Monday, April 03, 2017
THE BEER BEAT: Retro and dive, tavern and free house. Stages of development. A rumination.
“Like Saturn, the Revolution devours its children.”
-- Jacques Mallet du Pan
We’re approaching an important local anniversary in the saga of better beer, because at some point in the late summer of 1992, the first keg of Guinness was tapped at the Public House formerly known as Rich O’s.
At the time, we were the first draft Guinness account in Floyd County. Shortly thereafter, Carlsberg Lager was added, and still later, the rotating “middle tap” debuted with Oldenberg Outrageous Bock. With this addition, the first keg box was filled, and all else you know followed in its wake.
Now, 25 years later, it’s increasingly hard to remember what those primitive times were like. There were plenty of bars, but very few different types of beer. Choice was defined as different brands of the same low-calorie golden lager, with maybe a moldering Bass Pale Ale or Watney’s Red Barrel in bottles for the beer snobs.
In the early 1990s, we’d make lists of places where “better” beer was available, comprising the entire Louisville metro area, and the total number of establishments might top out at 15.
Back then, better beer tended to be imported, because the revival of American brewing was only just beginning to penetrate the region. There was the Silo, and then Bluegrass Brewing Company. Otherwise, I looked forward to periodic visits to pubs like the Irish Rover, not so much for the Guinness, but because Fuller’s ESB always was on tap. Tap turnover was much slower, and bar managers favored those beers for featuring that had a reliable supply and consistent quality.
It’s different now. There are approximately 200 breweries in Indiana and Kentucky alone, with hundreds of other American and imported brands available on draft and in a bewildering variety of packages. It has become difficult to find a bar or restaurant that doesn’t carry two or three of these, or a “mockrobrew” like Blue Moon.
Beer choice has won, though in the process of winning, the old assumptions have largely disappeared. It used to be aiming for the center of a target and methodically squeezing off shots. Today it’s spraying dozens of targets with machine gun fire.
I’d never seriously suggest that the Nineties were somehow preferable. Certainly it’s always better to have more choices, rather than fewer. At the same time, the shuffle setting isn’t everyone’s idea of a default.
Expanded choice and short attention spans have produced a condition akin to vertigo. How does one choose one or two nice, pleasing beers from a list of 125? No matter how the list is organized, or even the extent of one’s personal knowledge, the experience can be schizophrenic.
And, are any of these beers fresh?
It’s true: The revolutionaries won, and consumers have demanded greater choice in beer. Now they have it. Constant rotation of draft beer options seems ideally suited to meet this demand, and it has become the norm. Given the inevitable copycat effect in any business, many establishments that would be better suited to a more incremental approach also are reshuffling the deck on a keg-by-keg basis.
Taken together with other societal trends, it can be disconcerting.
It’s been a quarter-century since the “better” beer revolution began picking up steam in the Louisville metro area. Concurrently, the electronic communications revolution has changed the way we think. Food and drink is categorized, segmented and branded as never before, in part because doing so enables monetization in an era of hyper-capitalism.
Investors need to know exactly where their money is going, don’t they? This is true for agri-business and restaurant supply as well, not just pub and eatery chains.
Perhaps in response to the new orthodoxy, we see fledgling marketing trends in “retro.” In beer terms, these tend to be tied to the presence of something cheap and cold on tap – perhaps PBR, the hipster’s delight, or any number of revived brands that no one under the age of 40 ever once experienced in their native (and usually wretched) habitat.
It appears that a younger generation wants skip all of the way back to a Bukowski-style 1970s “dive” bar while keeping an IPA close at hand, just in case.
In fact, orthodoxies always engender reaction, but in this case, pretending that PBR or Hamm’s is remotely drinkable, as a curative to a wall of taps filled with $10 half-pints of hibiscus-sour-this, experimental-hop-saison-that, skips past an entirely reliable and proven beer oeuvre.
Like the one we pioneered in New Albany at the Public House in the mid-1990s.
Look, I’ve been an advocate of localism for a long time, and there’s nothing more local than going to a locally-owned place where everybody knows your name – and the lingua franca is localism, with which we possess the shared experience to introduce numerous flourishes from classic beer lands.
It’s a new/old paradigm – the virtues of a classic American urban neighborhood pub, as combined with a smaller and more fixed beer selection of the sort we relied on when today’s varied beer genres first were coming together.
Pub food is sufficient, and a comfortable atmosphere is a must. The template for both these can be found at the Thomas Family Winery in Madison, Indiana. One thing of which I’m sure: It isn’t necessary to feature ice-cold, cheap-shit Corn Lager to prove your “regular guy” credibility.
For a long time, I’ve known that what I did at the Public House back in the 1990s was art as much as commerce. At some point along the way, it evolved into something else – still valid, just different. What I’m seeing in my head at the moment is a composite of many sensations and experiences. There are a few key phrases:
Back to basics.
Less is more.
Party like it’s 1992.
2017 had a rocky beginning. It’s been tough, but I’m hoping for an upward arc from here on. Baby steps, one in front of the other … and the pints might speak again.