By Matt Kresconko
Beer isn’t just about who has the best commercials anymore. To many, it’s about the wide range of flavors and styles that are being produced by the thousands of small craft brewers across the globe. Pairing a bottle of beer with your dinner, instead of pairing a six pack with your recliner.
People in their younger twenties are coming of age, in a beer-drinking sense, wondering why anyone would choose the alternative. It’s not just hipsters that are embracing craft beer, willing to pay more for better brews. It’s baby boomers that lived on Bud, Miller, and Coors for decades.
I’ve been a craft beer lover for the better part of a decade. It’s not just a beverage for me, it’s a hobby. I love reading about it, talking about it, brewing it, and writing about it. When I head out, I’m looking for craft beer. The best places don’t necessarily have the most taps. Beer is a perishable commodity, especially draft beer. An old keg, or dirty draft lines can produce putrid flavors that no brewer would want you to taste in their beer. What I look for is places that love their craft beer as much as I do, and prove that to me on a consistent basis with knowledgable service and fresh untainted beer. So, where’s the best beer bars in Buffalo? Here are my nominations:
- Blue Monk
727 Elmwood Ave. Buffalo, NY
The number one spot for beer in Buffalo. A giant blackboard listing the 32 taps showcases craft brewers from around the globe. Belgian and American beers are often joined by German, Italian, Dutch, and Norwegian offerings. Patrons typically order by the number of the tap, instead of attempting to properly pronounce their choice to the bartenders. “I’ll have an eight,” is much easier than “I’ll have a Duchesse de Bourgogne.”
If one of the taps doesn’t suit you, a bottle list of over 75 high quality options is available. Draft selections are priced between $6 and $9, while bottles range from $5 all the way up towards $30 for the best of the best.
The front patio, backyard beer garden, and garage doors that can open up to the Elmwood Avenue sidewalk during warmer weather, provide plenty of great spots to sip your beer. Special tastings and brewery release parties, among other beer related revelry help put Blue Monk atop the list.
Beer drank on recent visit: New England Brewing Gandhi Bot. A world class Double IPA that brilliantly showcases the citrusy, pine flavors and aromas of the hop varieties used. High in bitterness, due to massive hop additions, these flavors are balanced out by a light caramel sweetness at the end of your sip.
IPA stands for India Pale Ale, a brewing style invented by 19th century British brewers, who added more hops than normal to send beer to India that would withstand the travails of sea voyage without spoiling. The evolution of the IPA continues today, with ever increasing varieties of hops.
Double IPAs, also commonly referred to as Imperial IPAs, provide the canvas for brewers to create hoppy masterpieces. High in alcohol (7.5-10% ABV), the best double IPAs are dangerously drinkable, and some of the most sought after beers around the world. I adore Gandhi Bot not only for its taste, but also its aroma.
2. Pizza Plant
7770 Transit Road Williamsville, NY
Pizza Plant has two restaurants in the area, one on Main Street and the other on Transit Road. When in search of the best craft beer, I prefer the Transit location because not only are there better tap options, but there’s more bar stools too.
Pizza Plant feels a bit like a chain restaurant, but what it lacks in ambiance, is more than made up for with the only tap and bottle list in the area to rival Blue Monk. Twenty eight taps plus one cask conditioned beer include only high quality offerings.
Cask conditioned beer is a rarity in Western New York. It involves beer that undergoes a secondary fermentation and natural carbonation while in the cask. The resulting beer is hand pumped into your glass at a temperature usually in the mid-50s Fahrenheit, producing a uniquely smooth beer, with flavors that can change in the cask by the day. Draft beers at Pizza Plant are $6 to $7, but the way to go is with a Draft Card, which fetches you 15 drafts for $55. It’s a great deal.
The bottle menu of 30+ choices has interesting, hard to find beers from an array of styles, including some great sour beer options, such as Oude Gueuze Tilquin. Bottles can be enjoyed at the bar, or taken home for a nightcap. Pizza Plant also hosts many special events and beer tastings, making them a cornerstone of the craft beer community in Buffalo.
Beer drank on recent visit: Sierra Nevada Narwhal (cask-condtioned). Having drank this beer several times out of the bottle, I was excited to see how it would be on cask. Narwhal is not for the faint of heart, going into the glass looking like motor oil at 10.2% ABV.
This beer is like biting into an espresso bean coated with bitter dark chocolate. A touch of molasses like sweetness in the finish rounds out this beast of a beer that could be enjoyed in place of dessert. I enjoyed the cask conditioned version a bit better because of the smoother mouthfeel with a little bit of creaminess. This beer can be aged in its bottle form for years to help smooth out some of the harsher flavors.
3. Gene McCarthy’s
73 Hamburg St. Buffalo, NY
Located in the Old First Ward, McCarthy’s has been serving up beer for decades, but just within the last few years has it become a stop for craft beer lovers. The long, slightly uneven bar remains the same. Old photographs hang in the same spot they’ve occupied for years.
What’s changed is the blackboard mounted opposite the bar, that lists the 11 taps, that all go for $5 a pour. Not a bad deal, considering some of the same options can be found for a dollar or two more at other bars in the city. McCarthy’s focuses on beer from states that border Lake Erie, primarily New York state craft brews.
Alongside the mainly local taps, McCarthy’s just recently started serving their own beer brewed next door to the bar, under the name Old First Ward Brewing. Fewer taps than some other places might serve, but this allows the bar to focus on the freshness of what’s on tap, according to co-owner Bill Metzger. Monthly beer dinners that regularly sell out, as well as beer school events, which are typically $10-$20, and teach about specific styles of beer and include beer tastings help elevate Gene McCarthy’s into a top notch beer bar.
Beer drank on recent visit: Community Beer Works The IPA. The freshness of this beer comes through with the amazing aromas of tropical fruits and citrus. It’s not overly bitter, allowing you to enjoy more than one glass in a sitting, and still be able to appreciate the juicy, fruitiness of the hops. This well balanced IPA is a beer that Buffalo can be proud of on a national level.
3298 Genesee St. Cheektowaga, NY
This corner bar on Genesee Street, a mile past the airport, wouldn’t appear to have a world class beer list. The dimly lit bar is packed full of dart boards and pool tables with hand written signs strewn across the ceiling documenting some of the “house rules.”
Crabapples doesn’t try to be fancy. The beer isn’t trying to be fancy either. Almost all of the 38 taps are poured into pint glasses for $3 a beer. Gulden Draak, Piraat Ale, and Petrus Aged Pale being served up in pint glasses?
Some beer snobs might be astounded at the quality of beers being poured into pints here, but owner Peter Orfanos relishes the opportunity to have craft beer not just be available, but also approachable to everyone. Especially for clientele that would normally just order a bottle of Labatt Blue, because as Orfanos puts it, “Once they taste quality, they’re never going back.” Crabapples is a Cheektowaga corner bar on a craft beer crusade, and a must stop for Western New York craft beer explorers.
Beer drank on recent visit: Petrus Aged Pale. An effervescent and mouth puckering Belgian sour beer. Sour beers are not only fermented using typical ale or lager yeasts, but are then introduced to other bacteria including Lactobacillus, Pediococcus, and Brettanomyces. These bacteria can present a wide range of flavors from tart and fruity to dry and hay-like.
Typically, a sour ale is aged in oak barrels, where these various bacteria become happy residents, producing some of the finest beers in the world. In the Petrus Aged Pale, tart apples and a lemon like taste, mix perfectly with sweet bready malts and some oak from the barrel to create a complex beer that begs you to take another sip. This is the type of beer that could prove to a wine drinker just how complex and wide ranging craft beer can be.
5. Sterling Place Tavern
1487 Hertel Ave. Buffalo, NY
Forty-five minute waits are customary for their burgers, and with no set hours, the bar might not even be open when you get there. It’s all part of the unique personality of Sterling Place Tavern. A casual, come as you are attitude welcomes the first-timer just the same as the neighborhood regular.
With two old twenty-five inch televisions tucked into the top corners of the bar, Sterling isn’t the best place to watch a game. But this laid back bar is the perfect spot to catch up with a friend over a delicious craft beer. With 12 taps, there is always at least one authentic German option. A few taps are typically devoted to local Buffalo breweries, to go along with other frequently changing domestic choices from coast to coast.
The house beer, Old Speckled Hen, is an English bitter, poured through a nitro tap which helps create a thick, creamy, long-lasting head. An aroma and taste of fresh baked bread with just a touch of toffee sweetness produce a very drinkable, yet flavorful beer, that can be enjoyed throughout an evening.
Sterling Place also focuses on proper glassware. Not just different styles of glassware, but more often than not, a beer will be poured into the brewery specific glass, akin to the style of an old European beer bar. Sterling can be a comfortable and welcoming place, as long as their door is open when you get there.
Beer drank on recent visit: Ayinger Oktoberfest Marzen. Oktoberfest style beers are very smooth and clean tasting amber lagers that accentuate the flavors of the varied malts used. Ayinger is often considered to be one of the best in the world. Toasted bread and caramel malt flavors dominate, with just enough hop bitterness to offset the sweetness.
Matt Kresconko, who blogs at buffalobrewhound.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @BfloBrewHound on Twitter.
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