Monday, June 06, 2016

THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: A Mile Wide sidewalk superintendent.

THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: A Mile Wide sidewalk superintendent. 

A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.

To be perfectly honest – but then again, why let the accumulated truth spill out, all at once? – demonstrable elements of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can be spotted amid otherwise encouraging signs of the Curmudgeon's ongoing recovery from the vicissitudes of small business ownership.

For instance, there is a recurring nightmare. I’m stuck in a roofless maze, trying to find my way out. Every time I spot a seemingly safe exit corridor, out pops a familiar impediment – some times a do-nothing gasbag from Heidelberg Distributing, at others a phalanx of Floyd County Health Department bureaucrats carrying clipboards.

Worst of all is the RateBeer luminary, waving his hop garland like a priest with bobbing censer, and screaming about my Doppelbock’s failure to taste like an IPA. When I glance up to the sky, the sun is blocked by the doughy faces of bankers, looking down at me and laughing.

Consequently, when I read previews like Kevin Gibson’s recent piece on Mile Wide Beer Co., it's like being at the harbor, watching as the Titanic sets sail, all the while expecting dreadful things to happen sooner rather than later ... then I fall asleep again.

Mile Wide Beer Co. announces it will open in late summer, by Kevin Gibson (Insider Louisville)

The mysterious Mile Wide Beer Co. announced this week it will open in late summer, also detailing what types of beers customers should expect.

Located at 636 Barret Ave., behind Diamond Pub & Billiards in a former live music space, Mile Wide is owned by four partners: Scott Shreffler, Kyle Tavares, Matt Landon and Patrick Smith, the latter of which also owns River City Drafthouse. Shreffler and Tavares are former representatives for Schlafly Beer, which is based in St. Louis, while Landon has worked in construction …

… The brewhouse will consist of a 15-barrel, three-vessel system with an initial annual capacity of about 1,700 barrels, thanks to two 15-barrel fermenters, three 30-barrel fermenters, and a pair of bright tanks.

Other amenities will include a circa-early 1990s jukebox, plus a retail space that will include a crowler station; at Mile Wide, 32-ounce crowlers, which are cans sealed on site, will be a specialty for taking beer off site and maintaining its freshness longer than growlers. In fact, Mile Wide will be the first brewery in Louisville to offer crowlers ...

... Shreffler says the space has room for growth if the need arises. Future plans, pending success of the brewery, include a canning line. In the meantime, there is plenty of build-out work left to do, and recipes to perfect.

Of course, my anxiety is just a mirror, reflecting a scalded publican shunning the fire, even if he continues to adore Rauchbier.

This feeling of impending terror has nothing whatever to do with the merits of the start-up brewery in question. Mile Wide’s principals have certifiable pedigrees, and assuming the brewery is sufficiently capitalized, there is no reason to believe they won’t do fine, although it won’t stop me from offering astute analysis in just a moment.

Meanwhile, professional therapy may eventually be necessary.

When the whistle blew for opening day at Bank Street Brewhouse in 2009, I thought we had a great business plan. By the time Day Two rolled around, this plan had all the value of Confederate banknotes, crisp and baled.

In the months and years to follow, things seldom worked as intended, and even when they did, critical mass stubbornly refused to occur. It was an amazing and educational ride, and so help me Jeeebus, never EVER again.

For six years at BSB, we performed too well to fail, and yet not well enough to succeed, and as the experience of World War I amply illustrates, there isn't much to be said for the daily stalemate of trench warfare.

On those rare occasions when the shelling stopped, I found myself questioning my worthiness to exist in an atmosphere of peace and quiet, fully expecting the blows to keep raining down.

For the past year, I’ve been convalescing, in part by immersing myself in local politics. Compared to today’s “craft” beer business, the snarling, backstabbing, soul-crushing viciousness of a small town mayoral campaign comes off as serene and hushed, like libraries used to be.


Because you’re entitled to my opinion, here’s what I think about Mile Wide’s prospects, using Kevin's Insider Louisville survey as the sole basis for my armchair quarterbacking.

This means I’ll probably be wrong, but so are most weather forecasters.

There is no mention of a kitchen at Mile Wide, and that’s good. At Bank Street Brewhouse, we had enough money to either open a restaurant or a brewery, so naturally we tried to do both. Apart from the maddening fickleness of the food service business, there’s a reason for the wise old brewer’s adage.

“Wanna make a million in the brewing business? It’s easy – start with $5 million.”

Better to spend the additional $4 million supporting the beer your brew, which after all is a brewery’s primary reason for being, and conversely, if one is intent on being a restaurant owner, don’t bother brewing at all – or find another $5 million.

(As an alternative, one might serve the basic Belgian beer café menu of spaghetti with meat sauce, meat plate, cheese plate and a grilled ham and cheese sandwich (Croque) capable of being prepared by one employee with a kitchen stove, crockpot and panini press.)

It seems that the four partners in Mile Wide each possess an important primary skill set: Physical plant, front-of-house, brewing and sales. That's a good mix, and it echoes Against the Grain’s four-pronged ownership structure, which has proved viable.

Crowlers and retail swag? By all means. Big cans sealed on site is a novelty, albeit one with genuine utility for the consumer.

As for shirts, caps, jackets, thongs and signature condoms, it remains a matter of much regret to me that NABC wasn’t ever able to maximize sales for items like these, in spite of my wonderment at the well-stocked, high-volume souvenir shops at breweries like North Coast and Schlafly, among other travel destinations visited prior to the advent of BSB.

Those visions again. I kept snapping my fingers, and the damned genie never appeared.


Obviously, the biggest question of all concerns Mile Wide’s inevitable move into off-premise distribution.

Granted, Kevin's preview doesn’t explicitly mention distribution, apart from a reference to the possibility of canning. However, because of the Schlafly connection – Kyle as trained production brewer and Scott as a brand rep and salesman – it seems likely that Mile Wide will eventually mount its bid to appear wherever finer beers are sold.

You know, right alongside 4,500 other brewing contestants, with new brewery openings coming at an exponential rate, while shelf space and taps remain static.

Hence, the conundrum. New breweries planning to operate as brewpubs, with business plans predicated to maximize on-premise sales, are probably better placed for stability amid the bizarre market madness facing production brewers. However, brewpubs must entice customers to come spend money on-premise, and often this implies food (see "millions" above).

Perhaps Louisvillians finally are coming around to the free-standing taproom with food trucks, delivery and brown-bagging. Apocalypse Brew Works does quite well with this most sustainable of approaches.


Naturally there are variables too numerous to explore, but what I’m most eager to see unfold at Mile Wide is Scott’s strategy for selling his own company’s local beer in the Louisville market, because when he sets about selling his own company’s local beer, he’ll no longer be the local guy selling some other city's non-local beer – read “Schlafly.”

And, in doing so, he’ll come face to face with the 800-lb “craft” beer gorilla in Louisville, which is the local beer snob’s raging antipathy to localism, which is predicated on the sheer impossibility of local beer bearing quality, apart from Against the Grain whenever Beer Advocate’s arbiters graciously allow it, because just as in the Middle Ages and spice shipments from the exotic east, style and status points absolutely must come from elsewhere, not here.

Except for bourbon, but that's not beer, apart from the rule that all beers, from Hefeweizen through Wee Heavy, must be aged in bourbon barrels.

I’m not saying Scott can’t or won’t do it. He knows his stuff, works hard and is much loved by a segment of the demographic. If anyone can succeed, he can. I respect him and his abilities. I'll be transfixed, having traversed the same learning curve when NABC went from beer bar to brewery.

Now it’s going to be different for Scott – beer sales without a net, minus the institutional support of a regional-sized brewery. Now it’s truly understanding what those principles of economic localization mean, because there’s nothing like becoming the owner of a local business to open one’s eyes to the economic reality of big boxes, chains and multi-nationals (yes, AB-InBev counts), and sadly, to the way that so many beer snobs throw locals under the bus with palpable glee if it means getting their hands on the one special beer that will make those masturbatory selfies sing with narcissistic delight.

A flagship Belgian Wit? Good idea. It worked for Upland. Now all Mile Wide must do is break through the shadiness of Blue Moon and Shock Top placement, find a bar manager in town capable of explaining the algorithm behind his or her constant tap rotation, and get a start-up’s flagship pouring at establishments dedicated to the chaos principle of specialty drafts.

Good luck, Scott. This isn’t at all facetious. I root for local indies, not against them, and I hope Mile Wide rocks it. If you ever need advice on how NOT to do it, I happily consult for beer and pretzels, and the occasional tin of kippers -- crackers, thanks, not bread.


May 30: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: “The Drinker” (A Book Review).

May 23: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: A few beers on Estonian time (Part Two).

May 16: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: A few beers on Estonian time (Part One).

May 9: THE POTABLE CURMUDGEON: Hip Hops ... A look at two new New Albany breweries.


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