By Mark Tichenor and Bruce Lish
Some beer lovers are content to stock their fridge and enjoy within the privacy of their own homes. But one of the things we like most about beer is that it’s a sociable beverage, and as such should be enjoyed in an environment conducive to sociality.
You can get a beer anywhere. Nowadays, you can even get a craft pale ale or IPA in most places. But a bar does not become great merely by pushing a bottle into your hand. And frankly, what’s the point of spending time with good friends and great beer in a joint that isn’t great?
First and foremost, the pub’s management must be beer lovers. There has to be a dedication on the part of ownership and management to find, stock, and properly serve great beer, instead of just relying on the proven standbys.
Jules Suplicki, Bar Manager for The Old Toad, uses specialty beer distributors, as well as direct contacts with craft breweries, to build the most eclectic beer selection in town. Her efforts yield a diverse and frequently changing beer lineup that at any time could include Polish porters, obscure English ESB, and specially-casked versions of local and regional ale. Her interest in beer has also led her to stock a vintage beer selection, giving patrons the chance to see how aging can mellow and improve the flavor of certain beer, much as they would a single-malt scotch or red wine.
The staff must also understand the beers they’re serving. It’s not always easy in the hospitality industry, as turnover is high and a server can’t be expected to be a beer lover simply because he or she works in a bar. But there should at least be a basic training on how to pronounce the names of the beers, and a working knowledge of the glassware into which each beer should be poured (mostly an aesthetic thing, we admit).
Obviously, selection is important too, but not as vital as it would seem. Places with a hundred-plus taps must deal with the problem of stock rotation. Unless managed carefully, some of the more obscure (and often more interesting) beers can go for weeks between pours, and that can result in a putrid pint. That’s not an indictment of this kind of beer bar, more a suggestion that, when ordering something off the beaten path, you ask for a sample glass first.
When we attempt to drink a hundred different beers in a sitting, it results in an ugly scene involving missing pants and pesky intervention by the authorities, so we fail to see the point of a tap range that large. Better to have a smaller, frequently rotating selection. That way, each visit to your favorite pub is new and interesting. Although the sheer variety offered by a place like MacGregor’s (which actually does a good job of maintaining its stock) makes us feel like kids in a candy store, and that’s very nice too.
But most important in a great pub is ambiance. This is where bars differ from other types of real estate. For one thing, size does not matter. A shoebox-shaped local joint, like The Boulevard Grill on Empire Boulevard, is often more fun than a cavernous main-drag chain franchise, simply because the people may be friendlier, the staff is going back and forth with the patrons, maybe some cool music is playing that isn’t off Adult Contemporary satellite channel mandated by corporate policy, and they have your favorite oatmeal stout on draft.
Of course this is a matter of personal preference. Some people love the big-screen TV ambiance of large national appetizer-mills. We, however, prefer our beer and company in pubs where we don’t have to struggle to talk over the howling of frat boys at the Golden Tee game.
These aren’t difficult criteria to meet, and any establishment that really dedicates itself to beer usually comes reasonably close to the mark. It’s all about a passion for beer shared between management, staff, and patrons. And we raise our glasses to the places that get it right.
In other beers:
After agonizing delays, The Tap and Mallet has finally opened. Former Old Toad Manager Joe McBane’s new place on Gregory Street serves a rotating stock of 30 beers, including “Mc Bane’s,” the house beer, brewed exclusively at the Rohrbach Brewing Company by beercraft co-columnist Bruce Lish. This is the part where Mark always tries to hype the fact that Lish is a Great American Beer Festival medalist, but Bruce is way too modest to put up with that nonsense.
Bruce is a certified beer judge and commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at https://beercraft.wordpress.com. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.