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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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

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 #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.

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.

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.

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 #5- Zero Degrees, Bristol, England

Zero Degrees is a brewpub chain of four: Bristol was the second venue and a local institution in the town I called home for my college years.

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The Bristol venue is the most unique as the location, nestled in amongst the historic Christmas Steps, provided an architectural challenge that was successfully met with stylish innovation. The steeply dipping hills allowed for three terraces and arresting views over the city. Some of the interior is of course reserved for the brewery, where glass walls enable the patrons to keep a discerning eye on the beer-monkeys as they go about their business. The brewery spills out over the bar with great arching pipes, emphasising the industrial chic design.

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Gratuitous shot of Bristol looking lovely. This is no where near the bar.

Although several of the beers have won some very prestigious awards, such as a CAMERA award for the pilsner, the mango beer is the reason people come back, frequently. I’m told it was an experimental guest beer, indeed it is unnamed on the menu, but they struck gold, so that the “Speciality” option is now synonymous with mango, regardless that the blurb explains this beer to be a changing, experimental compliment to the fixed pilsner, wheat and black lager. In five years, this guest has never changed apart from a cranberry Christmas brew. On a summer’s day, this mango beer is probably the best thing you could imbibe.

Venue: 7/10

Architecturally sumptuous, but perhaps a little cold on the inside.

Beer: 6/10

Mango beer. Much, much better than it sounds.

Worthy? Maybe