To the unfamiliar eye, Max's Taphouse could easily blend into the hub of Fells Point's numerous other drinking establishments. The truth, however, is Max's sits atop a hill.
The hill is figurative, but the sentiment rings true given Max's standing as the gold standard of its neighborhood's bar scene. With 29 years of operation, and counting, under owner Ron Furman, Max's' combination of an educated staff, comfortable setting and a vast, nearly incomprehensible, beer list remains unmatched in the city.
As a regular customer of Max's but having never reviewed it, I felt the nagging need to give Max's its due.
Others across the country know the charms of Max's, too. With a score of 99 out of 100, it currently ranks No. 22 on craft-beer website RateBeer's "Top Beer Destinations" in the world. In its January issue, Draft Magazine named it one of the 100 best beer bars in the country. (The Brewer's Art was the only other Maryland establishment listed.) Last month, the website Thrillist also picked Max's as a top bar for beer fans. With good reason, word continues to spread outward.
But Max's will always belong to the city that evolved with it. While newer fans associate it with beer, longtime visitors remember the early years when it was the music venue Max's on Broadway. It is hard to imagine today, but where the main bar now sits used to be a stage that welcomed a wide range of top-tier talent like The Smashing Pumpkins, Arrested Development and even famed writer Hunter S. Thompson.
In early 1994, tired from long hours and an unstable music industry, Furman closed the chapter on Max's as a music venue, and eventually rebranded it as the beer-centric Max's Taphouse.
Today, to say Max's has a wide selection of beers is like saying the Orioles have a few fans. The man responsible for the head-spinning collection, longtime general manager Casey Hard, said Max's currently has 102 different beers on draft and "just shy" of 2,000 types of bottles. There are also five beer engines serving unfiltered cask ales. Of the 2,000 bottles, Hard said, roughly 25 percent are Belgians, but Max's makes sure to offer multiple options of stouts, porters, fruit beers and more. Bottles of macrobrews like Miller Lite and Bud Light are available because Max's does not want to alienate any customers, but you will not find the big-name domestics on draft.
That sounds intimidating, but the veteran staff — some employees, from managers to bartenders to greeters at the door, have been there for more than a decade, Furman said — is approachable, and eager to educate beer drinkers on flavors and trends. Recently, a friend randomly chose a Burley Oak Sorry Chicky ($6.50), only to be overpowered by its sourness. Our bartender asked her normal beer preferences, and redirected her to the more accessible Stone Go To IPA ($6.50). The exchange made the first-time visitor feel at ease, and said a lot about the experience Max's provides.
Beer prices at Max's (which range from $3.50 to $12) are reasonable, but not the cheapest in the city. That's OK, since most of us already have our favorite haunts for inexpensive beer anyway. You come to Max's for its selection and the experience it provides, and not for a cheap buzz. Price-wise, that could mean drinking fewer, but more interesting beers than one might with the usual domestic products.
While we rightfully celebrate Max's as a beer destination, its atmosphere feels underrated. It is often crowded, no matter the time or day, but never feels stuffy. In my experience, you rarely see the sloppy, had-too-much imbiber at Max's, and instead encounter a lot of easy-going people of many backgrounds and ages. Good beer tends to bring people together.
Max's is far from a sleepy beer library disguised as a bar. I have performed songs by Harvey Danger and the Notorious B.I.G. to a supportive, high-fiving crowd for Friday night karaoke. I once saw former Raven Jacoby Jones watching a game on TV just like everyone else around him. (OK, he signed a few autographs.) I watched President Obama win his second term from there.
What I respect most about Max's is it never seems complacent, whether it's tapping new beers daily or hosting weekly events like Wednesday Pint Night. The popular Belgian Beer Fest attracts a long line outside hours before opening, and it is not the only annual celebration Max's holds. It is also refreshing to see Furman addressing issues as they come up, like the recent banning of all e-cigarettes and vaping devices from inside. Max's operates the way I want all bars to — passionately, and with the customer experience in mind. To be ahead of the curve, which Max's was with craft beer, is noteworthy, and maintaining a sustainable model of excellence is even more impressive. Max's Taphouse can claim both, and it is safe to say the Baltimore bar scene would be unequivocally worse without it.