine stores treating beer with the respect previously accorded wine.
Example: The Wine Co. in Littleton, CO (5910 South University Blvd.). It’s in a strip mall and the beer selection is not the largest in the Denver area, but all the beer is stored in a walk-in cooler (dress warmly if you plan to take time shopping). It includes out-of-the-ordinary imports (Cantillon from Belgium, for instance) and plenty of micros (from both Colorado and afar).
In the introduction to Robertson’s Connoisseur’s Guide, Bob Abel wrote: “Either beer in American will have one homogenized taste, most notable for its blandness, or else we can have a wide diversity of beer styles and a delicious range of flavors.”
It appears that this story has a happy ending.
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of The Beer Lover’s Guide to the USA (St. Martin’s Griffin).