Candidate #23- Café Briljant, Haarlem, The Netherlands

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Haarlem is a small city to the west of Amsterdam. Far more than just a satellite town, Haarlem has an important history itself, and provided the name for the New York suburb. The heyday of beer brewing in Haarlem goes back to the 15th century, when there were no fewer than 100 breweries in the city. And it’s twinned with Derby, England, oddly.

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There are a good number of cosy and warm Dutch pubs (brown bars), and a jewel in the crown is Café Briljant. They stock around 50 beers, with a heavy Dutch and Belgian prevalence,  offer 5 changing taps and 29 whiskies. They also serve a real community vibe, nestled as it is in a quaint suburb. There is  great window seat to watch people go by (below) or an equally appealing alcove seat at the back.

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Venue: 8/10

A relaxing venue, and perfect for gathering some energy after a wander around some very pleasant, meandering, historic streets.

Beer: 7/10

A great bottle range and 5 changing taps to keep you interested.

Worthy? Maybe

The definition of a hidden gem

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85. Delerium Café, Brussels, Belgium

There’s a place in Belgium that thought, back in 2004, that stocking a different beer for every year since Jesus was born would be a cracking idea. It was. But it quickly became passé. So now there’s 3,162.

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Breaking the record back in 2004 helped to put Delerium Café on the map. The secret is certainly out. So I feared a venue overrun by tourists or packed like a London pub at 5pm on a Friday (a quick one at The Harp, anyone?) or, worse, a business now hollowly profiteering off its fabled reputation, turning the prices up to 11 and stripping out the ancient furniture in favour of standing areas and tables with shiny lacquer surfaces for easy wiping down (I’m looking at you, Früh am Dom, Cologne).

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For just over €2, I had a freshly poured glass of some wheat beer I’ve forgotten the name of. I can’t even get a schooner of Heineken for that price in Amsterdam. It was lovely too, of course.

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Bent on world domination, Delerium World, as I’m calling it, has taken over the whole street and offers an absinth bar with over 400 varieties, a tequila and mezcal bar with over 500 types (because 12% beer just isn’t enough) and Little Delirium Café at the start of the street to confuse tourists. You can enjoy this alley until 4am most nights.

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The entire venue, spread over three floors, is vast, so here’s a bunch of photos:

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Go on, step right in:

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Venue: 9/10

A benchmark in beer bar design. That it can absorb so many people and still feel intimate and cosy is praiseworthy.

Beer: 10/10

Giving a perfect score is a nervy thing- it implies perfection*. If there exists a better selection in depth, quality of choices and housekeeping, I’d happily be proved wrong. Seems unlikely any other pretender could possibly be as cheap though.

*There has to be a ten, or why not score the beer selection out of 9?

Worthy? Yes

Quite simply a beer nirvana. Spread over three floors (with satellite bars along the street), it has absorbed the tourists and thrown them in to a crucible of camaraderie.

Candidate #19- CASK, Pimlico, London, England.

As a wise man once said, pubs in London need only put in minimal effort, and the business will come. It just needs to be slightly better than shit, and they’ll turn a profit. So where’s the incentive to excel?

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And so London is full of pubs the locals say are good, but what they really mean (if they could contextualise and drop the blind belief that everything in London is the shit) is that it’s the best in the area. So it will be painted mauve or beige and serve artisan scotch eggs, or it will have original wooden flooring (but still owned and homogenised by one of the friendly local pub conglomerates). Against this backdrop, it a real surprise that CASK has somehow contrived to be even shitter.

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The decor is painful. You can’t escape how bad it looks, and so the confusion as to why people thought this was a good idea is recurrent and unpleasant.

Luton Airport.

Luton Airport.

Sure, they sell some beers. But loads of places do.

Venue: 1/10

Just woeful. It would feel uncomfortable as a coffee shop. As a pub, it is bizarre.

Beer: 5/10

Yeah, they got some beers, sure, but their ale selection is far from remarkable in the UK and their international range is simply average (weak, in Belgium).

Worthy? Nope

Candidate #18- Café Belgique, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Café Belgique hides in plain sight- amidst chain retail outlets, it’s easy to not notice this gem of a beer warren.

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One of the smallest bars in Amsterdam, you’ll find yourself wondering, “How can this be one of the smallest?!”. Unbelievably, they host live music. I’m not sure how, or why- as appealing as music is to some, it won’t make this one-room cubby-hole any bigger, so it’s not like they can pay the DJ off the back of increased customer revenue- it’s always full. And heed that advice- turn up very shortly after opening (3pm) and you might get a seat.

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In truth, it thinks it’s way cooler than it is. And by ‘it’, I partly mean the clientele. If this were London, we’d call them scenesters. The website states “It’s frequently visited by a varied public of locals, expats, musicians, artists and dj’s”. See what I mean? Who cares if artists go there? Do I feel better about my Orval because the guy with an unkempt beard sat too-closely next to me sticks wires through books encased in styrofoam and calls it “A Critque on the Abandonment of Western Values”, and his dreadlocked girlfriend photographs litter blowing in the wind for her forthcoming exhibition in a disused plastic bag making factory? No, I do not.

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For the size, the beer choice is broad- 50 bottles and 8 taps, but even this may be too many as evidenced by the foul taste of the Floreffe Blonde.

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Venue: 9/10

The only real criticism is the size, but that’s also part of the atmosphere. And when you do finally get that corner seat by the window, boy does it feel cool.

Beer: 6/10

Decent range, but unfortunately not all the taps are very well maintained (I’m looking at you Floreffe Blonde).

Worthy? Maybe

Candidate #16- El Lokal, Zürich, Switzerland

El Lokal sits on an island between the Schanzengraben and Blaue Sihl rivers. In the summer, you can lounge on the expansive outdoor terrace that overflows around the building along the waterfront, and dip your feet in the spring Alpine meltwater. They grill meats and serve other foods (decent samosas) in the finer months, so you could spend all day here.

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Summer is strong and dependable, but all too brief, in Zürich so the insides of places are important. All too many venues in this town are all shiny tables and fresh paint. Much of the town can feel sterile. It’s hard to find a bar with real character, history and eclectic, personal touches: a dive bar.

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El Lokal is huge, but the design has expertly kept a cosy feel to all the areas. The furniture is often very unique (see the sofa above), there’s an enormous skeleton, a statue of a footballer, religious artefacts, football memorabilia, paintings on maps, and it all somehow works.

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One of my favourite features is the horseshoe mezzanine level that offers you a barstool and great vantage point for people-watching and enjoying the regular live music.

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If the below photo was tagged “south Floridan bar”, people may just believe it.

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Venue: 10/10

I have a particular penchant for dive bars, but who can deny the mezzanine balcony and waterfront?

Beer: 2/10

Oh dear. They have Schwarzer Kristall, which redeems them. Otherwise go on a hot day when lager is tastier.

Worthy? Not yet

Only if it stocks better beers.

Candidate #15- In Den Uiver Proeflokaal, Haarlem, the Netherlands.

Haarlem, thirty years older than Amsterdam, is a medium sized town less than 15 minutes to the west from Amsterdam Centraal (apparently far enough to deter most tourists). It has a long history in brewing and was a major centre in the 16th and 17th centuries: this legacy can be seen in street names, such as Brouwersvaart (Brewer’s Canal)-  a waterway used to bring fresh water from the dunes to the city’s breweries. At its peak, Haarlem had roughly 100 breweries, but the Black Death ravaged the city’s population: by 1752 there were just 7 breweries left; by 1820, none.

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In the 1990s the Stichting Haarlems Biergenootschap started brewing historic recipes and Jopen beer was born. The kind folk of Haarlem didn’t exactly sit around drinking water waiting for the beery Gods to brew again: Haarlem has a robust selection of good beer bars, and per capita it must be amongst the most beer bar rich town in the world. Enter: In Den Uiver Proeflokaal.

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Remarkably, there are just 5 reviews on Tripadvisor, which may explain the positive reaction from staff, who seem genuinely happy to talk you through their beers and history: the snug hidden around the back was an office of the world’s oldest newspaper still in print, since 1656 (Haarlemse Dagblad), but I could believe it belonged to the Drones Club, such is the English-private-member-club-of-yesteryear feel.

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Another nod to the local history is the plethora of aeronautical memorabilia to celebrate the Haarlemmer Anthony Fokker, an aviation pioneer whose Douglas DC-2 (the eponymous ‘Uiver’) won its class in the 1934 Melbourne Race.

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In the summer, get there early and enjoy a seat outside and look over one corner of the stunning market square and Grote Kerk. Some reviewers on Tripadvisor claim that the market square is ‘Nothing to write home about”- what else is in your life? Because I want some of that.

Venue: 8/10

Cosy and ‘gezellig’ in the winter, great outdoor in the summer.

Beer: 7/10

Decent enough: 10 taps, 15 bottles.

Worthy? Yes

You can’t invent history.

Mapped: The Best Beer Bars in the USA.

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According to some people, these are the best beer bars in the contiguous USA. Granted, I took this list from a 2010 publication of Beer Magazine (I think), so it may be a bit dated, but you can’t manufacture historical whimsy, so at least some of these must still be right. I have only visited those with a blue label, so there’s much to look forward too.

8. Kulminator, Antwerp, Belgium

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I really wanted to love Kulminator. On paper, it excels; around 800 beers: unique personal furnishings; a resident cat; a long-serving, frail, elderly couple running the place since the 70s. Unfortunately, these proprietors are arseholes.

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Our beef with the owners is different to some reviews on ‘tripadvisor’, which mention a stunning, vocal over-reaction by the landlord to people sitting in his seat. We ordered a beer we were both familiar with, which we rarely see stocked: Timmermans Pêche. Being a generally poor beer, but a great fruit punch, Kulminator’s patrons usually come for something more renowned. Which is probably why ours were four years past their expiration. The carbonation kept the flurry of sediment circulating, some chunks of which were over a centimetre long. You know when you add warm butter to an egg mix too soon, and it creates a chunky mess?

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My girlfriend went to the bar to ask for a spoon for something fresher. Failing to grasp the concept, the grandmotherly figure said that they just have to put a date on the bottle, like this was some kind of explanation. Protesting further, the woman curtly replied that it won’t make us ill. Thanks grandma, I’m sure it was better in your day, when kids had respect for their elders. Once her arching back ambled away into the garden to deliver an order, we bolted.

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Venue: 4/10

Eerily quiet, although I’ve heard rumours about queues outside before opening.

Beer: 3/10

If you want to eat your beer, then it’s great. 800+ is too many for their customer base, their stock rotation too poor.

Worthy? No.

Rude.

Candidate #6- Café Gollem, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

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Café Gollem was the first to bring good beer back to Amsterdam. And is still one of the best.

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Around since 1974, Gollem is a beer institution famous in Amsterdam and the world. Originally, the proprietor hired a car, drove to Belgium and filled up. These beers sold quickly.

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Gollem probably looked old when it was new. The bar has an ambience that breaks down social barriers and patrons chat freely. Maybe also because it is tiny: the venue is split over two layers; a large U-shaped stool area surrounding the bar, with some prized window seats too, and a mezzanine floor with some small tables. Get here early if you want a seat.

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Make sure you compliment your beer with some Trappist cheese. Those monks, man.

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Venue: 8/10

The only criticism is the size, but that’s also part of the atmosphere. So really I’m just complaining that it’s hard to get a seat, which is kinda like complaining because it is too good.

Beer: 9/10

It’s hard to imagine a better beer list. There are 14 taps to choose from (7 regulars, 7 guest) and ~250 bottles covering local breweries here in Amsterdam, craft brewers around the Netherlands and all the big and small players from Belgium.

Worthy? Yes

Little has changed since its’ inception almost 40 years ago, because they got so much right.