Calling For The End Of The Multi-tap…

In the early days of craft beer, the landscape for beer lovers was pretty bleak. Bars perhaps served a couple different draft beers, but many likely had just one, well-worn tap handle. It might have said Bud, Lite, or another, but it could very well have served anything from the King of Beers to its much derided Natty Light cousin, so interchangeable were the products of the time.

But starting a little more than twenty years ago, new bars specializing in craft beer opened around the country. Often operating as lonely soldiers in the craft beer army, these beer bars air-dropped behind enemy lines into lands filled with macro tap handles. In cities such as Houston, Texas, this new generation of bar owners decided that the best way to promote the beers they enjoyed was to open mammoth operations, filled to the brim with every craft beer they could track down and serve. Perhaps beginning with that Texan establishment, known as The Ginger Man, the new generation of beer bars came to be known as multi-taps.

Starting with 40, 65, or 80 tap handles, these early mega operations served beers from around the country, including many of which suffered long, hot journeys on their way to far-flung beer bars. The patrons often didn’t care about the quality or age of a particular beer because it was such a welcomed departure from the fizzy yellow monotony that dominated their usual drinking sessions. These local bars were soon followed by chains that featured as many as 250 different beers on tap at one time. These chains now serve everything from Dogfish Head and Stone to Michelob Ultra and Miller Lite.

Twenty plus years since their founding, the time has come for some reflection upon the continued relevance of multi-taps. In traveling to bars around the world, both as a writer and a beer lover, I’ve developed a bit of a theory about how the number of tap lines a bar maintains corresponds to the quality of its selection and offerings. I’ve found that there is sort of a sweet spot for many bars, a standard measure above which tends to result in diminishing returns for the consumer. That magic number tends to be 24 as a select few establishments around the country, and frankly anywhere, that can manage more than this number at a time. While I appreciate the availability of 75 or 150 taps in theory, the practice becomes the beer equivalent of having 500 channels of television programming and nothing worth watching. And the signal often gets fuzzy.

The main problem with offering so many taps is that certain beers tend to move, either due to their innate popularity with consumers or because the bartenders sell them, while others tend to sit and face a long, cold death. Managing such a massive number of tap lines is also a logistical nightmare for many bars above the magic number. A recently published industry guide suggests that bar owners clean their beer lines every two weeks, a process requiring the disassembly and hand-cleaning of faucets and couplers. Many brewers and bar owners believe this cumbersome activity, necessary both for hygiene and to preserve beer quality, should be done every week or ten days.

Now don’t get me wrong, just because a bar focuses on 24 beers or less doesn’t guarantee that the selection or quality will be any good. Still, I find myself drawn more and more to places that selectively focus on a small number of taps, sometimes as few as six or twelve, and that simply concentrate on maximizing the quality of their offerings. As the roots of craft beer continue to spread deep across America, perhaps these anti-mega’s will get a chance to define the next generation of beer bars.

–Article appeared in Issue 35 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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The Roadhouse Experiment Has Ended…

A little less than a year and a half into the process, the Roadhouse restaurant in Brookline, Massachusetts, has reportedly closed.
Run by the proprietors of the very successful Publick House just a few blocks down the street, this offspring failed to catch and suffered troubles almost from the beginning. From neighborhood squabbles over its custom built smoker to kitchen and menu upheavals, this ambitious project never seemed to grasp its own identity and failed to find a home among any particular audience. The food and service at times ranged from poor to quite good and the beer was usually top-notch. It’s massive space was usually half-empty and the spread out service structure gave it a slightly disjointed feel.

In its place, the owners plan to open a new establishment, to be called American Craft. There are few details so far to flush out this generalized concept but the folks over at BeerAdvocate have posted a press release about the change.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

AMERICAN CRAFT ARTISANAL FOOD & DRINK TO OPEN IN BROOKLINE

1700 Beacon St. in Brookline, MA
617.487.4290

(Brookline, MA) AMERICAN CRAFT, a full service restaurant and bar celebrating the best of artisanal American cuisine is set to open Monday, February 22nd. From farmer and brewer, to winemaker and distiller, we are proud to present homegrown talent. It starts with Chef Corey French who has creatively crafted a merican home cooked experience fusing both classic and contemporary recipes. Chef Corey brings with him a strong commitment and dedication to local products and ingredients and will source as many items as he can items being sourced from local Massachusetts farms. His fare is local, fresh and from scratch and includes dishes for everyone from the hearty appetite to vegan preference to our extensive family friendly children’s menu. The menu will feature a list of daily Blue Plate specials as well as an eclectic sampling of appetizers, sandwiches, and entrées plus a build-your-own burger platter (be that meat, turkey or vegetarian).

We have a loyalty to American excellence and have chosen to bring you the finest libations crafted domestically. We’ll offer 40 draught lines which will feature hand picked, small batch American breweries, a constantly rotating list of rare, vintage, and seasonal bottled craft beers, an extensive all American wine program, and more than 40 bottles of American distilled spirits.

American Craft is dedicated to going green. We’ll open with an aggressive recycling and composting program and are currently seeking out energy saving programs to become a front-runner in, ecofriendly dining operations in Brookline.

Come to enjoy the best America has to offer. Brought to you by the same folks that give you the Belgian Bier Bar experience, The Publick House, which lives close by.

We welcome you to American Craft.

A sample menu is also available here.

Oddly enough, the press release and sample menu have a sort of Lord Hobo vibe to them. I look forward to hearing more about the concept but wonder, following several previous costume changes, if this voluminous space can really support a generalized restaurant concept. The new establishment is expected to open in a week or two, following a quick renovation.

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A Quick Britain Recap And The Michael Jackson Archive Preview…

Two posts in a month is pretty impressive stuff, I know. What can I say? I’ve been busy doing other things, mainly legal work and traveling. I’ve just returned after a lengthy trip to Britain, perhaps a bit lengthier than I had expected due to the faux-snow attack we had here in New England.

For the purposes of this site, my impressions of the trip can be boiled down to these thoughts. There is a lot of real ale going on in London and its environs and a lot of people are drinking it, both young and old. It could definitely have been the types of bars I was visiting, but we hit a few dozen places over more than ten days and everywhere we went, people were drinking cask ale. Yes, they also drank the hell out of cheap lager beer but cask made a pretty good showing. With that said, on average, the cask ale ran the gamut from undrinkable due to overwhelming butter and “British yeast” notes, at least to my palate (a small percentage of beers tried), to average and fine (most of the beers), to outstanding (also a very small percentage). Had a very bad Fullers ESB at the Old Bank of England pub where I so enjoyed it five years ago or so but an excellent Adnams Broadside down the road and some good HopBack in Oxford. Also, Sam Smith’s pubs were, in terms of atmosphere and beer quality, the tops (Alpine Lager was a savior at times). The other thing that surprised me a great deal was the near complete dearth of beer styles available at these pubs. Even pub’s with great reputations, such as the Market Porter in London with its 8 or so casks, served an overwhelming amount of bitter. Perhaps you might find a golden colored ale that was a touch hoppier but generally speaking it was all bitter all the time. Not a single mild, stout, or porter to be seen (apart from Guinness and the quite enjoyable Export Stout from Sam Smiths). The one exception to this was that I frequently found pubs were carrying Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. I have no particular idea why and never saw anyone order one, but it was there. This sort of style fidelity makes for a pretty boring beer experience after a few repetitious days. Eventually, we had to break the mold with a night drinking lambic at the cheesy Belgian-themed Belgo Centraal restaurant in London. I think we often take for granted the diversity of great beer styles we have available to us in almost any bar here in America, from a gastropub to an Applebee’s. I’ll be perusing the tap handles tonight with a new-found sense of wonder tonight.

Last thought: the Michael Jackson archive in Oxford is truly an impressive sight, with nearly 30 big file cabinets filled with material. Ranging from his own personal tasting notes on what seemed to be every single global brewery to his very personal research into Parkinson’s treatments, it was an illuminating few hours. I was cheered to see that he counted as part of his extensive library a copy of my book, The Good Beer Guide To New England, though I don’t think he ever cracked it. It was also a touch uncomfortably voyeuristic to read the inscriptions many fellow beer writers made in their tomes offered to the Bard of Beer. In my whirlwind visit to the archive, I came across a lot of excellent material and left with many new questions I hope to answer in the future. A fastidiously organized pack-rat, I’m also surprised at just how in demand Michael Jackson was in every imaginable way and how well he documented it all. Along these lines, it was interesting to see just how hard the craft brewing community courted him and tried to curry his favor, starting from the earliest days. Michael counted many brewers (not just crafts) as among his “clients”, an interesting revelation to say the least.

I was also very surprised to learn that despite having been open for more than two years, I was the first person to actually ask to see the archive.

Cheers to the good folks at Oxford Brookes, including the friendly Don Marshall, for their assistance in gaining access to them. I hope to return soon to peruse the rest of the interesting materials on offer there.

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