Still, let's agree on this: Virtually any microbrew is preferable to the mass-produced swill of Bud nation. The proliferation of brewing tanks in renovated warehouses and Prospect Avenue pickup joints is all to the good, a throwback to the glory years when hometown breweries dotted the land. And fresh-brewed beer sends you home with a kick in the pants instead of that stale, high school taste in your mouth.
But high-octane brew comes at a price. There's a ton of marketing and merchandising between you and those waiting taps, from the souvenir T-shirt and hat stand at the door to the names that sound like you're ordering kids' cereal instead of beer--Railway Razz, Cherry Bomb, Old Knucklehead IPA. Then there's all that pretentious crap about hops and malts and OG (original gravity, a measure of alcohol content) and IBUs, International Bitterness Units, a measure of how far the brewmaster has a mixing stick up his butt.
You can study all that on the chalkboards and beer menus, and have it explained by the trained cuties behind the bar, but the break point is this: There are very few destination beers. You can suck on a decent lager in Willoughby and find a pretty good wheat ale in Rocky River, but there are only two places in Cleveland putting up pints that are worth whatever it takes to get there: Great Lakes in Ohio City and Crooked River in the Flats.
Start with the best, and check out the rest.
* Great Lakes Brewing Company, 2516 Market Avenue. Excellent brews across the board, and one truly dangerous beer--the Dortmunder. It goes down smooth and tastes like nectar, and before you know it, you're hammered. One of the most handsome back bars in town towers over a preternaturally LOUD pub room, where Eliot Ness resides in spirit, if not in your glass.
* Crooked River Tap Room, 1101 Center Street (the Flats). The ultimate no-frills Cleveland bar--cinder-block walls, cement floor, and a tough, beautiful barmaid who yells at drunks to keep them in line. A vintage poster asserts "Temptation Never Tasted so Good," and for once it's right. The beer is killer, and if it were any fresher it would slap your tongue on the way down. If it's still in season, try the unfiltered IPA.
* Diamondback Brewery, 724 Prospect Avenue. An oddly gloomy bar, serving flat and disappointing brews that quickly drove our taste-testers to bad puns. Cherry Bomb: "Has neither." Touchdown Brown Ale: "Should be called back." Oatmeal Stout: "Murphy's Lite." Whole Wheat Hefeweizen: "What are all these little things floating around?" "Dead sea monkeys."
* Wallaby's Grill and Brew Pub, 503 Prospect Avenue. Much better beer than you'd expect from a chain--or maybe it just seemed that way after Diamondback. A tangy Great White Wheat, a Big Red Brew akin to a sweet Killian's, an Amarillo Hopfest with a bite, and an impressive Summer Stout. Quite friendly service to boot, offset a bit by those corporate jiggers behind the bar.
* Rock Bottom Brewery, 2000 Sycamore Street, in the Powerhouse (the Flats). What can you expect in a suburban mall transposed to the Flats? "Pisswater!" declared our most vociferous tester, which may be too harsh. The Riverbend Red isn't bad, though it leaves an aftertaste like overbrewed tea. The Cleveland American Light got off to a promising start, but by glass's end prompted the comment, "A Coors Light would taste really good right now." And no beer deserves to be named Dawg Pound Brown.
* John Harvard's Brew House, 1087 Old River Road (the Flats). Double blasphemy: A stained-glass window inside has JFK's head superimposed on a saint with the words, "Ask not what your country can brew for you, but what you can brew for your country." The beers are less painful, with the Stumpf Brothers Premium Light and Edgewater Mai Bock getting high marks. Skip the Cask Customs House Ale, which tastes like crab apples.
* Cleveland Chop House & Brewery, 824 West St. Clair Avenue. A great place to dress up and pretend you're in a well-appointed Chicago speakeasy--just don't expect any exciting beer. The variety of glassware can't compensate for the flat, unremarkable Pale Ale or the overly sweet Irish Stout. The Nut Brown isn't bad, though thin. And there are house Lights, presumably for the ladies. A nagging question: Did Capone brew his liquor in a "fermentation vessel?"
* Rocky River Brewing Company, 21290 Center Ridge Road. The building looks like a bank, the customers are all white and well-scrubbed, the souvenir shirts are framed by white Christmas lights--we must be on the West Side. Passable brews for the most part, with a surprisingly tasty Belgian Wheat Bier. More interesting are the "bucket" appetizers--burgers or barbecue, literally served piled in a galvanized bucket.
* Willoughby Brewing Company, 4057 Erie Street. A handsome old refurbished rail-car building that doesn't miss a trick, from the cigar case and smoking lounge to the full line of logo merchandise, including golf balls. If only the brews were as full-bodied. The Lake County Lager is gold instead of red, but not bad. Cheerful and attentive barmaids help, though the corporate shirts are straight off the chain gang.