The beer periodical Draft Magazine just released its 100 best beer bars for 2012. The bars are organized by region: west, midwest, northeast, and south. Looking at the list, I have been to three of these locations, Toronado in San Francisco, The Flying Saucer in Houston, and the Bier Baron/Brickskeller in Washington, DC. They’re pretty great beer bars, that’s for sure. But one thing sort of bothered me about the list. Almost all of its bars were from big cities, heavy on tourists, known for their culture. It struck me that there had to be some places from smaller cities (not even smaller though, as the Fuel and Fuddle in Pittsburgh is a great beer bar) that would be deserving of a place on the list. Now, I’m not really surprised that Albany’s own Mahar’s did not make the list. But not seeing it on there really got me thinking about what makes a great beer bar (and everyone has an opinion on that) and what makes Mahar’s so great. So I thought I’d honor the bar that brought me to Albany by describing in a little post here.
To begin with, Mahar’s is seriously the bar that brought me to Albany. I was here for a visiting weekend in March of 2008 and a bunch of current students in the program decided to take us out there on a Friday night. Having a good local watering hole is key to surviving graduate school, so this immediately put Albany at the top of my list. Since then, it’s become a favorite among students in our department and bringing prospective students there is somewhat of a tradition. Sure, there are a lot of other great beer places in Albany, but really, Mahar’s is all you need.
Why is that? Well, the easiest thing to do would be to check out their website. In fact, you could just go there and skip this entire post. But, in the off chance that you don’t, here’s the skinny.
Atmosphere: This can really be thought of as atmosphere, AND the lack thereof. Oxymoron perhaps? Not really, as we shall see. Mahar’s creates a great atmosphere by ignoring most of the staples of the bars around here. There are no TVs. No one goes here to watch any sort of game. If there were TVs, they’d probably be showing scenario paintball. There is no jukebox. The awesomeness of this cannot be overstated. You will hear no music, you will not get angry at anyone for their music choices. There will be no lines formed near the jukebox. You will not scream in order to be heard by your friend standing next to you. There is no food. Well, that’s sort of a lie. There are sandwiches that you get get cooked in a press, there are bags of chips that you can order, but I’ve rarely seen anyone buy any of these things. There’s no menu, no servers, no kitchen. Starting to get the picture? Mahar’s isn’t about music, watching the game, or eating good food. It’s about…
Beer: Mahar’s is a public bar for people who appreciate beer. On only one occasion have I seen anyone drinking a Corona/Miller, something of that nature. People go to Mahar’s because they appreciate beer. Their draft selection is strong, changing on a routine basis, and they have 4-5 cask lines, which are VERY hard to find around in many bars. If you haven’t had a cask beer, you owe it to yourself to try it. Their bottle selection is pretty nice as well, but you’re best served by going in and drinking from the tap. In case it’s not obvious, just look around the walls at the hundreds of taps that they have as decorations. Drink draft beer.
Customer Appreciation: A lot of people make a stink about the customer service at Mahar’s. They complain that the guys are rude, snobby, or whatever. That’s really untrue. The behavior that will get you good service at any bar, will get you good service at Mahar’s. The behavior that will piss off bartenders at Hollywood Cafe, will piss off the bartenders at Mahar’s. The game is simple. Make up your mind as to what you want to order. Get the bartender’s attention. Say “please” and tell them what you’d like. Have your money ready (the prices are listed next to the beers so there’s no excuse), say “thank you” and tip them. Then, if you’re at the serving area where other people are trying to order, step away from the bar so people have room.
But really, these guys love their customers. Why do I say that? Because they know that without their customers, they wouldn’t exist. They know their customers could care less about TV, music, or food. They know their customers just want a place that they can enjoy good beer with their friends. If you’re looking for something else, they don’t want you and you don’t want to be there. It’s that simple. If they didn’t love their customers, they wouldn’t reward them with t-shirts, mugs, and cases of beer. Be polite, be friendly, make conversation when the time is right. Don’t stumble in hammered, when you go there, don’t let the whole bar know you’re getting hammered.
The Bottom Line: Once you know what to expect, Mahar’s is the best place on earth to have a good beer. You’re going to be able to find something you like, you’re going to be able to enjoy it without crazy college crowds, without blaring music, and without guys in jerseys coming in to watch the game and going crazy. Sure, sometimes you want the atmosphere of a sports bar, or you want to mingle with drunk strangers. But for me, at 28, I know what I like and what I want in a bar experience. I had a theory that the only question you needed to ask someone when you got to know them was, “Do you wear a bike helmet?” But, asking them if they go to Mahar’s is just as good.