Got Beer? Knowing When You’ve Found a Gem

Beer bars in Rhode Island are popping up like the unholy love child of Starbucks and rabbits. It seems like everywhere you turn, even gritty little dive bars are dedicating at least one tap to something like Heavy Seas or Sierra Nevada. Of course, there are still a handful of tried-and-true holdouts that staked their claim back when the craftiest a beer found around these parts was Samuel Adams Boston Lager.

So how do you tell a good beer bar from a bad one? In my experience, it’s just about impossible to properly nail down the exact qualities one is looking for. Everyone’s taste is different, so maybe you’re a die-hard Track 84 fan, or you’re one of the trendies who already thinks Brewtopia is passé.

I like to think I walk somewhere between the uber snobs who turn their nose up at anything not produced in a limited one-barrel batch by a single mad monk holed away in a monastery in Bavaria, and the giddy little beer geek who loses his mind whenever they bring out anything in a cask.

Based on my humble experience, here’s what I generally look for in a beer bar, be it a gritty dive, a glamorous hotspot, or a friendly little beer and burger joint.

  1. Cleanliness: Well, let’s not waste too much time getting to this point. If you see a dirty floor, dirty glasses and dusty bottles, then they probably don’t clean their tap lines either, which is sacrilegious. The real beer bars might have a gritty floor and dive bar atmosphere, but if they serve you an imperial stout in a perfectly clean goblet glass, you’re in the right place.
  2. Selection: Staying on the obvious train, let’s be clear about a few things. The biggest selection is not always the best, nor an indicator of the quality of the brews provided. They can have 30 tap lines, but if the first dozen are taken up by watery domestic pilsners and the many beers that wear masks to pretend they’re not watery domestic pilsners, then that bar is saying they’re afraid to take chances or be interesting for fear of alienating a certain crowd. A beer bar with six taps, each one dedicated to a different nanobrewery from the area is always going to win more respect.
  3. Atmosphere: I’m usually not too picky on this. A nice place impresses me, a dingy one doesn’t, but I’m not going to flip out at Track 84 because it has a pool table. However, there have been places I’ve walked into only to find that I didn’t enter a beer bar, or even a regular pub, but something somehow horribly converted into a semi-nightclub by a deranged manager intent on bringing in the wrong crowd. Beware of karaoke machines, dubstep or any place that checks your ID on the way in.
  4. Service: I’m a forgiving sort of guy, so I’m not apt to chew out a server who brought my beer out three minutes later than I expected it, but most of the time I find problems with service is indicative of problems in management. Servers who don’t know the beer and don’t know how to pour or serve, or who can’t tell you anything about the brew were probably hired by a manager who knows just as little, and cares less. That being said, everyone has a bad night, and being patient often gets you more than yelling like a Fox News commentator. If you’re patient and understanding, and still can’t get your meal in under 40 minutes on a slow night, it might be a bit of a red flag.
  5. Food: I’ve eaten spectacular meals at tiny gritty dive bars, and terrible meals at upscale establishments, so there really is no correlation here that can give us a universal truth. However, a decent place will usually distinguish itself with a certain twist on common fare. One place I know serves their burgers as a series of sliders, while another one dispenses with the pretense of pub food altogether and serves only gourmet pretzels. It’s the creativity that matters here, because even the best chef can have a bad night, and you don’t want that to be the only thing you remember. Even a failure of innovation is a genuine attempt at being unique.

After all of that, the most important thing about a beer bar is that you enjoy it, and can bring in your friends without being colossally embarrassed. And of course, constantly explore more and more of the amazing craft beer dispensaries all over Rhode Island. It’s a community, and we’d love to see you out there.

A Few Reviews!

It’s been a long time since I did any beer reviews. I started this column by tasting and reviewing beers with a mix of humorous metaphors and exceptional similes. Since I haven’t done that in some time, I thought it prudent to share a little of my latest discovery with you all.

Goose Island Rambler IPA – Far be it from me to stick to traditions, but normally the hoppy releases come out in the spring-summer season, and the darker, richer, more savory fare tends to dominate the colder months of winter. Well, Goose Island is bucking that trend! I applaud such bold rebellion.

A seasonal release, this ‘red ale’ IPA comes off as a slightly dark amber, making it seem like a normal IPA, but the flavor is what really distinguishes it. The aroma speaks of crisp citrus, a hint of pine, and a nice caramel maltiness lingering somewhere under all the hops.

The hop profile has me floored! It’s always nice to meet an IPA that isn’t the same Cascade-based bitter bastard. The bouquet hits hard, but with a very interesting mix of flavors. It’s still citrusy, but with a very nice herbal complement that goes beautifully with the malt foundation.

It’s surprisingly light for a September to December release, when most people are pushing their Märzen lagers or pumpkin beers, but I guess Goose Island is above that sort of thing. I salute you, Goose Island!

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