When a college fraternity brother of mine got married about 10 years ago, he gave his groomsmen, me included, giant mugs as part of the grooms’ gift.
“Yeah, dude! Huge ass beers!” is something that hopefully no one said out loud. But the implication was clear: throw that sucker in the freezer, go get yerself some cold beer, and suck down icy suds 24 ounces at a time, by God.
The world of beer has changed a lot in the last decade. Today, the focus is more on quality than quantity. Beer drinkers have more options to choose from, and they’re pickier about how their drink of choice is served. Sure, the giant icy mug persists—to the chagrin of beer snobs—but a lot of bars are raising their game when it comes to how they deliver pints.
Charlottesville, fortunately, has its fair share of spots that pride themselves on their beer. Here’s a look at two local joints that take opposite approaches to honoring the beverage.
An oldie but a goodie
Bill Curtis runs a great beer bar, but he prickles at the mention of the craft beer boom. He’s been serving dozens of beer varieties at Court Square Tavern since the early 1970s, long before dudes with beards started singing the praises of super hopped up IPAs.
“When I started out, there was no American microbrewery movement,” Curtis said. “I’m not anti-local or anti-American microbrew, but I do harbor a grudge for making the traditional market sort of marginal.”
Curtis said he cornered the local market for imports back in the day by personally driving to Northern Virginia and hauling cases of hard-to-find ales and lagers back to Charlottesville. He’s stayed the course with a focus on imports ever since. His mammoth 100-bottle beer list is at least two-thirds imports, and six of his eight taps are devoted to European staples like Spaten Lager.
“A lot of the difference between places like Beer Run and me is they revel in constantly changing their beer list,” he said. “I’ve been serving Spaten for 22 years.”
Curtis figures Court Square Tavern is the only place in town that has the traditional German brew on at any given time, and he likes it that way.
The beer list isn’t the only thing about Court Square Tavern that makes you feel like you’re in a traditional Old World pub. The place is a tad dank, offers some interesting aromas, and is snugly fitted in the basement of a historic Court Square building. The service staff plays their part, most of them as terse as an Englishman after his mum’s funeral. And the pub grub rounds out the experience—ploughman’s platters, stuffed mushrooms and the like, and a few hot sandwiches. Curtis explained that since the tavern is in a historic building, he can’t install a ventilation hood, so he preps the bar food at his nearby restaurant Tastings and only puts the finishing touches on dishes in the onsite kitchen.
Timberwood Grill, located across Route 29 from Target, is so polished you might mistake it for a chain. But the thing that most clearly sets the bar and grill off from the fern bar set is its one-of-a-kind beer list. (Literally, the list itself is one of a kind, made up of homemade “trading cards” displaying each beer’s provenance and stats.)
Timberwood’s 24 taps and 70-some bottles are carefully curated by a group of beer nerds all looking to give customers—and themselves—the opportunity to taste as many of the great beers out there as they can.
“If we see something that has any sort of good rating online that we’ve never tried before, we like to bring it in,” manager Russ Payne said. “Our biggest philosophy is, if someone comes in and wants a specific style of beer, that we have that available.”
Consider a recent IPA tap takeover the saloon held to honor the birth of co-owner Adam Gregory’s first child. On March 20, Timberwood tapped kegs of Three Notch’d Brewing’s Mosaic IRA, Troegs’s seasonal favorite Nugget Nectar, and the sought after Bell’s Hopslam, which is consistently rated among the top 50 beers in the world. That trifecta of rarities is long gone, but Timberwood still has remnants of the event, including Sixpoint’s double IPA Hi-Res and Green Flash’s hop-bomb Palate Wrecker.
“I would say IPAs have become king of the craft beer world, so we do see a lot more of those,” Payne said.
Co-owner Steve Guiffre admitted Timberwood was a card-carrying member of the big frosty mugs club when it opened, but the restaurant now also offers cold and room temperature pint glasses and room temperature snifters.
“The dynamic has changed,” Guiffre said. “You don’t want people drinking two or three big mugs of beer that are the equivalent strength wine. It’s not just the old strategy of the biggest mug is the best. Now some of the beers are really turning into sipping beers.”
My own giant mug? It’s also mostly retired from beer drinking. At least until one of my old fraternity brothers comes to visit. Yeah, dude!