Looking at the winding line across its State Street entrance, someone could easily confuse Ashley’s for an ordinary college bar, one overcrowded with undergraduates buying large pitchers of PBR or Natty Ice.
Of course, the distinct and compelling aroma that comes from the range of craft beers offered by the bar washes away most of these assumptions. With a dimly lit atmosphere whose retro feel is only enhanced by the jukebox standing in the corner, it’s clear that Ashley’s is just not another college bar. This establishment doesn’t deal much in generic drinks — in fact, it doesn’t even keep Bud Light or Miller Lite on tap — and it’s become a stronghold of the craft beer revolution in Ann Arbor.
The craft beer movement revolves around a deviation from the mass-produced beverages that currently dominate the sales market. It’s mainly comprised of small, independent breweries that produce a lower quantity of high quality beer — exactly the kind Ashley’s retails.
As the winner of the 2011 clickondetroit.com Best Beer Selection award, Ashley’s features Ann Arbor’s largest selection of beers — 72 beers on tap and a constantly changing rotating tap that has 10 more options. These selections range from those meant to appease the lager drinker, to more full-bodied complex ones — all ingrained with a variety of tastes that include chocolaty, fruity and bitter flavors. And these beers aren’t just from Michigan, either; they hail from all over the world, including countries as far as Japan, Belgium and England.
One of Ashley’s staff T-shirts reads: “Friends don’t let friends drink cheap beer,” and this is certainly true of the establishment. With the average pint priced at about $5.25 and going all the way up to $18, it isn’t the most inexpensive place to consume a large quantity of beer. Ashley’s senior manager Carmen Fernando believes this is part of the reason it doesn’t see too many undergraduate visitors.
Maybe because the bar is more often frequented by graduate students and a generally older crowd, it isn’t loud and usually has a more relaxed atmosphere than Scorekeepers Sportsgrill & Pub or Good Time Charley’s. However, Fernando believes that as the craft movement has grown, more and more undergraduates are heading toward the more sophisticated bar.
“I feel like it is beginning to catch on with the undergraduates because they do realize that it’s a matter of quality,” Fernando said. “You can come in here, and you may pay $6 for a pint when you could get a pitcher somewhere else. But I think that as the appreciation of craft beer … is growing, we’re getting a wider clientele.”
The bar also features a number of on-going promotional events that intend to celebrate the proverbial “beer snob.” Its well-known “Ultimate Beer Tour” is open to anyone and rewards registered participants for trying the wide selection of Ashley’s beverages. An individual who tries more than 100 beers on the menu is deemed a “Beer Hunter” and gets his or her name etched on a board by the entrance. The bar also sponsors festivals throughout the year, like Michigan Cask Ale Festival at its larger satellite location in Westland, Mich.
But Ashley’s doesn’t just welcome “beer snobs.” If a student walked into the bar and asked the server for a recommendation, that server would usually turn the question back on the customer. The server would then use the bar’s sample system to guide the student toward a taste he or she enjoyed, whether it’s a malt beer or a Belgian-ale with a distinct fruity flavor.
“We don’t want to serve you what we like to drink.” Fernando said. “My staff is very educated and very good at feeling each person out. They may ask what they usually drink, or what they’re used to drinking or what flavors they’re used to drinking. Because we have such a range, you can always find something that person may like.”
The walls of Ashley’s are lined with more beer bottles than even a math major would dare count, and they have all been sold at some point in its 28 years in Ann Arbor. Perhaps that’s why Ashley’s still sees an influx of patrons from day to day, even when students retreat home for the holidays.