A Perfect Moment in Baltimore
Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is one of the little fingers, created by the Jones Fall River, forming the estuary that opens up into the Chesapeake Bay further south. It has been the focus or tourism and redevelopment going back decades. It is, nevertheless, a rather place-less part of the city. The blocks are filled with a hodgepodge of mostly-generic office buildings. The harbor itself is ringed by tourist attractions that includes the cool (old ships, the aquarium) and the touristy-kitschy (Ripley’s Believe it or Not). I was surprised that the centerpiece of such a historic city would lack character this way.
Of course, it makes sense. Historically, harbors were not the magnets for tourism and posh living they are now—they were ports, where the grubby, smelly work of the city happened. The gentle people would have lived away from the stench and clatter. If you walk due north of the harbor, this truth is revealed. The ground rises slowly, and about a mile away, the buildings become ornate and historic. This is where you’ll find the art museum and symphony, the Baltimore Basilica, the first Washington Monument (yes, first—and built by the same architect who designed the more famous obelisk to the south). And, as it happens, the Brewer’s Art, one of the OGs of the Baltimore craft brewing scene.
On my last full day in Baltimore, I planned to see as many of the city’s breweries as possible—a challenge made more difficult because none opened before 3 pm and because I was meeting my brother-in-law for dinner. I figured I’d get at least two in, and possibly three.
My first stop was The Brewer’s Art, which fits in nicely with its Midtown neighborhood. A residence built in 1900 for a wealthy lawyer, it is stylish and elegant. The front parlor has become the bar, and the actual bar is built in front of the old grand fireplace. The dining room is a grand space with dark wood trim and exposed beams, and the truly cool part—and biggest draw, based on the crowd—is the downstairs bar, located in what appears to be the old wine cellar.
The brewery, founded in 1996, focuses on Belgian beer, and they do it exceptionally well. The flagship is a strong golden ale called Beazly (7.3%), which comes in an abbey goblet and which people suck down like water. It’s graceful and incredibly balanced, and one of the few examples I can think of that measures up to its inspiration, Duvel. My favorite, though, was a beer called Birdhouse (5%) that has just a touch of Belgian yeast and just a touch of American hopping and is a spectacular pub ale. They call it a pale, but it is like no beer I’ve ever had.
I mention the beer and ambiance only to give you a sense of the place, which should be one of your first stops in Charm City. They are in fact tertiary to the story I’m about to tell you, which, defensible or not, has become emblematic in my mind for the people of Baltimore.
Travelers should take care not to confuse the anecdotes that compose their experience with the full character of a city, which can only be gleaned in periods of months. How many people dismiss a place based on a few bad experiences? To this point, I will admit right up front that literally every encounter I had during my stay was positive. This must be a quirk of sampling, and surely there’s a jerk or two in the city. (Baltimore’s David Simon/Freddie Gray reputation hints at a troubled side I never saw.)
I arrived at The Brewer’s Art shortly after it opened at four and plopped down at the bar. I started with a saison (good, but not in the class of the other two beers), chatted a bit with the bartender, and pulled out my phone to plot my next stop. Not long after I’d gotten my second beer, a gentleman sat next to me who spoke in the lilting, singsong voice of a foreign land. We struck up a conversation, as one does in a bar, and I learned he’d just returned from Ireland (not his home country). We continued talking and I learned he’d been on vacation recently to Oregon and loved it. All well and good. But then he did something I’d heard many other Baltimorians do—he denigrated his own city.
By this time, I had firmly decided that I loved Baltimore. It’s got the kind of character that’s rare in American cities—a real, unique personality with loads of little Baltimore-specific idiosyncrasies. It lives in the shadow of DC, but that comparison also illustrates why Baltimore shines. DC almost completely lacks a sense of place. The focal points are those monuments and museums owned by the country or federal government. So many of the people are transients, passing through the halls connected to those national institutions. Whereas I almost never encounter someone native to Washington in DC, I rarely found someone from elsewhere in Baltimore. A DC accent?—maybe one exists, but I never found it. Baltimore, a city of natives, has one, or rather many versions of one, and it’s pervasive.
So I said all this to my new friend. And, as had happened several times before, he immediately agreed. Baltimorians seem reluctantly proud of their city. Tell them you love it, though, and their hidden pride blossoms.
After twenty minutes or so, we were joined by a close friend of the first man’s. (I’m not being evasive or forgetful—these guys learned I was a writer and preferred not to be named.) Our conversations about Baltimore and Portland continued until I had a decision to make: get out of there and visit at least one other brewery, or enjoy my wonderful company. The decision was posed most acutely by my empty glass, and I was waffling because the remaining recommended beers were giants. As I was trying to decide, the two regulars and the bartender went on an extended history of Beazly, the beer they wanted me to drink. It involved Ozzy Osbourne, a lawsuit, and a former bartender and by the end of the odyssey there was no way I could leave.
I was immediately rewarded by my wisdom when a third member of the party showed up at 6:02 precisely, to hoots, backslaps, and smiles. The parking meters go dark at six, and so his arrival always fell in the minutes just thereafter—which amused his friends no end. (The latter two arrivals were natives of Baltimore.) When I got up to leave, they wouldn’t let me pay—“your money’s no good here!”—and even scolded the bartender for taking my card.
I don’t need to go into the discussions we had, which are always as tedious when relayed second-hand as they were delightful in the event. The reason for mentioning the wonderful two and a half hours I spent at the Brewer’s Art is this. Pubs are small enclosures of humanity where nearly any encounter is possible. They are not mannered or mediated, and the life we find inside is raw and natural. After just a week in Baltimore—less, with travel—I can’t honestly say I know the city’s people in any deep way. And yet those moments of connection are real and affecting, and to the person who experiences them, highly persuasive.
I have rarely enjoyed a place as much as I did Baltimore, and my visit to the Brewer’s Art will always pop out in my memory as the reason why.