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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.

At the airport bar, the ordinary rules do not apply

A push for craft beer from local labels has made airport bars better than you might expect

A bartender serves a Reuben sandwich with an Adam Street wheat beer at Berghoff Cafe in Chicago's O’Hare International Airport. (Mary Mathis for The Washington Post)
A bartender serves a Reuben sandwich with an Adam Street wheat beer at Berghoff Cafe in Chicago's O’Hare International Airport. (Mary Mathis for The Washington Post)

There is never a wrong time to drink a beer in an airport, and that’s the beauty of it.

Did you arrive 2½ hours early and breeze through security? Reward yourself with a frosty beverage for breakfast. Are you and your spouse checked in for the overnight flight to Europe? Vacation starts now, so why not raise a late-night pint?

Sociologists say travel serves as “a chance to try out alternate identities.” At home, you might never dream of propping up a bar at 9 a.m. on a Thursday. But in the airport, the rules of everyday life do not apply. Everyone is just passing through. Fellow travelers are too wrapped up in their own itineraries to judge what you’re doing — or else they’re bending an elbow right beside you.

Disconnected from their routines, strangers develop an unusual sense of camaraderie and open up to each other like regulars at a neighborhood tavern: “You heading out or heading home?” … “Charleston? I know a great restaurant there!” … “What’re you drinking?”

The deliberately designed atmosphere of the airport bar inspires some of this behavior. Like casinos, many of these watering holes attempt to make patrons feel separated from the outside world. No clocks. Bright fluorescent lights instead of windows. ESPN news playing on a loop, showing highlights from last night’s games. Sure, you might keep nervously hitting refresh on your airline’s app to see when boarding begins, but there’s nothing else to worry about but the beer in front of you.

There was a time when the airport bar was solely the domain of white-knuckle fliers trying to build up courage and traveling salesmen drinking doubles during a long layover before the redeye. Some people may still scoff at airport bars for their generic decor and even more bland draft lineups. And sadly, yes, you’ll come across many places where a lineup of Sam Adams, Blue Moon and Yuengling is considered an acceptable “craft” selection. But that’s changing.

Increasingly, local breweries are being tapped to provide some regional flavor at airports. Flying Dog, Maryland’s largest craft brewer, recently celebrated the fifth anniversary of its Flying Dog Tap House at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport, where the deliberately rustic farmhouse look — rugged wood beams, exposed brick — is more often found in a beer geek-friendly tasting room.

The Frederick brewery’s airport bar offers a margarita made with its Mexican lager and “local, all-natural” black angus burgers from Maryland’s Roseda Farm. To complete the taproom vibe, the draft list includes a pale ale called Boarding Zone Z, which it says is available nowhere else. The staff are pros: When dropping off my pint, the bartender sprinkled a little salt on the bar napkin-turned-coaster so that it wouldn’t stick to the bottom of the glass when I lifted it to take a sip. It’s a trick you’d expect at your local dive, and one that, naturally, made me stick around for another beer.

Craft brewers have a growing presence at airports across the county, from Tampa International (Cigar City) to Los Angeles International (Santa Monica Brew Works). Great Divide, Denver’s oldest production brewery, opened a taproom at Denver International Airport in 2019, with more than a dozen options, including the iconic Yeti Imperial Stout.

Aside from the quality of taps, airport bars also have the capacity to amuse and surprise, taking passengers out of the soulless, duty-free mall experience and transporting them, well, somewhere completely unexpected.

Cheesy Irish-themed pubs can be found in every capital city in Europe, but I will not forget my shock walking through Budapest’s Liszt Ferenc International Airport and into a place called O’Leary’s, only to be confronted with walls covered with giant posters of Tom Brady holding the Lombardi Trophy and metal signs designating “Celtics Fan Parking Only.” I half expected Sam Malone to pour my Soproni lager and recommend “Bobby Orr’s Bacon Burger.” The Amerikai illusion was quickly shattered by the snooker playing on flat-screen TVs.

The airport beer is a way to pass time, but it’s also a way to mark time. I have friends who will talk wistfully about their favorite bar at O’Hare International because it’s the last place they can grab something from Half Acre or Revolution — two great Chicago breweries that don’t send their beer to D.C. — before flying home.

I travel to London a few times each year, and I make a point of seeking out pubs known for pouring a variety of real ales, the traditional, gently carbonated British beers. But I know that, no matter how much I savored a craft porter in a tavern in Kentish Town, my last taste of cask on that side of the Atlantic is inevitably going to come from The Crown Rivers, a Wetherspoons pub at Heathrow Terminal 5.

The vibe is cafeteria, rather than Victorian pub, and a dimpled mug of toffee-ish Hobgoblin ale isn’t the most exciting beverage anyone will drink in London, but it’s the last thing I’m going to taste there, at least for now, and the memory is going hold me until I get back — even if I have to finish the pint before noon.