Monday, June 20, 2016
AFTER THE FIRE: Less can be more.
A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
Kindly note that I’m changing the name of this column to reflect the fact that my involvement in the “craft” beer business no longer is active. As a recovering former small business owner, I survived the frying pan, and perhaps it’s time for an evolving perspective. Just don't expect me to jump back into that particular fire ... at least yet.
I remember being in Prague in the mid-1990s. We’d wander downtown neighborhoods hunting beer – sometimes hopping street cars, other times the subway, but most often on foot.
The objective was to find drafts from as many of the Czech Republic’s breweries as possible, and having identified these beers, to drink them straight down.
In retrospect, it isn’t clear to me what sort of legal framework for beer distribution even existed in the Czech Republic at the time. Something akin to a “tied house” seemed common, in that a pivnice (piv-nee-tsuh, or tavern) generally would serve beer from only one brewery.
These days, we’d quickly decamp to a multi-tap and be overwhelmed by sheer choice, and I’ve read that Prague now has such establishments boasting bountiful selections, as well as WiFi to enable the inevitable postings at Untappd, but this approach strikes me as tantamount to the king’s gamesmen running the animals past his shooting point.
It’s also no way to conduct a drinking tour of a city, especially when traveling overseas, where there’s so much else to learn.
20 years ago, many of Prague’s pubs served beers from one of the city’s “big three” breweries: Staropramen, Braník or Mestan, the latter two apparently long deceased as independent entities.
Other breweries were well represented, too, and it seemed the closer their home cities to Prague, the better chance of finding them. Pilsner Urquell was a given. Gambrinus, Velkopopovický and Radegast also were around, though at the time, the epochal Budvar not as much.
Intriguingly, it remained possible in the mid-1990s to find watering holes in Prague that had hooked up with smaller breweries, or even larger ones further away from the capital. There’d be occasional appearances by Ferdinand (from nearby Benešov), Hostan (Znojmo), Regent (Třeboň) or Starobrno (Brno). The trick was finding the places serving them, as they didn’t always correspond to addresses amid the prevailing tourist routes.
An obscure brewery called Herold became an obsession for my band of explorers. It was founded in the countryside in 1506, surviving the threat of closure in the waning months of the Communist period only because its stubborn plant manager refused to do what the authorities told him.
These authorities soon were gone, and the plant manager remained.
We seemingly traipsed over half of Prague one evening trying to find the sole pivnice that we’d been told poured Herold, and stopping frequently for directions at other establishments along the way. These wayfinding tips generally came accompanied by beers, which might explain our ultimate failure.
Resolving to locate the Herold brewery itself, eventually we did so with the help of a savvy travel agent in Prague, who secured a minibus and driver for a day’s journey deep into the Bohemian hinterlands.
First we visited the town of Velké Popovice for a Velkopopovický Kozel tasting, then Vysoký Chlumec (home of Lobkowitz), and finally the tiny town of Březnice, where a farmer on a tractor pulling a wagon overflowing with manure slowly guided our careful man at the wheel to the Herold brewery gate.
I’d contacted the manager, but he had an untimely emergency and wasn’t there, so his second in command made a hasty phone call, ran out the door, and soon emerged with a local schoolteacher in tow to serve as interpreter.
Our Herold brewery tour lasted all of 20 minutes, yielding to a considerably more intensive two-hour survey of the lagering cellar. By the end of our seminar below ground, we had absorbed so much knowledge that the ancient stone staircase leading back to the top began wildly undulating to the beat of non-existent music.
The magical motion very nearly kept us subterranean, which would have been just lovely by me.
Two decades later, much has changed in the Czech Republic -- and everywhere else in the world, too. Many of the old-school Czech breweries are gone (Herold survives), and a new crop of “craft” brewers has arrived.
Granted, the range of beer choice in Prague used to be far narrower, but it was a beer paradise nonetheless, and while it may sound as though I’m waxing nostalgic for a bygone era – one I devoted a full quarter-century of my professional life to revolutionizing – it’s very important to understand that yes, you bet I am … unless of course, I’m not.
Just as trudging eight miles robed in primitive bearskin through six-foot-high snow drifts helped transform a previous generation of mid-20th century schoolchildren into improved parents, hunting beers the hard way had its merits.
Beer tastes better when you work for it, and breweries, too; we’d follow a canal or rail line, sniff the unmistakable aroma of a boil in progress, and follow our noses to the goal line. The biggest problem was finding our way home.
The real reason I’m bringing all this up is because, as a consumer, there exists a little-known, positive connotation to the tied house: If it’s a Fuller’s pub, you know there’ll be Fuller’s served there. No guesswork is involved, and at times, this can be a good thing.
In the present era, unceasing “guest” tap rotation has morphed into something that’s incredibly diverse, but also no longer comes moored to any system or routine. It’s wonderful and chaotic, all at once.
Rotating guest taps made for a refreshing trend when acting as the changeable component alongside a non-revolving core selection, but we’ve long since settled into the rigid orthodoxy of a daily (hourly?) spin-the-flavor-wheel approach. Accordingly, fresh ideas for marketing and retailing a profusion of better beer choices have steadily diminished.
When the only constant is dizzying change, then surely for some establishments in search of a noteworthy market niche, resolving to give the pendulum a nudge in the opposite direction is merited. Either a semi-permanent selection of classics, or a single brewery’s popular range, would make for a distinctive strategy.
Naturally, I’m not sanctioning tied houses if by “tied” we mean contractually narrowed choice, especially via a swillmonger. And, of course, the tied house isn’t exactly legal in America – even when it happens, which is lamentably often.
Rather, I’m advocating a voluntary tie of sorts, and as always, I’m insistent that any beer and brewing knowledge base emanate from behind the bar, as reflected by an intelligent and coherent (if narrowed) selection, and mirroring the conceptual contours of an establishment’s wine and spirits program.
After all, everyone knows that a bar simply must have a core selection of liquor, but how does this not apply to beer styles?
Conversely, many bars in metropolitan Louisville proudly feature Brown-Forman wines and spirits. So, why not follow suit with an exclusive selection of Falls City’s genuinely independent local drafts?
Wouldn’t it make sense for an eatery on the Indiana side of the river to feature all Sun King drafts?
And isn’t it true that if one did, Sun King’s three flagships – Sunlight, Osiris and Wee Mac – would be the biggest sellers?
There are many ways of cultivating loyalty. My contention is that more customers than we tend to think actually like the idea of “their” favorite brand or style of beer, and when it comes to better (“craft”) beer, the merits of continuity are being vastly undervalued.
Accordingly, there’s a case to be made for making the process of choosing a regular beer easier for those who might become regular customers just because they know what to expect when they drop in for a sandwich.
Recently a friend was musing along these lines: “If I opened a pub, would I be crazy to have a three-tap keg box, pouring Guinness, Pilsner Urquell and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, with no guest taps at all?”
Aside from the absence of representative beer localism, no – he would not be crazy. In fact, there’d be something I personally like on tap, all the time.
And: There's only so much time in the first place.
June 13: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: I know I’m gonna change that tune.
June 6: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: A Mile Wide sidewalk superintendent.
May 30: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: “The Drinker” (A Book Review).
May 23: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: A few beers on Estonian time (Part Two).