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.

 

 

 

Candidate #12- The Rake, London, UK.

Near London Bridge, hiding in a back-alley around Borough Market, is the curiously named The Rake.

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London, for a city so large, is not resplendent with ‘Little insert-part-of-the-world-here‘. Sure, there’s a Chinatown, but I’m not looking for tea (or msg). So it comes to The Rake to single-handedly prop up the Little American-dive-bar area of town.

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It does a pretty good job. I like dive bars. I like the worn, rough individuality, and how they always seem to have better tables than their ‘renovated’ cousins (see The Market Street Porter nearby). The Rake has used the scribblings and wisdom of craft brewers to decorate the walls, with brewer memorabilia to add flair.

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Not the first bar of the day.

The garden is bigger than the venue, and in truth this is the front-end of a beer distribution business. This ensures a great selection and rotation of international beers, the best I’ve sampled in London. One particular member of staff let these efforts down, as he shrugged his shoulders when I asked if they stocked any Dutch beers; I then sat down and put my beer on a Texels coaster.

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Venue: 6/10

If you like this sort of style, you’ll feel at home. Top effort, given the space limitations. A little bright and hard to relax in during the day.

Beer: 7/10

Great for London, merely above-averaged for the States.

Worthy? Maybe

Probably the second best bar in London, for those who want to sample from the international faucet.

56. Au General Lafayette, Paris, France

 

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A café so bold, it has it’s own branded beer glasses…in PARIS. On the surface, this the quintessential Parisian café experience; one major difference singles Au General Lafayette out: the focus on quality beer.

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Ten tap beers and a robust selection of Belgian classics (Orval, Chimay, Westmalle) provide the bulk of its’ arsenal, with some focus on French beers too, and one can order a beer to accompany your meal without embarrassment or scorn from the waiters.

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Service is brisk but still friendly, a rarity in lackadaisicall Parisian café dining. The interior has a tasteful assortment of mechanical miscellany amidst what could be original 1930s decor.

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Any Parisian worth his wine will dine al fresco, and Au General does not disappoint, offering a lengthy outdoor terrace hugging the perimeter. It’s next to a busy road, but so is all of Paris; one gets used to the engine roar and the moped whines as white noise and eventually as ambience.

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Venue: 6/10

Quintessential Parisian café, in and out.

Beer: 3/10

Nothing astounding, indeed an average-to-small range for the Netherlands or Belgium, but good for this wine-obsessed (read: misguided) nation.

Worthy? No

If the food was better, maybe.

12. The Market Porter, Stoney Street, London, England

Near the big pointy thing, there’s a market where one can buy all sorts. Thirsty work as that undoubtedly is, The Market Porter is a saving grace.

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But location is all it’s got. The exterior has such promise, but the inside has befallen the same fate as all too many old pubs- a refurbishment that basically strips the character right out. Monotone painted walls and cheap furniture replace eclectic collections of souvenirs and tat proudly amassed by the owners and thick, worn tables that have supported countless pints and heard just as many conversations.

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If the sign (below) is to be believed, the pub opens exceptionally early to cater for the morning market workers, which is a nice touch. Perhaps that is why it is so renowned.

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One of the few personal decorative touches is the extensive collection of pump labels from previous guest brews. But these hide just a small part of the bland red paint throughout.

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Whilst the labels are indicative of a high turnaround of guest ales, this is true of many great, characterful, places in the UK.

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Venue: 2/10

Looks better on the outside. Recently refurbished (read: ruined).

Beer: 4/10

There seems to be a decent rotation, but not a wide range at any one time. One for the regulars.

Worthy? No

There is nothing remarkable, but if you are in the area, it’s probably worth popping in to cast your own opinion.

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.

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.

17. Früh am Dom, Cologne, Germany

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Expect tables as plastic as the atmosphere, leery drunk ‘lads’ and a jumble of noise clattering around the room. You can wash all this atmosphere down with a beer so steeped in tradition and brewed under such strict guidelines that it tastes remarkably like Heineken. It’s a hundred years of brewing tradition blah blah, but advancements have been made since then, and this stuff is really bland, train lager.

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One online reviewer, lets call them the inyourpocket Essential City Guides, tells us that Früh is “Frequented by a menagerie of classy locals”. I won’t tell you that. I’d plump for brash, loutish and staring young gentlemen, and plump middle ages. Maybe this is classy in Cologne. We can agree that it is perfect for groups.

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You can have any beer you want, as long as it’s this one.

The service is of a particular type: hurried and impersonal. The waiters, Köbes, are exclusively men aged 29-45, and they wonder around with a Kranz of beer ready to dispense them to thirsty patrons. This tradition is brilliant, and they will keep bringing you new beer until you concede and put your beermat on top of your glass. I didn’t eat, but I gather it is hearty German fare: pork and potatoes presented in an enterprising variety of ways.

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Probably the best of the numerous rooms, but still meh.

Venue: 3/10

A few rooms are a bit charming, from a distance, but almost all of it is plastic, tacky and falling apart.

Beer: 1/10

I don’t care how old it is, it tastes like Heineken. Enjoy!

Worthy? No.

There’s a real need to have some German beer halls represented on a list of the best places to have  a beer in the world. But try harder than this place.