Friday, July 27, 2007

Sergio's World Beers an unlikely Shelbyville mecca ... but it is.

Staffer Ben Adkins of the Sentinel-News, a newspaper published in Shelby County, Kentucky, is hereby accorded the honor of being the first media representative to break the news about Sergio’s to the extended Louisville metropolitan area.

In December, 2006, Adkins offered the scoop:

Sergio's, Shelbyville's newest eatery, is multiculturalism defined.

Flags from nearly 100 nations are draped along the walls of the restaurant, while nearly as many license plates from every state in America, every Canadian province and other far-reaching corners of the world serve as a border near the ceiling.

"We're going to do international food -- things that you can't really find around here," said owner Sergio Ribenboim.

So far, not exactly earthshaking. After all, isolated rural towns now have Mexican taquerias, and from the food and dining standpoint, multiculturalism has been shown to sell even if it is served up watered down. There’ll be more about “water” in a moment, but first we’ll scroll further into the Sentinel-News piece for the most intriguing bit:

A bar is also being built, which will feature around 100 beers from Belgium, Belize and other countries worldwide.

"Every country that there's beer available from, I'm going to have," Ribenboim said.

Strong words like those typically come from people who enjoy being challenged, especially when it comes to beer, because America’s hoary and monopolistic three-tier system of beer distribution works to ensure that those residing in the hinterlands enjoy far less choice than city dwellers.

Knowing that, it should come as no surprise that the current state of affairs at Sergio’s hasn’t quite developed in the way the owner foretold.

Now his bottled beer list now runs to the vicinity of 350, there are also eight other beers on tap, and despite the necessary evil of mass-market swill (order a “water,” and you’ll be served Miller Lite), the selection is strong, particularly the Belgian contingent – hands down the best in the region.

I began hearing about Sergio’s in May, with the conduit for information being a loyal customer with dual citizenship, i.e., he belongs in the “Norm!” class both in Sergio’s and the Rich O’s/NABC Public House. Although our paths hadn’t crossed, Sergio had made the drive to New Albany on numerous occasions since being introduced by his brother, until finally we met at the end of June.

Two days ago, my exuberantly beer-friendly frequent collaborator Graham took the wheel and we traveled east on I-64, eventually exiting near Shelbyville and backtracking on U.S. 60 to the Kentucky beer shrine, which occupies a building that formerly housed a sports bar.

Verily, our visit to Sergio’s, while brief, proved as joyful and entertaining as any beer trek I’ve previously undertaken, but it is no exaggeration to add that it was one filled with more eccentricities and conundrums than all but a select few episodes in the expansive pantheon of my fermented memories.

As was the case in times of old, when much of the allure of Rich O’s was its entirely unexpected location in New Albany, the story of Sergio’s is inseparable from its relative isolation well outside the city limits of Louisville.

While the Sergio’s bottle club, which rewards customers for trying the many beers on the list, is topped by the impossible well-traveled and multi-lingual owner himself (after all, he says, all new beers coming across the threshold must be sampled with an eye toward suitability), the second ranking position is occupied by none other than Ronnie the Redneck – a real person who formerly requested light beer and a salt shaker, and now has consumed 290 different beers from across the planet.

The food menu is voluminous and truly international, and we were barely seated in the cluttered bar area when a friendly helper brought homemade salsa and chips, but the real specialty of the house is a fine and messy Philly cheese steak.

Prices throughout are reasonable, and the atmosphere at Sergio’s is decidedly casual. In the end, what makes it click is that there is nothing whatsoever pretentious about the experience (understand that I’ve always known how I can be in such situations), and the only thing gentrified about it is the quality of the beer list.

Sergio’s 12-year-old son runs the web sites when he isn’t exploring the world, running his own business or collecting cars (no, real autos, but Sergio can explain it to you):

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