Friday, January 06, 2006

Eateries, their choices in food, wine and beer, and lowest common denominators.

This topic stems from a conversation I had with Jim Huie at Maido on Christmas Eve, and was posted yesterday in slightly modified form at the Louisville Restaurant Forum, where a lively exchange ensued.

Jim remarked that when he and his wife were starting out, the local Anheuser-Busch representative was appalled when informed that there were no plans for Maido to sell Budweiser, spluttering somewhat ominously that they’d never stay in business with an attitude like that.

They still are … in business, and thankfully, remain imbued with such an attitude.

Indeed, for as long as I can remember, it has been accepted – and verging on the axiomatic – that a restaurant (not a bar, mind you) licensed to sell beer must offer at least the major mass-market brands: Bud, Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Light, perhaps MGD. Without these, or so the theory holds, disgruntled customers will refuse to patronize the establishment.

Being a contrarian by nature, I’ve conducted a decade-long search, and in spite of the menacing helpfulness of wholesaler reps like the one who spoke to Jim, there seems to be no “law” of any sort on the books that mandates this generally unquestioned “requirement” of being in the beer business.

Approaching this on a purely theoretical basis, is this notion really true?

(Full disclosure: Since the NABC brewery came on line in 2002, we have not served these brands at Sportstime Pizza or Rich O’s, our two pizzeria/pub faces to the public. Before that, we’d steadily reduced the number of such offerings in bottles at Sportstime, where the television sets are located, having completely ceased serving them at Rich O’s way back in 1994.)

Over the years, when asking this question of experienced, blood-and-guts restaurateurs and being told in response that there’s no conceivable way to avoid offering Bud and Bud Light, if for no other reason than as a service to clients like those I once observed at a top-notch Louisville steak house, carving away at a $30 prime rib entrée while chasing it with Lite consumed directly from the bottle, I’ve parried by asking whether the same logic would be applied to choosing the wine list.

Would Riunite or MD 20/20 be part of the wine list based on national sales figures alone, or is it possible to be more selective in offering better a wine and educating the consumer as to the differences?

Of course, the answer usually is, “well, that’s different.”

But is it really different?

If so, then why is it different?

Why shouldn’t the same considerations that lie behind the composition of the food menu and the wine list be applied to the beer list?

Note that I’m not suggesting that any restaurateur forego mild, golden lager beer – just that he or she considers beer in the same manner as other aspects of the operation when making the choices.

We consistently sell three or four kegs of Spaten’s perfectly serviceable Munich-brewed Helles (golden German-style lager) each and every week of the year, in addition to bottles of Samuel Adams, Heineken and the like (including Corona at $4.25 a bottle, just to see if people will pay such an outrageous price for bad beer).

Imagine the advent of a café with impeccably high standards of cuisine, upscale casual, excellent short wine list – in essence, nothing but the finest offerings and a target demographic to match.

Would such an establishment stock boxes of fridge wine according to the same resigned and unexamined logic used to justify stocking Budweiser?

If it were a vegetarian place, would it put an all-beef burger on the menu because so many people like that sort of thing and might not dine if it were not available?

Why must we accept the lowest common denominator in beer when we refuse to do so in wine and food?

Or must we?

1 comment:

Jim Herter said...

Nicely met, Roger! I've had the same experience on a personal and professional level.

I've always known that I had an innate love for all things good -- of course that's subjective. Or is it? What has come into focus over the years is a validation by others, unsolicited mind you, of some of my hedonic epiphanies.

I was buying import beer before I was "legal" -- but again that was the mid to late 70's. So were many of my friends. Maybe we were drawn together in our beer exploration by chance or very possibly it was a parallel in personality, a commonality in tastes, or an intense reluctance to accept life at face value and explore new things.

We would pool our funds and get the perfunctory case of Miller High Life clear glass longnecks: This of course was before we understood the deleterious impact of light and heat on beer. But we were always drawn by the romance and mystery of the those unfamiliar foreign beers that would occupy a small corner of the bottom shelf of the last beer cooler on the left. Heineken. St. Pauli Girl. Spaten. Or "Pills Erkel" as our not so enlightened friend Bobby would unwittingly say.

Fast forward to the year 2002. I was invited to a planning meeting at small midwestern Catholic university with which I was employed. There, in attendance, was a vice president, a few directors and other key people. A major benefactor of the University was willing to plunk down a few mil to finance the renovation of what was affectionately known as th "Senior Bar". Although I was invited based upon my experience with food service facility and equipment planning, my greater purpose was exposed when the VP said, "Mr. Big Bucks is from Wisconsin, the land of good beer, and if he's going to plunk down big bucks he wants the focus on good beer and not shots and drunken debauchery!"

"This is your lucky day," I enthusiastically said. "I happen to be a bit of a maven of craft brewed beers and an aspiring brewer! I will offer my consulting services gratis." And so began the beer opportunity of a life time on someone else's quarter (inflation accounted for). We had a $65,000 beer system installed that included 44 total taps. The beer was delivered to each tower with glycol lines from a huge walk-in cooler that would hold 107 1/2 barrels and in a sealed beer line system that would only allow less than 1/100 percent of air touch the beer, even when keg changes were made. Now imagine that as your beer playground. Dreams of offering fine ales and lagers like those at Rich O's danced through my head.

Now enter the "100% Share of Whatever" guys. The local A-B rep was only too anxious to sing the Budweiser praises. The rep, who was a grad of the University and actually managed the Senior Bar his senior year when it was in an old house that resembled the Delta House, had worked for A-B for years and had recently become a part owner. He told me he could offer enough different A-B products to populate every tap that we had.

When I asked, "Which imports do you carry," I got the exact look that you would get if you sucked on a helium balloon and called out your dog's name. "We are a 100% Share of Crap" House," he said. We only have (insert the usual suspects) and A-B beers. I said, "We'll give you a tap for Bud Light and Rolling Rock -- there are a lot of PA students and supporters at this small football-oriented Catholic university, after all. The look on the A-B boys faces is one that remember and cherish forever.

For the next half hour or so I got the, "Don't you know who I am" and "You'll never make a dime selling those expensive beers" lectures, the whole while wrapping myself quietly in the shear power to snub the Beer Beast from Saint Louis.

Now, I will always defend a person's right to choose whatever beer they like. But what I do passionately abhor, and will always actively combat, is the Big Beer Barons mission to limit my choices by stifling and quashing quality beer choices through their multi-million dollar marketing budgets and high pressure bullying tactics of there own distributors and other quality minded beer retailers.

Just a thought I had.