Last weekend, Alewife opened about 0.4 miles north of Gate H at Camden Yards. Always on the lookout for great beer, especially within a short walk of the ballpark, I thought I better check it out. It was well worth the trip.
As anyone who visited the building in its former incarnation as Maggie Moore's or Lucy's can attest, Alewife is an impressive bar space. High ceilings, ample seating, beautiful stained glass windows; it's tough to imagine a better setting for a drink. And, speaking of drink, Alewife aims to please. The bar has 40 draft lines and, once they're fully up and running, will stock more than 100 different bottles. If they regularly pour a draft lineup anywhere near as good as their debut efforts, though, that bottle list will be superfluous. After much consternation, I decided to try a Jolly Pumpkin Calabaza Blanco ($8) and a Smuttynose Big A IPA ($5), both new to me. Other options included beers from Oscar Blues, Bear Republic, Green Flash, Stone, and Victory, several Belgians, and a healthy selection of IPAs (hops seem to be the owners' Achilles heel). I chatted with a knowledgeable bartender, Brian, who explained that the beer list will change regularly, with one or two taps changing on a daily basis that so every two to three weeks nearly the entire list will turnover, keeping the beer fresh and regulars from getting bored. There are also plans in the works to regularly put casks on the bar, but a permanent pump system is unlikely. As for food, I really enjoyed my Smoke Burger ($14). The beef was of very high quality and actually cooked to order (medium), while the gruyere, gouda and bacon topping was a divine combination. Oh, and did I mention the rosemary garlic duck fat fries? Fantastic. I can't wait to go back and try the Cubano ($12).
Two early criticisms I've seen of Alewife are 1) a lack of local beer and 2) bartenders who weren't beer geeks. As to the first, while Flying Dog Pale Ale was the only Maryland beer on tap, I would certainly define Victory and Dogfish as local brews. Heavy Seas is sure to make an appearance in the rotation, and, hopefully, Troegs and Stoudts will soon follow. Personally, it doesn't matter to me if there are only one or two Maryland options at any given time since local beer has become fairly ubiquitous (at least at the places I visit). At a place with a draft list like Alewife, I like to branch out and try new things. However, I certainly think local beer needs to have a strong presence; treating the locals guys right will only benefit the business. Guys like Hugh Sisson and Steve Jones are tremendous advocates for craft beer and the local beer scene, and showcasing their products is important.
As for the second, I had no problems with my two bartenders. Before Alewife opened, the owners sponsored a two week intensive seminar for all the bar and wait staff where they tasted more than 200 beers across two full weeks of training, and the research seems to have paid off. The staff could certainly explain broad style differences between beers, and while I didn't test for intricate knowledge of subtle differences between the Belgian brews, I was offered a sample of the two IPAs I was trying to choose between. Aside from perhaps the beer geekiest of craft drinkers, I can't imagine most people needing more technical knowledge from their barkeep.
Of course, I've largely ignored the elephant in the room when it comes to Alewife: location. The bar is gorgeous, the draft list impressive, and the food delicious. But will all that be enough to draw in paying customers? I certainly hope so, and I'm optimistic. In recent months, several new (albeit lunch focused) restaurants have opened in the same block, and this area is the focus of an incredible (after accounting for the recession) amount of new commercial investment; plus, the new owners are saying all the right things about being committed to the neighborhood's renaissance. During the day, there are plenty of office and hospital workers, plus students from several schools, in the area, but will those people stick around for happy hour or trek back on a Saturday night? Special events--like the upcoming October 1 Stone Brewing event--should help. Still, while there are countless reasons, from poor cash flow management to bad food, that restaurants fail, it is an ominous sign that both Maggie Moore's and Lucy's didn't make it in the same location. Let's hope the third time is the charm, because Alewife is an excellent addition to the Baltimore beer scene.