Craft beer bars are everywhere these days. There are good ones, and there are bad ones. Then, there are great ones.
The abundance of beer-focused establishments is a natural progression in the U.S., considering most of us live within 10 miles of a brewery. But not all beer bars are created equally.
Some are stuck in the past, carrying outdated brands and ignoring the local beer renaissance in their cities. Some jump on the craft beer trend without really knowing the product or how to serve it. And some, though they may have good intentions, boast bottle or draft selections hundreds of brands long, which is an impressive feat until you order an IPA that’s not fresh.
We’ve visited hundreds of beer bars around the country and world. Finding the ones worth going back to comes down to a handful of qualities that are easy to spot once you know what to look for. Here are 11 telltale signs you’re in a great craft beer bar.
It’s clean as a whistle. At least, parts of it are.
Not every great beer bar is sparkling, but even the grungy ones care about keeping a few key things clean, such as glassware, draft lines, and bathroom(s). Learn more about the importance of clean draft lines here.
It’s stocked with proper glassware.
A bar that serves its brews exclusively in Tekus cares a lot about its beer — and its image. That’s great! We don’t think all beer needs to be served in stemware, but no one wants a thimble of lager or a mug full of 13-percent-ABV pastry stout. A great beer bar will serve beer in style-appropriate glassware. Sour ales in snifters, hefeweizens in their eponymous vessels, or basically anything in a tulip glass is fair game. Pilsners and IPAs in pint glasses are O.K., but you better drink quickly before the beer warms in your hand. (And good luck getting any aroma!)
The beer is cold, not freezing.
The only thing that should cool down a glass that’s about to have beer in it is a splash of cool water. (Ideally, this occurs via a very nifty glass rinser, also known as a star sink.) If your bartender serves your IPA in a glass that came out of a freezer, you are not in a great craft beer bar. You’re in a sports bar that is, sadly, misinformed.
As a general rule, you want your glass at room temperature so you can appreciate the beer’s flavors. But, Goldilocks, if a bartender serves you beer that’s too warm, don’t be afraid to mention the problem. Either they tapped a keg that was sitting in the heat too long (if that’s the case, the beer will also be super foamy), or there’s something up with the cooler.
The menu is never accurate.
This may seem counterintuitive, and it can be irritating at first, but a messy menu is often a good sign. It means the bar has a rotating draft menu and is selling beer quickly. As soon as one beer kicks, a new one goes up, and the servers don’t get the chance to print a new menu or climb up up the counter to update the chalkboard fast enough. A great beer bar menu might be a beer-stained piece of paper with items scribbled out. Or, it’s a beautifully color-coded chalkboard menu, because the bar was slow earlier that day. (To be fair, it was Tuesday.)
Servers don’t judge you for ordering a lager.
Although it’s unlikely Bud Light will be on tap at a craft-centric beer bar, if that’s your thing, don’t be afraid to say it! (Nicely.) Any quality establishment invests in training its staff and offering excellent service. In this case, the server will hear your Bud Light request and point you toward a similar beer they think you might like. A Night Shift Nite Lite, perhaps, or a Firestone Lager. And, after their shift, you might catch them drinking a High Life at the dive across the street.
The tap list is locally focused.
Granted, this is a relatively new sign of a great craft beer bar. (Ten years ago, most cities simply didn’t have a lot of local breweries. It was a dark time.) At a contemporary craft beer bar, the menu will almost always be stacked with local options. A few regional or imported favorites are much appreciated, too.
Beers appeal to many palates.
Craft beers can be intimidating, and they would be even scarier if their menus had nothing but kettle sours and double IPAs. Unless there’s a special event showcasing a specific type of beer, a great bar curates its menu to include a variety of styles, flavor profiles, and alcohol levels. A super-acidic fruited sour will be complemented by a farmhouse ale, stout, lager, and, probably, several IPAs.
It gets by with a little help from its friends.
Beer bars almost always have some sort of sign, literally or otherwise, that they are involved in their community. Perhaps a local photographer’s artwork is on the walls (watch what you say — she’s a regular here). There might be an event next week raising money for a patron who’s paying off hospital bills. Or, if you’re really lucky, there’s an annual pet costume contest. Whatever the case, warm and fuzzies abound.
There are ‘regulars.’
This one is certainly not unique to craft beer bars, but familiar faces signal you’re in a place people like coming back to. If the bartender is friendly with people across the bar, they’re either buddies, folks in the industry (also a good sign), or they just really love it here.
It wears beer on its sleeve.
Several beer bars we love sell their own branded merchandise, from T-shirts to stickers to tote bags (the author is currently using such a tote). This is not something you need to look for in a great beer bar. What will more accurately signal you’re in a place full of beer lovers is that at least one person is wearing a brewery tee, cap, or hoodie. Again, be careful what you say — it might be the brewer wearing it.
It’s friendly and open to all.
We can’t promise there won’t be a few geeks glued to their Untappd accounts, but the beer snob stereotype is mostly myth — and talented service professionals do their best to keep it that way. Patrons at great beer bars are there to hang out with friends, have a few laughs, and drink tasty brews. Their hosts are inclusive of all beer drinkers and are queer-friendly, women-friendly, dog-friendly (maybe), and kid-friendly (groan). At the end of the day, we’re all just looking for a good place to get a beer.