Thursday, July 26, 2018

ON THE AVENUES: Maybe, just maybe, you really can go home again.

ON THE AVENUES: Maybe, just maybe, you really can go home again.

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

You’ll recall that some months ago, a warning was served to habitués of this blog.

To wit: When Zero Hour arrives and the Pints&union project leaves dry dock, there’s a very good chance of my beer- and pub-related obsessions getting the better of me and monopolizing the conversation.

In short, dear readers, I’m presently doing a poor job of offering varied content. Then again, beer is my life, and much of my life has been spent reposing in pubs, observing people and their beers, so you’re just going to have to humor me.

(Pints&union will be opening for regular business hours next week. This much I know. Otherwise, please connect with the Facebook page to keep informed about details.)

As many of you know, I’m working for Joe Phillips, caring for the beers at his emerging establishment and purely grateful for the opportunity.

What I’m doing isn’t exactly “curating” (how I’ve come to hate that word). Rather, it’s picking the right beers, getting to know them all over again and organizing these beers the right way.

It’s about shedding unnecessary baggage, retaining useful devices, and making a short but expressive list of beers to be enjoyed in a casual pub setting.

In the current milieu, it’s also incorporates a sizable dollop of this timeless axiom: “Don’t do something -- just stand there.”

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In 1983, I lucked into a part-time job downtown at Scoreboard Liquors and started learning about beer and the business of selling it.

Back in those days, when Model T Fords were the norm on city streets and sewer pipes in New Albany were only a rumor bandied by the regulars at Ernie’s Tavern, there weren’t many “beer lists” at dining and drinking establishments in the metropolitan Louisville area.

Beer lists were not a thing, and one simply didn’t ask. To have done so would be to risk ridicule, ejection, or at the very best dumbfounded amazement, as though you’d waded into the Tumbleweed or Lancaster’s and spoken a dialect of Estonian.

Bartenders who bothered to keep a straight face would shrug: “We have both kinds of beer, High Life and Miller Lite.” 35 years later, down that long and winding road to nowhere, the beer list pendulum hasn’t merely swung to the other extreme.

It has become disengaged from the pivot, torn a gaping hole in the side of the building and currently is gaining warp speed at 35,000 feet in route to the next flavor-of-the-millisecond paradigm shift.

Consider that in 1992, I bought a poster called "Brewpubs and Craft Breweries," which showed a map of breweries operating in the United States, all 300 or so of them.

Or, fewer than were operating at the time in the Bavarian region of Franconia, which is the size of what we refer to as Southern Indiana.

Looking back, there was only one brewery each in Indiana (Broad Ripple Brewpub; Indianapolis), Kentucky (Oldenberg; Ft. Mitchell), and Tennessee (Bohannon's/Market Street). As of April, 2018, the brewery counts for these states are 137, 52 and 82, respectively. Combine the current numbers for these three states, and it’s almost as many breweries as in the entire country in 1992.

Today there are 6,000 craft breweries, and if each one of them brews six different beers a year, that’s 36,000 beers for us to try, except this production estimate is too conservative by half -- and what about imported beers, both craft and classic?

From this seemingly infinite and ever-changing array -- certainly tens of thousands of potential choices worldwide -- several hundred have been culled by wholesalers for availability to us in Indiana, perhaps one thousand or more annually if all the state’s breweries are included.

On the flip side, those establishments selling beer brewed by others find themselves challenged on a daily basis by finite spatial limitations. Even the manager of the most voluminous, warehouse-sized package store or cavernous walk-in cooler at the multi-tap must make hard decisions about which beers to keep in stock.

One solution, especially as it pertains to draft beer, is for on-premise restaurants, bars and pubs to constantly rotate their offerings. A regular customer who makes weekly visits to a bar with 15 handles might end the year having been exposed to two hundred different draft beers – and consumed more than a few of them.

Remembering is another story.

Of course I must concede to a significant role in helping create this model while serving my time with NABC at the Public House. But even in the early 2000s, it often occurred to me to speculate about my future consciousness once everyone else started emulating the scattershot kaleidoscope approach.

Would I go back to Stroh’s?

Stop drinking beer entirely?

Become a teetotaler and declare war on demon rum (and rum-barrel aged pastry stouts)?

Nah. The barroom chose me, and I’m not a quitter. At the same time, there’s a new goal in this beer drinker’s life: escaping the beer selection tilt-a-whirl and commencing a counter revolution. Why? As the late, great Norman "Doc" Holliday was fond of saying, "Why not? I can't dance."

Those of us condemned to diligently self-medicate our innate contrarianism know it isn’t a question of whether or not we’ll rebel, only a consideration of when.

At some point in the recent past I stepped into bar somewhere in America, saw a beer list of 50 drafts, found myself unable to recall half of the names on the chalkboard, and came down with a nasty case of the epiphany.

If someone like me in the craft beer business couldn’t keep up with new breweries and their beers, then what about the many guys and gals who like better beer but don’t wish to take a college course or remain glued to an iPhone app all evening long just to navigate the beer list and order a pleasant, tasty beverage?

And if the customers are confused, what about the employees during an epoch of constant turnover?

How many times have I heard a server say something to the effect of “That beer just got tapped, and I just started working here, and I don’t know much about it yet”?

And: That'll be $8 for a 10-ounce pour, please.

These past three years sitting on the end of the bench, slowly nursing my chronically burned-out inner world back to a semblance of ruddy good health and contemplating a return from the voluntarily retired list, it has become clearer than ever to me that better beer in America is somehow managing to alienate a silent majority of beer drinkers who find constant rotation of drafts (or hundreds of packaged selections at the liquor store) utterly bewildering.

Furthermore, I believe these folks tend to keep this perfectly understandable confusion to themselves for fear of appearing uninformed at a time when the loud ubiquity of stylishness arbiters among the priestly caste stand forever eager to wield their superior knowledge against neophytes eager to dip a toe into the Dunkel. To the extent that I helped impel THAT type of attitude, many apologies.

Hence this Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924) USSR anecdote, which I’ve been peddling for years.

It's the stagnant Brezhnev era, circa 1970s, but Soviet scientists finally have solved the riddle of death, immediately applying the potion to Vladimir Ilyich Lenin's embalmed corpse.

Lenin springs back to life, dusts off, and looks around the room. Asked by the scientists if they can get him anything, Lenin requests access to his office in the Kremlin and all the back issues of Pravda since he died. Fawningly, the scientists comply, and Lenin shuts himself in the office.

Day after day passes by, and while the scientists are terrified to bother Lenin, they eventually begin to worry. Finally they decide to break down the door. Inside Lenin's office they find issues of the newspaper strewn everywhere, but no Lenin.

On the desk he has left a note:

"Comrades, everything’s gone to hell in a hand basket, so I'm off to start the revolution all over again."

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I could go on and on, as I have in the past, and will continue doing in the future, but the point of it all is the opportunity to begin a new chapter by applying old thinking.

The book on my nightstand is Michael “Beer Hunter” Jackson’s Great Beers of Belgium, published in 1992 and revised several times before Jackson’s death in 2007. This period of 15 years coincides with many of my visits to Belgium, when we maintained a beer list of several hundred at the Public House, of which perhaps 50 – 75 were Belgian.

It might as well have been 1892. Any number of seismic factors have changed the planet irrevocably since those early days at Scoreboard, running through the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the internet and the appearance of 6,000 breweries that didn’t exist when my feet first touched European soil in 1985. But in my noggin I remain the sum total of all these past experiences. They're valuable to me, and I sense there's a baton in need of passing.

Consequently, no sales figures were consulted in preparing the prospective beer list at Pint&union. Metrics and algorithms were completely shunned. Most of my final decisions didn’t even occur until the interior was nearly completed, when I could sit in different spots and imagine what beers would taste like alone in winter seated on a bar stool, with old friends in a booth, or leaning against the wall beaming with pleasure as a rookie tastes Schlenkerla for the first time.

Like Tommy and pinball, I play beer by intuition. There may eventually be a light, low-calorie lager on the list -- or an Anstich keg pouring from the counter, or both at the same time.

Now we’ll see how it all works out. Thanks, everyone.

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Recent columns:

July 19: ON THE AVENUES: Confusion, exile, ignobility and resistance amid various other Chronicles of New Gahania.

July 12: ON THE AVENUES: Thanks to Joe Phillips, there'll be pints, union and good times downtown.

July 5: ON THE AVENUES: For Deaf Gahan and the Reisz Five, their luxury city hall will prove to be a Pyrrhic victory.

June 28: ON THE AVENUES: Said the spider to the fly -- will you please take a slice of Reisz?

1 comment:

Randy Smith said...

A. Am glad to see you know you've gone down the rabbit hole.

B. It seems to me you could pull together 2 beers that are identical, for all practical purposes, and hold blind taste tests (Coke v. Pepsi), Pibb v. Dr. Pepper, etc.).

It's simply impossible that there are 6,000 craft beers that differ. I know. Barbecue enthusiasts maintain such differentiation, as do hot sauce aficionados. But it simply can't be true.

Your evangelism has affected me. I can't drink mass market beer anymore. But I'm leery even now of 40 can/bottle offerings unless it's "peach beer" and "chocolate beer" and "rocky road" beer. I'd rather go to a tomato bar and try 40 varieties of tomatoes ... or tomatos (Dan Q.'s spelling, I assume).