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Oakes Weekly - February 19, 2004
Brewpubs, brewpubs and more brewpubs
February 19, 2004
Written by Oakes
The question came up on the forums the other day – how many brewpubs have you visited? I added them up and I’m around 129, give or take a few I’ve forgotten about (or depending on your definition of a brewpub).
<P>Many of these were relatively cookie-cutter, some were quite distinct. Many had average brews of varying quality. Some were truly stellar. Others were near criminal. Several have gone up to the great oasthouse in the sky (of those, some are missed more than others, to be sure).
<P>Of the memorable ones, a few stand out as being truly wonderful experiences.
<P>Spinnaker’s overlooks the harbour in Victoria, BC. In fact, so do a couple of other brewpubs in Victoria, but they don’t have the beer that Spinnaker’s does. When it first opened up back in 1984, Spinnakers garnered a pair of “world-classic” designations from Michael Jackson for their beer. I still think Mitchell’s ESB is that good, especially on cask, and the IPA and Imperial Stout are also very worthy.
<P>Another of my favourites is Diamond Knot, which isn’t technically a brewpub. It’s a tavern with a restaurant next door. And I do mean a tavern, with peanuts on the floor, dodgy-looking regulars and the like. But the beer, especially the IPA and Icebreaker Barley Wine, is wonderful, the food is great and the fresh sea air outside is wonderful to the soul.
<P>Not far away is Big Time, in Seattle’s university district. Once I went straight from Diamond Knot directly to Big Time, and had both Diamond Knot IPA and Bhagwan’s Best (only the two top IPAs on Earth) within an hour of each other. Seattle is a city of neighbourhoods and the U District, where Big Time is located, is rather a vibrant one, great for walking around. The pub is airy and fresh, the beers the same. Students at the tables, chronics at the bar, please.
<P>Inland some distance from Seattle is Sandpoint, Idaho. I don’t know if Pend Oreille Brewing would stand up to repeated visits the way that the previous two have, but when I did go it was very cool. Sitting outside under the hop vines, sipping their skillfully-crafted ales (having just come south from the beer wasteland that is Creston, BC, aka home of Kokanee). The weather was perfect and even the root beer was very good. On that day, it was soul-soothing, and I imagine it would only be better in late summer with the hop vines in bloom.
<P>Way out east to Montreal, where I’ve always been a fan of the atmosphere at Le Cheval Blanc. The beers were never too brilliant, although they are eclectic at times, as per the Quebecois style. But the formica walls and neon clocks and brewing equipment squished in back behind the bar is all very cool. Further uptown is a brewpub known more for their beer than their atmosphere (I find it a bit dark and smokey): Dieu du Ciel. Certainly their range is expansive – MartinT’s had a mere 51 beers from DDC – but that they make a regular feature out of their delicious smoked beer Charbonière is particularly nice of them. Their Abt is my favourite, a true classic, though most prefer the coffee imperial stout.
<P>Continuing east to a pair of brewpubs (now both could be considered tap rooms) that sit within a stone’s throw of the Atlantic. The Henry House (Granite Brewery) in Halifax and Dogfish Head’s Rehoboth Beach location both hold a special place in my heart. One is a historic stone house with flavourful English ales, the other a wide-open, half-timbered restaurant with several of the world’s most dynamic ales. Again, in either case the fresh air of the sea is steps away.
<P>Should you become too enthusiastic about that sea air, get wet for a few months and end up in Europe, then you'd do well to float through the canals of Amsterdam. After all, if you can survive a floating across the North Atlantic, surely you can survive a couple of kilometres of centuries-old cesspool. Navigate your way to ‘t IJ. It’s the big windmill with all the happy people spilling out the front. I find that brewery’s beers to be right up my alley as Belgian-style beers go and for the tourist there is nothing at all hokey about drinking in a windmill when in the Netherlands.
<P>From there, my last favourite, Im Füchschen, the Düsseldorf altbier haven. The brightest, and least smokey of that fair city’s major brewpubs, it also has dynamite beer that one could drink seemingly forever. I bought a bottle to go, and brought it up to Stockholm, where it promptly placed in the Ohhh My Head top ten. It is that good.
<P>Now, some brewpubs are worth visiting for reasons other than their inherent genius. Some just plain have to be experienced to be believed.
<P>First on that list is a place not far from here, Olde Heidelberg. This brewpub is located at the only intersection in Heidelberg, out in Mennonite country north of the mid-sized city of Kitchener, Ontario. If passing horses and their buggies on the way out there isn’t surreal enough, it gets better. When you walk in, immediately every head in the place swivels to get a good long look at you. If you’re in your twenties, you’ll have to double your age to get to the next-youngest person in there. Oh, and watch where you sit because the regulars all have their own seats and you don’t want to sit in one of theirs. It’s not that you’ll get hurt, but you’ll get a lot of funny looks. If the attention wasn’t enough to make you feel uncomfortable, how about the hesitance of the staff to believe that someone came there just to order the house beer. If that doesn’t do it for you, the 1962-vintage seats will do the trick for sure. The beer isn’t much to speak of, a little better than macro but only if you really want it to be. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the trip.
<P>John Shippey’s in Halifax, Nova Scotia is another classic. I’ve written about it a couple times in this column in the past six months, but it’s worth another mention for being the only brewpub I know of to be located in a food court, with the brewing equipment stashed away on a wooden mezzanine above the tap stand and the deli next door.
<P>McMenamin’s Edgefield in Troutdale, OR, is the flagship of the McMenamin’s chain. This is a full-fledged retreat with several pubs, one of which holds about four people, a winery, a youth hostel, many, many rooms, the omnipresent hippie motifs of McMenamin’s. There are gardens, a movie theatre (with beat up leather couches to sink into and wait staff in case you get thirsty), and just for the fun of it a prison on top of the hill overlooking the grounds. Stopping by for a quick pint on your way in or out of Portland just doesn’t do this place justice. The beer might not be worth a full day and night, but overall Edgefield probably is.
<P>PJ Früh is a Köln institution, located in the shadow of the famous Dom. It might not be the only place in Köln to find nattily-attired waiters named Jakob, funny little kölsch glasses and fresh kölsch beer, the place is an institution. Any time you can find a brew that on a Monday afternoon doesn’t have any need to turn the spigots on their wooden casks to “off”, that’s worth experiencing.
<P>Olde Hansa is an enigma. It is a touristy restaurant in the heart of downtown Tallinn, Estonia. The place is made of stone and all the staff where medieval garb. The menus are even medieval, from bar snacks like reindeer jerky (served in a leather pouch) to the medieval style beverages on offer. You can sample the traditional Estonian hõõgwein, a strong, warm, spiced wine (these never seem to be as good as a nice strong, warm, spiced beer). You can also sample a range of spiced beers, all of which are quite tasty. Now the problem comes in that nobody has ever seen a brewery on premises. In fact, some visitors including myself might very well have seen the bartender mixing a spiced mixture into a mug of pale or dark lager (depending on which one you’ve ordered). The underlying lagers of these drinks, however, are very good. Which rules out all Estonian breweries, except for the tiny, completely unknown Sillamäe, which only Per, myself and Michael Jackson seem to know (and rave) about. Is Olde Hansa a brewpub, or simply a mixologist of supreme dexterity? Either way, it’s a neat place to go, as long as you don’t find it too kitschy.
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Once I went straight from Diamond Knot directly to Big Time, and had both Diamond Knot IPA and Bhagwan’s Best (only the two top IPAs on Earth) within an hour of each other.
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