While it's great to have a local liquor store that is well-stocked in craft beer (as more and more are), the best way to enjoy great local craft beer is at a beer bar, and the trend is becoming more popular in suburban centers and in big city neighborhoods. But it isn't enough anymore to just be a hole-in-the-wall with five taps, frosted mugs, and a fridge of domestic and imported bottles, a good beer bar should have a diverse range of regional, national, and international beers that might not be found at your corner store, along with intelligent bartenders to steer you through the process.
So how do you know what a great bar beer is like, rather than a good one? Here are 10 signs that you're in a great beer bar.
Also, if you live in the Boston area, some of my favorite beer bars that meet these criteria are:
Cambridge Common, Massachusetts Ave. Cambridge, MA
Five Horses Tavern, Highland Ave. Somerville, MA
Bukowski Tavern, Cambridge St. Cambridge, MA
Sunset Grill & Tap, Brighton Ave. Allston, MA
A descriptive menu
While length should also be considered, attention to detail in describing the selection of beers is the most crucial component in a great beer bar's menu. Each beer on tap should be listed, including where it's from, alcohol content, style, and a few flavor and aroma notes so the customer can get an idea of what they are about to enjoy before committing to a selection.
Like how restaurants pride themselves in knowledgeable waiters, a great beer bar will have bartenders that should know the beers on tap inside and out. If the menu has over 40 different beers on tap, choosing can be difficult, and the bartender should be able to come up with a recommendation based on what you like in a beer, or what happens to be really good at the moment. Ask them to make a recommendation for you and roll with it. Ask for a little taste of the beer they recommend first, they should offer you one, if they don't insist on you trying it first (which is a big plus for me).
Most beers should be regional
Great beer bars pride themselves in how fresh their beer is, and the best way to determine that is to see where the beer comes from. For me, I look for a menu with strong New England representation on the menu, not only because I want to support our world-class regional brewers, but it's also a guarantee that the keg or barrel didn't have to travel too far to get into my glass, which also means an affordable price for a pint.
If you're still having trouble deciding on just one beer, check the menu to see if the bar offers samplers. A sampler would be a selection of a few beers in 5 oz portions of either your choice or the bartender's. Sometimes, these are used to highlight new selections, but can also be used to try new styles of beer, or to provide a communal experience for not a lot of money
Taps should periodically rotate
Beer is a very seasonal beverage, and a great beer bar should adjust with the seasons (or even monthly). Not only does this ensure the beer you're drinking is as fresh as possible, but it keeps the customer coming back throughout the year to have the new styles as they become available. For example, the summer would feature a bounty of saisons, autumn would be a time for the pumpkin ales, and winter would feature the stouts and Belgian-style tripels and quadrupels.
At least one cask
There has been a lot of discussion about taps, but a certain few bars will have cask ales ready to pump. A cask ale is unique because the yeast is still active in the beer, creating a bolder, more robust flavor, which is why some breweries want bars to offer their beer in cask form rather than from a bottle or tap. A cask ale will look like the ones in the picture to the left, since they are pumped at cellar temperature rather than cold from a tap. Cask ales are still relatively rare in the US, but are becoming more common in New England, and are worth trying.
The right hardware
Beer comes in numerous styles, so it makes sense that they would require different types of glasses (and no, the regular pint glass doesn't cut it for a lot of beers). The right glassware for the right beer can amplify the subtle flavors in the brew, while creating a thick, aromatic head to carry the flavors to the nose. A great beer bar should serve your beer in the right glass every time, especially when some breweries ship their own glasses out with their beer.
Good food to go with your beer
There are just some foods that go great with a beer, like a great burger, or juicy fried chicken. Most beer bars double as restaurants (and may have specific beer menus). If you feel a little hungry, ask your bartender about what kind of beer goes well with what you want to eat, and they'll be more than happy to recommend you a good beer (like a Belgian white with grilled fish, or a stout with Shepard's Pie).
There are a lot of beers now that can fetch up to $25 per bottle, and a good deal of them are worth the price. However, a great beer bar should have a wide selection of beers at reasonable prices. While some downtown locations can get close to $11 per beer, a good neighborhood beer bar should have beers at $6-8 per 16oz glass on average. Great beer is something anyone on any budget should be able to enjoy, a great beer bar will recognize that.
Most importantly, a great beer bar should be set up to allow you to relax and spend a couple hours enjoying great beer, great food, and great conversation. This is a place where anyone can drop right in, get comfortable, and temporarily leave the hustle and bustle of the real world to enjoy some great, local beer. No pretension or high-brow dining etiquette need apply.