Have you ever sent a beer back at a specialty beer bar? Have you ever gone ahead and finished a questionable pint when you knew from the outset you should have sent it back?
If a bar doesn't pass the beer test, then it doesn't matter how terrific the back bar looks.
We’re not talking about beer you just plain don’t like—an IPA you find too hoppy, a stout not stout enough—but a beer that no longer tastes like the brewer intended.
Buying a beer in a brewpub is not quite like ordering a meal in a restaurant. We’ve seen more customers send back a meal because it is undercooked or overspiced than return a beer because they didn’t care for the way it was served. In the mid-1990s, when it seemed like a brewpub was opening almost every day somewhere across the country, plenty of brewers learned on the job. It sometimes took courage to order a sampler.
Maybe that confused beer drinkers. Not everybody is sure when to call a beer good and when to call it bad, when it tastes like the brewer hopes and when bad things happened on the way to the glass.
We’ve talked to plenty of brewers who want consumer feedback but are less than thrilled to listen to homebrewers tell them what they are doing wrong. However, they never complain when beer drinkers ask that beer be served at the right temperature, properly carbonated, or in clean glassware.
We’ve written about hundreds of bars and brewpubs in this space during the last eight years, essentially recommending each of them. If a bar doesn’t pass the beer test, then it doesn’t matter how terrific the back bar looks or how great the hamburgers are. As our six-year-old daughter said, when sitting in a restaurant recently, “Ambience doesn’t taste good.”
On the other hand, we can’t promise you a great beer every time you visit one of the bars we’ve written about. Even a meticulous publican like Ray Clark of Clark’s Ale House in Syracuse, NY, can’t guarantee that a distributor won’t deliver a keg with beer just old enough to taste fine when first poured through scrupulously clean lines, but not so fine as the keg is consumed.
Bad Things Sometimes Happen
That America has become the best place in the world to drink beer comes with pitfalls. While a publican in England may have six beer lines to watch over, American bar owners take care of 20, 40, even hundreds. While a bier hall manager in Germany may serve beer from only a few miles away, many American bars offer beer from around the world.
Not long ago, we were in a restaurant/pub that we visit about once a year. We know the food and beer are good, and both ordered Kwak, the strong Belgian beer we first had on draft eight years before at Copa Too! in Philadelphia. Surprisingly, this time it was served by the pint.
Daria took a sip from her glass. “Whoa, is this off,” she said.
Stan took a sip from his. “I think this is what it is supposed to taste like,” he said.
The conversation turned away from beer. Daria took another sip. “This is not the beer I remember,” she said.
“Tastes like the beer I had from a bottle in Santa Fe last fall,” Stan said.
“Try this,” Daria said, handing over her glass. All it took was one whiff.
Stan took both glasses up to the bar. “Smell these,” he told the bartender. To her credit, she didn’t hesitate to replace the flawed pint. “Sorry about that, must have been a dirty glass or something,” she said.
In fact, it was surely “or something.” The beer was oxidized and tasted winey. Chances are that it sat in a line that hadn’t been cleaned for too long, which was surprising since we visited at the end of what appeared to be a busy weekend.
Why don’t we tell you the name of this place? After all, we’ve been in bars where the bartender checks each of the lines at the beginning of the shift. Obviously, that didn’t happen here. However, our food was good, the beer menu is outstanding, the décor is delightful, and we’ve always had excellent beer before.
The fact is, we can aim you at bars and brewpubs that serve outstanding beer, but it is up to you to make sure you get it. Don’t be afraid to ask what beers have been tapped most recently. And if you have a beer that doesn’t seem right, take it to the bartender and ask for another one.
A Blue-Collar Throwback
If you are willing to stand up for what’s in your glass, then you’ll have more opportunities to enjoy the ambience. Not everybody would send you to the Harbor Inn in Cleveland. It seems out of place these days in the area known as the Flats, a former industrial part of the city that has turned into an entertainment hotbed.
Step out of the wind whipping off the Cuyahoga River and into this place on a Friday afternoon when fish is frying in the kitchen, and if the floor swayed to the left you’d swear you were on a ship. There’s a 50-foot mahogany bar that could have been here soon after the first bricks were laid in 1895.
The Harbor Inn is a waterfront bar and still a blue-collar haven, a throwback to when the regulars were sailors and steel workers. It’s damp, with foreign currency tacked onto the immense wooden back bar, the ends of which are carved lighthouses. Portholes flank the entrance, a plain blue door. Life preservers hang everywhere. Of course, so do neon beer signs, beer mirrors, Christmas lights, spirits advertising, Cleveland Browns stuff, and other items that have been landing on the walls for years. The arcade games offer the same mix of new and classic.
There are no windows, and it seems brighter at night than during the day. You get the feeling that even regulars haven’t seen everything on the walls. An “Independence for Slovenia” bumper sticker was visible behind the bar the first time we visited, right beside pictures of scantily clad women. The run of spirits is a good 25 feet long and several levels high.
The Harbor Inn has no draft beer, but there are more than 150 bottle choices, a truly international offering. The best way to order is to look at the bottles on shelves behind the bar, occasionally asking the bartender to move a bottle or read an unfamiliar label. Good sense tells us that there’s every chance some of those bottles have been around for a while, but we’ve been twice—and the second time with a group of people who tried a range of beers—and even the more exotic beers were in good shape.
Just Call Us Tourists
We appreciate brewpubs or bars that renovate historic buildings, bringing them back from the dead and decorating them with antiques or antique reproductions. We’re suckers for nostalgia, although we agree with Randy Mosher’s assessment of what the beer was probably like in an era they are trying to recall. Mosher once explained how in designing labels he sometimes seeks to tap into the same sentimental feelings, even though neither the times nor the beers may have been all that great.
“You connect in people’s minds,” Mosher said. “What would Grandpa have drunk if he could?” He stopped to think about how that beer probably tasted, or maybe what Grandpa might have thought about today’s craft beers. “It’s a lie. It’s our nostalgic view of the past.”
There’s nothing made up about places like the Harbor Inn or Chiodo’s Tavern in Homestead, PA. You get the feeling that they have dust that might have survived Prohibition. While we’d like to think that specialty beer has helped a few such places make it into the 21st century, the fact is that ambience—sorry, kid—was probably more important than the beer.
These are establishments that belong to the regular customers. When those customers support craft beer (and we don’t mean to understate the importance of the owners’ role in that) it is a bonus.
Lew Bryson, author of the essential beer guides to Pennsylvania and New York, once asked us what we do (other than drink beer) while we are visiting numerous bars in a day. Unless we are eating, we favor sitting at the bar, talking to each other, the bartender, other people at the bar. We also spend a lot of time eavesdropping (and scribbling notes under the table).
It’s a curious quest, looking for places whose strength isn’t catering to tourists while being tourists ourselves. We’ve always felt an obligation to order different beers and different food (from appetizers to desserts) and to visit new spots in towns that already have joints we haven’t been to in a long time and really like.
That’s one of the reasons this is the last Beer Travelers column for AAB. It has been our goal over the last eight years to tell you about a variety of spots worth your time and dollars. We’re no longer visiting enough new establishments to do that right—that’s the other reason.
When we’re in Lubbock, TX, we don’t want to look for new spots or see how the old beer bars are standing up. We just want to go to Hub City Brewing, where we know we’ll get good food and beer.
We’ll continue to write about beer, including in this magazine, and we’ll continue to maintain various lists at www.beertravelers.com. We welcome your input, because we’ll still be bar tourists.