When I was first getting into craft beer in the late 1990s and early 2000s, beer lists were nothing more than big-dick contests. Back then it wasn’t so much the quality that mattered—it was pure quantity, with bars bragging about their 30 or 50 or 100 taps of craft beer. Certain places would revel in handing you a pleather-bound menu of a phonebook-thickness when you asked for a mere bottle list. This was also the era of the TOTAL TAP TAKEOVER (always in all-caps), when bars would proudly advertise that they were selling 30 Stone beers, or 45 Brooklyn Brewery offerings, on this one single night.
And that was super cool—back then, at least.
Nowadays? Massive, unwieldy beer lists are seen as a little hokey, something for a soulless chain like World of Beer or Buffalo Wild Wings. Sure, there remain plenty of excellent beer bars that have massive lists, like Denver’s Falling Rock Taphouse, one of the original craft beer bars (opened in 1997) and still terrific, 75 taps in all. Or there's Des Moines’ El Bait Shop, which boasts a jaw-dropping 185 lines. But for the most part, the new wave of craft-beer bars opening today are focused on just a few draughts of tightly curated, hyper-fresh offerings.
This streamlining makes sense. Back in, say, 2002, when there were so few bars in the world that exclusively sold craft beer, the only way to differentiate one's business was by quantity of tap lines and amount of bottles in the cooler. Now that even dive bars have craft beer available, the way a quality beer bar pulls ahead is by offering the truly spectacular—even if that’s just five well-picked pints for you. With the vastness of the beer world today, bars need a new hook, whether it’s exclusively focusing on a region (like Brooklyn’s newly opened Cardiff Giant, which pours only New York state-brewed beer), a style (like The Sovereign with its exotic Belgian-ish tilt), or something altogether unique.
These aren’t necessarily the best beer bars in America—plenty of those massive menu-boasting old dogs still have a claim to that crown—but these following 15 bars do have the most thoughtful beer lists going at the moment.