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Wednesday, August 01, 2012

What Makes a Good Brewpub?

The Street, riffing on RateBeer, has collected together a list of the country's best brewpubs.  It is, as lists inevitably are, fatally flawed.  The biggest problem with RateBeer's rankings is that the raters are all different.  According to RateBeer, the number one brewery in the United States is Peg's Cantina in Gulfport, FL.  There are currently 53 breweries in Florida, roughly the amount we have in Portland.  So whether Peg's is the best or not--and looking at the website, it's possible--the people who rated it have a very different pool of comparisons than those who rated, say, Hopworks (37th).  It's a lot harder to impress someone who lives in a city with dozens of brewpubs than someone who has one to choose from.  Indeed, something just doesn't quite track when you look at the list and see that the first ten brewpubs--including two I hope to visit in Italy--are foreign and the forty that follow are American.

Photo credit: Scottwwwwwww
But how would you construct criteria for "best?"*   It has to have good beer, obviously, but that's not enough.  The "pub" part has at least equal billing, so ambiance and food have to play a role.  I'd add another category I find critical: local character.  Unlike breweries, which can send their beer around the world, brewpubs are fixed in place.  The experience is local, and there should be some sense of place reflected in a brewpub.  I am never interested in going to a generic place that has a Appleby's feel--I want to know where I am when I walk in the doors.  One of my favorite brewpubs in the world is Portsmouth in Portsmouth, NH.  When we're traveling from Boston to Maine to visit Sally's family, I always try to finagle a stop.  It's New England, but not kitschy faux-New England like Gritty's in Portland, ME, which feels totally staged to me.

In our Portland, I have a list of brewpubs for first-timers that relies heavily on this "local" element (crossed with the factors of good beer, food, and ambiance).  Deschutes' in the Pearl, with its crazy chainsaw art, reminds you of pioneer Oregon.  Bikey Hopworks is tres Rose City.  And for that necessary crunch you must have in any full Portland meal, the Lucky Lab.  (If you visit and don't smell ganja, patchouli oil, and dog, you have done something wrong.)  Indeed, even though the food is average and the beer even worse, I often recommend Kennedy School, just because I know the only place people will ever see something like it is Oregon.

To their credit, The Street did place Walking Man in their top ten.  If had to visit a single brewpub from out of state (or country), they would learn a lot about the Pacific Northwest by stopping off in Stevenson.  So there's that.

Your thoughts?

* The list-making, statistically-magnetized side of me suggests you could use these four dimensions: beer (6 pts), food (5), ambiance (4), and local color (5), scale them, and score brewpubs.  So Lucky Lab would get a 14 (4, 1, 4, and 5) while Deschutes would get a 16.5 (6, 3.5, 3, 4).  But the part of me that knows lists are futile says, "this warrants only a footnote mention."


  1. I wonder if the concept of brewpub has to include stainless steel porn seen through a window but there was none at Ray McNeil’s place in Brattleboro, VT — good beer, gobby but friendlyl locals though can’t remember if there was food. Loved it. Also enjoyed Zero Gravity in Burlington, VT, more for the beer and food, while I remember Portsmouth”s from a few years ago. Not bad at all.

  2. I think we might give a score element to history also.If we throw in points for Bridgeport's foundational role in PDX brewpubs [and national] I would think they go higher than most.
    Beer every bit as good as hopwrks , much better food , spectacular historic building , and stunning interiors. If one had to vote best overall pub in Portland , [and thank goodness we don't , we can go to all of them] I think you have to vote Bridgeport.

  3. I agree with you on Deschutes (even though it's a recent addition here) and I'm okay with Hopworks and the Lab, too. Once upon a time, Bridgeport would have been on my list. Not now. That place is a shell of its former self...and the beers just aren't that great.

    The other one that comes to my mind is Amnesia, with its rustic, year-round patio, metal exterior, grubby warehouse interior, spartan menu and, yeah, good beer. This place is quintessential fans steadfastly using the patio area regardless of the weather. I'm not even a huge fan, but I think Amnesia tells the story of who we are quite nicely.

  4. Bridgeport? Were you able to type that with a straight face? Neither their beer nor their food is a reason to stop at Bridgeport. HUB has excellent beer, and at least some of their food is above average (and they have a very large menu).

  5. Well, hold onto your chair: for a change, I actually agree with you. I find the beer fan sites useless for another other than finding the websites for breweries and, sometimes, information about the brewery (address, telephone number, etc.). However, anything contributed by the users of those sites is, to borrow your phrase "fatally flawed." FWIW, I don't find IMDB much better for films.

  6. Interesting question. Good beer does not make a good pub. I think Walking Man is actually a great example of this, and I’m shocked it made anybody’s top anything list of great brewpubs.

    My parents live in Stevenson, so I go to Walking Man all the time. I’d say: GREAT beer, good food (though extremely limited menu), terrible pub.

    The service is awful. The people are grumpy. It’s not uncommon to wait 15 minutes in the sun without even seeing a server. I’ve gotten the wrong beer many times.

    If you’re into very busy train tracks and very loud train horns, the location is excellent, otherwise...

    It’s also not very welcoming to families. I know that’s not a sine qua non for a good pub, and is a whole ugly debate of its own, but it certainly colors my experience. (Compare to HUB, which is so awesome my four-year-old chose it of her own volition when she got to pick where we went for our daddy-daughter date last month.)

    The best thing about Walking Man as a pub is the high-concept bathrooms.

    To me Walking Man is a perfect example of someplace that should ditch the whole pub idea and just bottle their fantastic beer so I can drink it at home.

    Anyway, I expect an avalanche of replies explaining how awesome Walking Man’s service and ambiance are, but... I’m there a lot and I don’t see it. I still recommend people go there if they’re in the area, just for the beer, but I always warn them not to expect much of a “pub” experience.

  7. National lists for anything related to Craft Beer don't make any sense to me. Local - yes, statewide - sure, regional - iffy and borderline, national - no way, just not meaningful.

  8. Sorry Shawn , we will have to agree to disagree. I find the beer at HUB sort of ok , but I would never cross town to go there to drink it, The place looks like a low rent shopping mall , no Design or History at all.
    Bikes on the ceiling , oh , I get the joke , [ugly]
    I have eaten there a few times , mehh...
    Yea Bridgeport is not the cool old pub it was when I first went there 14 years ago , but it is a vibrant beer pub , that has quality food , stunning design , and several beers I would be happy to drink every day.