134. The Bell, Aldworth, Berkshire, England

Some people just can’t let things go. Like pubs; The Bell Inn has been in the same family for five generations: more than 250 years. Take that, inheritance tax.

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Many British pubs look quaint and akin to a film set from the outside, but are all too often trashed by tasteless interior renovations that currently seem to involve painting the walls ivory or mauve and filling two-thirds of the place with shiny mass produced furniture and calling it a ‘restaurant’. The Bell doesn’t subscribe to this nonsense. The interior seems to be vaguely centred around a wooden cubicle of sorts, from which the staff serve you through a window; the menu is a series of paper notes haphazardly affixed to the walls.

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The Bell is the proud winner of the 1997 Best Sandwich Pub Award (which is a thing, apparently). For a mere £3.50, you can chose a warmed roll stuffed with a doorstop of goats cheese and a side of olives, or a hearty handmade soup.

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Aldworth, the village which The Bell serves, has approximately 8 houses. I visited for the lunchtime opening slot (it closes in the afternoon, just like in yore) and every single resident and their friends must have stopped by since it was bustling. The next nearest village has four houses, and the local ‘town’ (maybe 100 houses and a Post Office) is over an hour walk away. There are no busses. No phone signal, and a phone box that doesn’t take cash but gladly accepts BT Phonecards, whatever they are. So just quite where all these people came from I don’t know. The 1940s, probably.

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Half of the pub is the old tap room and features a set of long benches for packing in large groups and making new (old) friends. The best seat (above photo) is in a recess that used to be the fireplace.

Best stay inside.

Best stay inside.

The Gents toilets are worth a mention: one literally relieves oneself on the wall outside, exposed to the elements, only a wooden fence separating your back from the car park. Efficient use of space.

Venue: 10/10

The definition of ‘real pub’.

Beer: 7.5/10

Small range, but still diverse and, of course, well-kept.

Worthy? Yes

Stands out amongst even the top tier.

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Candidate #13- The Free Press, Cambridge, UK.

The Free Press is the pub that Cambridge deserves. This college town is both cosy and strikingly imposing. After walking the grounds of Trinity College and gawking at the cathedral of Kings College, it’d be a real shame to have to refresh yourself at Wetherspoons.

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The Free Press is not a proud, lonely bastion either. Cambridge has a bunch of great pubs, if you know where to look: even one famous for the discovery of the DNA double helix (beer makes you smart). But I always end up here at some point.

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Hogwarts Academy for the Wealthy and Privileged.

 

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It’s cosy and dark, so in wintertime it excels. There is a little section of the pub mostly screened-off and large enough for just one table, which you will be lucky to find free, and the roof of this dominion is pasted with old newspaper clippings from monumental events in history: Royal weddings, State funerals.

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The range of ales is more than a sessions worth, unless you are really committed, and even the pumps look cool. The service has been great whenever I’ve visited too. Without being uncomfortably busy, this place is no secret, so even lunchtimes can be generally full. If you want a quiet pint, go for the mid-afternoon lull.

Venue: 8/10

Plenty of rustic, old-England charm, just a short walk through quaint Cambridge suburbs from the centre and colleges.

Beer: 8.5/10

Well kept, well-poured; hard to stop.

Worthy? A good call.

It’s hard not to just choose 150 British pubs, if they’re your thing.

The Best Beer Bars in the World.

A precarious, tentative, inchoate ranking of the best beer bars in the world I have visited, so far:

1. Bierproeflokaal In de Wildeman, Amsterdam, Holland 9.5/10

=2. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, London, England 9/10

=2. McSorley’s Ale House, New York, NY 9/10

=2. U Fleku, Prague, Czech Republic 9/10

=5. Falling Rock Tap House, Denver, CO 8.5/10

=5. Kelham Island Tavern, Sheffield, England 8.5/10

=5. Brouwerij ‘t Ij, Amsterdam, Holland 8.5/10

=5. Zum Uerige, Dusseldorf, Germany 8.5/10

=9. Sunset Grille & Tap, Boston, MA 8/10

=9. Charlie’s Bar, Copenhagen, Denmark 8/10

=9. The Olde Mitre Tavern, Ely Court, London, England 8/10

=9.  Nederlands Biercafe ‘t Arendsnest, Amsterdam, Holland 8/10

13. PINT Bokbierfestival, Amsterdam, Holland 7.5/10

=14. Redbones Restaurant, Somerville, MA 7/10

=14. Blind Tiger Ale House, New York, NY 7/10

16. The White Horse Pub, Parsons Green, London, England 6.5/10

=17. McMenamins Kennedy School Hotel, Portland, OR 6/10

=17. Olympen Mat og Vinhus, Oslo, Norway 6/10

=17. The Brickskeller, Washington, DC 6/10

20. The Gravity Bar, Guinness St. James Gate Brewery, Dublin, Ireland 5/10

=21. Pivovarsky Klub, Prague, Czech Republic 4.5/10

=21. Au General Lafayette, Paris, France 4.5/10

=21. The Wynkoop Brewery, Denver, CO 4.5

24. The Dubliner, Washington, DC 4/10

25. Kulminator, Antwerp, Belgium 3.5/10

=26. The Market Porter, Stoney Street, London, England 3/10

=26. Belgo Central, London, England 3/10

=28. The Publick House, Brookline, MA 2.5/10

=28. d.b.a., New York, NY 2.5/10

=30. Brauhaus Sion, Cologne, Germany 2/10

=30. Brasserie Federal (Hopbahnhof), Zurich, Switzerland 2/10

=30. Gösser Bierklinik, Vienna, Austria 2/10

33. Fruh au Dom, Cologne, Germany 1.5/10

34. Heineken Brewery, Amsterdam, Holland 0.5/10

35. Blue Moon Brewing at the SandLot, Coors Field, Denver, CO 0/10

 

Throughout, I have tried to create some sort of bell curve from the rankings: a few at the bottom of the pack, a rising amount in the middle 4-6/10 range, and then a handful of exemplary bars in a class of their own. This makes sense, because this is a (largely) thoughtfully compiled list of elite venues, so if I were to compare them to all the beer bars of the world, then the rankings would almost always be 8, 9 or 10 out of ten, and therefore unilluminating.

 

 

 

31. d.b.a., New York, NY

A largely unconvincing entry. It’s just a bar.

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Filled on a Saturday night with yuppies and and shirted gents, barely a scenester in sight. I’m not sure what that is indicative of, perhaps that they have given it up for the masses. They probably weren’t particularly sad to see it leave.

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I might sound harsh; after all, they serve beer. But from the range to the decor, there is nothing extraordinary. Nothing that lets it hold a candle to the 150 best beer bars in the world, or even a bunch of others in the same city.

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Things on draft that don’t work on draft- Old Speckled Hen on nitro cask anyone? Thought not. It’s embarrasing to think this is what American’s think English ale tastes like. People have probably supped it and said ‘Nah, bro, I don’t really like English ale’. You are doing us a disservice.

Venue: 2/10

Maybe it suffered for being a Saturday night, but I felt very little rapport for the place. Would not like to idle away hours in here.

Beer: 3/10

Nothing exceptional.

Worthy? No

Vanilla.

72. Blind Tiger Ale House, New York, NY

West Village, New York, a new beer movement.

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No more ostentatious tap handles, faux-craft beer (here’s looking at you, Sam), and well beer Wednesdays. Blind Tiger will guide you through the excellent emerging United Statian craft beer world. It could be argued that Blind Tiger not only predates the real beer movement, but was already a local institution whilst localised, craft brewing was but a twinkle in the hipster’s bourgeois eye.

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27 taps is not enormous for the States (Sunset Grille & Tap has 112), but it represents at least a days (ahem) effort. Europe is much more bottle-centric (400+ in Belgium is not uncommon; you need more like 800 to stand out, like Kulminator, Antwerp), so for Jonny foreigner, this array of taps is bewildering in all the right ways.

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Spot the hipster.

A fantastic quirk of Blind Tiger is the countdown to the tapping of a new brew: when I was there, the chalk board told me that at 5pm, a new saison will be opened for sale. Given that I decided to wait a few hours for this, I can’t remember exactly what this tasted like. Since I had been on a summer wheat/fruit beer binge, I think the saison fitted perfectly with my contemporary needs.

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If I’m being honest, which I’d rather not since I really liked this place, the layout of the venue needs some thought. I understand that space is at a premium in Manhattan, but Blind Tiger is bigger than many pubs in the Netherlands. The problem here is the large space in the middle, leftover from the awkward high tables by the window and the low slung benches by the wall. Maybe people can accumulate and drink vertically during peak times, but here you will find yourself clumsily in the way. A seat by the bar is a fine thing though.

A special nod must go out to the staff. On both visits, they were excellent and patient, despite being borderline understaffed the second time, with something of a Rain Man memory.

Venue: 6/10

A seat around the bar is an optimum place to sit, otherwise the void in the middle seems like a waste of space.

Beer: 8/10

Countdowns to new beer tappings? Brilliant. The staff are happy to showcase an excellent knowledge and passion, too.

Worthy? Yes

A bar for real connoisseurs, which doesn’t exude esoteric pretentiousness, unlike this sentence.

Candidate #11- Café De Dokter, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Café De Dokter has been in the Beem family since 1798; now into the 6th generation, currently in their 40th year. The name derives from it’s first owner, a surgeon, and the close proximity to a hospital, making this a regular haunt for physicians.

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At just 18 meters squared, this is the smallest bar in Amsterdam (a hotly-contested accolade).

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The walls are adorned with all sorts of medical paraphernalia, some of which has a husk of dust. The lighting is sparse, low and often candlelight, adding to the cosy, gezellig feel of this drinkers’ den. It’s easy to get very comfortable and hunker down for hours. It’s a far cry from the adjacent chaos of Kalverstraat and the bustle of het Spui. On Fridays, it is possible to pick up a new read at the book market next door, then escape from the rain in this splendid hideout.

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Venue: 9/10

Dark wood panelling adds order to the centuries of hoarding that adorns most of the walls. It can be empty and still feel atmospheric. Authentically old and charming.

Beer: 6/10

Better for Jenever, there are some decent enough Abbey brews, and La Chouffe is usually a crowd-pleaser.

Worthy? Yes

Few bars can match the curiousness of the interior. Excellent, family service too.

68. Brasserie Federal, Zurich, Switzerland

Whenever I want to get mugged, I go out for dinner in Zurich.

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It’s hard to understand why Brasserie Federal doesn’t work. The shell of the building is exquisite: sweeping arched windows, stained-glass roof, perfect people-watching opportunities. But then there is the shiny silver turnstile leading down the tasteless ‘marble’ stairs to the bathrooms (two francs please), the laminated sheet of Word art with blue toilet people acting as a sign, the miserable hot lamp attendants ambling around the ill-advised el fresco kitchen.

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There are around 100 beers, but they needn’t have bothered. Much of the list is like choosing between Heineken and Amstel; hardly Sophie’s choice. There are glaring omissions from this Swiss beer list: Storm & Anchor, I’m looking at you. At best, the microbrew scene in Switzerland can be described as inchoate, but quality is still there. Just not here. The Mousetrap (a tiny bar beside a British cheese shop) and Fork & Bottle (American-run family-friendly restaurant with an incredible beer garden) are your best choice in Zurich for Swiss beers. Yep, an English and an American place serve the best Swiss beers.

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The service is quick, in tune with their customers’ needs, which is somewhat refreshing in Switzerland. My waiter was particularly friendly, striking up a conversation with ease, seemingly happy to speak English with the tourists (you’d think he’d get bored of that).

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Venue: 2/10

Convenient, and a top, top people-watching area. But the inside is generic, worn, and hard to take a picture of that makes it look impressive.

Beer: 2/10

Probably the widest selection of Swiss beers. But why bother?

Worthy? No.

Not even the best bar in Zurich.

Candidate #10- Strange Brewing Company, Denver, CO.

Watermelon, goodness.

Watermelon, goodness.

Thanks for not reading the Rocky Mountain News. Thank you Rocky Mountain residents, for chilling out and not generating much news. When the paper closed, two former employees took a punt on a 20-gallon home-brew kit and a beery dream. Strange was born.

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There are eleven beers detailed on their website, but no mention of the watermelon bomb I tried in July 2013. They also say they close at 9 though, so I don’t know what to believe. The Strange Pale Ale was also good, and I’d already had a Pliny the Elder that night to which it was inevitably compared.

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The Strange Brewing Company is really well hidden in an unremarkable industrial area of Denver. All chipboard and business inside, the decor is a stark contrast to the effort made by bars this side of the pond to create an homely, affable vibe. But, despite their decorators best efforts, or in spite of them, they have created a brilliant atmosphere. I loved it. I was also on my nth ±6 beer when arriving, so make of that what you may.

That really is where it is.

That really is where it is.

There was some kind of bluegrass yokel band swinging on a trailer in the garden which, given the location, was disturbing no one.

Venue: 7/10

The bar really is the brewery- the garden is reached by walking through a room full of brewing vats.

Beer: 8/10

The (temporary?) watermelon beer is perhaps the best fruit beer ever.

Worthy? Maybe

Huge novelty value, instantly welcoming community feel and an all-round positive of the new micro-brewing explosion.

11. Zum Uerige, Dusseldorf, Germany

Zum Uerige is no shrinking violet on the beer scene- it has been serving weary travellers for hundreds of years (perhaps).

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Service is brisk and efficient (in Germany?!) and the waiters tally up your drinks on your beer mat, which acts as your tab, and possibly also inspires competition amongst friends, depending on your drinking style. Quiet a few patrons on travel review websites find this rude- it’s busy, the servers wonder around offering fresh beers already poured, so I think conventional serving would really slow things down.

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This was our third beer hall of the day, and we both found it much more characterful than Cologne’s two offerings (see Früh am Dom and Brauhaus Sion).

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Why is everyone moving so fast…?

The Uerige alt beer is style-defining, and rightfully so: delicious.

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There are a variety of rooms, some supporting dining and others promoting vertical drinking. This adds depth and, crucially, keeps the noise down. The prices are fair and the grub is typical German bar food- pig and pickled things. We had goulash which was packed with very generously sized stewed meat.

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Venue: 9/10

Hearty, warm and solid throughout. Very tastefully maintained. Efficient, brisk staff wandering around with fresh beers.

Beer: 8/10

A perfect example of a German Alt, eminently quaffable, and possibly the most stylish beer bottles around.

Worthy? Yes

Quality and history. Well-maintained without tacky refurbishments.

Candidate #9- Café de Bonte Koe, Leiden, the Netherlands.

Café de Bonte Koe is tucked away down a narrow alley in Leiden, the Netherlands. I went to Leiden with intentions of finding it, yet still stumbled upon it accidentally. So I had to go in.

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The wind was scything through my grossly inadequate jacket, so the literal and figurative warmth of Café de Bonte Koe was most welcome.

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We took a pew (this may or may not have been an actual pew) in the far corner that offers some privacy, being a nook as it is.

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I chose the beer from the menu mainly due to the interesting name, so when Laura came back from the bar presenting some kind of jam jar goblet I was very impressed.

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Want to jump in? I do.

Wilderen Goud is brewed by Brouwerij Wilderen (Anno 1743) in the provinces of Belgium, somewhere in-between Brussels and Maastricht, where they also age cheese, craft chocolate and distil gin- what more do you need? Their Goud is an eminently quaffable golden blond, a real session beer.

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Sweet nectar

I could have spent hours here. We had a slab of cheese- complete with cutting board and apparatus, and a fancy toastie. The staff were excellent, especially for the Netherlands, and took our orders and set our tab without even needing to ask where we were sat.

Venue: 10/10

As quaint as they come. Efficient staff and automatic tabs = effective inebriation.

Beer: 8/10

A tight selection. Not afraid to go for rarer beers produced with passion by small operations.

Worthy? Yes

There is a lot right with this place; in particular, that we were able to waltz in on a windy Saturday and get a seat, proving that there are certain advantages to being outside the capital.