If you’ve spent any time in Baltimore or Washington beer bars the past two decades, you should be familiar with the beers of Oliver Breweries. The English-style ales are crafted in the basement of downtown Baltimore’s Pratt Street Ale House, a brewpub that’s a perennial favorite before Orioles games.
But the beers eventually spread far beyond those walls, becoming fixtures at such spots as Max’s Tap House in Fells Point and Meridian Pint in Columbia Heights.
In December, the Pratt Street Ale House team expanded, opening the Ale House Columbia in a suburban shopping center. Thirteen Oliver ales were tapped on my last visit, including a dark mild and a cream ale, with three more cask-conditioned beers pouring on a traditional English handpump system. (The huge, malty If You Want Blood and mega-hopped 20th Anniversary Ale were standouts.) Add 19 guest ales from such big names as Dogfish Head, Troegs, Green Flash and Boulevard, and a healthy selection of Maryland beers from DuClaw, Union, Evolution and Flying Dog, and you’ve got a bar that can go toe-to-toe with any big-city drafthouse.
While impressive, the Ale House doesn’t have the largest selection in Columbia; Frisco’s Taphouse, about a mile south on Dobbin Road, has 50 taps. But the Ale House makes a fine showcase for Oliver Ales, and it’s a good place to watch a game with a cold brew in hand.
The Ale House itself is a barnlike space with slanting ceilings, a few industrial touches and flatscreen TVs hanging on every conceivable space. It’s worth taking a look at them occasionally, even if you don’t care about the game: Some serve as billboards for the bar, cycling through the names of beers on draft, a rundown of happy hour specials or a schedule of the weekend’s entertainment, which includes musicians performing at 10 p.m. on Fridays.
I wish the layout was less confusing, though. The enormous main bar, featuring a minimalist row of tap handles with names chalked above them, boasts a wide counter and wide stools. But if the seats are full, and they generally are, there’s very little room to stand. A few feet behind the barstools is a row of four-seat high-top tables and, a few feet beyond that, a row of high-backed booths. It’s not clear to new visitors whether these are open on a first-come, first-served basis, or if you need to see a hostess to be seated. (The answer: It’s a free-for-all, although you can ask to sit there when you make reservations.)
There are two smaller satellite bars in corners on the opposite sides of the building, but they’re frequently in use for private events.
One notable thing about the beer menu: You get a choice of glass sizes, in addition to the usual 16-ounce pint. The 10-ounce pour is good for those who aren’t imbibing much or who plan to try a few different styles; the 23-ounce mega-glass is for those who know exactly what they want.
Complimentary valet parking is offered after 5 p.m., which seems like overkill until you try to find a parking spot during happy hour. (The lot outside is shared with another restaurant, a gym and several stores, leading to tight competition for spaces.) Bribe a designated driver with a taco platter or one of the juicy burgers; it’s worth the trip.
6480 Dobbin Center Way, Columbia. 443-546-3640.
Open at 11 a.m. Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. Sunday.