“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.
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?
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?