Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Top 10 Brewpubs That Tray's Been To

I've had more than a few people ask me, "Tray, what in the hell makes you so qualified to write something like this? How many brewpubs have you been to, Mr. Beer Snob?" And those people asking me that are my uncles who have been to more brewpubs than pretty much everyone else on the planet. They scoff at me, and that's OK as I am in awe of their prodigious travels.

To review: Since I turned 21 in 2001, I have visited and drank beers in over 125 different brewpubs spanning 26 United States and two Canadian provinces. I have a pint glass collection in my humble apartment that now sits at 81. I wrote a book entitled In Search Of A Beer detailing my post-college life bouncing from one media market to the next while draining beers in the local taverns that I found either where I was living or out on the road moving.

I tend to think my qualifications are solid, and I've never had a bad time anywhere I've ever been. Well, that and I haven't written about beer in awhile. It's a subject near and dear to me, and I'll be damned if I let too much time go by before I write about it again.

So to that end, let's review the ground rules, the disclaimers, and how I came up w/ this list.

1. This is NOT necessarily "The 10 Best Brewpubs in America." I hate when magazines like Esquire write about the best bars in America by going into one place, declaring it good, and publishing the word like it's Gospel. Esquire once wrote that Donn's Depot is the best bar in Austin. I've lived in the Austin-metro area most of my adult life, and I know of only one person that's ever been to Donn's Depot, and he hated every second of being there. And that was a guy who's pretty much been to every bar in Austin twice. This is merely a compilation of the best spots that I've been to. If you know of better, by all means pass the word on because I'd love to go. And if you're buying all the better for me.

2. Because I've lived in Texas, New Mexico and Connecticut, this list does skew in favor of those places and the surrounding areas.

3. I'm giving special consideration to places that gave me a pint glass. There are a few places that I went to once and the establishment may very well have made the cut had they not stoned me on my glass. Redondo Beach (CA) Brewing Company and Willimantic (CT) Brewing Company would have had a definite argument to be on this list on the beers alone, but they didn't give me a glass to add to my collection, so I'm stoning them back. I'm a vengeful little bastard in that regard.

4. There are several places that are now closed that I was tempted to put on the list. Copper Tank in Austin, Hub City in Lubbock, the Milagro Brewery in Bernalillo, NM and the original Blue Corn in Albuquerque also received votes, but since they don't exist anymore, they can't really be Top 10 worthy, can they?

That's enough foreplay, go get a beer from the fridge first before you start reading...

10. Elm City Brewing Company--Keene, NH

"No Crap On Tap" is what is says when you walk in the door, and they ain't lying. I rolled in here one night after a daytrip to Vermont. Keene sits in the southwestern corner of the state just across the Vermont border, and frankly, I couldn't wait to get the hell out of that godforesaken state fast enough. Vermont is sort of like France: They don't bathe, are a bunch of socialists, and probably enjoy surrendering at will. At least France has decent wine, cheeses and a bad-ass president that marries hot women.

I was actually refused service in one of the brewpubs I went into in Brattleboro. Suffice to say, I got the hell out of Vermont almost as soon as I realized that I wasn't even remotely welcome in their state as I have a shaved head, wasn't a hippie and had just bathed before visiting. I stopped into the Elm City Brewery to grab a pint and watch a little college basketball before heading back to Connecticut.

I was greeted by the bartender and the friendly natives sitting around the bar. They immediately inquired as to what I was doing in this particular neck o' the woods. I was working for ESPN Radio at the time as a production assistant, and informed them of this. The whole bar, probably about ten or so guys, immediately wanted to talk about the Red Sox with me. This was January or February 2004, so they hadn't won the World Series yet. When I told them that I really liked their chances, one of the guys bought me another beer as soon as I was done w/ my first. Good thing I was right.

Elm City Brewing Company makes the cut simply on the virtues of strangers buying me beer, having a great conversation with said strangers, and also by virtue of them not being located in Vermont. Oh yeah, and the beer was excellent too.

See Vermont? It's that hard, y'all.

Tray Recommends: The Monadnock Mt. Ale and the Irish Stout.

9. The Draught House--Austin, TX

The Draught House has a well-deserved reputation as being one of the best places to grab a brew in Austin. There's no liquor to be found, but in addition to their crafts, they have at least 50 taps devoted to imports and Texas beers, including the entire Independence lineup.

But that's only part of the appeal. When I think of places that are unique to Austin, this is one of the first joints that comes to mind. Regulars aren't even found in the bar. Typically, people will bring lawn chairs and hang out in the parking lot while enjoying a beer.

Here's the clincher, though. The Draught House is located directly across from a colon doctor. So if you really have to go in for an, ahem, "inspection," at least you'll have something to look forward to when you get out.

Tray Recommends: The Sunflower Ale and Northwestern Pale Ale.

8. Appalachian Brewing Company--Harrisburg, PA

One of the most interesting aspects of this gem in Pennsylvania's capital city are the history lessons learned right there at the bar. When I was there about five years ago, they explained not only what the beers were, but how they got their names. At the time, they had beers named after Pennsylvania's native explorers, obscure American Revolutionary patriots, and the Phillies' Double-A affiliate located in Harrisburg. I was surprised to learn that they play in a stadium built on an island in the middle of a river flowing right through Harrisburg. Suffice to say, I thought that was pretty bad-ass.

The building itself is a magnificent structure--a 3-story brick and timber haven of beer--that was rebuilt after a fire gutted the place in the early '90s.

On a personal note, the sports bar upstairs featured Blue October on the jukebox before anyone outside of Texas had ever heard of them. I had to play a couple of tracks from Consent To Treatment just to feel a little more at home.

Tray recommends: The Water Gap Wheat and the Grinnin' Grizzly Spiced Ale, if you happen to be there in November.

7. Brutopia--Montreal

Montreal is the best city I've ever been to, hands down. The nightlife is unparalleled, the culture is as unique as any place I've ever been to, and it's only time in my life where I've seen three people speaking three totally different languages (English, French and I think Vietnamese, but I'm not positive), and they all understood each other perfectly. I swear, it was like the three guys were trying to recreate the Mos Eisley scene from Star Wars.

Brutopia is right across the street from where I was staying for my 25th birthday. The bartender at the time was this super-cute, tatted-up redhead. Regrettably, I don't remember her name, but she looked like a 20-something Julianne Moore w/ a big-time bad girl streak. Suffice to say, I was in love.

It was right around 5 PM, and I was hanging out for happy hour, rapping w/ her while the Off The Wall album from Michael Jackson was playing in the background. She was telling me about her alt-country band that was going to be playing there over the weekend. I asked her if she dug a little rockabilly, and she said yes. I left my Honey Beer on the bar, and went across the street to my car to go get my Roadhouse Rebels CD from my car. The Roadhouse Rebels are a now-defunct Austin rockabilly trio led by one of my best friends, Mr. Chris Harrison.

I advised my cute bartender friend to throw on a little Texas music for her liking and the bar patrons at large. After listening to some drunken classics like "Get Your Damned Hands Off Me" and "Lesbian Blues," many of the patrons inquired who they were listening to and where they could get a copy of this band. I had to tell them who they were, where they were from and where I was from as well.

Montreal may very well be a city of high art, cuisine and culture, but for one afternoon right around my birthday, a small section of the best city I've ever been to was transformed into a Texas dive bar with a soundtrack to match.

Tray recommends: The aforementioned Honey Beer and the Frosty Morning Red. And if anyone knows who the cute bartender is, please let me know so I can at least friend request her on Facebook or something.

6. City Steam Brewery--Hartford, CT

Hell yes, I'm biased. I've already admitted that.

Hartford is not a cool city, I readily admit it. It is the "Insurance Capital of America." Last time I checked, insurance was about as exciting as a day's worth of CSPAN programming. And this is what they are trying to promote Hartford as. I can only imagine what the city's marketing team's second place idea was.

"Hartford: At Least We Don't Suck As Much As Providence!"

With all due respect, I think I could get people to Hartford just by advertising the following. Ahem...

"Ever been to a seven-story bar complete with a comedy club in the basement? How about a bar that doesn't serve its beer in pitchers but in 3-foot beer steins with a tap? How about a bar that is hosting an international jazz festival? No? Why not? Come to City Steam Brewery in Hartford. Just stay the hell away from the insurance guys."

I wanted to include a picture of the winding staircases that lead up to the seventh floor. It really is a magnificent looking building.

Tray recommends: The Naughty Nurse Amber and the City Steam Blonde. Drinking them w/ Sean Salisbury of ESPN is recommended but optional.

5. Abita Brewing Company--Abita Springs, LA

If this list were based solely on location, Abita would win going away. Abita Springs is north of New Orleans on the other side of Lake Ponchatrain tucked in a neighborhood of old cypress trees. The drive to the brewery itself is an experience. The trees create a canopy effect over the streets leading up to the brewery. It's like a driving through a dome made of leaves and branches. If you read Evangeline in high school, Longfellow pretty much nailed the description completely of southern Louisiana, and eerily enough, he had never been there before.

When I went there it was the middle of a Wednesday afternoon. Based on my experience, I'd really like to go back if no other reason than when they decide to throw a party, well, like most coon-ass Cajun folk, they THROW A FREAKING PARTY. If I get my picture taken like this dude did, I might be willing to move them up higher on the list.

This picture was taken on their 20th Birthday Party. Why none of the girls I knew didn't do this for me on my 20th Birthday, I'll never be totally sure.

Tray recommends: Abita Turbo Dog and Abita Purple Haze both with a pinch of gold dust.

4. Steamworks--Durango, CO

Certainly, there are many viable reasons for Steamworks to appear on this list and to be as high as #4. There's the laid-back mountain vibes, the fantastic beers lined up on tap and now available bottled in Colorado, from what I gather. There's the view from the back patio that sorta looks like this.

But why lie? In addition to this being a fantastic brewpub, I hooked up there. She was hot, loved their beer, "You Shook Me All Night Long" by AC/DC and me. That's reason alone for it to be #4.

Tray recommends: The Backside Stout, The Ale Diablo and the Chi Omega sorority at Fort Lewis College in Durango.

3. Pike Place Brewery--Seattle

I visited the Land of Cobain and Hendrix on my 27th birthday, openly rooting for my 27th year to turn out better than theirs did. The brewpub is hidden in the Pike Market area, and I seem to recall milling around the area amongst the tourists, watching the vendors throw fish, getting bored and climbing up an enormously steep staircase to find the Pike Place Brewery.

Once inside, I sat myself down at the bar, ordered up some lunch and found a view once I turned around that sort of looked like this.

Not quite exactly, but still it was a very pleasant view of Puget Sound and the sailboats going by. In the words of Bill and Ted, "It was most tranquil."

But that was at my back. In front of me were the Astros playing the Cubs in the middle of the afternoon. Chris Sampson was making his debut for the Astros and he summarily mowed down Cubbies to the delight of the afternoon crowd gathered at Minute Maid Park and me. Especially me.

I ordered up the crab pizza and a Pike Bride Ale (a fantastic fusion of Bock beer and Pale Ales) and hunkered down to watch the Astros while I was two time zones removed from everything else.

During commercial breaks, I turned around for the scenic views of Puget Sound. When the game resumed, I turned back around. This process was repeated over the course of six innings, four Bride Ales, a crab pizza and an Astros victory on my birthday.

When Brad Lidge struck out Aramis Ramirez to end the game, "Voodoo Child" by Jimi Hendrix played over the Minute Maid Park speakers. I smiled and ordered my last beer of the afternoon. Then I turned around permanently.

Tray recommends: The Bride Ale, of course.

2. Kelly's--Albuquerque

I landed my first job post-college in Albuquerque, and have held a special place in my heart for it ever since. When I first moved there in 2002, one of my closest friends, Jesse Gonzales, helped me move. Once we got everything in my smallish apartment, we started asking the natives where the best place to grab a pint was. Everyone said Kelly's was the best spot, and the natives have impeccable taste.

Easily the best aspect of Kelly's is the patio. It's right down the street from the University of New Mexico, and on perfect days in the Spring or Fall, it's the perfect place just sit, sip a beer, chow a green chile cheeseburger, and watch the eye candy walk by.

Last year, I had the chance to go back to Albuquerque for the first time in five years. It was the first time I had been back since I left in 2003. I wandered over to Kelly's right at 12 PM, sat down and fired up an apricot ale. Albuquerque's grown over the last few years so my view of the Sandia's was a bit obstructed due to the recent condo development, but still, it was not to be denied. I had the perfect seat.

To my left was the attractive student body walking down Central Avenue and heading towards campus. Straight ahead were the Sandias dusted with a wee bit of snow even in September. To my right was college football on the big screens inside. In my right hand was an apricot ale.

It was sunny, not a cloud in the sky, and 78 degrees. Damn, the apricot ale was good.

Tray recommends: The Apricot Ale, green chili, the Imperial Stout and an extra helping of green chili to go with the green chili cheeseburger. Green chili.

1. Beer Works (Fenway)--Boston

I haven't been here since I left New England in 2004, but I was here on one night when the Red Sox beat the Yankees prior to the legendary 2004 ALCS. They had beaten Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the 9th. Again. I was there watching it, and people reacted like Andy Dufresne after he crawled out of the sewer pipe to freedom.

Remember when Andy escaped Shawshank and he ripped his shirt off in the rain? Later that night when the crowd left Fenway to reconvene at Beer Works, when the Dropkick Murphys were cranking over the PA systems, when the pool tables were fired up, when the Fenway Pale Ales were flowing, a few girls decided to reenact that scene.

Minus the sewer, obviously.

This was a regular season game, mind you. This wasn't after Games 4, 5, 6 or 7 of the 2004 ALCS. This wasn't after Games 4 of the 2004 or 2008 World Series. This was a regular season baseball game in August. And very attractive women were ripping their shirts off.

Ladies and gentlemen, it goes without saying.

This is the Valhalla of Beer.

Tray recommends: The Fenway Pale Ale, The Bunker Hill Blueberry Ale, the Dropkick Murphys, and David Ortiz's clutch hitting.