That Max's in Fells Point turned 25 in April should come as no surprise. It has long been canonized by beer snobs in Baltimore and across the country.
Its menu is so lovingly curated, smart and encyclopedic, even beer writer Michael Jackson would have been intimidated.
Max's has never taken its success for granted, and since September, the bar has refocused its beer menu on Belgian ales. Ron Furman, the owner, says the Belgian Beer Festival he started nine years ago has succeeded beyond his wildest expectations. Now, whether it's a byproduct or part of a growing trend, he has noticed a huge appetite for the rarer, more stubborn taste of Belgian beer.
But that's not why I visited Max's last week. I went to check out its new wing, located to the left immediately upon entering the bar. The area had been used before, but Furman and his team started redecorating it from scratch earlier this year to complement the new beer menu.
Furman says it's got the look of a traditional Belgian bar. Never having been to one, I can't really compare, but I can say that, by now, Max's can only improve with time, like one's palate.
The new wing consists of two sections. The first is a dining hall with lots of backless stools and a couple of high-top banquet tables.
As is the norm at Max's, it is baroquely decorated, overflowing with more knick-knacks than a cluttered secondhand store. A handsome antique cabinet fully stocked with beer bottles adorns one wall, a framed Duvel beer poster another.
The second section is a little darker, with most of the lighting coming from one of the bar's elaborate window displays. It has a bar, rows of stools and imitation stained-glass windows for wall decor.
When I came in late on a Wednesday night, Max's was crowded, but these two rooms were completely empty. Soon after I sat down, a group came in. Still, the room is a place to retire to for a quiet conversation away from the buzz in the rest of the bar.
Of course, this added space will also become useful when Max's hosts one of its beer tastings or the next Belgian Beer Festival. There are many other things to commend here.
For one, the use of salvaged material: Two high-top banquet tables are made out of recycled wood, refurbished for use at the bar. One of the benches is a former church pew. About the only brand-new thing in the room was a flat-screen, which was thankfully turned off.
Furman hasn't gone to the nearest Pottery Barn and filled his bar with faux-vintage junk. He's hired people who have turned items with a history into original set pieces.
This care isn't just appealing to the eye; it sends a signal that the owners have taken the time and care to fashion a memorable experience. For the budding beer drinker, it also creates a pleasant classroom.
Max's isn't just a place to come in for a quick beer. It should be a place you frequent often, making your way through the beer menu and gradually getting to know all the flavors, which have grown over the years to include 102 rotating drafts, 1,500 brands of bottled beer and five casks.
Service is predictably warm. I asked the bartender for a suggestion on a light ale, and before giving me a Palm Belgian Brown Ale ($5.25), he let me sample it.
Unfortunately, the kitchen was closed by 10 p.m. This is a missed opportunity for Max's. Rye, just a few doors down, has a menu to match Max's inventive streak — chorizo burgers! — and its kitchen stays open until late. Had Max's kitchen been open, I wouldn't have grabbed my last beer of the night down the street.
But after a quarter-century, Max's makes few other mistakes. It is a testament to a saying written on one of the ceiling beams: "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy."
Back story: Ron Furman opened Max's in Fells Point 25 years ago, and over time it has turned into a beer mecca. In recent years, it has also broadened its menu to include more Belgian beers. In September, it finished a new wing.
Parking: Metered street parking is available all over Fells Point.
Signature drink: Max's beer menu is a long one; try the Palm Belgian Ale or one of five cask beers, including Maryland's Flying Dog and Stillwater Artisanal.
Where: 737 S. Broadway, Baltimore
Contact: 410-675-6297, maxs.com
Open: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily
Price range: $5.25-$9 for drafts; food is $6-$14.