A Taste For Beer

For Ellicott City Pub Owner And Home Brewer, The Sky's The Limit When It Comes To Providing A Choice Of Brews

July 26, 2009|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to The Baltimore Sun

When Michael Johnson says he is "over-the-top passionate about beer," he is undeniably understating the case.

And when the Ellicott City pub owner and home brewer says he can talk for hours about his beverage of choice, that estimate is on the low side.

A plethora of beer trivia pours out of Johnson as effortlessly as his priciest brew glides down a customer's parched throat. He reminds a listener of what a computer search engine might sound like if it were able to read all of its facts aloud.

What's the oldest continuously operated brewery in North America? That would be Molson, founded in Canada in 1786. How about the oldest brewery in the United States? Yuengling, begun in Pennsylvania in 1829, holds that distinction.

Need a thorough explanation of how beer is made? Got that covered, too - step by incredibly detailed step.

The intuitive "beertender" has an answer for everything he's asked, as well as for queries still forming in the recesses of a questioner's mind. He knows what people want to know before they do.

"I read a great quote once," Johnson said, good-naturedly acknowledging his healthy gift of gab. "It goes, 'Talking to someone who makes their own beer is like talking to a religious fanatic about the day he saw the light.' "

Though it's been more than two years since the beer aficionado and his wife, Jane Johnson, became the owners of a longtime Main Street watering hole called the Judge's Bench in April 2007, his mission remains unchanged.

Day by day, he is working to shake up the status quo by enlightening local patrons about the nearly bottomless realm of possibilities in the beer universe.

There are tens of thousands of beers in the world, said Johnson, 60. After working at it steadily for 40 years, he lays claim to having tasted between 1,500 and 2,000 of them.

"Even if you lived to be 150, you couldn't sample them all," proclaimed the retired manager of a two-store pizza franchise in Baltimore County. "Why limit yourself to one flavor?"

Johnson offers 80 draft beers, rotated regularly on 17 taps, and another 80 bottled beers. Customers will never see the same beers on tap two days in a row, he said, no matter how popular they are.

"One of the main things we have cultivated here since the get-go is offering the maximum number of choices," he said of the pub, which can accommodate 67 patrons.

He also serves other beverages in the bar, along with typical pub fare from the kitchen on the second floor, where a jukebox, foosball and darts are available.

His beer selection is limited only by his location on Main Street, "where the water table is right under our feet," he said with a glance at the tiled floor. Since no basement means he can't have a walk-in refrigerator downstairs, his cold storage is actually outside the building.

Despite that seeming inconvenience, Johnson said the pub was the first place he walked into where he could imagine himself as the owner.

The exposed brick from the building's 19th-century beginnings and the Old World ambience of the historic district were so attractive that the couple decided to live on the building's third floor.

"Mike is located off the beaten path, yet he's still built up his customer base," said J.R. Woolsey, territory manager in Maryland for Baltimore-based Clipper City Brewing Co.

"He is certainly one of the most knowledgeable people I know," he said. "And I think the Judge's Bench is one of the more underestimated craft-beer bars in the U.S."

Johnson employs four bartenders who are also well-versed in the language of beer.

"They have to be passionate," he said of his staff. "When a customer wants a hint about a beer, the person serving it needs to have a clue."

With vast knowledge comes strong opinions, but the beer merchant prefers not to be pushy.

"I'm a geek and a nerd about beer, but I don't want to be snobby," he said. "When you're trying to convert people, there's a small danger of leaning that way."

It's a fine line to walk, he admits, comparing more elite beers to their popular, but less artistic, counterparts.

"Is a Beethoven symphony better than a pop song?" Johnson asked. "Anyone who would deny that is insane. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't listen to pop music."

Adhering to that analogy, he gladly serves Miller, Budweiser and Coors, though he'd rather be talking about Scrimshaw Pilsner, Hopback Amber or Loose Cannon, to name a few.

Customers often ask Johnson what beers top his list, but that's a question he can't answer.

"Having someone ask me to name even my 100 favorite beers would be my idea of hell," he said. "There are just too many good ones."

And while he strives to keep his preferences to himself, Johnson said he breaks that code of silence on occasion.

"Even I won't hide my disdain for Natural Light," he said of the Anheuser-Busch product. He recently persuaded a regular consumer of that brand to try another pils- ner, which she was surprised to discover she liked, he said.

And as a father of two daughters who were well-educated in beer, Johnson almost experiences a parental satisfaction in observing patrons as they taste something new.

"I never miss an opportunity, even if I see just the tiniest glimmer of 'What's that?' when a customer takes notice of a new beer on tap," he said.

"I always say, 'I'm glad you asked!' "

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