Pubs and Publicans: The Secrets of America’s Top Taphouses
“Third place.” It’s a term coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg to denote a site, outside the home and office, where people gather to socialize and enjoy themselves. A third place can be a church, a coffee house, a laundromat or a porch stoop, but a bar is especially suited to the role. A few beers can dissolve inhibitions and people who wouldn’t normally swap two words with each other are soon exchanging news and views like long-lost cousins.
Of course, there are some bars where the beer is not just a social lubricant, but a major topic of conversation in and of itself….
On October 4, 1957, the Russians launched Sputnik, inaugurating the space age. Three days later an equally momentous event for beer connoisseurs took place in Washington, DC: the Brickskeller opened its doors.
In the fifty years that followed, the modest, subterranean bar has grown into a national icon for beer lovers, with a collection of bottled beers that’s earned the Brickskeller a place in the Guinness Book of World Records.
But anyone can warehouse beer. Why are there a limited number of establishments like the Brick that have gained a national reputation, prompting beer geeks to detour 500 or 1,000 miles to bend an elbow underneath their roofs? What, besides a large selection, makes a great beer bar?
“As soon as I find out, I’ll tell you!” laughs Dave Alexander, the current owner, who’s just received still another plaudit for his efforts: last month, he accepted a Cheers Benchmark Award for the Best Beer Bar from Cheers magazine and the Adams Beverage Group.
The Brickskeller was a ground-breaking beer bar from the start. It’s founder, Felix Coja, a graduate of France’s Cordon Bleu cooking academy, decided to set his restaurant apart by offering a then unheard-of selection of 51 beers from around the planet. His son, Maurice, would push that number into the hundreds by the mid-1970s, sending a refrigerated tanker truck on a cross-country trek to pick up new labels from as many regional breweries as possible.
During the 1980s, Dave Alexander and his wife Diane (Maurice’s daughter) shifted the emphasis from collectors’ cans to American microbreweries, and eventually pushing the beer total upwards to over 1,300 bottled brands.
And what better place to enjoy these beers than in a veritable museum of beer memorabilia? The Brickskeller occupies the bottom two floors of a five-story building that was built in 1912 as a boardinghouse. The dimly lit bar has a feel of timelessness. Locked inside glass cases around the walls is a collection of antique beer cans. Customers are urged to order from the menus and not from the displays: it’s been more than 40 years since anyone brewed Soul Malt Liquor or James Bond’s 007 Special Blend.
An upstairs bar, with a stage, dart boards and about a dozen draft selections, is the scene of the country’s longest running series of beer tastings. In September 1985, host Bob Tupper, a high school history teacher from Bethesda, MD, and his wife Ellie introduced a lineup of exotic (for the time) beers that included Tsingtao, Grolsch and Beamish Stout. A more recent tasting, showcasing the beers of Port Brewing Co. in San Marcos, CA, featured Lost Abbey Judgment Day (a Belgian-style quadrupel) and Old Viscosity (a strong ale described as a “black barleywine”). It’s a testament to how our palates have matured.
A charity auction following the tasting raises $360 for Children’s Hospital, a local institution. When Dave was a youngster, the staff there nursed him back to health from a case of spinal meningitis. He’s reciprocated by raising upwards of $100,000 for his favorite charity.
Guest Tomme Arthur, brewmaster at Port Brewing, offers the best comment on the Brickskeller’s unique gemutlichkeit: “This is six years in a row that I’ve done something at the Brick, and I don’t even have any beer in the local market!”
English Atmosphere, Oregon Address
Across the country, in Portland, OR, the Horse Brass Pub has gained status as a beer landmark for its immense selection (53 taps, 60 bottles) and its authentic English atmosphere (darts, picture of the queen, six handpumps dispensing cask ale). For founder and owner Don Younger, it was a steep learning curve.
When he opened the Horse Brass in 1976, “I didn’t even know the difference between a lager and an ale!” confesses Younger. As for English pub culture, “the only thing I knew is that I liked the Beatles and Rolling Stones.”
Younger credits one of his employees, an English bartender (now retired) named Brian Dutch, with pointing him in the right direction. Brian liked English ale, so Younger added Bass Ale to his selection of four draft beers. As additional requests for beer reached his ears, he put in a fifth tap, for Guinness, then one for Beck’s…and it just sort of ballooned from there.
Dutch’s wife, adds Younger, helped him set up a kitchen that now serves such beloved British pub grub as Scotch egg, ploughman’s lunch and steak and kidney pie.
And Younger himself, who in his pre-publican days ran a regional sales office for Lever Brothers, morphed into the instantly recognizable figure he is today. With his raspy voice and flowing gray mane of hair, he reminds one of a prospector who headed West in search of gold and found his fortune by tapping a different vein.
What enables a pub to aspire to greatness? Younger cites the triumvirate of the owner, the employees and the customers: “People make it a pub.” He was worried how anti-smoking legislation, then sailing through the Oregon legislature, might affect his business. “Our regulars tend to be smokers; it’s a meeting place for them. We don’t have a proper place to go outside and smoke.”
Younger owns several other establishments, including a coffee house/pub (the Hedge House) and two brewpubs (the New Old Lompoc and the Fifth Quadrant), but he promises there will only be one Horse Brass. “People ask me, why don’t you open another, and I answer, hell, I don’t even know how I got this one to work.”
But it’s not impossible to operate a chain of better beer bars. The Ginger Man has four Texas locations (each with outdoor beer garden), and two “cousin pubs” in New York City. The Flying Saucer Draught Emporium operates 11 locations throughout the South, from San Antonio to Charlotte. The original location of the Capital Ale House in downtown Richmond, VA offers 48 draft beers, while a second site in the suburb of Innsbrook boasts 77 taps. A third location is set to open in the suburb of Midlothian by the end of this year.
Matt Simmons, president of the Capital Ale House group, notes that all servers are required to take a Beer 101 class, plus seminars in Belgian beers, German beers, and individual styles. Every shift, the management conducts tastings of seasonals and other newly arrived beers. The result is a well-educated bar, and waitstaff who can handle customers’ questions with ease: What does a witbier taste like? What other beers might I like if I drink a lot of Bass? What beer would go well with my order of bacon-wrapped scallops….or chocolate tort?
It speaks well of a bar when a brewery names one of its staple beers after the owner. Big Daddy IPA, from the Speakeasy Brewing Co. in San Francisco, honors Dave “Big Daddy” Keene, owner of the Toronado in Haight-Ashbury. This no-frills dive has weathered the times. “When I started here in 1989, this was a really, really, really rough neighborhood,” remembers bartender Stephen Chaldicott. “There were crackheads everywhere and projects just one block away.” Now, he sees a lot of people who make their living off computer and who “drive better cars than I do.”
Toronado, at the time we called, had 65 beers on tap, including nine IPAs, noted Chaldicott. The bar is most famous for its annual barley wine festival, held every February. Most of the regular offerings are yanked off-line, and about 50 barley wines from across the country hooked up. Patrons shout out their requests by number rather than name to save time. “That’s usually when I go on vacation,” laughs Chaldicott. “It’s a real mob scene. We need three bartenders and and five glass washers.”
If staging a first-class festival qualifies you as a great beer bar, then Max’s on Broadway in Baltimore’s historic Fells Point neighborhood surely deserves a mention for its 72 Hours of Belgium, also held in February. The most recent event opened with 66 of the bar’s 72 taplines pouring Belgian or Belgian-style beers, a few making their debut in the United States.
Food might be the greatest variable among the nation’s premier beer bars. The Toronado has no kitchen; patrons can bring in their own snacks, says Chaldecott. Conveniently, there’s a gourmet sausage grill called Rosemunde next door.
Likewise, Chicago’s most famous multi-tap, the Map Room—so named for accumulation of charts, atlases, Baedekers and National Geographics—offers no food, just 26 taps and 200-220 bottled beers. Every Tuesday, however, is International Night: for a two-beer minimum, patrons can help themselves to a catered buffet (the theme was Malaysian food as this was being written in mid-June). The Map Room also hosts barbecues on weekends.
On the other hand, Monk’s Cafe in Philadelphia offers an extensive, Belgian-accented menu that offers eight varieties of mussels, pommes frites with bourbon mayonnaise, rabbit braised in Cantillon Gueuze, New Zealand lamb with a shallot sauce incorporating George Gale’s Prize Old Ale…all this and 18 draft and about 250 bottled beers. Owner Tom Peters and chef Adam Glickman are famous for their monthly beer dinners.
“When you walk into a place, you know in the first few seconds if it’s right,” says Chris Black, owner of the Falling Rock Tap House in Denver’s Lower Downtown neighborhood. The Falling Rock offers an eclectic jukebox leaning towards jazz and blues; a collection of 2,200 empty beer bottles on the walls; and 69 beers on tap and between 120 and 170 bottled offerings.
Black is an indefatigable beer hound, frequently visiting breweries on his days off. One of his greatest coups was obtaining an early, experimental kegged version of La Folie, a Belgian-style sour brown ale from New Belgium Brewing Co., for the 2000 Great American Beer Festival. For many of the visiting beer afficianadoes, it was their first sip of this newly released beer.
When we phoned, the Falling Rock was celebrating its 10th anniversary. Each day from June 8 through June 17, Black was tapping a unique libation made especially for his pub. Some of the beers he actually helped brew, including a double IPA from Odell Brewing Co. and an unusual dark-colored triple from the Wynkoop brewpub.
Although the beer selection changes constantly, the Falling Rock is remarkably stable in one respect: “We have very little staff turnover.” Four of six bartenders have been there since opening day in 1997. “Most people will have their favorites,” says Black. “When I go into a bar, I like knowing who’s going to be there.”
It’s a pitfall of beer bars that as the selection grows, the chances of getting a bad beer increase greatly, because it becomes harder to police the inventory for stale suds. Careful maintenance is essential to the successful multi-tap, asserts bar manager Michael Dickson of The Great Lost Bear in Portland, ME. “We clean our own tap lines; we do it constantly—it’s a labor of love.”
Because the Bear serves a lot of unfiltered beers, it has to guard against a buildup of “beerstone”—a calcium precipitate that can lend a harsh bitterness to the freshest beer. Dickson is also careful about flushing out the taplines whenever he hooks up a new brand, particularly if the previous offering was a fruit beer. Nobody wants to get a pilsner that tastes like a Ludens cough drop because the tap formerly dispensed Sam Adams Cherry Wheat Beer. Dickson says he uses a cleaner that’s “as caustic as you can get.”
The Great Lost Bear—which celebrated its 28th birthday in June—also earns the loyalty of its customers by going easy on their wallets. Mondays and Tuesdays, for instance, are “Short Beer Night”: customers receive a 23-oz serving of any of more than 50 draft selections for the price of a pint.
As I wind up my phone interview with Dickson, he suggests I click on their website www.greatlostbeer.com and look for the “Bear Cam”: a live Internet feed of the bar. There I spot a grainy, black-and-white image of Dickson waving at me. With a wider angle lens and sharper resolution, you could conceivably scan the taps for new beers, check on who’s bartending, and scope out the crowd for your friends, all from the comfort of your home. Could the Bear Cam be the forerunner of a virtual bar uniting pubs and pubgoers across the country?
Pouring with Passion
High tech or low tech, Belgian bistro or dive, the best beer bars have one common thread: a person at the helm who has a passion for beer and, with the zeal of a missionary, tries to instill that passion in his patrons.
And although it’s not a prerequisite, it certainly doesn’t hurt if that person has experience in other corners of the craft beer industry.
Tom Nickel had spent five years as head brewer for the Oggi’s brewpub chain in southern California at the time he took over O’Brien’s Pub in San Diego in 2003. This hole-in-the-wall bar, with 20 draft and 120-130 bottled selections, is in a strip mall surrounded by car dealerships. It’s got to be a destination, because it will never draw an evening crowd from walk-by traffic alone. Nickel uses his connections within the San Diego community to stock the taps with rarities like a barrel-aged bière de garde from the Lost Abbey Brewing Co. “If you drop by on a Friday, half-a-dozen taps will have changed since Monday,“promises Nickel. “My beer playground” is what he calls his establishment.
“Hoppy Jeff” Wells worked as a beer buyer for Whole Foods Markets and as a regional salesman for the Global Brewers Guild before founding Wells Ales & Lagers this June in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. A half hour before the doors were set to open, Wells was dealing with the kind of snafu that often plagues grand openings: the bar stools had yet to arrive. “We’ll just have a standing room only crowd,” he laughed.
Wells will use his beer savvy in maintaining an inventory of 10 draft beers and 75 bottled brews, while offering an imaginative menu with lots of locally produced ingredients. The beers will be served over a pinewood bar that used to be a lane in an Elks Lodge bowling alley; the rails were formerly bowling ball racks. The pub signs were shipped from London. “An Old World vibe with modern efficiency” is Wells’ goal.
Portland, OR, already a beer drinker’s dream, will have still another establishment worth visiting when the Green Dragon Bistro and Brewpub opens this summer. The brewpub, in addition to its own house beers, will feature 15-20 guest taps and about 100 bottled beers. To give customers even more of a choice, the Green Dragon will share a building with Integrity Spirits, a craft distillery.
However, an even better reason for a visit is the presence of Jim Parker. The well-traveled Parker has served the beer industry in a plethora of capacities, from brewer to publican to legislative advocate to editor of New Brewer and Zymurgy magazines. He’s named his new venture after the Green Dragon Tavern in Boston where Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty sowed sedition against King George. Parker wants his clientele to plot their own revolutions while sampling great beer and spirits they’ve never tried before.
The job of a publican, as Parker sees it, is not merely to sling suds but to spark conversation. His first establishment was a multi-tap called the Mountain Pub, which he operated in Fort Collins, CO in the mid-1990s. Parker is proud of the fact that he was the first to serve draft beer from New Belgium. But he’s prouder of something else: “I can lay claim to three businesses, two marriages and several babies that resulted from people meeting at my pub.”
Parker was hatching several novel ideas to spark interaction between his customers. He intended to auction off 16 of his 20 barstools to investors who pony up $2,500. Whenever these favored customers drop by, they’ll be entitled to a free beer and they can reclaim their stool from whoever is sitting there. But the guy who gets bumped will also receive a free beer. Parker hopes this will stimulate not animosity, but gratitude and friendship.
Additionally, says Parker, customers who want to get served at the bar whenever he’s manning the taps “will have to tell a joke to their fellow patrons.” If they can’t think of anything funny, they’ll have to put a dollar in one jar and pull a slip of paper with a joke out of a second jar. The money will go to a local non-profit.
The Green Dragon, he adds, will have shuffleboard (“an extremely sociable game that you can play with a beer in your hand”), a jukebox and occasionally live music, but probably no TV. “I want to stimulate conversation, not isolation!” Parker asserts.
He points out one last essential component of a great beer bar: “Community! People who enjoy where they are, and talk about why they’re there.”
Greg Kitsock is the editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News, a long-time resident of Washington, DC, and a frequent contributor to beer-related publications.