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101 Beer Experiences: Raise the bar

Check off visits to the world's best bars, both on American soil and abroad.
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 Photo of the Cross Keys in London by Joe Stange

Photo of the Cross Keys in London by Joe Stange

Your favorite bar might be your local watering hole where everyone knows your name, but these bars (both in the U.S. and abroad) are truly world class. Check them off your must-see list this year:

Cobble together a pub crawl in the palpably English atmosphere of London’s Covent Garden-Holborn area. It’s touristy, but it’s easy to visit attractive, traditional pubs with higher interest in independent brewers, such as The Harp, a cozy spot with a diverse rotation of cask ales; The Cross Keys, its facade famously covered in flowers (it’s also an outlet for East London brewery Brodie’s); and Princess Louise, an elaborate, well-preserved Victorian pub tied to Samuel Smith‘s brewery. In the same neighborhood, you can get a taste of the new wave beer at places like Craft Beer Co., with its 15 casks and 30 keg taps, emphasizing local brewers alongside British and international all-stars.

In a sea of reclaimed wood tables and sleek copper bars, San Francisco’s Toronado doesn’t wow with its decor, but it does with its beer menu, which is why it’s still one of the most iconic beer bars in the country. The service can be famously surly, so follow two simple rules: Bring cash (have singles for tips) and know which beer you want when you order. Need suggestions? It’s practically guaranteed that someone with beer knowledge will be posted up at the bar, so ask fellow barflies for tips.

Try not to be distracted by the fame of French wine and the siren song of nearby Belgian ale; the characterful pubs of bucolic northern France are too often ignored by travelers. Cassel is an ideal base with two of the region’s most entertaining bars, Kerelshof and Kasteelhof, specializing in local nibbles and ales. One of the classic dishes is potjevleesch, which is simply a jar of various jellied meats—often including rabbit—served cold with a pile of crispy frites. Also typical: various pates, smelly (but tasty) cheeses, beef stew cooked in dark beer (carbonnade), and savory tarts. Virtually all of it is beautifully fatty, rich stuff best lightened by ale—spring for something from France’s Brasserie Thiriez, if you can find it.

Complete the three-continent brothers Bjergsø world tour by visiting all the restaurants/bars by Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø and Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, the famed Danish twins behind Evil Twin Brewing Co. and Mikkeller, respectively. Start with North America: head to New York for Tørst, Jeppe’s sleek Brooklyn beer bar with an ever-changing tap list; travel to San Francisco for the first wood-dressed Mikkeller Bar on U.S. soil (another is planned to open sometime this year in Los Angeles); then it’s off to Asia: Tokyo, Seoul, and Bangkok for the Mikkeller Bars in those cities. And finally, Europe, with the Barcelona outpost of Mikkeller Bar, then a busy trip to Copenhagen includes stops at the original Mikkeller Bar, Mikkeller & Friends (a bar in conjunction with fellow brewers To Øl), cocktail bar Mikropolis, restaurant Øl & Brød and WarPigs, Mikkeller’s collaborative brewpub with 3 Floyds Brewing Co.; end with a stop in Iceland for the Reykjavík location of Mikkeller & Friends.

Britain’s rapidly growing micropub movement—much of it clustered around the Kentish seaside—is based on simple ideas: well-kept cask ales, local snacks, cozy places and friendly chatter. Just turn off your smartphone, OK?  If you must pick only one, go with the original: The Butcher’s Arms in Herne, its small front room sagging under the weight of dried hops, rubber chickens, beer towels and other interesting knickknacks. Owner Martyn Hillier keeps perfectly conditioned casks and listens to customer requests when he stocks them; this is where to go for a classic like Sussex Best Bitter from Harvey’s. As a bonus, Hillier—and probably most regulars—can provide you with a long list of other local micropubs to try.

Down a side street in the city center of Antwerp, Belgium, the candlelit pub Kulminator has long enjoyed a reputation among aficionados for its ample cellar stocked with vintages of various Belgian beers, as well as its cocoonlike atmosphere of classical music and discreet, free-range cats. From strong ales to authentic lambics, you can drink a vertical you won’t soon forget.

De Garre in Bruges, Belgium, is a quaint beer bar hidden down an alley. There isn’t a sign on the main street so you have to get lucky to know which alley to turn down. Once you find it, it’s humble with its simple metal sign marking the building. Inside are three levels reached via a narrow winding staircase. It’s known for the De Garre Tripel, which some call the best tripel in the world. They serve it with a little bowl of Gouda. The space is intimate and provides one of the most authentic old-school beer experiences out there.”-Sarah Zomper Haney, general manager, Adelbert’s Brewery; Austin, Texas

Before afternoon transitions to evening, beeline to Brooklyn’s Greenpoint Beer & Ale Co., an expansive brewpub near the East River. Position yourself on the front patio or at the wraparound concrete bar, then order the Chicken Schnitzel, half a chicken breast butterflied eight times, battered and slathered in a creamy peppercorn sauce. Try the house-brewed line of saisons, pilsners, IPAs and stellar kettle sours, namely the Brett-spiked Acidifus series doctored with revolving hops (Nelson Sauvin, Citra, Mosaic) and fruit. Sit back, pucker up and watch the sun slowly sink behind the radiant Manhattan skyline.

“For a truly intimate experience, belly up to the bar in one of the 30 or so compact drinking establishments that line the narrow Nonbei Yokocho (‘Drunkard’s Alley’) in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. Actually, bellying up is about all you can do in one of these pocket-sized pubs; the entire space rarely exceeds about 40 square feet and consists only of a bar, five (sometimes six) seats, a bartender, and whatever room there is left for alcohol (and often food!). If you’re lucky, you’ll find a bar momentarily empty. I was in a group of four on my last visit, so we snagged one and invited a lone stranger to join us—who wasn’t a stranger much longer, language barrier be damned! Beer typically is the first sip of the evening for Japanese drinkers, and these tiny bars are a great space to start—especially since you’re less likely to find a vacant one as the night rages on.” —Jeff Cioletti, author of “The Drinkable Globe”

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