How Do you Judge a Beer Bar?

Posted on September 20, 2010


So let me start by saying everything I thought I knew about bars, beers and atmosphere is wrong. Not that this post is meant to correct any such knowledge that I had previously, nor give you the answers to Judging beer bars in future.

On the trip I do not know how many beer bars I went into, though I took lots of photos of bars, beers and people, a number is really meaningless as it has taken me a few weeks to figure out how to talk about this issue. Before going to Europe my number one bar is Toronado followed closely by BrouwersCafe. They were my 1-2 bars based on my experiences, interaction with locals, bartenders and the range of beers on tap.

Some bars standout like sore thumbs, while others kind of blend into the nothingness of other bars. Like many who’ve stumbled onto my site they use the major beer sites to find bars, as do I. But how does one begin to compare Apples to Pears without some contextual element attached to it?

What is your style of bar? What kind of beers are you looking for? do you like noise or quietness?

Having been lucky enough to travel across the US and Canada I have always attached special rankings to certain bars back east where my beer journey started, and then in Vancouver where I have lived for the last 2.5 years. But then going to Europe bars are so vastly different it is unfair to compare bars in the UK to bars in Belgium, let alone bars in Canada. One bar in Manchester stood out in a very depressed city ‘The Fringe bar’ was a great bar with excellent beers on tap, Belgian bottles available and knowledgeable staff. Had I not been on my last night in the UK I would have gladly stayed there as it was welcoming to outsiders, and even ran into some local CAMRA members.

I tried doing my research for Belgian beer via this great site by a guy in Florida named Jim, the site called Belgium King that listed a range of bars, and gave great history and knowledge of Belgium beer. I contacted him with other questions, and he wrote back great information on everything I wanted to know. I definitely owe Jim a beer.

Antwerp is probably one of the greatest beer cities of the world. When even small dive bars have the signs out of the front of what beers are served and its De Konnick and Duvel, not bad for generic beers. I met a Canadian Belgium guy in a bar who explained that many bars only have 2-4 taps, but carry 50-100 beers in bottles, and he pointed me in the direction of some of the old school ‘brown’ bars. I then learnt that these brown bars are the tradition belgian bars where guys go in to smoke cigerettes and have some alone time with their mates. Its more common for only the few women to be with guys.

But was a brown bar my favorite type of bar? NO I loved Delirium Cafe in Brussels as it had so much that i love in bars. There was smoke, noise and it was seedy enough to compare with Toronado in San Fran. Over the course of a few nights I got to be familiar with some of the bar staff, and they’d be busy, but always helpful and make suggestions.

The town of Brugge is home to Brugs Beertje, which is considered by some to be one of the worlds top beer bars. The town itself is charming and one of few places in Europe to not get bombed during any world wars. I’m not a history major, but even i thought that was cool. But the bar is quiet with classical music, and the only real noise you find are from Americans and Brits who’ve found this bar via a guidebook or beer website. A great American couple who lived in Amsterdam called this bar the best beer bar in the world. That is when I wondered about the question, who’s best? and why ?

Like everyone is not going to like the same beer, or anything rare and hard to find everyone is going to want to want one. Beer bars around the world are unique in their own element and I dare say the bad ones are quite memorable for  being bad, but the great/amazing ones are memorable for that fact.

Obviously over the next few weeks in my move back to Australia from Canada I’ll be writing more on the trip with some more photos, thoughts on the journey, as although the trip is over, the knowledge and translation of thoughts to words has just started.

But now I have to say I’m always going to have bars in different categories, but I will say the Kulminator in Antwerp is a bar that I wished I lived close to, as the aged and bottles that just don’t exist anywhere else were amazing. No the service sucks in this bar as its just the one lady working, but god damn the 32 page beer list is just staggering. I was able to try a 94 vintage Westmalle Dubbel.. Unique and interesting, but I won’t be cellaring them.