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)

Coming in summer is Beach House, a golden pilsner. “This beer is perfect for the warmer weather, as it is not weighed down by heavy malts or hops,” Bigelow says. “It leaves the drinker feeling very refreshed.”

What sets the Rams Head group apart, says vice president Erin McNaboe, is freshness. “With Fordham, we get extremely fresh beers (brewed less than 100 miles away from the restaurant) and unique seasonal selections each month. We particularly like the Rams Head IPA.” We’ll drink to that.

Pub Dog Pizza & Drafthouse
8865 Stanford Blvd., Columbia
410-872-0364, pubdog.net

Pub Dog Pizza & Drafthouse is in the same shopping center off Dobbin Road where Frisco Grill used to be. Like The Ale House, it’s an offshoot of a Baltimore brewpub.

Beer: From the top to the bottom of the beer list, Pub Dog’s house brews are the class of the county. The White Dog delivered a solid wheat beer earthiness, yet was smooth enough to charm our light-beer-drinking assistant. The Brown Dog ale’s mellow maltiness satisfied, and the chocolate oatmeal stout bathed our gullets in coffee and heady breadiness. We skipped the fruity beers (blueberry, raspberry, peach), but if you’re into that sort of thing, we’re confident Pub Dog’s offerings won’t disappoint.     

Standouts: We’re partial to India pale ales and had some good ones at each of these places, but the best of the bunch was the Imperial Dog. Pub Dog’s menu describes it as an “aggressively hopped double-IPA.” That sort of verbiage usually indicates a beer that’s more about machismo than flavor, much like hot sauces guaranteed to peel paint. That’s not the case here, though. The bitterness in this brew enhances its subtly citrusy flavor instead of burying it.

Food: With a menu devoted mainly to thin-crust pizza, Pub Dog is clearly focused on the beer, but there’s joy to be had in that simplicity. The house salad was crisp and fresh, and came with four wee slices of wonderfully garlicky white pizza. The pesto chicken pizza didn’t skimp on the basil and was excellent as lunch leftovers, too. The genius dish, though, was the Thai chicken pizza (talk about East meets West). Hoisin sauce and scallions give it a tasty tang, and peanuts (yes, peanuts!) bring it gently back to earth.   
Service/atmosphere: Dark and woody, Pub Dog’s dining area is a fine place to meet friends and relax, but the wide open bar area is well suited to singles looking for friends they haven’t met yet. Service was friendly, but a bit uneven. 

What’s brewing: For managing partner Drew Walston, the question of what makes his place distinctive is easy. “The beer we brew is the only beer we sell,” he notes. “So we try to have a wide range of beers that will appeal to everybody, and not just go after the beer geek.” There’s also the offbeat way those brews come to the customer:  Two 8.5-ounce mugs at a time. Walston says the practice is inspired by McSorley’s Ale House, New York City’s oldest continuously operated saloon.

Recent Pub Dog releases include a Belgian-style pale ale called Belgian Shepherd, and Good Hop Bad Hop, which earned a gold medal in the specialty/experimental category at the Brewers Association of Maryland’s 2012 Governor’s Cup. Summertime will bring a yet-to-be-named German pilsner.

Frisco Tap House & Brewery
6695 Dobbin Road, Columbia
410-312-4907, friscogrille.com

Even when Frisco Taphouse & Brewery was in a much smaller space farther north on Dobbin Road, it had an insane number of beers on tap. Now in roomier digs, Frisco has its own brand, Push, front and center.

Beer: With 53 different drafts available, you’re bound to find one that works for you. The house brand, though, won’t knock your socks off. For one thing, the samples we got were warm. True, getting your beer too close to freezing will mask the flavor, but you do want it chilled. The pumpkin ale had a nice spice note, and the Hole Shot IPA displayed good balance. 

Standouts: The head-and-shoulders winner here is actually a joint project with Frederick’s Flying Dog Brewery (Frisco also collaborates with DuClaw Brewing Co.), the Punk Bitch IPA. Not as spicy as Flying Dog’s Raging Bitch, it nonetheless carries loads of flavor.

Food: In addition to the requisite nachos and wings, the appetizer menu includes Thai chili shrimp and crab Louie. We shared an appetizer of mussels steamed in Natty Boh (National Bohemian beer), garlic butter and chorizo and served with two slices of baguette. These were very good, and the sausage added a nice bit of zing. The burgers and other sandwiches seem pretty pedestrian, although the salmon burger looks intriguing. The half-dozen entrées include shrimp kabab with saffron couscous, avocado emulsion and chili oil; a seared mahi fillet with polenta, baby spinach, mango salsa and a lemongrass vinaigrette; jambalaya; and sockeye salmon à la provençal, which we sampled. The white bean ragu, tomato relish and red wine vinegar that accompany it put an appealing spin on the dish. The fish itself was meaty and flavorful. We were less pleased with the arugula salad. It comes with grape tomatoes and some very lightly fried goat cheese, which by itself was very good. But the overall effect suffered greatly because of a bland, thin dressing applied much too liberally. Dessert: The crème brulée was nice and creamy, but the bread pudding didn’t come close to the Ale House version. 

Service/atmosphere: We dined at Frisco’s on a Tuesday, trivia night. So at the host’s suggestion, we eschewed the bar area and sat in the small dining room where brewing vats sit behind glass. This situation probably contributed to our wait times being longer than we’d have liked, but it doesn’t excuse having to ask for silverware not once, but twice. The other problem with not sitting in the bar was that we couldn’t read Frisco’s extensive beer list posted there. Our server informed us that we could access the list online using our smart phones, and that worked OK, but why not have a beer menu in print form for dining room customers (who might not even be carrying phones)? In addition to Tuesday trivia, Frisco hosts live acoustic music on Saturdays.

Bare Bones Grill & Brewery
9150-22 Baltimore National Pike (Route 40), Ellicott City
410-461-0770, barebonesgrill.com

The name’s a bit of a misnomer. While Bare Bones Grill & Brewery still offers its own house beers, Baltimore’s Clipper City does the actual brewing.

Beer: Why anyone patronizing a brewpub would order a light beer is beyond us, but Bare Bones has one of its very own: Hunt Valley Light. We’d suggest that those looking for something smoother go instead for the Patapsco Valley Gold, which at least carries some flavor, courtesy of Saaz hops. Seven Hills Hefeweizen’s subtle flavor gets overwhelmed by the lemon wedge Bare Bones serves with it. The IPA and brown ale are good, but not great. 

Standouts: The clear winner at Bare Bones is its Savage Mill Porter, which has a maltiness you can roll around in your mouth.

Food: This is a barbecue joint, but we’ve never actually had the ribs there (we’re saving our fingers for crab feasts). On our recent lunchtime visit, though, we had the closest thing: a barbecue pork sandwich. It was a generous portion but without the smoky flavor the menu promised, and it came on a nondescript kaiser roll. The side dishes redeemed somewhat. The cole slaw was fresh and crisp — not too soupy and not too sweet — and the corn fritters were delightfully crisp and tender, with a touch of sweetness that made them the star of the plate. Ribs, steaks and a few fish dishes serve as the backbone of the dinner menu, but crab figures prominently among the appetizers, including crab dip, crab pretzel and a crab mac-and-cheese. You can also get wings seasoned with Old Bay. 

Service/atmosphere: Bare Bones is cozy enough, and we’ve never had any particular problem with the service, but neither have we been blown away on either count. Wednesday is trivia night, and there’s live music -- mostly blues and acoustic -- Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

Ellicott Mills Brewing Co.
8308 Main St., Ellicott City
410-313-8141, ellicottmillsbrewing.com

Established in 1997, Ellicott Mills Brewing Company is the first place that comes to mind when you think of Howard County brewpubs. Its location in one of Main Street’s old stone buildings gives it a throwback vibe that evokes the brewer’s ancient art.

Beer: Ellicott Mills has eight different varieties of its Alpenhof house brew on tap, half of them seasonals that are rotated through the mix. If you’re a fan of bock beer, you’re in luck. Ellicott Mills bills itself as “the house of bocks,” a producer of more varieties of the dark, malty lager than any other in the United States. The house brews lean heavily toward German styles and the malt side of the malt-hop spectrum, so if you like an ale with some bitter bite, you might want to stray from the Alpenhof offerings here.   

Standouts: They won’t have it this time of year, but in the fall Ellicott Mills does a very nice pumpkin ale. If you really want the whole experience, they’ll dust the rim of your glass with cinnamon and sugar, but some beer snobs will turn their noses up at that.

Food: The menu includes crab cakes and Caribbean chicken, but there’s a strong undercurrent of Oktoberfest, with sausage on both the starter and main-dish menus, a Bavarian soft pretzel sticks appetizer and kasseler rippchen, a pair of pork chops smoked and brined in the Bavarian style. Further contributing to the rustic flavor is a venison steak pan-fried with scallions and deglazed with beer to make a brown sauce.  

Service/atmosphere: Like the rest of Main Street Ellicott City (only more so), Ellicott Mills exudes a bohemian sort of charm that makes it fun and relaxing (once you’ve secured a parking spot). Servers are friendly and efficient, the bartenders well versed in what’s coming out of the taps.
   
What’s brewing: In the world of craft beers, pale ales and India pale ales get most of the attention. Ellicott Mills zigs where most brewpubs zag. “We make a lot of lager,” head brewer Ray Andreassen says, including Ellicott Mills’ dizzying variety of bocks. “So we can offer something that everyone can enjoy.”
A couple of bock beers will re-emerge in the spring: Alphenhof’s Red Bock and the German-style Mai Bock. Ellicott Mills also will have a wheat beer on tap. For the summer, Andreassen will be making Helles Bock, a lighter brew.