Can't decide? Try them all with a variety sampler of beers from Ellicott Mills Brewing Company on Main Street in Ellicott City.

Can't decide? Try them all with a variety sampler of beers from Ellicott Mills Brewing Company on Main Street in Ellicott City. (photo by Brian Krista / March 20, 2013)

Any foodie will tell you freshness matters. Same holds true for beer. When what’s in your glass was made on the premises, or by a nearby brewer on behalf of the establishment where you’re sipping your suds, it’s bound to taste better than it would if you were drinking a beer trucked in from Milwaukee or St. Louis.

The Anheuser-Busches and Miller Brewings of the world produce exponentially greater quantities for mass markets. Craft brewers have carved out a niche experimenting with ingredients and processes while catering to those seeking more pronounced flavor, something a little more exotic than Bud Light Lime.

The microbrewery phenomenon has given rise to the brewpub, where you wash down your lunch or dinner with a house ale. Some of these eateries go beyond burgers, wings and other tailgate fare to include the sort of meals you’ll find in tony bistros. Beer tastings kindle enthusiasm akin to that experienced by wine-lovers decades before, and some brewpubs augment their food and drink with live music.

Howard County is home to a handful of brewpubs, each with its own peculiar charms. There’s one in Savage and two in Ellicott City. Columbia’s Dobbin Road is a veritable Brewer’s Alley, with three brewpubs within a one-mile stretch.

Not sure which kind of ale or lager will suit you? Most of these places will either let you try a few sips of what’s on tap or sell you a sampler of between four and six small glasses. Ask your server.

We’ve assessed the local brewpubs’ offerings on a scale of one to five for the beer, the food, and service and atmosphere.

The Ale House
6480 Dobbin Center Way, Columbia

The sister to Baltimore’s Pratt Street Ale House (which does the brewing for the new location, too), Columbia’s Ale House is the new kid in town, and occupies the location of the late Rocky Run Tap and Grill, in the little shopping center on the southwest corner of Dobbin Road and Route 175.

Beer: Whether you’re a hop head or a malt maniac, The Ale House has something you’ll like. Among the better selections from its house brand, Oliver Ales, are the blond ale, an American-style India pale ale (Draft Punk), an English bitter (Coventry Cream Ale), and a wonderfully flavorful oatmeal stout (Bishop’s Breakfast). 

Standouts: Panzer Division Destroyed, a creamy-headed, malty dark ale, and the Pagan Porter.  

Food: Based on what we tried, The Ale House is probably the strongest in this category among Howard County brewpubs. The spinach-and-artichoke dip rendered a subtle tang and came with warm, crisp tortilla strips that we couldn’t lay off of. The sour cream and rather pickly picante sauce that accompanied were unnecessary. Adobo pork, roasted pineapple, avocado and chipotle rémoulade melded nicely in tacos al pastor. The brick-oven-baked flatbread pizza offered something you don’t see every day: prosciutto, not in thin strips but in small chunks. That and the olives delivered a salty counterbalance to the roasted red peppers and mild mozzarella. The goat cheese gave it a little tang, and the crust was crisp outside, chewy inside. We also went for dessert this trip. The brownie-ice cream sandwich with its chocolate ganache lived up to guilty expectations, but the real star here was the bread pudding, a brioche doctored with vanilla bean crème, semisweet chocolate and a warm citrus-blond ale caramel.
Service/atmosphere: If you were blindfolded and taken inside, you wouldn’t know it was the same place that had been the checkered-tablecloths joint that was Rocky Run. The new management has gone to a more wide open and modern decor in which the multiple bars with their myriad taps figure prominently. Our server was friendly, patient and helpful.    

What’s brewing: “We brew in the traditional English way,” which includes English ale yeast and English hops, as well as open fermentation (as opposed to the sealed vats used in most American breweries), says brewmaster Stephen Jones. A native of Coventry who brewed in Britain for six years before he came to the States, Jones says he makes seven-barrel batches five times a week -- a small enough quantity that he can experiment. So when asked what he’s cooking up for the spring and summer, he replies, “Whatever I feel like when I wake up in the morning.”

He does have some recurring standbys, though, including Cherry Blossom Ale, a wheat beer made with pureed cherries, which he brought out again in March. Late April is the time for Golden Glory, which is made with ginger root. His main summer offering, Jacob’s Summer Celebration, is named for his son, who turns 3 on the Fourth of July. Moreover, the specs are based on Jacob’s birth weight -- 8.8 pounds -- and parentage. Jones makes the brew with 8.8 pounds of English bittering hops and 8.8 pounds of American finishing hops (Mom’s American). Jones even reverse-engineered the recipe so that the final product is 8.8 percent alcohol.

Rams Head Tavern
8600 Foundry St., Savage (Savage Mill)

From its roots in Annapolis, the Rams Head franchise has blossomed into six locations and might be central Maryland’s signature watering hole, even though its house brews (Fordham and Dominion) are now made in Dover, Del.

Beer: The Tavern Ale is a true joy. This American pale ale gets its character from whole-leaf Cascade hops and achieves a wonderful balance of citrus bite and malty mellowness. The seasonally produced Scotch ale brings a pleasing bit of smokiness. The doppelbock is rich, smooth and, at 8 percent alcohol by volume, quite ... relaxing. 

Standouts: In November 2012, Fordham unveiled its latest brew, and it is a stunner. Rams Head IPA uses three different malts and three varieties of hops to achieve a truly great brew that tastes of orange peel, coriander and ginger.   

Food: The salad menu goes beyond what one would expect from a brewpub or tavern, including a roasted pear salad with baby spinach, blue cheese, red onion, dried fruits and candied cayenne pumpkin seeds. From there, the Rams Head menu becomes a bit more predictable, with its chili, chicken fingers, turkey club, cheesesteak, Reuben, etc. But there are a few twists, including shrimp and grits (not unusual in Louisiana, but somewhat exotic in these parts) and a Rio wrap (Southwestern hummus, guacamole, cilantro lime rice, red peppers, cheddar jack and shaved red onions). And on the burger menu, Angus beef can be swapped out for ground turkey, grilled chicken or a spicy black bean patty.  

Service/atmosphere:  The red brick of Historic Savage Mill provides a nice backdrop, whether in the dining room (including outdoor dining in season), bar or rathskeller. Service is generally friendly and prompt. The rathskeller hosts live music on weekends.  

What’s brewing: In March, Fordham released two seasonals: Dominion Cherry Lager and Wisteria Wheat. The former, says brewery spokeswoman Lauren Bigelow, is a lightly flavored beer that commemorates Washington, D.C.’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. The latter is a traditional, unfiltered German Hefeweizen. “This beer has notes of clove, banana and bubble gum and has won the U.S. Beer Tasting Championships wheat beer category many times,” Bigelow says.