The Best Bar in America

by Erich Hennig on November 9, 2012

Recently, the Craft Brewers Association of America held a contest to try and find the “Best Beer Bar in America.” Members of the beer-drinking public were invited to vote through a website, and, not surprisingly, the winning institution is located in a place where the population within a 20-mile radius of the bar easily exceeds the total resident headcount of several Western states. More people equals more votes, and the numbers behind the math make perfect sense. But perhaps the calculus behind the concept is more intriguing — what makes a bar “the best?” It is a fascinating question: What makes a certain bar great, and another average? A question elusive enough that it has been ruminated upon in many MG Bar Issues. The subject is even lofty enough as to warrant treatment in a film of the same name as this column, currently in post-production/pre-release (see MG #154).

The theme is similar to the lifelong pursuit of the American dream that the good doctor, Hunter S. Thompson, undertook and used as a recurring motif throughout his writings — his mad search for any sign of the Aquarian-tinted, utopian hippie dream of the ’60s that captivated his imagination so, as reflected through the twisted lens of Las Vegas, or the alternate reality of a presidential campaign.

After reading most of what was published, it is unclear to this writer whether Thompson ever found what he was after, but what is clear is that much of the research was conducted in a wide variety of drinking establishments. And why not? For certainly, it is in the best bars in America where the elusive truth about our reality often appears, and wherein some of the finest that this country has to offer can be found …

For instance, take the Millsite Inn, located on the Peak-to-Peak Highway up above Ward, Colorado. Time was when an aspiring beer writer might take to the hills on a Saturday evening with his best girl, in search of some of that high-lonesome sound they kept talkin’ ’bout on the volunteer radio station each and every Saturday morning down in Boulder, and find himself and twenty other revelers in the company of local legends like Buck Buckner, Pete Wernick, the boys from Leftover Salmon and international prodigies like Radim Zenkel, the Czech virtuoso of all things mandolin. Long-haired, long-bearded, long-in-the-tooth mountain men sat in the shadows of the bar taking long tokes from cheap cigars and long pulls of rail whiskey while shooting dark looks from deepening brows at us long-haired, long-bearded, ne’er-do-wells as we asked the barmaid what was on tap other than Currs, a shame worth enduring to score a tall pitcher of Lefthand Brewing Co.’s Sawtooth or Odell’s 90 Schilling Ale (we still had to share our smaller but not-so-cheap cigars furtively outside between the vans, however).

Or take, perhaps, Alma’s Only Bar (aptly named, as the other drinking establishment in North America’s highest-elevationed incorporated town is a saloon), which was at this same time, as we found out, a great place to meet long-haired, long-bearded, long-in-the-tooth mountain men that were wacked out of their minds on LSD on a Saturday evening. A chance run-in with space cowboys is always disconcerting when oneself is not also trippin’, and, after a day spent learning to drop a knee at the hands of two “friends,” who also happened to be working ski patrol at Loveland that season, and subsequently in uber-physical shape from patrolling on tele for the two previous months, my beat-to-shit muscular and cardiovascular systems weighed with such force on my mental capabilities that the beguiling dudes in the corner talking excitedly about a string of completely unrelated abstractions just about threw me over the edge. ’Twas on this night that Alma’s Only Bar happened to have a new beer on tap, the now-august Hazed and Infused pale ale from Boulder Brewing Co. At the time, this was one of the most hopped-up beers on the market, and let’s just say that this experience did for hops and I what Burt Reynold’s mustache did in “Smokey and the Bandit” for D-bag dudes and the Pontiac Trans-Am. Yes, it was love at first sip, and the rest is history.

But to get back to my point … all the while he searched for his notion of the American dream, it seems to me that the good doctor was constantly looking for a twinkling reflection of his own vibrant “madness” in the twisted misshapen mirrors of the people he encountered. I don’t know if he ever saw it (perhaps in the strange moment that he relates where he is sitting for a few minutes alone with Nixon in the back of a limo talking football), but, if it happened elsewhere, it was not
mentioned, or I am remiss in my recollections. What I do know is this: While good beer on tap helps, the best bar in America is determined by the patrons. It’s you, and me, and the other freaks that sit and converse and share our wild dreams in these spaces and places about the matters and times that concern us that can make any bar the best bar in America, even if just for an evening.

Erich Hennig lives in Durango, CO, where he spends his leisure time brewing his own beer. Got your own thoughts about the best bar in America? Drop him a line at beer@mountaingazette.com. 

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