Sunday, October 24, 2010

My Picks: Top 5 Beer Bars

I love seeing the proliferation of beer bars and interest in the many different styles of beer made throughout the world. There's a cool dichotomy right now...with many people appreciating locally grown and seasonal foods, while at the same time our world becomes more global and we get exposed to food and drink from all parts of the globe.

You can more easily find great places to sample different beers in many communities and the elevated pub food can be a pleasant surprise too. Here are my picks for some favorite "beer bars" around the world. Check them out on your travels. If you don't think you like beer, you may find beer can be as diverse as food and wine...there's bound to be something you'll enjoy!

1. Cafe Gollem-Amsterdam, NL: I was lucky to find this place while doing research for my honeymoon years ago, at a time when there wasn't the information overload that is the Internet today. I recently searched it out again on the web to make sure it still exists and was pleased to find it does, but it has been quite a few years since my last visit so I hope it is still the same charming hole in the wall it once was. At the time, this place was on a side street (i.e. alley) that the cab driver even had a hard time locating. You'll see it was the first cafe in Amsterdam specializing in Belgian and other import beers and today there are 3 locations--I'd venture to say thanks to the deliciousness (and popularity) of Belgian beers. Great place to talk to experienced beer lovers and discover some Belgian beers you won't get in the U.S. We met a couple from Boston there who took regular pilgrimages there--smart couple!

2. Biermarkt Esplanade-Toronto, CA: Another great purveyor of Belgian beers, plus delicious food and a great atmosphere. This place represents Belgium well with its many styles of mussels and frites, with plenty of beers to match. They have a big lineup on tap, but ask the knowledgeable bartenders to recommend a bottle and expose you to something new. They love to talk beer and really know their stuff (of course, we've had the same bartender each visit, so we may just have been lucky). This is a big place with a bustling crowd and great outdoor seating if you happen to visit in summer. Almost the opposite environment from #1, proving good beer can be enjoyed in many ways.

3. The Flying Saucer-Nashville, TN and various locations: The website is beerknurd, and the focus here is obvious, though on a recent visit I had to admit feeling things were a bit diluted by the addition of liquor. However, this place will certainly expose patrons to a wide variety of beers, with one of the largest tap selections you will find anywhere. The atmosphere is fun, there's often live music, the Nashville location is in an old train station with great appeal. With a number of locations, atmosphere and experience vary but I've visited one or two others and heard positive feedback on other locations. You can sample beers from many countries, and in a grand tradition that seems to be catching on everywhere, you can "join the club" by working your way through 200 beers (again and again if you'd like) and being immortalized on the wall in all your beer induced glory. Food isn't the focus here, though they have decent bar food, but it's all about the beer and the fun.

4. The World of Beer-Tampa, FL (and rapidly expanding locations): A classic beer focused spot...the original doesn't even bother with selling food, rather leaving that up to the neighboring restaurants and allowing people to bring in whatever they would like. It's all about the beer! We'll see how this place does now that it is branching out to multiple locations--the new locations serve food and hopefully that will only add to the enjoyment. There are new corporate partners, franchising and new locations popping up like mad...I just hope the focus on great beer remains. The Westchase location is cozy, with nice outdoor space and always has a lively atmosphere. The bartenders are pretty knowledgeable, with the occasional beer snobbery (but, when you come to a place with hundreds of beers and continue to ask for Bud Light maybe you deserve a sarcastic response).

5. Belgo Restaurants-London/multiple locations: Mor restaurant than "beer bar", but another nod to the greatness of Belgian beer, and the wonderful food that compliments it so well. I had the best crab dish here years ago, and had a hard time making a choice on their extensive menu. I love this quote from their website: "There are over 800 kinds of beer made in Belgium and the average Belgian consumes 150 litres of beer per person per year. Just to prove that Belgium does beer better than anybody else, the world's first beer academy opened in Herk-de-Stad, in the Belgian province of Limburg, in 1999". Just read the menu online and you'll know you have to make a stop there on the next trip to London.

These places collectively offer such great beer selections, I can't even begin to give recommendations on specific beers. There are other wonderful breweries and almost unlimited places focused on great beer and food, but these represent a great sampling of must visit places. They offer a "beer connoisseur" the chance to find something new and a "beer novice" the opportunity to discover the diversity of beer. They all have knowledgeable staff who can guide you to good choices when you visit.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Clearwater Jazz Holiday

It seems now most communities have wonderful local events and festivals--from craft fairs and art shows to outdoor concerts and movies in the park. We chose our hometown because we found ourselves there so often for these type of events, in addition to the walkability, proximity to the beach and a great little downtown. It's nice to see many towns valuing these features and working to improve quality of life.

One of the great events in the Tampa Bay area--with a long tradition--is Clearwater Jazz Holiday. Now, I haven't been around from the inception so I can't recall all the iterations, but having been involved as a volunteer for several years, I hear a lot of opinions about the festival and the changes that have occurred. Last year, on the 20th anniversary, the St. Pete Times did a retrospective and I was fascinated to learn more about the history and evolution of this "little" jazz festival, which is not so little and not so local anymore. Some people talk wistfully of the "old days" when they picnicked with their families and brought their own food and wine for a candlelit evening at the park, but change is inevitable. And, you have to appreciate what a gem this festival is, changes or not.

My family goes to several jazz festivals throughout the country and we attended a lot of music events in Nashville when we lived there. There aren't many live music events of this quality for free available...though Nashville was an exception to that with some real quality outdoor concerts every year. Somehow people forget the free aspect when they speak negatively. And, the things you purchase at the festival (beer, wine, food, souvenirs), which help to support the event, are a better value than at almost any other event (try getting a beer for these prices at a football game).

But, on to what this festival is all about and what you can expect if you come to it. First, it's worth a trip to Clearwater and in recent years, has become more of a regional and national event. This is a great time of year to visit Clearwater (it's held in mid October every year)--less crowds, beautiful weather. The setting is amazing--Coachman Park sits on the water and every night there's a gorgeous sunset view. It can be warm during the day, but by evening there's usually a cool breeze off the water and it's a good idea to bring a sweatshirt (something area residents look forward to fondly after suffering "summer" since March).

Second, the park is lively and the people watching is great. Even if you aren't that in to the music, this is a fun place to spend some time. The natural setting is great, but as a volunteer in the wine/beer area, my most fond memories are the people I have met. This event is volunteer run and there's nothing better than the sense of community it takes to bring together that many willing volunteers. Getting to know the volunteers in my area is one of the delights every year. We all have a great time together and everyone is enthusiastic. You'll receive some of the best "customer service" from the volunteers working this festival that you'd experience anywhere. Most of the attendees are equally enthusiastic and happy to be there, so the mood is festive and friendly. The occasional person will always spoil that, but sometimes that makes for an interesting story too. If you attend, don't forget this festival is volunteer run and think about the long hours people have dedicated to making this happen--for free.

Last but not least, the music is of course the reason for Clearwater Jazz Holiday. The festival has brought in some amazing acts over the years (for free, I say again:-). Now, I'm no music critic, so I'll leave that to the experts. I know some criticize the lineups, especially when less traditional acts play, but every year we enjoy some pretty great music. Perhaps if you're an ardent jazz enthusiast seeking specific music, you won't find what you want, but I can't imagine you wouldn't have a great time, and perhaps discover something new. I enjoy that there have been some diverse choices, which have appealed to a varied crowd. And, every year local talent gets great exposure--and we have some impressive local talent.

From the perspective of a traveler and general cultural enthusiast, I believe Clearwater Jazz Holiday ranks up there with festivals worth a trip, and definitely worth visiting as a local. I have to admit that I didn't know much about it before getting asked to volunteer, and it reminds me to check out different music events and festivals. You don't necessarily have to be an ardent fan to enjoy what these events have to offer. Festivals and concerts are a great way to see a place, expand your horizons and interact with great people.

For more information on Clearwater Jazz Holiday, click here.