A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
In my previous column, published earlier at The Potable Curmudgeon blog, I recalled the growth of the "better" beer program 20 years ago at the Public House formerly known as Rich O’s, and found myself musing – is this word copyrighted? – whether a retro, back-to-basics, “better beer” pub program still might make sense in an era of HopCat and its 132 IPAs on tap.
AFTER THE FIRE: Before the deluge, or knowing how this whole beer business started
... My contrarian instincts tell me that the beer climate is ripe for a modest, thoughtful return to basics, emblemized by a relatively small list of classics on draft, and in bottles and cans, to be accompanied by some good, old-fashioned beer education, which seems to have been tossed aside in the era of mile-wide, inch-deep “craft” fandom.
It should be obvious that any conceivable template I might offer in this context, whether or not it has an immediate future, has been custom-designed in my brain for a specific potential user.
Namely, me. That's purposeful, by the way. I don't make detailed plans very often, and when I do, they're on cocktail napkins.
While it is true that I’ve often railed against cults of personality in the local political realm, and pined for the seemingly unreachable ideal of teamwork and multiple minds coming together, what I'm imagining here is a small, sustainable specialty beer café, not a multi-million-dollar City Hall filled with obscure departments and shuffling time servers.
At least it wouldn't be boring having a personality aboard ship who is capable of staging a floor show in addition to sweeping up and taking out the garbage. Entertainment and education? Been there and done that. Anyway, differentiation seldom has been a problem for me.
At the present time, I’m only thinking aloud, curious about the possibilities. Before describing them further, you must endure a digression.
It's a story I’ve told on many occasions.
In a year’s time, Diana and I bought an old house on Spring Street in New Albany (in 2003), and George W. Bush was re-elected to a second term (2004).
These two seemingly unrelated occurrences converged with a third contingency, because by 2005, I was looking back on 15 years as a principal player in the New Albanian Brewing Company. It proved to be the right time for a sweeping reappraisal, with a mind toward the future.
Where was I going personally? What about the business, not to mention the whole country?
Providentially, my private life already had evolved for the better, because Diana completed me. It’s always best to have a solid foundation. We did, and do.
Next came a survey of the blighted downtown New Albany landscape of the period, and an insatiable urge to know what caused these empty urban doughnut holes in America – and by extension, why self-described local “leaders” seemed powerless to do anything about them.
Finally, with the curse of W forced on me a second time, there came an epiphany. As an individual, there was next to nothing I might do to change the wider world. However, perhaps the local grassroots provided the best opportunity for participation, to improve the basic building block of community, and to help make it a more solid foundation.
NABC had raised the local bar for better beer. Might my personal future as well as that of my business also be tied to the revitalization of the city’s most undervalued assets, its historic downtown business and residential districts?
Beginning in 2005 and 2006, I embarked upon a journey through a labyrinth of ever-widening learning curves pertaining to urbanism, independent business, street engineering and the enduringly senseless nature of small town hack politics. It truly has been a Long March, and the accumulation of wisdom along the way has proven exhausting.
Eventually I lost an election and gave up the business, but in the process, I regained some semblance of a soul. The jury remains sequestered in deliberation, and the learning curve goes on forever. It should suffice to say that as progress in New Albany pertains to politics, beer, business and urban affairs, there remains much work to be done.
As for me, at some point I'll have to do something with my life, right?
In consideration of these interrelated themes, and noting the strengths and weaknesses of the startling “out of nowhere” downtown New Albany food and drink scene, a hypothetical plan is taking shape in my brain. It’s just for the fun of it, and here is the overview.
The Curmudgeon’s (purely imaginary) Free House would need a suitable location in downtown New Albany, close to my home. Why? Because it’s better to live as you preach. City officials might even try it sometimes -- you know, walk to lunch.
Limited square footage is preferable, so as to make the Free House affordable. Walkability and bikeability are musts, but as I’ve noted previously, the implementation of these realities depends entirely on the whim of King Gahan the Unclothed.
A stopped clock is right twice each day, and he’s past due. Cross your fingers, and hope that no one else is killed before he finally gets the memo.
With numerous indie eateries located near this fictional location, a crucial bit of cost reduction stands to be achieved, because absolutely no food will be served, save for that required by Indiana ATC statute. The infamous $10 prepackaged frozen weenie sandwich springs to mind, as microwaved by the eater himself, thus ensuring minimal health department involvement.
Customers would be free to order carry-out or procure delivery from the establishments nearby. There’d be bags of pretzels and crisps. That’s all. What is needed is a beer classroom, not another eatery struggling to find, train and keep workers.
An easy and inexpensive two-way Indiana beer/wine license would suffice, allowing for a few supplementary whites, reds and ciders if so desired. There is no need for liquor, and after all, the Grant Line Road location of NABC never once had a three-way permit.
Opportunism is the watchword. Limited business hours would be timed to coincide with peak times for neighboring food and drink businesses and civic events, with groups and seminars by appointment. The object is to construct a one- or two-person operation, limiting expenses and enhancing expertise.
Finally, why have distracting gadgets like televisions when everyone has a smart phone? Persistent rumor insists that Emperor Gahan of Eastridge is bringing wi-fi hot spots to downtown. That'd be useful. Otherwise, FM radio channel WFPK works just fine, and I’d be free to bring a few CDs with me to work – Bulgarian Women’s Choir today, Queens of the Stone Age tomorrow.
In short, just like the old days at the pub, when we listened to what I wanted to hear.
I’ve put together an imaginary opening beer list. The rationale includes brevity, availability and diversity of style. There’d be appropriate glassware, which doesn’t mean “branded” glassware, just the right kind of vessel.
There’d be two everyday drafts, and one or two rotating taps (depending on the size of the keg box). Permanent fixtures would be Guinness Stout (nitro) and Victory Prima Pils, with the third spout pouring some hoppier English or American ales. A seasonal tap would take up the fourth tower.
Generally speaking, drafts would be at or near session strength (4.5% or 5% abv, depending on the definition).
The organizational conceit for a bottle and can list of 30 or so selections is my own personal experience. They’d be exclusively drawn from (a) breweries I’ve visited, both in America and abroad, and (b) breweries right here in Indiana.
Cantillon Classic Gueuze
De Dolle Oerbier
Drie Fonteinen Schaerbeekse Kriek
Rodenbach Grand Cru
Aecht Schlenkerla Marzen Rauchbier
JW Lees Harvest Ale
Samuel Smith Oatmeal Stout
UNITED STATES (brands to be determined)
Alternates to be named
INDIANA CRAFT BEERS (cans only)
Lots and lots of choices exist at the present time: Black Acre, Bloomington Brewing Company, Central State, Daredevil, Flat12, Salt Creek, Sun King … and others.
You may be wondering about the emphasis on imports, given my advocacy for American-brewed beer. It’s a valid question, and of course, there’d be an American “craft” beer presence (in cans) on the list.
The short answer: So goes the mind of a contrarian.
My career in beer began with imports, and then I spent many years advocating for American "craft." Now American “craft" is everywhere, and the Old World classics have been overwhelmed and often forgotten. Maybe it’s time to pick up the abandoned string of Classic Beer where it started, in Europe, and once again allow the presentation to evolve where it will, as it did 25 years ago.
Will any of this actually happen?
I’ve no idea. These hypotheticals are by no means impossible, but they rely on controlling costs and curtailing bells and whistles. The more spartan the setting, the greater the importance of effective performance art and other intangibles.
Perhaps that's the point. These simple factors also have been neglected in an era of sheen and polish. I used to think that an intelligent beer bar wasn't a contradiction in terms, and still do. I believe in fundamentals and essentials; as you may recall from the 2015 campaign, these strike me as vital every single day, as opposed to every now and then.
Can better beer be repurposed this way, and taken back to the future? It’s an enticing thought, so as always, tell me what you think.
July 21: ON THE AVENUES: We have our own Big Four Bridge. They’re called Main, Market, Spring and Elm.
July 14: ON THE AVENUES: Weeds, porch appliances and our civic Gospel of Appearances.
July 7: ON THE AVENUES: You say you want a resolution?
June 30: ON THE AVENUES: Irv Stumler screams, "We don't deserve two-way streets!"
June 23: ON THE AVENUES: There's no business like no business -- and it's none of your business.