Tapped Up or Tapped Out
The first multiple tap bars had to be found in Europe. Perhaps it all started early in 18th century East London’s Shoreditch area where publicans came to serve a mixture from three different casks. “Three threads,” as it was called originally, consisted of equal parts pale ale, new (actively fermenting) brown ale, and aged brown ale, (sometimes called stale ale). To satisfy his patrons, the pub keeper had to keep all three beers on hand. There’d have been three firkins on the bar (each weighing over 100-lbs)—those had to be difficult to manage. Combining those three types of beer were the makings of what came to be called porter.
Most brewers did indeed make more than one style of beer, but time and space probably limited their availability at any given time. In Britain, they probably made some attempt to have a mild and a pale available most of the time.
In this country, as lager brewing assumed hegemony, it came to mean having a cold fermented and aged pale lager (in the style of Bohemia) and a dark (Munich style) lager available. Most pubs had some connection with a brewer, and would have limited their offerings to that one source. Less popular ale pubs offered similar pale and dark products. Some lager brewers produced an occasional “ale,” which was usually fermented at warm ale-type temperatures from lager yeast (these were referred to as “bastard” ale in brewing literature). And in the spring, of course, some brewers made a “bock” beer seasonal, supposedly from the dregs of those famous beechwood vats after their “annual” cleaning.
In that era breweries often owned the tavern or pub, but after prohibition it was illegal for breweries to own pubs. Even so, brewers were usually able to finagle most bars into using only one particular brand.
Segue to Light
A great leap sideways happened in 1967 when New York’s Rheingold Brewery introduced Gablingers Diet Beer, a low gravity, low quality, malt liquor brewed with too much water, which lowered the alcohol content to 4.6% and also cut down on residual unfermentable sugars, such as dextrins (a major source of flavor in beer). This resulted in a very low caloric count: 107. It was not successful for Rheingold, although fat drunks probably loved it.
BUT, that same year, Chicago brewer Meister-brau launched a beer named Lite, another unsuccessful watered-down entry in the beer-for-overweight-people department. It was only when Miller Brewing, a subsidiary of Philip Morris Cigarette Co., bought Meister Brau that any further developments came on line. P-M had lots of advertising money to burn. Their sales pitch was aimed at peddling a masculine-imaged, apparently full-bodied, beer to women. Beer PR people often assume that most women are on some kind of diet, and don’t really want any taste in their beer anyway.
Before long most brewers took up the light beer cudgel, and it came to pass that one could expect THREE beers in their local tavern: pale, dark and “light” beer. By then, of course, brewers were hell-bent to eliminate all taste in beer.
Fortunately, sometime in the early 70s a few energetic publicans began to offer an additional brand or two in their houses. They did this by adding a national brew to their locally produced beer. Thus Olympia- or Stroh- or Heilman-based pubs could add national Pabst Blue Ribbon or Millers for their customers. I remember cruising around in the late 60s looking for tap beers I hadn’t yet tasted. Finding Blitz-Weinhard and Schlitz in the same bar was a real deal in those days.
As these bars began to proliferate, you could sometimes find Lowenbräu, Heineken, or even Becks on tap, and if one searched diligently, Bass Ale or Whitbread might appear at his local, but we never held our breaths in these matters. As the decade rolled over into the 70s, folks began to experiment with high quality homebrew. Some of them thought seriously about starting their own small brewery. In Britain, CAMRA (CAMpaign for Real Ale) was born. A consumer revolt was beginning there, and would soon be followed by one in this country.
The Multiple Tap Beginnings
By 1977, in a giant leap forward, the nation’s first really small brewery had opened in Sonoma, CA, soon followed by Sierra Nevada in Chico in 1980. Others came along, including Boulder Brewing out of Hygiene, CO, soon-to-fail Cartwright in Portland, Bert Grant’s Yakima, WA Brewing, and Red Hook in Seattle.
In 1974, here in Portland, Mike McMenamin put together what may have been one of the nation’s first true multiple tap bars. The Produce Row Cafe, which along with two others (1975 and 1976), constituted a beginning of true multiple tap pubs, offering local, import, and national beer from several breweries.
It was an idea whose time had come, but not until after Mike had to sell his three pubs to raise money to begin distributing these new beers in the Portland area (1980). His distributorship soon failed, because the tiny new “micro-brewery” situation would not support such a grandiose scheme. Distributing beer is a sometimes grim business.
No matter, because Mike and his brother Brian soon opened their first joint venture, the Barley Mill Pub in east Portland (1983). Their first brewery pub, the Hillsdale soon followed, but by then the bothers were some $300,000 in the hole. It was a comfortable hole, because their father had lobbied the Oregon legislature to pass the nation’s first (and still the best) brewpub law. That law stipulated that a small brewery (i.e., a micro or craft brewery) could either a) self-distribute its beer, or b) open a public house to offer beer over the counter—at up to two locations.
It was this self-distribution, side stepping traditional distributors, that allowed some of Oregon’s earliest brewers to become nationally successful (for example Widmer, now 18th in the nation, Deschutes, 20th, Full Sail, 25th, Bridgeport 41, and Rogue 44), all of which now enrich an old-line distributor in time-honored fashion.
For the McMenamins it was the beginning of an empire with 52 breweries, pubs, restaurants, hotels, movie theaters, a winery, a distillery, and even a golf course. The brothers seem to have the Midas touch for success in renovating important and beloved old Northwest buildings. It was the McMenamins who brought the multiple tap pub to fruition, blazing the way for entrepreneurs across the country.
These days multiple tap pubs seem to be the norm, at least around here. In Portland, Oregon, one can always find a craft beer, even in the most stodgy neighborhood pubs.
The Challenge of Multiple Taps
In Britain, it can be a real project to manage several beers in one’s cellar. Mark Dorber’s White Horse Pub is a good example of that country’s best, with nine keg beers (carbonated like ours), plus four to six casks on hand pump (cask conditioned). These latter need almost constant attention to be at their best. Dorber’s operation features about all one could expect of that type of brew for any one location.
In this country, multiple tap bars now offer 100 or more different draft products and that can be a problem. A publican must manage a wide-ranging variety of beers, many of which are, by their very nature, slow moving products. The cellar of such an establishment must place each of the 15.5-, 7.75-, and 5-gallon kegs in an easily accessible location. The tap lines must be cleaned weekly, lest they impart their own character to the beer. The kegs must be monitored on a regular basis and replaced before they go off. The staff must be educated as to the difficulties involved, and which beers are ready to go “off” and which are fresh.
That’s a lot of beer that, once tapped, may stay on line for more than a few days, after which it can become pretty wretched. Worse, if the draft lines are not cleaned regularly, all of the beer can become wretched. We’ve had two “over-a-hundred” pubs here in Portland, a city of 580,000, although only one is still going.
I will say that when I visit that particular pub it soon becomes apparent to me that the staff has little knowledge concerning which beers may have been “on” for over 5-days, or which beers are newly installed. With 100 faucets, there must be something like 6600 “pints” poured over a one-week period. And that assumes that ALL 100 spigots have been equally used. That’s not likely.
I don’t think that such large multiple tap establishments have a great future. I’m not certain that even cities as large as New York or Los Angeles could keep such ventures working properly. I look for “fresh” tap beer in my glass, not something that has been on for two or three weeks. I’ll opt for bars that offer slightly less varieety, but more freshness.
Fred Eckhardt lives, and drinks beer from whatever fresh spigot is available, in Portland, OR. He’s not fussy, but would like his beer to be fresh, often preferring cask conditioned.