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In Praise of the Beer Bar

Why great pubs are just as important as breweries


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Churchilll’s Pub & Grille | Photo by Bruce Glassman

Consider this: You want to view some of the greatest Western art of the twentieth century. You have two choices. Either you can get on a series of planes and travel to various locations throughout France, Italy, Spain, America, and the Netherlands, or you can take a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both choices have their upsides, and each offers unique and different opportunities for enjoying great works.

Now, instead of art, suppose you want to experience some of the best craft beer in the world. A great craft beer bar would be your Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There’s no question that sampling beers in a brewery’s tasting room is a uniquely satisfying experience. Not only are you enjoying super fresh beer that’s been made within feet from where you sit, you’re also soaking in the whole “brewery vibe”—tanks, pallets, fork lifts, and all the buzz and bustle of a working production facility. But brewery tasting rooms only serve beers from one brewery and—as good as they may be—the beers will all likely share traits that are determined by certain common ingredients and the specific production techniques favored by the brewer. By comparison, a great beer bar lays out a buffet of beers from a variety of breweries and offers patrons the perfect opportunity to taste, compare, learn, and expand their palates by experiencing the best of many different producers.

Just as the Met curates its collection, so do the best pubs and taverns. I know, for example, that the folks who run places like Hamilton’s, O’Brien’s, Toronado, Blind Lady, Small Bar, Churchill’s, and URGE know their stuff—and I trust that if they have a beer in their lineup, it’s going to be a good example of that style. So, in some ways, when I visit one of those establishments, I’m letting them “curate” my beer experience by deciding what’s good enough to be on offer. And I’m rarely disappointed.

Hamilton's Tavern | Photo by Bruce Glassman

Quality assurance is one big benefit of patronizing a great pub. Another benefit comes with the sheer volume of beers that one can choose from. Maybe you love pale ales. At a brewery, you’re likely to (maybe) find one—perhaps none, depending on what’s been brewed that week. At a bar, you’ll likely be able to taste three or four pales, and even sample them side-by-side. What’s more, you’ll likely be able to taste some San Diego pale ales alongside pales from other places. No matter how staunchly pro-SD you may be, it’s always a good idea to expand your knowledge (and your palate) by tasting beers from other regions, states, or countries. If nothing else, these forays afield will provide more solid evidence that San Diego beers are truly the best!

The most successful bars have cultivated relationships with superstar breweries from all over, so they are often the only places where you’ll have an opportunity to taste extremely rare or limited beers from iconic San Diego breweries as well as places like Russian River, Moonlight, Dogfish Head, Three Floyds, Funkwerks and many others. Experiencing these beers is another important part of building your appreciation for what great beer can be.

A great beer bar lays out a buffet of beers from a variety of breweries and offers patrons the perfect opportunity to taste, compare, learn, and expand their palates by experiencing the best of many different producers.

Having access to a wide range of beers and styles is a unique aspect of a great pub—not only for the variety, but also for the chance to venture into unexplored territory. A great pub will have knowledgeable folks behind the bar—folks who can guide you and make suggestions based on what you like, or even what you’ve never tasted but would probably like. And then there’s the serendipity factor: You look up at the board and see a beer or a style you’ve never heard of. “What’s a zwickel bier?” you ask the bartender. Within moments, a small sample is before you. You taste it, you love it, and now you’ve added a whole new style to your vocabulary.

I’m not saying that visiting a pub is a substitute for visiting a brewery. Both experiences can be great, and for different reasons. I am saying that we should consider our best beer bars as vital resources in our overall beer education—they are resources that are every bit as important as the breweries themselves. And, if you want a quick, at-a-glance view of who’s doing some of the best beer available, just take a look at the board hanging behind the bar at a great pub or tavern. It will tell you all you need to know.

A few additional thoughts: San Diego has scads of bars and pubs, and—like anything else—they can range in quality and selection. Keep in mind that sheer numbers of beers on tap is not synonymous with good beers on tap. There are a handful of establishments that, through the years, have always stood out for their quality, variety, consistency, and atmosphere. I consider them San Diego’s “craft core”: Hamilton’s Tavern, Toronado San Diego, O’Brien’s Pub, Small Bar, Churchilll’s Pub & Grille, Blind Lady Ale House, and URGE. Other great pubs and ale houses with impressive lists include Monkey Paw Pub, Sublime Ale House, Slater’s 50/50, Tiger!Tiger!, High Dive Bar & Grill, Downtown Johnny Brown’s, and Quad Ale House.

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