A couple of Friday nights ago, it was hard to find a place to comfortably stand in World of Beer, McHenry Row's newest bar.
The beer emporium was celebrating its opening weekend, and the scene was what new owners dream of: wall-to-wall customers packed inside as an outdoor patio filled up simultaneously. A band played instantly recognizable songs on stage. There were at least 200 people on the premises.
It was obvious that World of Beer, a national chain founded in 2007, appeared to be off to a great start at its first Baltimore location. And that was part of the reason I wished I had come at another time.
According to its website, World of Beer began as a neighborhood tavern in Tampa, Fla., where hops enthusiasts could interact and discuss craft-beer culture. On my visit, such a conversation would have been impossible due to the foot traffic, constant conversations and general busyness by the never-ending bar. The band added to the cacophony with an eye-rolling song selection. (We do not need any more limp, bro-rock covers of Kanye West's "Heartless.")
As a few friends and I angled for position by the bar, we finally obtained a menu. Or was it a David Foster Wallace novel? The "hook" of World of Beer is its staggering selection, which includes more than 500 beers in cans and bottles, and 50 on tap. The beers are sorted by brewing location, and World of Beer rightfully takes pride in its range of products. (Smartly, beers brewed in Maryland were well represented on draft.)
But, at least on this busy trip, the vast selection felt overwhelming and impenetrable. I flipped through more than 12 pages of beers, and was still not sure where to begin. It would have been nice to talk the decision through with a bartender, but the unrelenting crowds would not allow it. How strong were the licorice notes on the Ommegang Abbey Ale ($5)? Did the Young's Double Chocolate Stout (also $5) taste too much like dessert? These are questions a menu can broach, but not answer as effectively as a human being.
Grabbing a bartender's attention long enough to place an order felt like a win on that Friday, and my gut tells me that was not how World of Beer's founders imagined a customer's experience. ("Every member of our staff attends 'Beer School' and we pride ourselves on how well we know our stuff," reads the website. That knowledge, paired with the selection, is World of Beer's strongest asset, and it was a shame we were not able to tap into it.)
While the customer service was fine overall, something seemed amiss when a friend ordered a Gavroche by France's Brasserie De Saint-Sylvestre from the menu. World of Beer did not have it, but that was not the issue, as bars sell out of products all the time. But when the bartender suggested we download the World of Beer app to see which beers were currently in stock ("It updates automatically," he pointed out), it seemed backwards.
Label me naïve or idealistic, but I simply do not want to use my phone at the bar more than I already do. Many of us stare at various glowing screens all day, and drinking a beer at the bar should remain a haven from that sort of technological dependency. Despite what our culture has us believing, not everything needs an app. It limits human interaction, and makes the exchange between bartender and patron seem cold and sterile.
Our trip to World of Beer was successful on one front: I had a delicious beer I had not tried before. The Sea Dog Blueberry Wheat Ale ($5) was refreshingly light and highly carbonated, which made it smooth and easy to drink. It's served with real blueberries, a garnish not used often enough in bars.
World of Beer likely will not be as busy as it was its opening weekend, or at least that is my hope. Like the perfect beer, the knowledge of a bar's staff is a sad thing to go to waste.
World of Beer
Back story: Since 2007, the expanding World of Beer franchise has made its name for its vast selection of beers. It has a loyalty program that rewards frequent patrons with free beer and T-shirts. World of Beer opened in McHenry Row in mid-October.
Parking: McHenry Row has two free parking garages. There is also metered parking on the street.
Signature drink: With more than 500 options, beer is the way to go here. I enjoyed the Sea Dog Blueberry Wheat Ale ($5), but you can also order a flight paddle ($8-$14), which is four 5 oz. samples of World of Beer's 50 drafts.