America's Best Beer Bars
Twentieth-century poet of the people Charles Bukowski once wrote, “Stay with beer. Beer is continuous blood. A continuous lover.” No need to tell that twice to the members of the Mug Club at his namesake Boston dive, one of America’s best beer bars.
Across the nation, craft beer is having a moment: BrewersAssociation.org reports that a whopping 700 breweries opened in 2013. “The consumer has demanded a higher-quality product,” says beer pioneer Dale Katechis, owner of Oskar Blues, the nation’s largest, privately owned craft beer producer. “We were tired of being force-fed case beer. Life is too short.”
But along with seriously tasty suds, where are the standout places to drink them?
When choosing America’s best beer bars we focused not only on the number of taps and uniqueness of the kegs (plus extras like beer-focused menus and on-point design), but also made sure there were knowledgeable bartenders to help you sort out your saisons from your stouts.
In rural Maine, Ebenezer’s rare Belgian pours and makeshift “beer museum” pull in pilgrims from around the world, while spots like Craft Pride in Austin, TX, and Tony’s Darts Away in Burbank, CA, showcase instead their own state’s regional brews. In NYC, Top Hops bridges the gap between beer store and bar with 20 drafts to sample and almost 700 bottles to take home or cap in the store—a godsend to those new to the brew.
“Craft beer bars are growing with a vengeance,” beams Katechis. (Cheers to that!) Be it a cult icon or newly opened standout, here’s where to get your beer geek on from coast to coast.
Tørst, Brooklyn, NY
In a little over a year, Danish brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø of cult favorite Evil Twin and Momofuku alum Daniel Burns have turned NYC’s beer bar scene on its head. Their slick, modern space in Polish Greenpoint—intricately patterned reclaimed wood, communal tables, modernist chairs, killer soundtrack, and 21 wood-handled taps arranged darkest to lightest behind a commanding marble bar—is as stylish as Tørst’s craft beer selections are serious. All get poured through a Flux Capacitor temperature/carbonation regulating system into delicate stemware. True fiends should opt for the Scandinavian-inspired, beer-paired tasting menu in backroom restaurant Luksus (book ahead). torstnyc.com
Palm Tavern, Milwaukee
On a random residential street in suburban Bay View, a gentrifying Polish enclave south of downtown, Palm Tavern is the kind of unassuming hole-in-the-wall for which Milwaukee is justly famous—albeit here the requisite Miller draft is traded for the region’s best craft beer list (25 taps, 200-plus bottles, all collected in a 16-page binder). Trust the friendly, smart staff for under-the-radar Belgians like Struise IPAs and rare American riffs, or if you crave something harder, 100-odd whiskeys. The vibe is dimly lit rec room with pressed-tin ceilings, artwork hung on deep red- and mint-painted walls, and serious hop hounds filling the cozy bench seating. Twitter: @palmtavern
The Toronado Pub, San Francisco
An essential stop on any California bar crawl, the fun and funky Toronado in Lower Haight could be written off as a simple dive—semi-surly staff, vintage signs and antlers, a heavily graffitied unisex bathroom—were it not for its quarter-century commitment to superb craft beer. (An equally popular, if more glossy, San Diego outpost opened in 2008.) Unbuttoned beer geeks cram the narrow space nightly for pints of Pliny the Elder, an annual barley wine festival, and up to 60 taps including four cask lines. It’s also dog friendly, should your pooch have a nose for great suds, too. toronado.com
The Pine Box, Seattle
Since opening in mid-2012 in pub-heavy lower Capitol Hill, the Pine Box has quickly become one of Seattle’s most popular bastions of beer for its expert attention to craft brews and unique atmosphere (inside the 1923 Butterworth Funeral Home, all high ceilings, dark woods, and stained-glass windows). A direct draw draft system (short, cleaner lines) dispenses 33 rotating options including at least one cask ale, plus the world’s only built-in Randall, variously filled with local hops or spices like chiles, cilantro, and lime. The kegs for their second-anniversary brew, a Sour Apple Berlinerweiss, are sure to dry up fast. pineboxbar.com
Tony’s Darts Away, Burbank, CA
At this unassuming suburban dive, a wild mix of entertainment-industry folk and professional beer drinkers dance to the flute of hop heroes Ryan Sweeney (of the Surly Goat and Little Bear) and owner Tony Yanow (cofounder of Golden Road Brewing, one of L.A.’s only local breweries). The bar feels more like a friend’s basement—with ceiling fans, bookshelves, and pool table—and has an eco-friendly bent, meaning locally sourced vegan sausages and no bottled beer. It’s all California drafts from 38 taps, best sipped in the sun on the tiny front patio. tonysda.com
Ebenezer’s, Lovell, ME
When Chris Lively and wife Jen opened Ebenezer’s Pub in 2004, they never expected their 150-year-old farmhouse to become a pilgrimage point for international beer geeks—but with 35 taps and a cellar of thousands of bottles of some of the oldest beers in the world (like Ratcliff Ale from 1859 and King’s Ale from 1902), it was as sure a thing as a tripel doling out a wicked buzz. Hard-to-find Belgians and a superb list of local Maine brews draw connoisseurs 90 minutes northwest of Portland year-round, but the outdoor beer garden is especially hoppin’ in summer. ebenezerspub.net
Craft Pride, Austin, TX
Jostling the ranks of Austin’s popular beer bar haunts like Easy Tiger and Hops and Grain, Craft Pride is the city’s first Texas-only craft beer bar, serving up a rotating assortment of 54 regional taps plus two casks. Patrons dig the four dedicated nitro taps that offer experiments in the amped-up, creamy mouth feel of stouts and porters with beers not usually seen “on nitro,” like IPAs. The regional suds are perfect for washing down piping-hot pizza from Via 313, the bar’s resident food truck parked in an expansive tree-shaded backyard. craftpride.com
Euclid Hall, Denver
“Beer Bitches” Jessica Cann and Jules Bouchard’s expert sourcing have made this brick-walled 1863 landmark building one of the best beer halls in all of Colorado—and according to Food & Wine, one of America’s best gastropubs in one of America’s best cities for foodies. Locals belly up for 12 taps, beer cocktails, and an extensive menu of bottles and cans quirkily ranked by mathematical difficulty (“Arithmetic” session beers to strong, complex dubbel bad boys under “Quantum Mechanics”). Bestsellers like Boulevard’s Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale and Avery IPA get paired with way-above-average bar bites by James Beard–nominated Top Chef Masters star Jorel Pierce. euclidhall.com
Mikkeller Bar, San Francisco
At the first international outpost of gypsy brewery Mikkeller (a second bar opened in Bangkok in January), cult icons Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and Kristian Klarup bring hard-charging and experimental styles of suds to grateful Bay Area beer junkies. The swank space—seafoam-colored flooring, antique street-light fixtures from Denmark, original exposed brickwork, and shipyard steel beams—is a perfect pairing for 40 taps and two casks pouring an expertly curated selection of rare, international brews through an “on the fly” Flux Capacitor system, where beer temperature and carbonation level/pressure can be precisely controlled for each individual keg. mikkellerbar.com
Avenue Pub, New Orleans
While tourists get liquor happy on French Quarter sugar bombs, discerning locals—from older-generation beer geeks to local chefs to grad students—make a beeline for the family-run Avenue Pub. Located in a historic house on St. Charles Avenue in the Lower Garden District (prime Mardi Gras parade viewing from the second-story balcony), the bar specializes in high-end American and European craft beer from 54 daily-changing taps, with a strong concentration on sours including Zwanze, a once-a-year beer brewed by Cantillon (only 35 bars in the world are privileged to get a keg). Best part: it’s always open, 24 hours a day, every day. theavenuepub.com
Thirsty Monk, Asheville, NC
Before Asheville lured two of the largest craft breweries to town (Sierra Nevada and New Belgium), downtown’s Thirsty Monk put North Carolina on the beer bar map when it opened in a purple-painted brick building in 2008. A total of 36 taps plus 140-odd bottles are spread over a convivial ground floor (all-American craft beers) and a more mellow basement level (Belgians)—each pint or pour accompanied by thorough tasting notes and historical factoids to truly get into the boozy spirit. A recently opened top floor offers classic cocktails to go with striking sunset views of the Great Smoky Mountains. monkpub.com
Beer director Greg Engert—once named Sommelier of the Year by Food & Wine—is such a beer geek that his bar’s menu of five cask ales, 50 drafts, and 500 handpicked bottles is smartly divided according to his own flavor profiles: crisp, hop, roast, malt, fruit & spice, and tart & funky. Staff receives extensive training in all beers and can intuit the perfect pour based on your taste preferences. It’s no wonder this swank multilevel space in Logan Circle is packed with a diverse mix of patrons, from suits to sneakers, especially on weekends. churchkeydc.com
Top Hops, New York City
This bright, no-nonsense neighborhood institution—part tasting room, part retail shop, and all beer geekery—has been a welcome alternative to the ubiquitous hipster joints and dive bars of Manhattan’s Lower East Side since it opened in 2012. Owner Ted Kenny's impressive knowledge of the 600-plus bottles in his fridges (as well as 20 tap lines that constantly change) is apparent in the enthusiastic and easygoing conversations that flow between him and customers. Sidle up to the bar, and order up a flight of four-ounce tasters from a detailed chalkboard menu, or buy a six-pack and growler to go. tophops.com
Monk’s Cafe, Philadelphia
Reminiscent of an old European tavern with a warren of warm, bustling rooms, Monk’s Café in Rittenhouse Square is Belgian beer central in Philly (and perhaps even the Eastern seaboard). In fact, the proprietors take beer so seriously they give a tutorial on their website on how to properly enjoy it. Two bars serve a horde of bottles and 20 rotating drafts, including their private-label Monk’s Cafe Flemish Sour Ale, which was brewed in Ghent, Belgium. Eight types of mussels (all made with beer) and heartier pub fare (duck-salad sandwich) make the perfect pairings. monkscafe.com
Bukowski Tavern, Boston
This narrow, no-frills Back Bay dive (it basically hangs over the Mass Pike) has a Cheers sort of vibe thanks to its devoted cadre of outspoken locals, from blue-collar workers to aspiring artists and writers. Many of them are part of the “Mug Club,” having drunk all 150 or so beers—20 drafts, about 130 bottles—in six months. That equal-opportunity ethos sums up Bukowski’s charm: they may carry rare craft beers nobody else in Boston does, but the personable bartenders can wax just as poetic on a bottle of High Life. Their pulp-hero namesake would toast to that. bukowskitavern.net