Thursday, May 9, 2013

Wherever it Takes column: Good old places for a pint

Printed in the Wicked Local Weeklies
May 9, 2013

Barley, hops, yeast, water – seems like such a simple concoction. Yet somehow, a beer is never just a beer. It’s a round with a few friends or a toast in celebration. It brings people together and consoles in silence. In so many places around the globe and here in America from coast to coast, beer is a lifestyle, an attraction, an identity.

That’s why it takes a truly special place to serve it well and serve it in abundance. True, any old bar can pour from a tap or crank the top off a bottle for you. But only a unique, dedicated establishment becomes a watering hole. At places like that, there is no pretension, no expectation, no snobbery or braggadocio. Just an empty seat, a lengthy beer list and a perfect pour every time.

All across America there are places where everybody knows your name. And if you’re just passing through, there are places that will learn your name, at least for the night, long enough to say it in a toast.

Everyone has their own personal list of favorite bars, compiled without scientific evidence, unless you like to measure in pints. Fortunately, there seem to be an unlimited amount of worthy contenders from sea to shining sea.

I have always had trouble narrowing down my own and have vowed to ensure it is not a finite list. There is always another microbrewery or neighborhood bar off the beaten path. But some of my favorites from around the country run the gamut of what a bar can be: some are classic and some are unique, some are famous and one is infamous. Each has a distinct identity that reflects the community around it in the same way an annual brew reflects a specific season.

During any season, Colorado's microbrew community is legendary and you can't go wrong with most any choice in the Rockies. But Wynkoop Brewery has staked a claim near the top. Why? Three words: Chili Pepper Beer. Patty's Chile Beer, to be exact, a Wynkoop house specialty. The award-winning brew comes infused with Anaheim chiles and smoked Ancho peppers. It is light, with a golden color and a slightly reddish hue. The pepper aroma hits you before the smoky flavor on first sip. The chile bite is there but not overpowering and it goes down surprisingly smooth. There's a savory heat that builds up the palette from a traditional German-type beer to something totally unique and flavorful.

The offspring of the Colorado microbreweries that dominate the Rocky Mountain region can be found at Firehouse Brewing Company in Rapid City, South Dakota. Firehouse is historic – it is South Dakota’s first brewpub and is located in Rapid City’s original firehouse. The relaxed atmosphere, local entertainment and genuine people honing their craft are just like most small brewpubs, but Firehouse adds nostalgia and a surprising sense of escape. Sitting out on the patio, watching some live music and sipping a glass of Smoke Jumper Stout or Brown Cow Ale is the best way to take a timeout from whatever cross-country, family road trip you’re enduring. The boys on Mt. Rushmore can wait; they’re not going anywhere. Just have the waiter bring another round.

A few states south is Anodyne in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Throw around a large bottle selection (over 120 by their count), including some great locals like the clean Alien Amber, and you’ve got yourself a full-on, fun-time beer bar. Located on one of ABQ’s main drags, this upstairs, dimly lit pool hall is bedazzled in beer paraphernalia and jukeboxes. It has an edgy hipster vibe that is surprisingly approachable and welcoming, in part due to the comfy seating possibilities at the top of the staircase. The regulars stream in, clapping each other on the backs and petting their dogs, which health codes or not, were just as welcomed as their bipedal owners. The name - Anodyne - means, "a medicine that relieves or allays pain." Exactly.
Over on the Eastern seaboard, I have an affinity for Trinity – Trinity Brewhouse. Mostly because a good amount of my college days were spent in the basement at this Providence, Rhode Island microbrewery, where the dark walls, tables and corners make it the perfect place to unwind after (or instead of) a study session. Upstairs they serve spectacular burgers to help sop up the pints of award-winning beer, like the Rhode Island IPA. While enjoying the delicious Redrum Imperial, check out the mural high along the dining room wall depicting famous musicians enjoying a brew. You can spot John Lennon and Kurt Cobain sharing a pint with The Notorious B.I.G. and The Rat Pack. If you’re swinging through New England, make it a point to hit Lil’ Rhodey and one of the state’s best brew pubs for dinner, a drink or to pick up a growler.

There are countless great bars and happy hour specials a few hours south of Rhode Island in Washington, D.C. But the founding fathers would have appreciated gritty denial of no-option tyranny at The Bier Baron. The beer menu here – 500 bottles and 50 drafts – should be housed in the National Archives and the no-nonsense atmosphere and service lets you know this place takes hops seriously. The comfortable brick wall basement bar feel makes this establishment worth crossing the Potomac for.

But at the end of the day, I would travel to the literal end of America to indulge in a legend – Captain Tony’s. Ernest Hemingway sat on these stools. Jimmy Buffet too. And so did some guy named Earl from Poughkeepsie in his Hawaiian shirt and flip-flops. That’s the beauty of the world’s greatest dive bar, located at the southernmost point of the United States in beautiful Key West, Florida.

Captain Tony’s is infamous not just because of its inclusion in the Buffet song, “Last Mango in Paris” or because of its eponymous, grizzled owner. It is legendary because it is accessible. Fisherman and tourist sit side by side while a local band rattles away. Grab a stool. Grab a beer. Grab a conversation with anyone. Next thing you know, the dusk is settling in and you’re a few steps away from Key West’s best show – the sunset.

I had the pleasure of meeting Captain Tony himself before he passed away. The Captain was a staple at the bar, his weathered face a welcome reminder that a hard life is filled with equal parts hard work and hard partying.

He may be gone now, but Captain Tony’s Key West vibe remains at his bar and ripples all along Duval Street.

All of these bars, from Denver to D.C., offer unique brews and fuzzy but fond memories. But in the end, they are all simply good old places for a pint.
Mike Hartigan of Saugus is a writer and traveler looking for good story, wherever it takes. Follow along at or on Twitter @WhereverItTakes

Read more: Wherever it Takes column: Good old places for a pint - Saugus, MA - Saugus Advertiser
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