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Bad To Good

May, 1998

By Bobby Bush

This is the third and final installment covering our first trip to Baltimore and, actually, the state of Maryland in pursuit of beer.

Our trip almost ended on a sour note. After driving way too long on this Sunday morning, we finally found Champion Billiards Sports Cafe in the northern town of Towson, not Baltimore as our brewpub list had it. I should learn to call for directions.

Part of a chain of spots bars, Champions, which includes the Looking Glass Brewery, opened in 1996. The facility hides at the back of a strip mall off I-95, behind a crazily busy Home Depot. After all the hassle of getting there, we were looking forward to a good beer and a peaceful lunch.

I should have known when I read the sign explaining that Champion was a 24 hour operation (it no longer is), that our quest for calm and tranquillity would go unanswered. Sports displays hung from every wall. State-run keno games flashed their colorful displays. And actually the pizza and burger were good.

We ordered a sampler tray to quench curiosity. Whether it was the Grid Iron Golden or Derby Brown Ale, each brew held the same sulfury smell. Noting that it was probably due to the detergent or rinsing process used in cleaning these small glasses, we quickly tasted through the low-body Red Line Ale, thin and aroma-less Three Putt Pale Ale and sour Bitter. The Palooka Porter was practically sulfur on sulfur, so we switched to the guest beers. Thank goodness Hempen Golden Ale and Harpoon IPA were on tap, though they were served in 14 oz disposable plastic cups. Pretty classy!

We had a word with the innocent barmistress about dirty glasses and headed for the door. Key in the ignition. Doors locked. Without looking back we declared Champion Billiards the new champ in the country’s worst beer contest.

With plenty of time before our late afternoon flight, we decided to detour west of the city on our way south in order to visit two brewpubs in Ellicott City. Out on the main highway, Bare Bones Grill & Brewery is one of those typical family rib places. But this one added a brewery in mid-95. Though we had little time to tarry, we did partake of two of Bare Bone’s six brews. Tiber River Red had a nice hop flavor with no aftertaste, while the IPA was strong in hop flavor, leaving a long lasting tingle on the tongue. From the brewery at the far end of this long island bar, also came Patapsco Valley Gold, Blueberry Wheat, Old Ellicott Ale and Savage Mill Porter. Maybe another time.

Asking directions, it took a few minutes to travel to the old downtown section of Ellicott City, which appears to be one of those quaint off-the-beaten path towns trying to instill the spirit of tourism where once stood an aging mill town. Amidst gift shops and Christmas stores, right on Main Street, we found an oasis in Ellicott Mills Brewing Company. Open since the Spring of 1997, like Baltimore Brewing Company, Ellicott Mills brews only German-style lagers. Owner and brewer Martin Virga schooled and apprenticed in Germany, working for Kaiserbrauerei, a medium-size family-held brewery.

In what once served as a lumber yard building, Ellicott Mills’ shiny copper brewery can be seen from the street. There are 140 seats for dining upstairs, cigar bar in the basement, but we followed our standard routine and slid up to the bar. Checking our watches, we apologized to the attentive bartender and zeroed in on two selections. At 5.1% the Alpenhof Dunkel, dark red in color, was smooth and lagery with a tinge of hoppiness slightly off-setting a fruity mouthfeel. Stronger at 6.7%, the Alpenhof Maibock was light-bodied and winey. Low in bitterness but not sweet, we preferred Baltimore Brewing’s version tasted the day before. We said our good-byes to the staff, leaving a Dunkel, Hell and Marzen behind, and set out toward the airport. Another glorious weekend of beer and loafing had come to an end all too soon. Thanks for joining us.

Seven brewpubs, six of them memorable- be sure to put Baltimore on your travel itinerary.

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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