After drinking in hundreds of beer joints across the country - and blurbing more than 400 beer bars for his new book, touted as the "ultimate coast-to-coast road trip of craft beer" - craft beer connoisseur Christian DeBenedetti still can't define what makes an alehouse great.
"It's impossible to define a great beer bar, but you know it when you see it," says DeBenedetti, who claims a comprehensive guide to breweries, pubs and other beer-drinking establishments hasn't been published in over a decade.
DeBenedetti concedes greatness is partially contingent upon a bar's beer selection: He didn't devote any pages in The Great American Ale Trail: The Craft Beer Lover's Guide to the Best Watering Holes in the Nation to shacks specializing in Michelob Ultra. But he says there are no particular design elements, crowds, food menus or philosophies that reliably signal success in the beer-pouring business.
"The people and vibe combine," he says. "It doesn't seem like it came out of a box."
As examples, DeBenedetti points to Seattle's Beveridge Place and Latona Pub. "You have some excellent beer spots," the native Portlander coos. He's also fond of Pike Pub and Brewery, which is hosting a book signing on Thursday afternoon.
"In Seattle, you have that strong tradition of sitting in front of tanks and drinking," says DeBenedetti. "Some people are happy to sit in a converted warehouse with cardboard boxes all around."
But that happiness is a largely western phenomenon, DeBenedetti says. In eastern cities with longstanding beer traditions, such as Philadelphia, the tavern is still the most popular model for a watering hole. DeBenedetti tried to appease drinkers of all inclinations with his book, which includes bars from many American states - but not all of them.
"I knew I could never catalog every place worth visiting," says DeBenedetti, who complains he hears daily from readers about bars they think should have made the book. "It's a really good starting point."