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Oakes Weekly - October 2, 2003
How does one go about building a great beer bar?
October 1, 2003
Written by Oakes
You may never have been there, but you know the names - Monk’s, Falling Rock, Akkurat, Kulminator, Brickskeller. Temples of beer revered by beer geeks the world over for their dedication to the love we all share. But how many of us know how these places come to be? Who runs them, and why? How does one go about building a great beer bar? Is it tap handles and bottle lists alone, or is there more to it?
The first question worth asking is whether or not beer bars are even made for beer geeks. On the surface, it would seem self-evident, but not so, say some of the people who run them. Kieron Meaney used to run the Bow & Arrow in Toronto. "I’d go broke if I relied strictly on beer geeks for my business." Indeed, this sentiment came from most everyone I talked to. "Beer geeks love to try new beers, so they’ll come in for that," added Joe Sacco, owner of Toronto’s Smokeless Joe, "but we do better with customers who come in because we carry that one beer they really love, and they’ll come in three times a week to drink it."
That’s not to say that beer geeks don’t have their place. When Joe purchased the bar from ’the old Joe’, he inherited a bar that quite possibly had the best selection of beer in town, but did not have the reputation to go along with it. Building that reputation to match the bottle list was a priority for Joe, as it helps drive business not only from casual beer-lovers who get their info from their hardcore friends or the websites that hardcore beer geeks inhabit, but it also draws business from out-of-town beer geeks when they come to Toronto.
So if a big part of the business is based on people who aren’t beer geeks, how does a bar that also caters to the hardcore attract and retain those clients as well? "Food is a big part of it," preaches Meaney, a chef by trade. "People who like quality drink also like quality food, and that brings them back." Sacco elaborates, pointing around his bar as we sit on his patio. "People can get burgers and wings anywhere - the Fox & Fiddle, the Duke of Argyle, Montana’s, Hooter’s...we want to give them a reason to come here. So we make the best mussels and have the freshest oysters in town." Legion242 noted during his tenure at the Flying Saucer in Dallas that "as time went on, we realized that the food element was very important."
Joe also stressed ambience. "It is a conscious effort on our part, the atmosphere we create here. For example, if someone comes here by themselves - and we get a lot of business travellers based on our location - our staff will engage them in conversation, try to get them talking with other customers. Someone might leave and say ’Wow, I had this really strange, great beer at Smokelss Joe’s’, but that won’t necessarily bring him back. We want him to walk out and say ’I had a really great time at Smokeless Joe.’ We have business travelers who eat here every time they’re in Toronto - that’s how I know I’m doing my job."
You might be wondering - if beer bars also strive for good food and first-rate atmosphere, what do they do with people who come in for those things but don’t necessarily want a Belgian ale or imperial stout? Places like the Winking Judge in Hamilton, ON or Archer Ale House in Bellingham, WA are evangelistic, converting previously undiscerning audiences to the virtues of taste. But even they keep at least one lousy beer for those who insist - Gold Crown Poet’s Lager at the former, Amstel Light at the latter. Meaney recalled one of his bartenders at the Bow who once poured a glass of water for a woman who insisted on Budweiser. She was not amused, but Meaney was.
However, in some markets, to not have macros is to have people walk out the door on you. So they are kept, if sometimes grudgingly. As Legion242 puts it: " In the beginning it used to bother me that I had all these great beers to offer and these folks would drink Bud Light, but then it dawned on me one day that the guys could go to 300 other bars in Dallas to drink Bud Light, but they came to my bar to do it- to me that meant that I had created an appealing space for drinkers of all kinds," adding " we make way more money off a bottle of Bud Light then we do a bottle of Duvel, so the swill drinkers are essential in keeping the doors open."
Running a beer bar, it should be noted, is still running a bar. I visited Kieron Meaney at the site of his new establishment, The Blue Meaney, which is set to open by (Canadian) Thanksgiving weekend. In early August, the place was a disaster area. The previous establishment on the site was a tacky lounge with mirrors covering the walls and ceiling, so everything was stripped. The kitchen equipment had been removed, leaving behind a pile of grunge that scared even the rats away. There was, however, in the inch-thick coating where the grease trap used to be, a tennis ball. Yum. Meaney had arrived the previous day to find the basement flooded. "If you look at the schedule, we’re supposed to start tiling today. As you can see, we’re not tiling. We spent three weeks just hauling junk out of here."
Then there are staffing issues. Every bar owner has to find reliable, competent staff, but beer bars have the added elements of a unique product line and a component of their customer base that can be quite demanding. The Esplanade Bier Markt in Toronto used to have Stephen Beaumont do their beer training. At the Flying Saucer, "(training) was probably the single most important aspect of what we did. Our training was actually quite hard and there were plenty of girls who got hired who did not make it through training."
Then there are issues particular to dealing with that unique product line. Sacco had previous experience at places like the Academy of Spherical Arts with bringing in special beers, scotches and wines, so he was prepared for the red tape involved with building a special list of beers, and works very closely with the relevant importers. The Winking Judge used to go to Quebec to pick up McAuslan and Unibroue products before they were legally allowed to be sold in Ontario. That type of dedication has not gone unnoticed by beer lovers, and these two establishments are the most venerated of all Ontario beer bars. Akkurat in Stockholm has raised many eyebrows around the world for their vintage list and proprietary beers (including Heaven, made by Jämtlands, and Cantillon’s Soleil de Minuit). Sister bar Oliver Twist brings in cask ales from Britain and microbrews from as far away as North America (Per was drinking Weyerbacher before I was, and I live within a day’s drive of the place!). Monk’s in Philadelphia solidified their reputation as a Belgian beer paradise by bringing in draught Belgian ales not normally found in that form in North America (not that draught helps bottle-conditioned beers, but the effort made a lot of waves in the beer world).
At the end of the day, it is clear that producing a top-flight beer bar is a multi-faceted challenge on a par with creating a world-class beer. Think about it for a minute. You’re going on a trip and you’re salivating over a bar that has built its name not on mega-corporation marketing muscle, but based on the product they’ve built within their walls. How many bars do people salivate over before they’ve ever visited the town where the bar is located? Very few, I would imagine. Now imagine trying to create something so powerful and resonant as to evoke that kind of reaction. Now imagine maintaining that reputation when every beer geek who visits puts your establishment under heavy scrutiny, from the glassware to the staffing to the selection to the ambience, even to the cleanliness of the washrooms. Most bars never have to deal with that kind of fussiness, let alone emerge with their name intact. Then worry about turning a profit.
These things don’t happen by accident. As beer lovers, it is our duty to celebrate all the factors that go into the enjoyment we get out of our hobby. There is a lot happening behind the scenes that most of us are scarcely aware of. We have so many people to raise our glass to.
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