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 #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.

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 #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.

101. Bierproeflokaal In de Wildeman, Amsterdam, Holland

A music-free emporium of beer housed in an old distillery, In De Wildeman is in a very exclusive class of beer bars.

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Unfortunately, a smear of tourist gash has spread insidiously around In De Wildeman, but don’t let that confuse your navigation; yes, there really is a coffee shop opposite, a souvenir shop next door and a frat house down the road.

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Trappist beers are, blessedly, becoming quite common. Much rarer, is a barman asking if you want a room temperature or cold Orval, who then expertly pours the bottle into two glasses (above) so that you can enrich to your tastes. Brilliant. Even better, you can marry your Orval with some Trappist cheese or a soft, melting cheese and chutney pie.

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IMG_9950The decor is wood, beer and dust. There are some old, rare bottles and glasses, and old books. An entrance tucked away beside the bar leads to a second room, where one can find space at peak times, and solitude at others. All this charm comes at a price, and the beers are expensive, even for Amsterdam.IMG_9919

There is a small selection of outdoor seating. With your back to the wall and a beer in hand, this is a great people-watching spot.

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Venue: 9.5/10

It’s hard to imagine a better drinking den. Maybe upgrade the tacky plastic menus?

Beer: 9.5/10

18 drafts, ~250 bottles, a carefully selected guest range and regulars chosen by the regulars’ whims. The range is stunning, well-kept, poured and presented.

Worthy? Yes

Is there any better?

Candidate #4- Café Gruter, Oud Zuid, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

In the den of Amsterdam’s social elite, south of the park, Café Gruter is a vestige to honest and grimy drinking. The seating sprawls outside, some of which is sheltered by a conservatory, all of which enables patrons to watch the wealth go by.

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The walls are plastered with polaroids; faded and old nestled with glossy and new, suggesting a work in progress.

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The bar is high and layered, offering a perfect leaning perch to imbibe and enthuse. The beer list is small but well chosen, often with a few seasonal brews.

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Venue: 8/10

Effortless, slightly grotty, unkempt, haphazard brown-bar is not an effortless style to pull off; Café Gruter offers a masterclass. The bar also spills out onto a top people-watching terrace in a rather swanky Amsterdam suburb metres from the best park in town, so the location scores a lot of points too.

Beer: 7/10

Beer lists in the Netherlands rarely take the more = better approach so common across the pond, but whilst small, it is well chosen and Westmalle Tripel is testament to that.

Worthy?

Gruter is a quintessential brown bar. Amsterdam already has FOUR venues on the list, but amazingly none capture the brown bar culture that has thrived in the Netherlands for centuries.

98. Olympen Mat og Vinhus, Oslo, Norway

“Mount Olympus” is the oldest beer hall in Oslo, dating back to 1892, and has endured numerous reinventions. The incumbent style is a nod to the traditional continental beer hall style.

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Olympen is deep into possibly the only run-down, poor suburb of Oslo (and perhaps Norway), so pilgrimage is less than appealing. It is however merely blocks from the central train station, so its easy to find a reason to visit, no matter how little time you have in Oslo. The interior is starting Olympento look quite worn; whereas in a Belgian or Dutch ‘brown’ bar this would only add to the charm, unfortunately for Olympen the effect is more of a miserable neglect.

Expect to pay prices you didn’t think possible for beer, all the while the barman keeping a straight face. They are fiercely proud of the local Norwegian craft beers and you can find many small brewers not represented anywhere else in Norway. The food is local and seasonal, so think fish, pickled things and astronomically high prices.

Venue: 5/10

The unremarkable exterior belies the grand and striking interior. However, it was rather quiet on my visit and felt soulless through its capaciousness.

Beer: 7/10

150+ beer menu is truly remarkable for Norway. The focus is on Norwegian beers, some of which are rather good. The typical cannon of Abbey and Trappist brews are also well-represented.

Worthy? Yes

A good blend of history and local beer, Olympen is Oslo’s one weak candle to the beer world.

95. The Publick House, Brookline, MA

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The Publick House, Boston; for beer scenesters.

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I had the misfortune of overhearing the barman and the manager casually chatting, throwing around contempt and condecension for people who don’t know all the beers and generally try to talk to them. There is a real snobby attitude of superiority emanating from this place; the irony being that most of their exclusive, rare Belgian beers actually taste different (awful) from their homeland, so all their token descriptions of coriander notes and caramel nose are… wrong.

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And the poor taste extends to the ‘Belgian’ decor. Look at the picture above: think anywhere in Belgium looks like this? A few poorly painted (athletic) monks on a grey wall does not add character.

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The photo above is a snapshot of their “Rules and Regulations” which takes up a non-trivial amount of space on the menu. It smacks of contempt for customers; an impression the staff did nothing to dispel.

Venue: 2/10

There is a Belgian theme running through the bar, but it’s a huge swing and a miss.

Beer: 3/10

Sure, Belgian beers are amongst the best, but not once they’ve sat on a boat for a few weeks and thousands of miles.

Worthy? No

Possibly the most pompous beer bar anywhere.

77. Belgo Centraal, London, England

Belgo Centraal is the flagship venue of London’s growing Belgo franchise. It’s hard to be nice about them. I’ve no moral objection to bringing fine, world-class Belgian beer to London, I merely dismay at their execution and style.Belgo

With two of their five outlets within 100m of Covent Garden, it is fair to say they are playing the numbers game, which couldn’t be much further from how their imports are imbibed in their motherland: bars in Belgium are chthonic caves of tranquility; walls adorned with both relevant and inexplicable memorabilia; inviting isolated corners and alcoves; ‘gezellig’ ambience created by wooden panelling, insufficient lights and a bearded beer guru behind the bar. Belgo is a large, cold industrial space- in particular the Bierodrome, which is a hollow, soulless metallic shell.

There are roughly 60 beers which superficially sounds impressive. However, SEVEN of these are different Floris fruit flavoured beers; this strikes me as odd, as they also take delivery from Achel and Rochefort, yet only stock one variety of each. Compare this to an average bar anywhere in Belgium and you wonder if Belgo has made the list because of location rather than quality.

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Warming.

Venue: 2/10

Bleak, uncomfortable, industrial, soulless.

Beer: 4/10

With Rochefort 10, Kwak and Straffe Hendrik, the beer list is remarkable for London. In Brussels, Brugge or Amsterdam, this is typical.

Worthy? No.

Maybe it is the best in town, though that’s not a compliment to Belgo, but an indictment of London.