Inquire about the American Pale Ale (aka “APA”) at Louisville’s BBC Tap Room, and you’ll get a virtual education in this classic American beer style: Made with Special Pale, Caramunich, Flaked Barley, and Special B malts and bittered with Centennial and Willamette hops, it’s a rich, copper colored ale with a full-bodied bitter hops flavor supported by generous amounts of malt.
Ask the same question about the APA at the new BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse in Oxmoor, and you may hear something like what a friendly server told me: “It’s a light beer. Well, one of our lighter beers.” She paused, then grinned conspiratorially. “They train us not to tell people it’s ‘bitter’.”
That pretty much spells out the difference between these two joints for me. BJ’s, a 30-year-old Southern California chain, has recently broken out of the West and Southwest with new locations east of the Mississippi in Ohio, Florida, and now in Kentucky with the launch of a large and very well capitalized brewhouse at Oxmoor Center.
BBC, a small and entirely local operation, makes keg and bottled beer for Louisville’s Bluegrass Brewing Co., and offers the beers on draft in a tiny tap room in front of the brewing operation at Clay and Main streets.
Despite a certain hilarity among Louisville locavores who discovered that BJ’s house-brand beers are trucked over from its brewing facility in Reno, Nev., in fairness I’ve found the company’s beers good, tasty examples of craft brewing, made in close compliance with American craft-beer standards. Indeed, in contrast with the server’s script, the BJ “Piranha” Pale Ale is a pretty good example of the genre, made with two-row Pale, Crystal and Wheat malts, and hopped up with American Chinook and Cascade hops to 45 International Bittering Units … and that’s a lot.
Indeed, BJ’s beers are so carefully representative of standard craft brews that an aspiring beer judge could do worse than taste through BJ’s lineup, repeatedly, as a good way to learn to recognize beer styles.
BBC Tap Room brewer Dave Pierce knows a thing or two about craft brewing himself, having been a pioneer in the microbrewery and brewpub movement — in Louisville and nationally — for some 20 years.
We’ve recently checked out the beers and, as applicable, the goodies at both tap rooms. (Time did not permit, but I strongly recommend, adding the region’s third serious tap room to your list: Over in New Albany, Roger A. Baylor’s New Albanian Brewing Co. — formerly known as Rich O’s and Sportstime Pub — ranks as one of the top brewpubs and beer bars in the nation … with splendid pizza, too.)
We started our brew tour at BJ’s, a sizable place with a 1930s Gotham look that reminds me of the cover of an Ayn Rand first edition. Faux granite and stone impart an industrial art deco feel in a spectrum of earth tones, complete to WPA-style murals of muscular farm workers harvesting hops and barley. And, of course, a lot of flat-screen televisions, mostly tuned to sports.
BJ’s craft beers on draft are $4.50 for a pint, $12.95 for a pitcher; they don’t come in half-pints, but you can get 5-ounce tasting glasses for just $1.50 for most beers, making it easy for beer geeks to set up comparative tastings.
The Piranha American Pale Ale was a correct orangey amber color with a thin, frothy head. Despite the server’s script, it was appropriately bitter with fresh hops. If you like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, you’ll like this. “Brewnette,” a nut brown ale, was darker in color with a smooth, creamy head and an appetizing caramel flavor, bittersweet but not cloying. Hefe-Weizen, a Bavarian-style wheat beer, was pale gold and hazy, with refreshing, signature yeast flavors of bananas and cloves.
BJ’s food isn’t bad, if a bit on the corporate upscale-casual side, featuring a broad range of sandwiches, salads, pastas, burgers, deep-dish pizzas and a few more ambitious entrees from fish or shrimp tacos ($9.95) to a flame-broiled New York strip steak or chicken-and-ribs combo ($18.95).
The “giant” half potato with soup or salad ($6.50) lived up to its billing. It was the biggest potato I ever saw — maybe 8 inches from stem to stern — and it was nicely cooked without foil, steaming hot and mealy, with butter and sour cream offered on the side. The salad led with crisp iceberg lettuce tossed with sliced plum tomatoes, shredded carrots and red cabbage and excellent crisp croutons. A request to have the dressing on the side was ignored, with heavy, mayo-based blue cheese laid on thick.
I made lunch from two appetizers: Chicken lettuce wraps ($8.50) came with a half-dozen neatly cut iceberg lettuce rounds to load up with filling and roll your own — warm, diced boneless bits of chicken stir-fried with mushrooms, green onions, crispy celery and water chestnuts and a garlicky Asian dressing, topped with crisp strips of fried wonton crunchies and served with hot mustard and a dark soy-based dipping sauce.
“Sliders” ($6.50) are jokingly named after White Castles but aren’t quite the same. Four small hand-formed burgers, cooked well-done and sadly well past the juicy stage, were dressed with dabs of sautéed onions and smeared with store-bought ketchup and mustard, mounted on appetizing, tender and slightly sweet buns that remind me of Mom’s dinner rolls, accompanied with thick-sliced pickles, sliced plum tomatoes and chopped lettuce.
With the three tasting glasses of beer, a hearty lunch for two came to $27.51 plus a $5.49 tip.
BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse
7900 Shelbyville Road
National Website: www.bjsrestaurants.com
Robin Garr’s rating: Food: 78 points. Beer: 84 points
The BBC Tap Room is about one-fourth the size of BJ’s and lacks the glitter, but more than makes up for it in authenticity and relaxed comfort. Old brick and schoolroom pea-green walls bear a beer-museum gallery of beer signs and photos, many from old, mostly local breweriana. The cozy bar displays scores more local beer coasters under glass; a half-dozen small tables are set with comfy Windsor chairs.
The beers are hand-made and excellent.
BBC’s American Pale Ale is a rich amber, darker in color than BJ’s rendition, and distinctly hoppy. Nobody would call this “light” or even “lighter,” and yes, it’s bitter. Get used to it.
The Altbier is a darker color with a copper hue, delicious malty flavor, not too sweet, with a more mellow level of hops bitterness for those who prefer it that way.
Bluegrass Gold, said to be crafted from an old Oertel’s ’92 recipe, is one of the best lighter-style beers I’ve encountered. Golden in color, creamy smooth and fresh, it’s easy to quaff, but its good malt flavor and gentle kiss of floral hops bitterness makes it like the fine local beers your Dad — or maybe your Grandfather — used to enjoy.
Want to eat? This Tap Room is a “restaurant” only by the most casual definition. Although brew lovers may argue that beer is food, if you’re looking for solid fare beyond free popcorn, you’ll have to bring your own picnic or order from the many nearby eateries that will deliver. I brought an old-fashioned German treat assembled from Lotsa Pasta goodies, Usinger’s Braunschweiger sausage and Indiana’s Capriole goat cheese on light Milwaukee rye.
BBC Tap Room
636 E. Main St.
Robin Garr’s rating: Food: Unrated (no food service). Beer: 95 points
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