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Beer lovers find some refuge from Bud Light

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⇒ Read the main story, "Restaurant options near RDU, from quick and cheap to leisurely and upscale"

Click for larger image • Carolina Ale House offers RDU's only locally brewed beer, Carolina Pale Ale from Carolina Brewing Co. in Holly Springs - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE

Beer-loving travelers who pass through RDU can maximize their predeparture pleasure by booking their flights on Delta, thereby securing a departure gate as close as possible to the best beer selection at the airport: Gordon Biersch in the shiny new Terminal 2.

The well-known chain specializes in traditional German-style beers, beautifully executed. The airport branch features three year-round beers on draft: a hefeweizen, a märzen and a pilsner, plus a rotating seasonal that changes four times a year. Available now is their Summer Lager, which the bartender explained is in the kölsch style. (Never mind that a kölsch is actually a lager-ale hybrid: that's a niggle when faced with this crisp, delicate style).

Ordinarily, Gordon Biersch establishments are brewpubs, with the beer brewed on-site. Given all the logistical challenges of working in a secure airport environment, it's not surprising that this particular bar forgoes the brewing and relies on beer trucked in from the closest branch, located in Virginia. So long as freshness doesn't suffer, I won't complain.

Another difference from the rest of the Gordon Biersch chain is the presence alongside the four house taps of two "guest beers": Bud Light and Samuel Adams Boston Lager, which are omnipresent in RDU's airport bars. Bud Light is the No. 1-selling beer in the world; and Boston Lager, always good, comes from the country's biggest microbrewery—which is now, incidentally, also the biggest American-owned brewery in the country.

Across the concourse, immediately adjacent to the security entrance, is the 42nd Street Oyster Bar, an offspring of the venerable watering hole in downtown Raleigh. The menu features a recognizable range of seafood copied from the original restaurant. But where the Raleigh location proudly boasts over 100 craft beers, the airport site offers Bud Light and Samuel Adams Boston Lager (one craft beer), plus Landshark Lager, Yuengling Lager, Budweiser and Blue Moon (a craft beer manqué)—the lone witbier style surrounded by all that lager. More pale lagers are available by the bottle, including Heineken—regular and Premium Light—Amstel Light and Corona, plus Dos Equis, a Vienna-style lager, for variety.

At the far end of the concourse is another spin-off from a local business: Carolina Ale House. The bartender was welcoming, and I spied one new choice: Carolina Pale Ale from Carolina Brewing Co. in Holly Springs, the airport's only locally brewed beer, which had sold out. Again, the parent businesses, primarily sports bars, pour examples of at least a dozen different beer styles and represent at least three or four of the state's 30-some local breweries. Couldn't the airport franchise offer a little more range?

Terminal 1 contains two restaurants with bars—and less beer choice. The Carolina Varsity Grill, just off the main security entrance and next to gate A-17, is a conventional sports bar that captures the Continental, AirTran and Jet Blue passengers. Its Web site claims it features "microbrews from around the state," which would be wonderful if it were the case. Instead, we find Bud Light and Boston Lager ... and a selection of the other lagers mentioned above, plus Budweiser American Ale, a respectable new beer from the St. Louis giant.

Further down the concourse, A.J.'s Tavern honors both Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson, two native North Carolinian presidents. Close to the busy Southwest and USAir gates, this restaurant serves the busier end of the terminal, but the beer selections are identical to the grill. Flee to Terminal 2 if you can.

There's a missed opportunity here for airport concessionaires to give our visitors a last taste of North Carolina that includes a selection of fine, locally produced beers they won't find once they board that plane and fly back home. The popularity of the Gordon Biersch selection (the place is slated to double in size) and the one tapped-out local beer at Carolina Ale House demonstrate the selling power of distinctive brews. A restaurant called Carolina Vintage, scheduled to open in 2011, will showcase local organic food and North Carolina wines, an exciting and unique prospect. With a little encouragement, the beer list could be equally distinctive. C'mon—let's see six taps devoted to a rotating roster of in-state beers, and a restaurant that proudly makes that a selling point.

Until then, it's back to Gordon Biersch for a tall märzen and an order of the garlic fries. They may be the secret to getting that aisle seat to yourself.

Julie Johnson is the editor of All About Beer Magazine, based in Durham. Her regular Indy column, Beer Hopping, appears the first Wednesday of each month. Reach Johnson at editor@allaboutbeer.com.

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