By Alan Moen
Over the course of the last 25 years or so, I’ve written a lot about one of my favorite subjects: beer.
That passion has taken me all over the country, and also all over the world, to do my “research” on what may have been the beverage that launched civilization as we know it, beginning over 5,000 years ago in Egypt.
I’ve visited hundreds of breweries, brewpubs and watering holes from Seattle to South Africa, Montana to Munich, Cincinnati to Chile, in search of the perfect pint.
Along the way, I’ve come across some great beer bars that really stand out. Some have an astonishing lineup of beer; others have unique atmosphere or character.
If you’re a beer aficionado like me, here are a few of them, both in the U.S. and abroad, for your beer “bucket list.”
Hofbräuhaus am Platzl,
There’s probably no country in the world as identified with beer as Germany.
Some of the oldest breweries in the world are located here, such as the 1,000-year old Weihenstephan Brewery.
The Reinheitsgebot, or Bavarian Purity law of 1516, possibly the world’s first consumer protection law, stipulated that only three ingredients — water, malted barley, and hops — could be used to make beer (malted wheat and yeast, the catalyst of all fermentation, were added later). Even today, these are still beer’s standard ingredients worldwide.
Hofbräuhaus, Germany’s most famous beer hall, is located right in the center of Munich near the Marienplatz, and has a long and colorful history.
It was originally built as a brewery in 1589 by Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria, and opened to the thirsty public in 1828 by King Ludwig I (who had started Oktoberfest 18 years earlier.) The venerable establishment was expanded to include a huge beer hall in 1897.
Since 1852, Hofbräuhaus has been owned by the state of Bavaria.
All the brewery buildings except the beer hall were destroyed by Allied bombing during World War II, and the hall itself was restored in 1958. It’s currently one of only two Munich breweries not owned by foreign interests (the other, Augustiner, is now Munich’s only independent brewery.)
It’s a giant beer hall in the German tradition (seating up to 1,300, with a smaller bierstube or pub area as well) where patrons share tables to quaff their favorite brews.
You’ll find quite a variety of people here from young singles to families (Germany has no prohibition against children being in drinking establishments) to sports club members and senior citizens.
There were only four beers on the menu when I visited a few years ago — helles (a light lager), dunkles (dark lager), a seasonal Oktoberfest beer, and a weissbier (wheat ale).
But you don’t come for the beer variety or the pretzels and sausages alone, but for the history-drenched atmosphere and people watching.
Service can be a bit less friendly than desirable in this fairly touristy place, but it’s still a great spot to have a beer.
Kulminator has quite a reputation. It was named “the best beer bar in the world” by RateBeer, a website which posts consumer reviews of thousands of beers, pubs, and breweries.
Like the best Belgian beers, this establishment in Antwerp is quirky but highly memorable. It’s a rather small place, cozy and unpretentious, but packed with the biggest beer lineup that you’ll ever see, with a beer list two inches thick.
The place is right at the edge of the old city, not far from the town’s cathedral. It’s a bit like a beer museum, stocked full of bottles and beer memorabilia.
There are only six to eight beers on tap, mostly standard Belgian brews, but around 600 are available in the bottle, some as much as 30 years old.
Most American beer drinkers are not used to drinking aged beers, but there’s long tradition of vintage beers in Belgium.
Many Belgian beers like the Trappist brews Westvleteren or Rochefort are bottle-conditioned — that is, containing live yeast in the bottle, which allows them to age for a long time without spoiling.
These are also often strong beers, having 8 to 12 percent alcohol by volume, which allows them to age quite well. It’s amazing to try different vintages of the same beer side by side, much like a “vertical tasting” of wines.
Kulminator is run by an old couple, Dirk and Leen, who wait on all their customers and religiously serve their beers, making sure each one is in its proper glass (you won’t find any American shaker pint glasses here.)
Some patrons have complained that their service (especially from Dirk) can be a bit brusque, but that was not my experience.
There’s a minimal amount of food at Kulminator, mostly cheese and sausages.
You can expect to spend some serious money here, as many aged beers will cost from $15 – 50 for a 750ml bottle. But when you can drink some of the best beers in the world, such as the 2006 Westverleterern 12, in this unique setting, it’s definitely worth it.
Beveridge Place Pub,
World-class beer bars can be found in the Northwest, too.
Seattle is well known for its alehouses, which unlike other cities where pubs often carry only a brewery’s own beers, offer their customers a wide range of beers from the local scene and beyond.
While some alehouses in the Seattle area boast more than 100 taps, quantity does not often mean quality, and the best ones usually have 40 beers or less on draught.
And among the very best of them is the Beveridge Place Pub in West Seattle, chosen best alehouse in Washington by the readers of Northwest Brewing News for five years in a row.
Originally owners of the nearby Full Moon Saloon, publicans Gary Sinc and Terri Griffith are true beer fanatics. In 2008, they moved their pub to a newly remodeled location not far away that once was the site of the old White Horse Tavern, and christened it Beveridge Place Pub (believe it or not, Beveridge Place really is the name of the street on which it’s located.)
Beveridge Place is probably the most comfortable place to drink good beer in Seattle — a spacious hangout with sofas, tables, and a separate game room (if you really do want to watch TV.) The beautiful antique bar sports 32 taps, offering a rotating eclectic mix of beers and ciders from the Northwest as well as Belgium, Germany, the UK, and even Japan.
Like some other great beer bars around the country, Beveridge Place does not serve food. Instead, they offer a “menu book” that lists many local restaurants that offer take out or delivery service.
“We decided to concentrate on what we know best, quality beverages,” Gary Sinc said. The pub is also one of the few beer bars in town where customers are allowed to bring their own food.
As if that’s not enough, Beveridge Place is dog friendly, too, and there’s rarely a time when man’s best friend can’t be seen curled up at the feet of a happy customer.
Something special is going on almost every night at the pub, with beer dinners, trivia contests, cask beer tappings and other events.
This March, Beveridge Place hosted a Belgian beer and cheese tasting, a Seattle Sounders season opening night party, and their 15th annual Barleywine Bacchanal, with over 30 barley wines on tap and 70 poured over the course of four straight days.
With a beer menu like that, it’s a pity that they don’t offer lodging as well!
McSorley’s Old Ale House,
New York City
Designated the oldest Irish bar in New York, McSorley’s Old Ale House was supposedly established in 1854, although the exact date of its founding is not clear.
Located in the city’s East Village, McSorley’s has survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, two World Wars and Prohibition, and stands as a monument to beer drinking in America.
Its mottos are “Be Good or Be Gone,” and “We were here before you were born.”
New York is one of the oldest American cities, and visiting McSorley’s is like taking a big step back in time.
Hanging from the blackened, grease-encrusted ceiling are John Kennedy’s grandfather’s boots; a pair of Harry Houdini’s handcuffs are attached to the bar rail.
Chicken wishbones (mostly removed now by the health department) hang above the bar were left by World War I soldiers as a lucky charm for their safe return (apparently some never came back.)
The floor is covered with sawdust, a reminder of the old days when spitting and spills were common occurrences in taverns.
Unlike the pub, its eponymous beer is basic and not very noteworthy: a pale ale and a black lager is all you’ll get here, but even the pedigree of the brews is like a beer history in itself: first made by the Fidelio Brewery, then by the Rheingold Brewery (makers of Falstaff,) then by Schmidt’s, then by Stroh, until they sold all of their brands to Pabst, whose beers are now made by MillerCoors.
Until 1970, women were not allowed at McSorley’s, but a successful lawsuit by the National Organization of Women forced the bar to change its policy — sort of.
When my wife and I first visited the place many years ago, there was still only one restroom there, replete with big porcelain urinals and stalls (a ladies’ room was finally added in 1986.) As my wife went to use it, the old waiter winked at her. “No fair peeking at the boys, honey!” he smiled.
How could you not like this place?
Alan Moen of Entiat is the former editor of Northwest Brewing News, and still a senior writer and columnist for American Brewer magazine. He wrote about attending Munich’s Oktoberfest in a previous issue of The Good Life.