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.