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Tour d'Ale: An insider's guide to the Howard County brewpub scene

Any foodie will tell you freshness matters. Same holds true for beer. When what’s in your glass was made on the premises, or by a nearby brewer on behalf of the establishment where you’re sipping your suds, it’s bound to taste better than it would if you were drinking a beer trucked in from Milwaukee or St. Louis.

The Anheuser-Busches and Miller Brewings of the world produce exponentially greater quantities for mass markets. Craft brewers have carved out a niche experimenting with ingredients and processes while catering to those seeking more pronounced flavor, something a little more exotic than Bud Light Lime.

The microbrewery phenomenon has given rise to the brewpub, where you wash down your lunch or dinner with a house ale. Some of these eateries go beyond burgers, wings and other tailgate fare to include the sort of meals you’ll find in tony bistros. Beer tastings kindle enthusiasm akin to that experienced by wine-lovers decades before, and some brewpubs augment their food and drink with live music.

Howard County is home to a handful of brewpubs, each with its own peculiar charms. There’s one in Savage and two in Ellicott City. Columbia’s Dobbin Road is a veritable Brewer’s Alley, with three brewpubs within a one-mile stretch.

Not sure which kind of ale or lager will suit you? Most of these places will either let you try a few sips of what’s on tap or sell you a sampler of between four and six small glasses. Ask your server.

We’ve assessed the local brewpubs’ offerings on a scale of one to five for the beer, the food, and service and atmosphere.

The Ale House
6480 Dobbin Center Way, Columbia
443-546-3640, thealehousecolumbia.com

The sister to Baltimore’s Pratt Street Ale House (which does the brewing for the new location, too), Columbia’s Ale House is the new kid in town, and occupies the location of the late Rocky Run Tap and Grill, in the little shopping center on the southwest corner of Dobbin Road and Route 175.

Beer: Whether you’re a hop head or a malt maniac, The Ale House has something you’ll like. Among the better selections from its house brand, Oliver Ales, are the blond ale, an American-style India pale ale (Draft Punk), an English bitter (Coventry Cream Ale), and a wonderfully flavorful oatmeal stout (Bishop’s Breakfast). 

Standouts: Panzer Division Destroyed, a creamy-headed, malty dark ale, and the Pagan Porter.  

Food: Based on what we tried, The Ale House is probably the strongest in this category among Howard County brewpubs. The spinach-and-artichoke dip rendered a subtle tang and came with warm, crisp tortilla strips that we couldn’t lay off of. The sour cream and rather pickly picante sauce that accompanied were unnecessary. Adobo pork, roasted pineapple, avocado and chipotle rémoulade melded nicely in tacos al pastor. The brick-oven-baked flatbread pizza offered something you don’t see every day: prosciutto, not in thin strips but in small chunks. That and the olives delivered a salty counterbalance to the roasted red peppers and mild mozzarella. The goat cheese gave it a little tang, and the crust was crisp outside, chewy inside. We also went for dessert this trip. The brownie-ice cream sandwich with its chocolate ganache lived up to guilty expectations, but the real star here was the bread pudding, a brioche doctored with vanilla bean crème, semisweet chocolate and a warm citrus-blond ale caramel.
  
Service/atmosphere: If you were blindfolded and taken inside, you wouldn’t know it was the same place that had been the checkered-tablecloths joint that was Rocky Run. The new management has gone to a more wide open and modern decor in which the multiple bars with their myriad taps figure prominently. Our server was friendly, patient and helpful.    

What’s brewing: “We brew in the traditional English way,” which includes English ale yeast and English hops, as well as open fermentation (as opposed to the sealed vats used in most American breweries), says brewmaster Stephen Jones. A native of Coventry who brewed in Britain for six years before he came to the States, Jones says he makes seven-barrel batches five times a week -- a small enough quantity that he can experiment. So when asked what he’s cooking up for the spring and summer, he replies, “Whatever I feel like when I wake up in the morning.”

He does have some recurring standbys, though, including Cherry Blossom Ale, a wheat beer made with pureed cherries, which he brought out again in March. Late April is the time for Golden Glory, which is made with ginger root. His main summer offering, Jacob’s Summer Celebration, is named for his son, who turns 3 on the Fourth of July. Moreover, the specs are based on Jacob’s birth weight -- 8.8 pounds -- and parentage. Jones makes the brew with 8.8 pounds of English bittering hops and 8.8 pounds of American finishing hops (Mom’s American). Jones even reverse-engineered the recipe so that the final product is 8.8 percent alcohol.

Rams Head Tavern
8600 Foundry St., Savage (Savage Mill)
301-604-3454, ramsheadtavern.com/savage

From its roots in Annapolis, the Rams Head franchise has blossomed into six locations and might be central Maryland’s signature watering hole, even though its house brews (Fordham and Dominion) are now made in Dover, Del.

Beer: The Tavern Ale is a true joy. This American pale ale gets its character from whole-leaf Cascade hops and achieves a wonderful balance of citrus bite and malty mellowness. The seasonally produced Scotch ale brings a pleasing bit of smokiness. The doppelbock is rich, smooth and, at 8 percent alcohol by volume, quite ... relaxing. 

Standouts: In November 2012, Fordham unveiled its latest brew, and it is a stunner. Rams Head IPA uses three different malts and three varieties of hops to achieve a truly great brew that tastes of orange peel, coriander and ginger.   

Food: The salad menu goes beyond what one would expect from a brewpub or tavern, including a roasted pear salad with baby spinach, blue cheese, red onion, dried fruits and candied cayenne pumpkin seeds. From there, the Rams Head menu becomes a bit more predictable, with its chili, chicken fingers, turkey club, cheesesteak, Reuben, etc. But there are a few twists, including shrimp and grits (not unusual in Louisiana, but somewhat exotic in these parts) and a Rio wrap (Southwestern hummus, guacamole, cilantro lime rice, red peppers, cheddar jack and shaved red onions). And on the burger menu, Angus beef can be swapped out for ground turkey, grilled chicken or a spicy black bean patty.  

Service/atmosphere:  The red brick of Historic Savage Mill provides a nice backdrop, whether in the dining room (including outdoor dining in season), bar or rathskeller. Service is generally friendly and prompt. The rathskeller hosts live music on weekends.  

What’s brewing: In March, Fordham released two seasonals: Dominion Cherry Lager and Wisteria Wheat. The former, says brewery spokeswoman Lauren Bigelow, is a lightly flavored beer that commemorates Washington, D.C.’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. The latter is a traditional, unfiltered German Hefeweizen. “This beer has notes of clove, banana and bubble gum and has won the U.S. Beer Tasting Championships wheat beer category many times,” Bigelow says.

Coming in summer is Beach House, a golden pilsner. “This beer is perfect for the warmer weather, as it is not weighed down by heavy malts or hops,” Bigelow says. “It leaves the drinker feeling very refreshed.”

What sets the Rams Head group apart, says vice president Erin McNaboe, is freshness. “With Fordham, we get extremely fresh beers (brewed less than 100 miles away from the restaurant) and unique seasonal selections each month. We particularly like the Rams Head IPA.” We’ll drink to that.

Pub Dog Pizza & Drafthouse
8865 Stanford Blvd., Columbia
410-872-0364, pubdog.net

Pub Dog Pizza & Drafthouse is in the same shopping center off Dobbin Road where Frisco Grill used to be. Like The Ale House, it’s an offshoot of a Baltimore brewpub.

Beer: From the top to the bottom of the beer list, Pub Dog’s house brews are the class of the county. The White Dog delivered a solid wheat beer earthiness, yet was smooth enough to charm our light-beer-drinking assistant. The Brown Dog ale’s mellow maltiness satisfied, and the chocolate oatmeal stout bathed our gullets in coffee and heady breadiness. We skipped the fruity beers (blueberry, raspberry, peach), but if you’re into that sort of thing, we’re confident Pub Dog’s offerings won’t disappoint.     

Standouts: We’re partial to India pale ales and had some good ones at each of these places, but the best of the bunch was the Imperial Dog. Pub Dog’s menu describes it as an “aggressively hopped double-IPA.” That sort of verbiage usually indicates a beer that’s more about machismo than flavor, much like hot sauces guaranteed to peel paint. That’s not the case here, though. The bitterness in this brew enhances its subtly citrusy flavor instead of burying it.

Food: With a menu devoted mainly to thin-crust pizza, Pub Dog is clearly focused on the beer, but there’s joy to be had in that simplicity. The house salad was crisp and fresh, and came with four wee slices of wonderfully garlicky white pizza. The pesto chicken pizza didn’t skimp on the basil and was excellent as lunch leftovers, too. The genius dish, though, was the Thai chicken pizza (talk about East meets West). Hoisin sauce and scallions give it a tasty tang, and peanuts (yes, peanuts!) bring it gently back to earth.   
Service/atmosphere: Dark and woody, Pub Dog’s dining area is a fine place to meet friends and relax, but the wide open bar area is well suited to singles looking for friends they haven’t met yet. Service was friendly, but a bit uneven. 

What’s brewing: For managing partner Drew Walston, the question of what makes his place distinctive is easy. “The beer we brew is the only beer we sell,” he notes. “So we try to have a wide range of beers that will appeal to everybody, and not just go after the beer geek.” There’s also the offbeat way those brews come to the customer:  Two 8.5-ounce mugs at a time. Walston says the practice is inspired by McSorley’s Ale House, New York City’s oldest continuously operated saloon.

Recent Pub Dog releases include a Belgian-style pale ale called Belgian Shepherd, and Good Hop Bad Hop, which earned a gold medal in the specialty/experimental category at the Brewers Association of Maryland’s 2012 Governor’s Cup. Summertime will bring a yet-to-be-named German pilsner.

Frisco Tap House & Brewery
6695 Dobbin Road, Columbia
410-312-4907, friscogrille.com

Even when Frisco Taphouse & Brewery was in a much smaller space farther north on Dobbin Road, it had an insane number of beers on tap. Now in roomier digs, Frisco has its own brand, Push, front and center.

Beer: With 53 different drafts available, you’re bound to find one that works for you. The house brand, though, won’t knock your socks off. For one thing, the samples we got were warm. True, getting your beer too close to freezing will mask the flavor, but you do want it chilled. The pumpkin ale had a nice spice note, and the Hole Shot IPA displayed good balance. 

Standouts: The head-and-shoulders winner here is actually a joint project with Frederick’s Flying Dog Brewery (Frisco also collaborates with DuClaw Brewing Co.), the Punk Bitch IPA. Not as spicy as Flying Dog’s Raging Bitch, it nonetheless carries loads of flavor.

Food: In addition to the requisite nachos and wings, the appetizer menu includes Thai chili shrimp and crab Louie. We shared an appetizer of mussels steamed in Natty Boh (National Bohemian beer), garlic butter and chorizo and served with two slices of baguette. These were very good, and the sausage added a nice bit of zing. The burgers and other sandwiches seem pretty pedestrian, although the salmon burger looks intriguing. The half-dozen entrées include shrimp kabab with saffron couscous, avocado emulsion and chili oil; a seared mahi fillet with polenta, baby spinach, mango salsa and a lemongrass vinaigrette; jambalaya; and sockeye salmon à la provençal, which we sampled. The white bean ragu, tomato relish and red wine vinegar that accompany it put an appealing spin on the dish. The fish itself was meaty and flavorful. We were less pleased with the arugula salad. It comes with grape tomatoes and some very lightly fried goat cheese, which by itself was very good. But the overall effect suffered greatly because of a bland, thin dressing applied much too liberally. Dessert: The crème brulée was nice and creamy, but the bread pudding didn’t come close to the Ale House version. 

Service/atmosphere: We dined at Frisco’s on a Tuesday, trivia night. So at the host’s suggestion, we eschewed the bar area and sat in the small dining room where brewing vats sit behind glass. This situation probably contributed to our wait times being longer than we’d have liked, but it doesn’t excuse having to ask for silverware not once, but twice. The other problem with not sitting in the bar was that we couldn’t read Frisco’s extensive beer list posted there. Our server informed us that we could access the list online using our smart phones, and that worked OK, but why not have a beer menu in print form for dining room customers (who might not even be carrying phones)? In addition to Tuesday trivia, Frisco hosts live acoustic music on Saturdays.

Bare Bones Grill & Brewery
9150-22 Baltimore National Pike (Route 40), Ellicott City
410-461-0770, barebonesgrill.com

The name’s a bit of a misnomer. While Bare Bones Grill & Brewery still offers its own house beers, Baltimore’s Clipper City does the actual brewing.

Beer: Why anyone patronizing a brewpub would order a light beer is beyond us, but Bare Bones has one of its very own: Hunt Valley Light. We’d suggest that those looking for something smoother go instead for the Patapsco Valley Gold, which at least carries some flavor, courtesy of Saaz hops. Seven Hills Hefeweizen’s subtle flavor gets overwhelmed by the lemon wedge Bare Bones serves with it. The IPA and brown ale are good, but not great. 

Standouts: The clear winner at Bare Bones is its Savage Mill Porter, which has a maltiness you can roll around in your mouth.

Food: This is a barbecue joint, but we’ve never actually had the ribs there (we’re saving our fingers for crab feasts). On our recent lunchtime visit, though, we had the closest thing: a barbecue pork sandwich. It was a generous portion but without the smoky flavor the menu promised, and it came on a nondescript kaiser roll. The side dishes redeemed somewhat. The cole slaw was fresh and crisp — not too soupy and not too sweet — and the corn fritters were delightfully crisp and tender, with a touch of sweetness that made them the star of the plate. Ribs, steaks and a few fish dishes serve as the backbone of the dinner menu, but crab figures prominently among the appetizers, including crab dip, crab pretzel and a crab mac-and-cheese. You can also get wings seasoned with Old Bay. 

Service/atmosphere: Bare Bones is cozy enough, and we’ve never had any particular problem with the service, but neither have we been blown away on either count. Wednesday is trivia night, and there’s live music -- mostly blues and acoustic -- Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Ellicott Mills Brewing Co.
8308 Main St., Ellicott City
410-313-8141, ellicottmillsbrewing.com

Established in 1997, Ellicott Mills Brewing Company is the first place that comes to mind when you think of Howard County brewpubs. Its location in one of Main Street’s old stone buildings gives it a throwback vibe that evokes the brewer’s ancient art.

Beer: Ellicott Mills has eight different varieties of its Alpenhof house brew on tap, half of them seasonals that are rotated through the mix. If you’re a fan of bock beer, you’re in luck. Ellicott Mills bills itself as “the house of bocks,” a producer of more varieties of the dark, malty lager than any other in the United States. The house brews lean heavily toward German styles and the malt side of the malt-hop spectrum, so if you like an ale with some bitter bite, you might want to stray from the Alpenhof offerings here.   

Standouts: They won’t have it this time of year, but in the fall Ellicott Mills does a very nice pumpkin ale. If you really want the whole experience, they’ll dust the rim of your glass with cinnamon and sugar, but some beer snobs will turn their noses up at that.

Food: The menu includes crab cakes and Caribbean chicken, but there’s a strong undercurrent of Oktoberfest, with sausage on both the starter and main-dish menus, a Bavarian soft pretzel sticks appetizer and kasseler rippchen, a pair of pork chops smoked and brined in the Bavarian style. Further contributing to the rustic flavor is a venison steak pan-fried with scallions and deglazed with beer to make a brown sauce.  

Service/atmosphere: Like the rest of Main Street Ellicott City (only more so), Ellicott Mills exudes a bohemian sort of charm that makes it fun and relaxing (once you’ve secured a parking spot). Servers are friendly and efficient, the bartenders well versed in what’s coming out of the taps.
   
What’s brewing: In the world of craft beers, pale ales and India pale ales get most of the attention. Ellicott Mills zigs where most brewpubs zag. “We make a lot of lager,” head brewer Ray Andreassen says, including Ellicott Mills’ dizzying variety of bocks. “So we can offer something that everyone can enjoy.”
A couple of bock beers will re-emerge in the spring: Alphenhof’s Red Bock and the German-style Mai Bock. Ellicott Mills also will have a wheat beer on tap. For the summer, Andreassen will be making Helles Bock, a lighter brew.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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