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

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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.

148. Old Ebbitt Grill, Washington, DC

I’m not sure what this place is trying to be. I’m not sure they do, either.

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Apparently the oldest dinning saloon (whatever that means) in Washington D.C. and very close to the White House, so all sorts of important white grey men must have come here for beer. Their website proudly offers 1856 as their opening date because, you know, history, but this was when it was in Chinatown. So not really that old is it? And now it is owned by a local restaurant conglomerate boasting thirteen properties. So it’s in a different location and owned by different people. But: history.

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Their website also claims the patronage to be a bustling mix of tourists and politicos. Score. Apparently the oysters are great, if that’s your sort of thing.

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Venue: 5/10

Grand, very expensive looking, which can make your typical beer enthusiast feel a bit unwelcome because, as everyone knows, fermented grapes, not grain, is the sophisticated thing. Because the Romans did it, presumably.

Beer: 2/10

If oysters were beer, then this would be right up there. They’re not though, are they?

Worthy? No.

A grand venue, no doubt, but not a beer bar.

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.

USA

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.

Candidate #14- The Alehouse, Reading, England.

Reading, the ‘Paris of The Thames’*. All that French Rococo and Neo-classicism can really make a person thirsty.

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Pubs in London don’t have to try very hard- there’re so many people, they’ll get the custom and pay the bills, resulting in an effusion of vanilla (or mauve) pubs cynically decorated with purchases from pubulike.co.uk (bar 4-5 exceptions. But that’s not many for 12 million people). So take the train to the provinces where customer loyalty is important, and enjoy all the benefits that engenders.

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One only needs to go twenty minutes away to Reading, where The Alehouse can be found hiding in plain sight on a commercial street. It’s full of all the sorts of people you’d expect in a real ale pub, and they indulge in a real community feel.

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The tap rotation is extraordinary (see beer labels just about everywhere) with 5 guests at any one time, and they are brilliantly kept. There are even a few choice foreign imports outside of the obvious: Belgoo, St Bernadus and Maredsous, for example. Also, Zero Degrees has a branch in Reading, so there are at least two reasons visit.

Venue: 8/10

Brilliant partitioning to maximise space. Unfortunately, its still in Reading.

Beer: 8/10

Great ales and choice internationals. Evidently, the tap rotation is vast.

Worthy? Yes

A gem on a faceless high street.

 

*Said no one, ever.

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.

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.

 

 

 

104. McSorley’s Ale House, New York, NY

Step back in time: before ruining a good old pub with plastic tables and blank walls went by the insidious name of ‘gentrification’, before every beer had a comically large handle to thrust their advertising in your field of vision even once you have ordered their damn Rocky Mountain water-brewed beer and before women were allowed in (their motto was once “Good Ale, Raw Onions and No Ladies”. You can still get the onions.) and forced us to re-invent our public house etiquette (OK, not so much that one).

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Staggeringly, not at all ruined by the ‘cool kids’ (count the beards below: very few).

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The walls are the end-product of years of collecting and hanging all sort of excellent crap: former presidents, flags, pins, and never removing anything since 1910. And underneath, some fine, dark, probably original, wooden panelling.

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McSorely’s is the oldest ale tavern in New York City, probably dating back to 1861, and as such sustains a few myths and legends. One that may be true is that the wishbones hung behind the bar were placed there by soldiers on their way to WWI, to be removed upon their return.

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The usual suspects of literary figures are thought to have drunk here: Hunter S. Thompson, E. E. Cummings, Brendan Behan et al., and a roll of presidents: Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, and also a guy called William Tweed, who used to own the third most land in NYC and chose to spend much of his time on this bit. But don’t listen to them, listen to Beckiboo1983 on TripAdvisor who had her feelings hurt by the bar staff and didn’t like it, so she gave the whole place a 1 out of 5. Because what Beckiboo1983 doesn’t know about customer rotation, the cut-throat line between profit and loss in prime Manhattan real estate without the spongy cushion of outlandish food profit margins, about continuing an 150 year old legacy, about the festering languishing of tourists for an hour over each drink and forcing other cash-filled tourists to walk on by, well, what Beckiboo1983 doesn’t know about that, frankly, isn’t worth knowing.

Venue: 10/10

Resisting gentrification since 1854 (and women, until 1970).

Beer: 8/10

Enjoy the simplicity of their options: dark or light.

Worthy? Yes.

As trite as this sounds: it’s an institution.