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

(photo by Brian Krista )
March 20, 2013|By Doug Miller

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.”

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