ISO Beers -- the ISO stands for "In Search of" -- was eagerly anticipated when it opened in downtown San Jose this spring, riding the exploding popularity of craft beers. And my guess is that it's not what casual visitors expect when they think of "beer bar."

The Bud Girls wouldn't feel comfortable at the beer-tasting and bottle shop (and regular Bud drinkers might feel a little lost). There aren't any garish neon signs hanging on the walls, no frosty pitchers lined up behind the bar, and not even any of the ornate tap handles that craft brewers use to build their brands.

ISO Beers carries 39 craft beers on tap (such as Lagunitas Night Time Ale, pictured) and many more in bottles. Jake McCluskey, standing in background,
ISO Beers carries 39 craft beers on tap (such as Lagunitas Night Time Ale, pictured) and many more in bottles. Jake McCluskey, standing in background, manages this most unconventional-looking "beer bar." (Photo by Sal Pizarro) ( sal pizarro )

ISO is clean, modern and quiet, with a touch of industrial decor in muted blacks, browns and grays -- all of which combines to produce a calming, zen atmosphere. Of course, the 39 craft beers on tap help with that, too. Especially at the woodblock picnic tables on the shady, spacious patio "beer garden."

When it comes to ordering beers, it took me a while to get used to the nondescript, identical taps lining the stainless steel backbar. Instead of scanning the tap handles, you need to peruse the menu, complete with tasting notes from RateBeer.com.

But doesn't that make sense? It's not like you go to a gourmet restaurant and just point at whatever catches your eye in the kitchen. Customers are forced to rely more on their taste buds and maybe have a conversation about the beer instead of just sticking with the label they like best.


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Of course, there's still a place for labels at ISO Beers because it also serves as a bottle shop. You can pick out a craft-beer bottle or two to purchase from one of the large coolers, nicely set off from the seating area so they won't be distracting.

The draft beers encompass a wide variety of styles, including saisons, stouts, Belgians and various IPAs. General Manager Jake McCluskey -- who previously worked at the Market Beer Co. at San Pedro Square Market -- seems to know something about all of them.

McCluskey says the menu evolves almost daily, as when one keg goes dry, a different beer replaces it. (You can check the menu at www.beermenus.com/places/14000-isobeers.) Some of the more well-known beer-makers represented include Stone, Lagunitas, Heretic and Almanac, but there are plenty of smaller ones, too. There's even mead and hard cider on the menu, as well as one lonely bottle of pinot noir for the wine drinkers.

The beers are served mostly in 10- to 14-ounce glasses, depending on the style, with draft prices ranging from $5 to $13, though most are $6 to $7. There are high-end bottles available, too, like Almanac's Farmer's Reserve No. 3, a sour/wild ale that goes for $25 for a 375-milliliter bottle, and AleSmith's Speedway Stout, a 2013 vintage imperial stout that sells for $80 for a 750-milliliter bottle.

The ones I've tried, like Lagunitas' NightTime Ale, have been a real treat. I'd describe them further, but you're better off exploring on your own. Besides, the menu probably will have changed by the time you're reading this.

The drawback at ISO Beers -- aside from the relative lack of cheap parking in downtown San Jose -- is that it doesn't serve food. But nobody minds if you bring in a sandwich or takeout from nearby eateries like Ike's and Grub Shack as long as you clean up after yourself. There are even menus from some of those places at the register.

The crowds I've seen there have been mostly well-dressed friends and co-workers stopping by after work to try a new beer or two. Again, not exactly what you envision when you hear "beer bar."

But ISO Beers is really good at defying expectations.

Contact Sal Pizarro at food@mercurynews.com.

ISO BEERS

75 E. Santa Clara St.,
San Jose
408-298-2337; Facebook.com/isobeers.tastingbar
Open noon-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; noon-midnight Friday-Saturday