Whatcha got on tap?

This is the first in a series of posts about the current state of beverages in the American restaurant and bar industry. Stay tuned for more cunning commentary!



Beer & Wine (but, really, beer):

I have a theory: If you sit down at a bar and ignorantly ask the bartender, “Whatcha got on tap?” chances are you’re going to order a shitty beer. Say what you want about my cynicism, but nine times out of ten, I’m going to be right.

It’s rare for a bar to promote both a trendy and plentiful beer selection, as well as a diverse and respectable wine list. More often than not, a choice is made during conceptualization in favor of one or the other, the idea to narrowly define the operator’s intended niche audience. In the broadest sense, beer has always been the everyman’s drink of choice, the preference of the blue-collar working class, while wine takes on an air of sophistication and refinement. As much as drinkers of Beringer White Zinfandel and Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA would like to dispute these generalizations, the fact remains that wine fans look down on those lowly, sorry beer drinkers, and beer fans stick up their middle finger at those pretentious, stuck-up wine drinkers. Those in the middle are left to argue nuance.  Granted, the best wine bars will offer an upscale beer selection, and the best beer bars will refuse to lower their standards to sugary half-fermented grape juice; but for the most part, the customer makes a decision for one or the other, based on personal preference.

So, then, what separates a so-called beer bar, or wine bar, from your everyday bar or restaurant? What level of detail does an establishment need to attain in order to cross the line? Without getting into too much detail about the history of fermented beverages (surely the subject of future posts) it’s helpful to begin by looking at the history of beverage service within the restaurant industry, and its modern evolution.

Beer, humanity’s wondrous first intimation of alcoholic goodness, has only recently emerged as a necessary component of beverage service. Post-Prohibition,  macro-brewed conglomerates dominated the American market until the late 1970’s. It took pioneers at Anchor, Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, and others, to begin to re-train the American palate to appreciate the subtleties of small-batch brews. Even then, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that craft beer hit its stride. New breweries like Milton, Delaware-based Dogfish Head, and Fort Bragg California’s North Coast Brewing hit homeruns with more eccentric styles, some based on old-world recipes long forgotten. With Americans’ new taste for craft beers, foreign breweries entered the market. Belgian, German, English, and Scottish style ales and lagers began to flood into the States. What the world had been experiencing for centuries, Americans now could now partake in. It didn’t take long for the trend to catch on, and now even the least reputable of bars is likely to have one beer, from outside of the United States, on tap.

So how do I classify bars based on their beer selection? Pretty specifically, actually. But those of you who know me, probably already knew this.

Tier 0.5 – Old-School drunk man’s lagers: Schlitz, Bud Heavy, MGD, Coors Banquet, Schaffer . Run Screaming from this bar, after dusting yourself off, and head to the nearest walk-in center for a tetanus shot. Unfortunately (here comes the backlash) your local VFW falls into this category, but these bars are more private clubs, since you need to have a membership to drink there, and they’re only serving what their members want, so I feel like I can safely leave them off of the list.

Tier One – Some of the above, plus the three requisite American light lagers, and their less caloric counterparts (Michelob Ultra, Bud Select 55). Throw in a Heineken and an Amstel Light or two. Maybe even… gasp… Corona? This is probably your quintessential  dive bar, and chances are you should order a shot of Jack Daniels, neat, or Jameson, with the sole purpose of ingratiating yourself to the regulars. Some of my favorite bars fall into this category. Usually family or sole-proprietor owned, and the owner is working the bar. Introduce yourself and tell him how much you love the Yankees. Especially if Red Sox memorabilia hangs everywhere.

Tier Two – All of the above, with sprinklings of Bass, Blue Moon, Stella Artois, Newcastle, Sam Adams, Guinness. This is a dive trying not to be a dive. But nevertheless, it’s still a dive. You could, however, skip the shot of whiskey, but where would be the fun in that? Make the owner happy and order the Irish Nachos. It’s his mother’s recipe!

Tier Three – All of the above, plus Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam, Sam Adams Seasonal, Harpoon IPA, maybe even Dogfish Head 60min IPA. In this category falls 90% of American restaurants, including almost all of the big national chains. Trying to be everything to everybody, they handpick the top selling of beer brands, and push styles they don’t fully understand. With minimal training and product knowledge, they give the mass consumer exactly what they are looking for: a full belly and a quick buzz. There will be no trend setting here. Rather, these restaurants are riding the wave of trends that ended twenty years ago. Appletini anyone? Is this still 1992? Sizzling Fajitas? Shit, I had these when I was ten years old. Oh, you’re featuring Blueberry Ale on special for three dollars a bottle. How hip are you?? Break out the suspenders (after, of course, setting down your Frozen Mango Bahama Mama). These locations largely saturate the industry with average service, average drinks, average food, and millions in gross revenue annually. TGI Fridays is the reason many Americans think Blue Moon comes from Belgium. I abhor these places, but truth be told, I’ll stop if I have to, because I know exactly what I’ll get. No surprises here, and that can be good or bad, depending on the day.

Tier Four – This is an interesting segment, because while appearing at first glance to be a genuine beer bar, these restaurants are really tier three restaurants with better corporate offices. Usually comprised of only a handful of locations, the beer selection will be regionally managed, and taps can rotate depending on seasonal changes, or local preferences. While you may not see fifteen different types of Imperial Stout, you may see two, and they’re probably both tasty. Plan B, and Wood ‘n Tap, are two examples of Connecticut restaurants that fit this niche. These restaurants see the flaws with the TGI Fridays, and Applebee’s, of the world, and have a corporate vision to steer the ship in a more flavorful direction. Whether or not that staff is on the same ship is another story. These are my default beer bars, and I make it a point to know a bartender at each one I go to. You won’t get a job here without some formal training on beer as a specific entity.

Tier Five – Your full-fledged, top-notch beer bar. The owners are beer geeks. The managers are beer geeks. The bartenders are beer geeks. The customers are beer geeks. And if you aren’t a beer geek, they will make you feel awkward for intruding on their turf. Expect 50 tap lines, just as many bottles, as well as a reserve stash of collectables that may indeed be awe-inspiring. Generally, the staff dresses how they want, and individuality is not only welcomed, but  necessary. Tattoos are a big plus. As far as Connecticut goes, check out Gingerman in South Norwalk, and Cask Republic in New Haven. Service is hit or miss, because, really, no one is there to grow the business so much as to drink lots of beer, and wow you with how much they know about it.

Each of these styles of bar represents a segment of the population. From the most obscure to the most generic, there is a niche out there for everyone. It just depends on how well you do what you do compared to others in your market. There’s no reason a chain restaurant can’t push out better food. There’s no reason a beer-geek paradise can’t have a server training program. Probably the least flexible of all the businesses is the dive bar. And really, at the end of the day, do we want our dive bars to do any more than they already do? I don’t know about you, but a Bud Light and a shot of Jameson hits the spot anywhere I drink it, but more so when I’m not sitting next to some soccer mom’s third Pomegranate Martini


*My apologies to TGI Fridays. I’m only picking on you because my word processor kept autocorrecting Applebee’s to Apple Butter.  Please keep me on your mailing list!!


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