A weekly column by Roger A. Baylor.
I always tell young film-makers, ‘find the song that only you can sing.’ It doesn’t just come to you. It’s trial and error and disappointment before you find, slowly but surely, the confidence to express your film-making identity.”
-- Paul “Bourne” Greengrass
Seeing as I have too much time on my hands, odd thoughts of late have turned to those early years at the Public House formerly known as Rich O’s.
Is it creeping nostalgia?
No, not really. I've no great desire to risk my own eternal Groundhog Day of A Cosmic Runaround by reverting to a place and time that’s better left alone. What’s done is done. Oasis and Goose Island were then, not now. I’m serene, and my legacy is secure.
Rather, these recent thoughts have to do with simple curiosity, and given my inclinations, they’ll probably lead to worrisome complexity.
In the 1990s, I took for granted (naively, perhaps) that it was possible to run a small business, to stay alive while doing so, and to be able to grow the business slowly, all the while devoting special attention to teaching about the business’s chosen core specialty – in my own instance, better beer.
It somehow worked. Is this cadence even possible now?
Expenses are high, attention spans are short, and any establishment with a few beer lines and a stand-up cooler packed with nicely decorated bottles can become the hottest destination of the millisecond, as acclaimed by the viral illuminators of social media just prior to their abandonment of “craft” beer for infused kombucha.
The basic founding ideal at the Public House was better beer, which at the time posed a task easier spoken than implemented, and yet better beer options existed back then, too, even if few on-premise locations chose to exercise them.
At the time, crusty old school operators tended to be openly contemptuous of beer diversity: “I don’t drink that shit, so why would I sell it?” gruffly intoned amid an Old Swillwaukee.
A newer generation of more enlightened owners and managers was only just emerging. This more open-minded cohort grew their beer businesses in step with expanded "craft" availability, which eventually merged with the hyper-connectivity of a wired planet to create the chaos we inhabit now.
I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, the growth process during Clinton I was a series of baby steps, followed by panting reconsolidation, a few deep breaths, beers and chicken wings, then manning up and advancing the perimeter a few taps further.
Ironically, the goal posts always seemed to stay the same distance away, just over that horizon, but when I was young, this didn’t bother me very much. There’d always be time to reach them.
Perhaps if I’d have paid closer attention to end games, there’d be a cleaner script, but we play the hand we’re dealt. I have.
So it goes.
Those who spent any amount of time at the Public House during the 1990s and early 2000s saw an advanced beer program evolve only slowly. Owners and customers learned together, and there was a shared sense of achievement.
My sourcing options for draft and bottled beers were drawn from a relatively narrow pool, the bulk of it imported. When Sierra Nevada reached Indiana at some point around 1993, it was like a national holiday.
In some ways, reduced choice made stocking easier. However, it could be mightily frustrating, and there are infamous stories of me screaming intemperately at cowering wholesalers and other scurrying intermediaries.
One or two of these stories might actually be true – per week.
For the first 12 years of the pub’s existence, the word “guest” wasn’t even used to describe this evolving list. “House” and “guest” descriptors became necessary later, when brewing on site commenced in 2002, and was expanded in 2005 (with two new fermenters) and 2009 (Bank Street Brewhouse’s debut).
Brewing led the beer program in a different direction, though this was neither clear nor overtly planned in the beginning.
Subject to the limitations of our early pre-brewing pub budgets (in other words, could we afford to buy beer in a particular week?), the aim was to build a beer list that offered stylistic diversity at the best price point possible, given the extra expense of better beer.
In pre-Internet practice, this meant consulting books by Michael Jackson (and a few other writers), subscribing to magazines like All About Beer, and joining the UK’s Campaign for Real Ale.
Tactile books and periodicals informed staff and consumer alike, and gave them something to do apart from watching television (which we banned early on) and imagining what life would be like 15 years in the future, when smart phones would come into existence and suck the essence of enriching conversation from barrooms everywhere.
For several years, a three-tap cold box was all we had, and two of these faucets always were fixed: Guinness and Carlsberg, then later Pilsner Urquell. The third tap rotated by whim.
There were four basic rules governing my beer advancement program.
• Knowing the stories and history behind the labels.
• Understanding styles and being able to explain them to customers in simple terms.
• Trying as hard as humanly possible to keep printed lists and blackboards accurate and up to date.
• Insisting that when it came to purchasing, ultimate direction – the synthesis of knowledge and understanding - came not from a wholesaler or even a brewery rep, but from behind the bar.
Let’s begin with the latter, which has not ceased to be of critical importance in all the years since.
Working in a package store during the 1980s, I met many shiftless wine and liquor wholesaler reps, and while they were several rungs ahead of used car salesmen on the deportation scale, I learned to be wary. In almost any business, reps exist to sell you products you don’t need, for the benefit of their company.
I viewed my job as protecting my employer from needless expense, and when I became my own employer, knowing more about beer than most reps (exceptions indeed exist) became about far more than fiscal accountability.
It was about pride.
Consequently, I made it a point of honor to scoff at swag – except when accepting it, in which case I tried to be thoughtful and judicious. So long as the reps knew that swag alone wouldn’t sway me, we were good. More often than not, I repurposed these items to bolster the FOSSILS homebrewing club raffle.
To be sure, the sales scene is different now, but not as much as one might assume. Undoubtedly there are hundreds more available beers to fill limited taps and occupy scant shelf space. Consumer demand plays its role, but the ultimate filter still must be wielded by the bar manager or beer buyer.
It’s all about actively teaching customers what they want even if they don't realize it yet, and as for knowing stories and styles, entertainment and education are what separate professionals from novices. To be honest, I don’t care how much a customer thinks he or she knows after a quick glance at the empty mental calories on Thrillist.
No single person can know everything, but it is the obligation of all involved in the sale of better beer to possess an ability to explain and conceptualize. Knowledge remains the bare minimum requirement. It’s a value-added proposition. The more one knows, and can impart with clarity, the greater the chance of a satisfied return customer who tips well – and learns something.
It’s that basic, but at times I fear the art has been lost. Consequently, I sandbag quite a lot nowadays. Before ordering, I ask questions about beer to servers and bartenders.
Sometimes their answers are coherent, other times not. I’ve been known to cringe when listening to the panoply of “beer facts” as dispersed by staffers. I try to stay quiet and groan out of earshot, because I’m not the one signing their checks.
Fortunately, the creaky old saw about Bock beer being colored dark by vat scrapings from once-yearly cleanings finally seems to have gone the way of the tooth fairy.
Unfortunately, there’ll soon be a Sour Bock IPA to fill the nonsensical void. I’ll accept it with grinding teeth, but only if the beer’s three separate stylistic components can be explained to me by my server. If not, I’ll have a traditional Pilsner, please.
Food and drink lend themselves to constant reinvention, and yet it cannot be denied that there are eternal “classics” amid the bedlam. Clichés become such precisely because they contain an element of truth, and certain aspects of the human experience stand the test of time, whether an umbrella, mouse trap or De Koninck.
If I were to start over, conveniently ignoring pesky realities like rent, logistics and aching knees for the mere sake of conjecture, my plan of operation would be just this sort of time-tested, sustainable, “Classic Beer” programming, the fermentable equivalent of Stairway to Heaven, twice daily.
At my former business, we eventually incorporated our own brewery, guest taps, and hundreds of bottles into a bloated beer program that eventually had to be aggressively pruned to avoid capsizing itself.
I’ve no such grandiose ambitions in my dotage, and I don’t care to run a brewery, ever again.
Rather, my contrarian instincts tell me that the beer climate is ripe for a modest, thoughtful return to basics, emblemized by a relatively small list of classics on draft, and in bottles and cans, to be accompanied by some good, old-fashioned beer education, which seems to have been tossed aside in the era of mile-wide, inch-deep “craft” fandom.
Interpreting songs written by others may be the best singing I ever did, or might yet do.
Let's sketch it here, instead:
ON THE AVENUES: An imaginary exercise tentatively called The Curmudgeon Free House.
July 18: AFTER THE FIRE: Moss the Boss, his dazzling beer café, and what they taught me about “craft.”
July 11: AFTER THE FIRE: We are dispirited in the post-factual world.
July 4: AFTER THE FIRE: Euro ’85, Part 34 … The final chapter, in which lessons are learned and bridges burned.
June 27: AFTER THE FIRE: Out and about in America, Europe … and my cups.