What Makes A Good Craft Beer Bar?

As the voting winds down for CraftBeer.com‘s Great American Beer Bars poll (Voting ends tomorrow – don’t delay!), it got me thinking.  What exactly makes for a great craft beer bar?  Opinions vary wildly, as they do with most things these days, regarding what it means to be the best.  Is it the biggest tap selection?  Is it the best food/food pairings?  Is it the location and hours?  Is it the knowledge and demeanor of the staff?  Is it the decor and ‘feel’ of the place?  Is it all of these things?  Let’s take a look:

Biggest/Best Tap (or Bottle) Selection:

Choice is important.  In fact, other than quality, choice and variety are close to the top of the list when discussing what sets craft beer apart from the mass-produced stuff we constantly see from Bud, Miller, Coors, etc.  Craft beer means choice, and there are quite a few great craft beers across this nation (and internationally) to choose from.  However, is choice the most important factor in determining which craft beer bar is the best?  That can depend on a few different factors.

First and foremost, are the available choices beers you actually want to drink?  I’ve been to so-called craft beer bars that have a large number of taps, but only a few true craft beers to choose from with the other taps being filled with things like Bud Light, Coors Light, Pabst (sorry hipsters), etc.; with these selections taking up a full half of the available taps.  Further, if the meager craft beer choices aren’t rotated enough (or ever) or there isn’t a sufficient bottled beer selection to make up for the lack of good tap choices, that can have a big impact on your available and desirable choices.  One place in Seattle that really gets this right is Brouwer’s Cafe.  They have 56 taps of craft beer and a bottle list that rivals most bottle shops.  If the craft beer bar you’re at has only a few taps or you can’t find what you’re looking for on tap, be sure to check out their bottle and can selection as well.

Another important factor under choice is freshness.  Does the bar in question actually sell much craft beer, or do the majority of their patrons stick with mass-produced American lagers?  If there isn’t enough of an interest in the more craft-worth choices, it could take a bar a long time to get through a keg.  That affects the freshness of your beer.  I don’t mind having to settle for a Manny’s Pale Ale or a Mac & Jack’s African Amber if those are the only craft choices (no disparagement towards Manny’s or Mac & Jacks intended!), but I don’t want a pour from a keg that’s been on tap for a month.  Granted, some craft beers improve with age, but the craft choices carried by the types of bars I’m talking about now don’t generally order those types of craft beers.

Along with freshness comes clean tap lines, which are also a very important factor for craft beer drinkers.  If you’ve ever ordered a craft beer you know and love, but when you receive it there’s an off/bad/moldy/displeasing taste or aftertaste, this can often be attributed to dirty tap lines (See the article: ‘The Elephant In The Room: Dirty Draft Beer Lines’ from Washington Beer Blog).  Only a few times have I had to send back a beer due to obviously dirty tap lines, but it’s never a pleasant experience.  After which I usually order something other than beer; I mean, if one tap line was dirty why wouldn’t the rest of them be?  I believe a good tap selection, along with selection rotation and clean tap lines are important considerations when selecting the best craft beer bar.

Best Beer/Food Pairings:

Is having good food to accompany your beer an important consideration when determing the best craft beer bar?  Opinions on this vary of course, but I often like to enjoy a good meal while enjoying some great craft beers – especially a meal that can appropriately accompany or even enhance the enjoyment of the beer I’m drinking.  One place in Seattle that does this well is Burgundian in Tangletown, whose menu is always being updated with new and wonderful creations that can be excellent accompaniments to the beer choices available from their 22 taps.  How about “Duvel Belgian Ale Braised Duck leg over sweet potato fritter with wilted arugula and a Belgian ale duck sauce” to accompany that delicious Belgian Ale you just ordered?  Yum, yum!

Burgundian’s Duvel Belgian Ale Braised Duck Leg

Epic Ales in Seattle’s South end is also all about beer and food pairings, as evidenced by their ‘Gastropod’ series of beer and food pairings in collaboration with Seattle chef, Travis Kukull.  These pairing usually feature two small plates prepared by chef Kukull, accompanined by the the appropriate Epic Ale selections; a real treat for your taste buds.

Of course, I also have a few favorite places around Seattle (Beveridge Place Pub in West Seattle is one that comes to mind) who don’t carry any food whatsoever (though Bev. Place allows outside food). So it seems food alone cannot be the determining factor in deciding who’s the best. After all, it’s the best craft beer bar we’re trying to select here, not the best restaurant.

Location/Hours:

These are often important considerations.  How far do you want to travel to find the craft beer you’re looking for, and are they open when you want them to be?  Some people are willing to travel farther than others or wait for a place to open in order to find what they’re looking for.  Others tend to stay close to home and find the best they can without having to travel any distance or wait for a place to open.  I can, honestly, relate to both points of view.

Not A Sign You Want To See

If there’s an event, such as a festival, pairing dinner, tap takeover or even just a great craft beer that I’m interested in, I’ll travel farther than I usually would and/or arrive earlier/stay later than I usually might in order to partake.  Other times, however, I may just want to stop for a quick craft beer or two on my way home from work or stay in the neighborhood.  At times like that, I don’t want to have to travel too far out of my way, or hang around waiting for the place to open because I’m off work before they open their doors or because they’re halfway across town.

The location choice can be a tricky one depending on where you live and how much time you’re willing to spend behind the wheel or on a bus.  If you live in the heart of Seattle, for example, you won’t really have to travel very far to get to most of the great craft beer places around the city.  If you live too far on the outskirts or outside the city entirely, however, then your willingness to travel greater distances can be affected by time of day, traffic concerns or other factors.  This is something I have to consider myself, as I live just a bit South outside of Seattle (barely – but still).

In addition, a few of my favorite craft beer spots around the city don’t open until 3:00PM or 4:0oPM.  Since I work early hours, that often means I’d have to hang around for an hour or more after getting off work, just to be able to give those places my patronage.  At times it’s definitely worth it.  At other times, not so much.  In any case, I don’t think location (within reason) or hours are a major determining factor in deciding who’s the best.  It’s more a question of convenience.

Staff Knowledge and Demeanor:

When you see a craft beer on tap you’re unfamiliar with but are considering trying, you often rely on your server to give you at least a basic impression of what to expect or at least convey with other patrons have been saying about it.  Thankfully, many of the craft beer bars I frequent try to ensure that their servers are knowledgeable about different beer styles and can convey at least the basic information about the style or beer in question to the consumer when asked; in addition, of course, to offering a small sampler if requested.  This shows that the craft beer bar in question knows the importance of keeping their staff well informed, so that useful information can be passed along to their patrons when questions about what’s on tap come up.

In addition, having bartenders and/or wait staff who are friendly, attentive and easy to talk to can be important.  How likely will you be to ask your bartender a question about the next beer you’re thinking of ordering, if he/she was rude or seemed obviously annoyed the last time you asked for a description or a sampler?

Beveridge Place Pub’s Knowledgeable & Friendly Server: Robert Farris

At times, some craft beer drinkers almost seem to prefer a more aloof or playfully belligerent bartender or wait person, but this usually only works if you already know the staff/they know you and it’s done in a playful manner.  Coming across as rude or short with someone new to the establishment could be a real turn off and cost the bar customers.  So finding staff who are consistently friendly and helpful is generally preferred.  One place, in my opinion, that always seems to get this right is The Pine Box on Capitol Hill.  Since they have an ever changing lineup of 33 taps (in addition to a full liquor bar and good food choices), it’s important for their bartenders/servers to know their stuff and to be friendly and helpful to patrons who may not be as knowledgeable as the regulars regarding the available tap selections.  I also have to give props to Beveridge Place Pub, as most of their servers are quite knowledgeable about their extensive tap and bottle selections.  I believe that having a knowledgeable and friendly staff is an important consideration when selecting the best craft beer bar.

Decor/Feel:

What type of environment do you like to enjoy your craft beers in?  Are you a dive bar kind of person, or would you prefer a classier feel, or perhaps something that feels like a comfortable living room?  No matter what overall feel/decor you prefer, there’s a place in Seattle that’s got you covered.

When it comes to this consideration (within reason – I’ve been in some pretty nasy dive bars), this is really more a matter of personal choice.  I can go either way depending on my mood but I often enjoy the classy (without being over opulent) and inviting feel of places such as The Pine Box.  Located in the old Butterworth Funeral Home (where Bruce Lee’s funeral was held back in 1973), it’s been painstakingly renovated since being occupied by The Chappel Bar a few years back.  With high ceilings, a covered patio area and old church pews as booth seating, it has a remarkably warm and inviting feel for a former funeral home.

For a more casual and comfortable feel, I also often enjoy Beveridge Place Pub, which almost feels like you’re hanging out in someone’s over-sized living room.  Beyond the bar there are various sized tables, some easy chairs and a couple of couches to make you feel right at home.

Also, since Bev. Place knows they have patrons who enjoy sporting events -but also patrons who don’t care about that kind of thing, they are loosely divided into two sides.  The main bar side has no televisions.  None.  If there’s a game on but you don’t care, stay on the bar side and all you’ll get is the occasional roar of the crowd when a big play happens.  If you are the sports fanatic type, however, then head over to the other side and enjoy the game on multiple big screen televisions.  Over there, you can also play shuffleboard, pool or darts to your heart’s content.  Regardless of what you prefer, the decor and overall fee of the craft beer bar you chose to visit can be an important personal consideration when selecting the best, but again, opinons on what type of decor/feel are the ‘best’ vary quite a bit.

So which of these considerations are most important to you when deciding which craft beer bar is the best?  Is it just about the beer or do you also consider the things I’ve mentioned here (or other things?) to help you decide?  Whatever your selection and whowever wins the poll over at CraftBeer.com, make sure the choice you make is the right one for you.  No matter who comes out on top on the poll, it likely won’t change my own personal favorites and it shouldn’t change yours either.  Though, if a place your unfamiliar with comes out on top, you might want to take the time to visit them and see what all the fuss is about.  So if you haven’t voted yet, get to it.

Drink responsibly and stay safe out there.

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