Where I’m Drinking – Lower Depths Taproom – Kenmore Square

Drinking in a basement bar named the Lower Depths might bring up an image of a dive bar. This would be wrong. True, it does have some of the items on a dive bar checklist, they are cash only and have the required animal-head-with-a-hat, but anyone who calls this is a dive bar really hasn’t been to one. Lower Depths is a small place, but the space is used well. It is bright, the décor is artsy and fun, and the staff is first-rate.

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The Lower Depths is a very good beer bar. They only sport a few taps, but they are filled with craft beers, many of them local brews. The taps rotate regularly, which brings beer nerds like me back on a regular basis. Following their twitter feed brings announcements of  tap changes and new selections. I wish other places did this, as I pass through Kenmore Square regularly, and am easily enticed by a new beer. A tweet with a promise of something new is often all it takes for me to stop in for a pint and a bite. I appreciate that The Lower Depths puts in the effort to properly train their staff, bartenders and servers know the beers and their flavor profiles. The staff is helpful with choices and happy to give out samples. If, like me, you enjoy sipping and discussing beer, the Lower Depths is a fine choice.

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Taps at the Lower Depths

The kitchen, like the bar, is quite small, but they put out some damn good food. The menu isn’t extensive, but everything comes out fresh and tasty. They are a must-stop on any Tater Tot crawl, the Mexicana, with queso fresco, and pickled jalapeños is my personal favorite. The buffalo mac and cheese has a big following here, but I am always drawn to their foot long hot dogs. They are so good and pair so well with a cold pint.

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The Lower Depths has a small front deck, great for people watching on a sunny day. Be warned, however, that it is a small place and fills very quickly, especially when the Red Sox are in town. The crowd is a mixed lot, many students and tourists mix with the beer nerds and construction guys. Please keep in mind that they only take cash here, which perhaps keeps the crowd free of too many hipsters and the intense business types.

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Hey, I know that sign!

The Lower Depths is a small, casual place that squeezes a lot into a limited space. It is committed to good pub food and craft beer. A good relaxing spot in the occasional madness of Kenmore Square. If you can find a seat.

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Where I’m Drinking – Harry’s Bar and Grill – Brighton

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Brighton is an area that certainly doesn’t want for drinking spots. Harry’s Bar and Grill, however, is in a bit of a dead spot, about halfway between Cleveland Circle and Allston’s Union Square. Like Brighton itself, the crowd at Harry’s is a nice mix of hipsters, young professionals, working people, and shady quirky locals. Also reflecting the neighborhood, Harry’s is a bit of a hangout for the industry folks, I’ve run into many staff and kitchen folks from other local places while hanging out here. In a way, the crowd at Harry’s is Brighton in a box.

This is a neat little corner bar. Harry’s sells itself as a neighborhood bar, and although it’s owned by one of the bigger restaurant groups in Boston, they get a lot of things right here. Harry’s works pretty well as a typical “neighborhood bar”.

Harry’s is smaller than it looks, but it has a nice big bar. The dining area is raised, and hey, there’s a pool table. It has a nice T.V. setup no matter where you sit, and for a big game they bring down an old-style movie screen behind the bar. There are also enough T.V.’s spread out so they can show a couple of different games at once, which is nice if you want to catch, say, a Euro football match rather than the Red Sox. I always appreciate that in a bar setup.

The menu is somewhat elevated pub food. You can’t go wrong with the pulled pork or Cubano sandwiches, do yourself a favor and upgrade to the sweet potato fries for an extra buck.  The mac and cheese is pretty good and quite filling. The fresh ingredients they use really lift any dish. Some folks love the flatbread pizzas, I’m partial to the veggie quesadilla myself. They also have daily lunch specials, which always is a sign to me that a place lets a chef run a bit. Good things tend to happen when you let a good chef stretch his legs..

I really the food here, but what really keeps drawing me back is the rotating taps. I’m a sucker for rotating taps. There is nothing I enjoy more than walking into a place and spotting a new seasonal beer on tap, and a barman who knows what to recommend.  Many beer bars have tried putting in taps without taking the time to educate the staff about what they are serving. That just doesn’t work. Harry’s does not make this mistake, the barmen always know what they are serving, and will be happy to give a sample or two. Last time I was there, I had an Anderson Valley Winter Warmer, one of my favorite winter ales. Next time I go I will look forward to trying a new spring beer or two, I’m confident I’ll find something.

Harry’s is a place that is comfortable in its skin, a neighborhood spot with good food, good drinks, and the service here has always been great. It’s a very good place to watch a game. There is no place to park there, but maybe, the next time you are riding the B line, you should thing about hopping off for a pint.

Harry’s Bar and Grill – 1430 Commonwealth Ave

Brighton, MA 02135    (617) 738-9990

Budweiser Takes a Big Swing at the Little Guys

I am old enough to remember when being a New England Patriots fan that was not something to be particularly proud of. So when the Patriots win the Super Bowl, It’s still something I revel in, if just a little.

The day after the Big Game, I was not surprised to see my Twitter feed full of gloats from my fellow Patriots fans. I was, however, surprised to see my feed filled with angry rants about Budweiser.

I actually missed the commercial, but oh boy did it get my fellow beer nerds going. Later, when my heart rate receded after the best Super Bowl I’ve ever seen (PATS WIN!), I went back and watched it. It might have made me angry too, but instead it made me laugh.

Let me summarize the ad for you: Craft beer is sniffed, sipped, and fussed over by urban elite white males with weirdo facial hair and glasses. Budweiser is downed by Real Men in rowdy pubs throughout Real America, drunk straight from the bottle, not from some fancy-schmancy glassware. Oh, and it’s delivered by Lovely Serving Wenches. I guess in Bud world, women serve beer, they don’t drink it. But I digress.

Others out there in the craft beer world (see here, here, and here) have done a fine job of poking holes in the particulars of the commercial, the nonsense of “Beechwood aged,” the fact that Bud is actually owned by a Belgium conglomerate, or that the “Pumpkin Peach Ale” they poke fun at is brewed by a Budweiser subsidiary.

Budweiser has always sold itself as being a legacy beer, a beer that’s been brewed since 1876. It’s the beer Dad and your Grandpa drank on the porch listening to Red Sox games on the radio. Unfortunately, that image doesn’t seem to be working for them so well anymore. They are losing market share, particularly among younger drinkers LINK . Their new pitch is to make craft beer drinkers the nerds in the room, subject to humiliation and ridicule for drinking something a shade darker than amber. Feel free to walk up and steal their chicken wings. They have given up on competing on taste, it seems, and now want to sell beer based on social conformity.

Some might find this ominous. I just think it’s silly.

Which brings me back to being an old-time Patriots fan. In the bad old days, the Pats played in a terrible old craphole that had no seats, just metal benches. In New England. I believe the phrase “Freezing my ass off” began here. It was known as Schaefer Stadium, after another beer that my Dad used to drink. Perhaps, if Budweiser’s “Our beer ain’t made for sipping” angle doesn’t work out, Bud could go back to the old Schaefer slogan:

“The one beer to have when you’re having more than one.”

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Where I’m Drinking – The Tap Trailhouse – Government Center

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An unusual work thingy brought me to Government Center last week, and I decided to take the opportunity to try a new spot. I had heard some good things about both the food and the beer selection at Tap Trailhouse, so I stopped in to sample both.

Given the location right near Fanueil Hall, and its semi-hokey Paul Revere logo, I was a bit afraid that the Tap Trailhouse would be too touristy. When I first walked in, I was greeted by a very friendly gentleman in a suit and tie, so I became afraid that the place might be too upscale. My suspicion of upscalery seemed to be confirmed by the fact that the TV behind the bar was tuned to the Fox business channel, my worries about it being touristy were reinforced by the fake old-timey printing on the menu. Both of these fears were soon put to rest.

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The Tap Trailhouse is not a brand new place, but a remodeled, upscaled version of a semi-crappy beer bar named the Tap. I can’t remember a damn thing about the old Tap.  If I ever went in there, it didn’t make much of an impression. The “new” space is quite impressive, however. The bar is not too big and just a wee bit fancy. The theme of the place seems to be local craft beers and modern spins on traditional New England food. The beer list is pretty impressive, they have about twenty-five taps and feature smaller Massachusetts and New England brews. They promised me that they would be rotating the taps regularly, both for seasonal brews and to keep the variety. They don’t serve Bud, Miller, or any other national brand either on tap or in bottles, the closest they have to a “big beer” is Sam Adams. For a place in the heart of tourist country, that’s kind of brave. I chose a Slumbrew Happy Sol Hefeweizen, which was refreshing, light and a bit citrusy.  The bartender was nice enough to offer me samples of a couple of others. I do wish the beer menu would include the location of the brewery and alcohol content, but I’m nitpicking.

I was starving when I walked in, so it took me about two seconds to order the Country Rabbit Sausage, served with pickled cranberries and served on a johnnycake. It was delicious, and much more filling than it looked. Whille that was all I ate there, the appetizers look much more interesting than the rest of the menu – Harpoon venison chili, oyster tacos, blue crab nachos. I don’t see those kinds of things every day.

As to my fears of the place being pretentious and touristy, neither one proved true. The well dressed gentleman who greeted me was the manager covering the hostess station, he stopped by and asked me how my meal was and we talked beer for a few minutes. The Fox business channel soon gave way to football highlights. My neighbors at the bar were, like me, locals who were in the area on some type of business, we talked football and a bit of politics. It wasn’t busy at that time, service was quick, friendly and polite.

As much as I like a routine, and my regular haunts, every now and then it does me a bit of good to get out there and try something new. I don’t know when I’ll end up in Government Center again, but when I do, at least now I know a good place to stop.

pictures from Facebook

The Tap Trailhouse

19 Union Street, Boston, MA. 02108

 (617) 367-0033

 

Sometimes, a Hundred Taps is Too Much

I am a beer nerd.

I like beer. I also like beer bars, I like trying new beers that I have never had before, and get strangely excited when I see something new on the tap list. I like seeing something from a brewery that I’ve never heard of before, or trying a style that I’m not too familiar with.

Part of my life as a beer nerd is that I am a sucker for those click-bait “Best Local Beer Bars” lists. If you publish such a list, I will most likely read it.

I recently came across one such list on Thrillist, by Travis Talbot titled “The Best Beer Bars in 18 Boston Neighborhoods”.  It’s a pretty good list. I am more familiar with some spots than others, and there are a few that are still on my “get to” list (looking at you, Trophy Room) but overall I don’t think you can go wrong with any of these places.

Unlike Talbot’s list, however, many of these “Best Of” lists, are not written by locals, they are a result of a perusal of Yelp reviews, Google searches and fuzzy memories of a good bar someone went to once six years ago. Some writer from New York or Indiana or some such place makes a list and waits for his view count to grow. Talbot is a local guy who knows the scene here very well, but it’s true of a lot of pieces out there.

Many of these lists also promote a particular fallacy about beer bars: the idea that “More is better.” They find the spots with the most beer taps and decide that must be the place to go for craft beer. My favorite place to try new stuff, however, has about twenty taps, half of them devoted to craft beer, which are rotated regularly (often announced via a Twitter post, which makes me want to run there as fast as the bus will carry me).   Let me give you a short list of reasons why I prefer a smaller selection for my beer expeditions.

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I don’t get overwhelmed with the selection. Talbot lists The Sunset Grill as the best spot in my neighborhood, and I can’t fault him for that. It’s a very nice place, many of my fellow beer nerds love it. I, however, often find the selection a bit much. With 112 beers on tap, the process of finding the right beer is sometimes just too much.

I get better recommendations at a smaller place. Many spots, particularly the bigger chains, don’t take the time and energy to educate their staff on the selection, and truthfully, unless your bartender is some kind of beer savant, no one can remember the ins and outs of over a hundred beers anyway.

A smaller selection means that a good bartender knows what is there, and can make recommendations. They can tell you the characteristics of the beer, knows the style, and compare it to something else.  If you are drinking with your fellow beer nerds (also known as semi-creepy wierdos at the bar), they often chime in to give thoughts on the selection. We are beer nerds, we talk about beer, it’s what we do.

Managing over 100 taps is a bitch. Everyone knows that a tapped keg has a shelf life. A well-run place can manage the tapped kegs and pull them, empty or not, when it’s time. A place that doesn’t put in the time and training to do this, however, means a skunked beer waiting to happen. A place with twenty taps, however, has a much easier job of managing things.

In my little drinking spot, changing the taps is a big deal. They announced it on Twitter like a baby’s birth, a sort of bat-signal to the beer nerds. The rotating tap systems means I know everything is fresh, the seasonals are up to date, and I’ll have something new and exciting to try.

There are many big beer bars that do a fabulous job of these things. The Sunset Grille in Allston Village and Lord Hobo in Inman Square are two great examples from Talbot’s list. I visit these places, I sample their wares, but my drinking home will always be the place with the twenty taps, and the staff that knows how to run them.

Where I’m Drinking – Lulu’s, Allston MA

Lulu’s hasn’t been open too long.  I think they were counting on having the slow Allston summer to work out the kinks, but, alas, the World Cup happened, which spared no bar, so they had to get running quickly.

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Lulu’s is yet another sign of the ongoing “upscaling” of Allston.  It is a very nice place, bright, big windows, sort of an industrial lounge kind of look.  An afternoon lunch found parents and students, business people in shirts and ties, and a grad student reading Joyce.  They have quite an impressive beer selection, and the bartender knew her stuff, she was happy to talk beer and give out samples. I chose a Port Brewing Summer Pale Ale, which was quite light and tasty.  Lulu’s is most certainly beer-nerd friendly.

They have gotten very good press locally for their food, which could be described as upscale comfort food.  I went with the Lulu’s Burger, made with local cheddar and a secret sauce.  The secret sauce tasted like a mild aioli and was quite good.  The entire burger was very good, actually, one of the best in the neighborhood, perfectly cooked and a nice quality meat.  It was, however, too small for the bun.  The fries were fresh and good, nothing too special about them though.

It was a good lunch, and a fun experience, thanks mostly to the friendly staff.  It seems to be marketing to the business crowd that drifts over from Harvard and down from BU, but the beer selection and reasonable (though not cheap) prices should be enough to lure a bit of the Allston hipster crowd.  For now, I think they have a decent spot on the Allston scene.

Go For: Good food and a fun menu, good craft beer selection, friendly staff.

Lulu’s Allston

421 Cambridge St
Boston, MA 02134

*picture from website