28 November 2012

Commentary/Conversation | How Many Taps Are Too Many?

Jake:  With more local bars now having 30-plus taps of all craft beer, how many is too many?

I really think this all comes down to the variety being offered and the familiarity of the consumer and bar staff. If you have 30 taps and 10 of them are from a similar style (Blondes/Wheats and Pale Ales especially), how are you expecting to turn those taps at with any rate that maintains product quality? I think the real result is frustration of the consumer and added stress on the wait staff by them having to explain and get multiple samples for multiple people.

I compare this to a place like Local Option in Chicago. They have a huge chalkboard of at least 30 taps that they change regularly. I enjoy going there because I can tell the bartender what style I am thinking and there are two to three options, but no more. I do not think we are at the point in Indy where people trust themselves and their bartender/waiter to have that conversation.

With five local pale ales on draft, which one are you picking? The one with the more ornate tap handle? The funny Name/picture?

I also think this has given beer drinkers even worse ADD than most of us already have. "With 30-plus taps, I can't order the same beer again, I have to try something else" is the feeling I often get and hear others mention.

Jim: Jake raises a couple of issues that I've thought about too. The first is consumer sophistication. I certainly don't want to paint Indianapolis beer drinkers as necessarily unsophisticated; there are plenty of Indy people who know enough about craft beer to know what they want and why they want it. And obviously, bars around town think there's enough consumer sophistication to warrant an expansion of their tap lines. But a lot of people are still meandering their way into and through the craft beer world. I think that a lot of these folks, once they get more into craft beer, are going to be satisfied with a few brands and a few styles. I think that some people may just want simplicity, which makes me worry that some of these bars aren't going to be able to turn their gazillion tap lines as frequently as they might think.

This quest for simplicity leads to my second point, which is something that I've written about before: the perils of having too many choices, or as Jake calls it, "beer ADD." We're at a point now in the craft beer world where the choices are overwhelming--well, at least they are to me. Yes, it's cool to have lots of beers to choose from, but I now find it exhausting seeking out the next best thing. As I've noted before, I find myself now frequently reaching for the "ol' reliable," no-frills beers like Flat12 Pogue's Run Porter, Sun King Osiris Pale Ale, and Fountain Square Workingman's Pilsner. I wonder how many other "me's" there are out there. If there are, then maybe only a few bars in town should have 20 or more taps. Or if they do have that many, perhaps they should be unique in their tap choices. I'm thinking of the Rathskeller with its focus on German beers.

In the end, I prefer a bar with a smaller but well-curated tap list, like La Margarita or Brugge Brasserie. But that's just my personal preference.

Rod: This is an interesting one, because it depends heavily on where your priorities are. I first started drinking craft beer in college, and the Chumley's in Lafayette was my go-to bar. As a novice craft beer drinker, the variety of 50 tap lines was unparalleled. I never thought to ask how fresh a beer was; my only concern was whether or not I had tried it. To be entirely fair, I also didn't care how good the beer was. If I received a pint of beer that was less than enjoyable, I could at least say that I had tried it. I learned a lot about the types of beer I enjoyed this way, and it certainly was an essential part of where I am in beer today.

Unfortunately, that college spirit has only slightly diminished. I wrestle constantly with the choice between a beer that I know is going to be great, and a beer I have never seen before. For this reason, the 30+ tap bars are still frequent haunts. That's not to say that I haven't learned a thing or two. Typically, a bar that boasts a huge tap line up is not going to have fresh beer. In fact, they may have downright old beer in those tap lines, and maybe they haven't been cleaned in a year. But it's not as if those problems aren't characteristic of bars with huge beer selections. A bar with three taps can have the exact same old beer, dirty tap line issues that a bar with 30 can have. Simply demonizing a bar because it has a lot of taps is the wrong thing to do.

What we're all after is good beer, and in the topic of this conversation, variety. If a bar has 30 taps and they rotate regularly and keep on an interesting selection of options, there is no reason that the number of tap handles they have should be viewed negatively. However, a bar with six taps that rotates them regularly and has an interesting selection of options is typically just as good. The real problem is the bar that installs a wealth of taps and offers a poor variety with poor draft selections. Buffalo Wild Wings is the prime example of this. A quick visit to the Greenwood location will reveal maybe 5 taps of craft and 25+ of every version of American and Import Light Lager. Surely this is the extreme, but offering 30 taps of locally brewed IPAs is almost as boring.

Perhaps it is a chicken / egg problem. How do you install 100 taps and ensure that you will be able to sell through them all in a reasonable amount of time, such that you're not stuck with old beer? The obvious answer seems to be to start out with fewer taps and build a customer base that can support 100, but then you can't open up as a 100 tap bar. At the end of the day, a bar that focuses on a large number of taps should be judged the same as a bar that focuses on three taps, and that will ultimately define its success.

Jason: Too many bars with too many taps? Only if they don't know their audience or their business.

Let's take my favorite multi-tap bar: Black Acre Brewery. It is in my neighborhood, so I can walk there and stumble back. With the multiple taps, I know that I will find multiple beers to enjoy in a variety of styles. That is important to me. And they are brewers, so they know how to care for their own lines. Neither their beers nor their guest taps last for very long, so aging isn't an issue. They are successful, but they aimed to serve a neighborhood that desired multiple taps. The audience was already there; it just needed to be tapped.

I think that same set up can be duplicated. Twenty Tap is an example of another neighborhood-oriented bar/restaurant. They certainly bring in their fair share of out-of-area drinkers, but it is no surprise that they are in the middle of a neighborhood that values handcrafted, quality goods. Being within walking distance of their audience is helps a lot.

In these cases, the locations are neighborhood-oriented. I suspect that locations in suburban strip malls or national chains are not seeing the same kind of response. They may start off with 20+ local and craft taps, but soon succumb to the 24 varieties of Budweiser. Does this mean that there are too many 20+ tap bars? No. I think there are too few in the neighborhoods that want them and too many in suburban/chain markets where the audience doesn't care.

Chris: This question makes me think back to the state of Indianapolis craft beer around 2007. When you walked into a "better beer bar" back then (what few there were), what did you see on tap? Maybe something from Three Floyds or Upland and then a lot of out-of-state beers. Unless you were drinking at a brewpub, there were no truly local beers on tap.

Certainly Sun King bursting onto the scene in 2009 is among the seminal moments in the history of Indianapolis beer, but their ascendance pushed a lot of out-of-town craft beer off taps around town. If Sun King was put on tap at a bar, their beer wasn't replacing Budweiser; it was replacing beers from Bell's, Stone, Founders, and numerous other beers from outside Indiana. Sun King was also the wedge that broke open the local craft beer scene, further reducing the number of taps available to out-of-town breweries.

Anecdotally, it appears to me that the increase in tap lines at local beer bars has reintroduced a number of these non-Indiana beers. Finally there is some breathing room on the tap stands for local, national and international beers to share space. Count me among those that think this tap expansion is a good step in the maturation of Indianapolis craft beer.

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  1. As long as a good share of the taps are local, I don't care how many they have. I do care about being served a beer that's the best it can be, so if the beer is stagnating, it's probably best (for the bar) to not order that one again. If that gets to be a common problem, you've probably got too many taps. I'm not going to name names, but I went to a place that prides itself on its variety, and almost everything I sampled there (5-6 small pours) had some kind of off flavor. Make sure you're taking care of those tap lines!

  2. I'm a business traveler who frequents Indianapolis, and often seek out the local flavor when I dine. (The kitchens in Indy's better beer bars have yet to catch up with the quality and diversity of their tap lists, but that's a gripe for another day). Expanding draft lists are very helpful when I want to try something new I can't find at home. Of course, that's not saying they are an excuse for stale beer and dirty lines. Outraged consumers can ultimately influence the practices at those types of places. Boston's 100+ tap Sunset Grill played their variety as novelty card quite well until BeerAdvocate.com started up and complaints about stale beer and tap lines spread where heard by many of their customers. Competing bars opened, and management cleaned up their business. Eventually this will happen in Indy.

    I'm not really sure that your market would support the price hikes associated with the 5 gallon kegs increasingly common at east coast multi-tap bars. I'm not sure I'd encourage it either, as those prices do spread quickly.

    Restaurants with 5 to 10 great taps are excellent components of a vibrant beer scene but aren't really viable in a craft beer vacuum. If you dine out 3-4 nights a week on the company dime you'd see a lot of similarities between Indy's well curated small tap lists.

    You need a variety of places with large tap lists if you want your city's craft beer scene to support one or two bars offering a deep list for connoisseurs. Their expansive and curated draft lists have to be a distinction not a novelty. Otherwise increasingly boring high volume craft will crowd out the remarkable. (Has this happened at 20 Tap, or am I just jaded?) That means you need a bunch of multi-tap bars that casually offer something for everyone but maybe not more than a handful of taps for beer geeks (Don't complain about your BW3s until you try to order craft beer at one in New England. Trust me, yours will look like its run by a beer geek in comparison). You need bars that draw a lot of people to enjoy a variety of quality beer. Places like Ralston's Drafthouse need to succeed in order to create more connoisseurs. 20 Tap, and the Black Acre(which cheats by being a brewpub) fall in this category as well but are aimed a bit more at localvores. IN the absence of centuries of brewing tradition, you need big beer bars for a lot of scenes to foster the clientele for a world class watering hole.

    I haven't found a true connoisseur's bar in Indy that I can speak of on the same level of Novare Res in Portland, ME or The Publick House, Lord Hobo, and Deep Ellum's of metro Boston. I haven't spent enough time in Chicago to draw a closer analogy. Maybe the Hop Leaf? It might be boring if I went more often.

    Give your scene time, and don't be shy about praising the places doing it right while calling out the places that cut corners and quality. For better or worse, things change more quickly on the coasts because we're all squeaky wheels over here.

  3. I think unless it's a regular commericial macro beer, those are sixth barrels, not half barrels. I don't think a lot of those beers in the bars Jason and Rod mentioned last much more than a few days, let alone a couple weeks. I'm for variety in the right places. Owners and managers know where those places are; It's not really Chumley's now, is it? If you're going to Chumley's or BW3 for their variety, you're probably just a typical consumer wanting macro variety and not so much micro variety (I will give the old Deweese BW3 credit for actually having the best Downtown tap selection for a long while, until it switched ownership and corporate ruined it).

    I bet if you asked Mataluci how often they switch kegs at 20 tap, it would blow your mind. It's possible that the sweet spot is somewhere in between, but 5 is still too few, and with 30+ I'll never get bored, so how could anyone be so critical? Don't you remember the old days? Damn, spoiled rotten kids, I say! : )

  4. Shallos Antique Bar is all I will pretty much say here. Okay, not all but to drive a point home. Well over let's say 475 craft and imported beers to chose from (I'm not including the big three in that number as it would put over 500). I know it is not here in Indy but what if it was? Or what if a place like that was in SoBro or Irvington or even Fountain Square? I think 5 years from now we would expect more places like that or Twenty Tap even. Also, don't forget the Indiana fared Tomlinson Tap Room where you can try just about every Indiana brewery there is. I see places fighting to figure out how to put on more taps all the time around town as demand starts to pick up. I think we are still young in the mind for where this town is headed as far as craft beer but I believe we will grow into it and mature as it does. Have faith in our people and our taps. I for one welcome the ever changing landscape shaped in kegs, bottles and cans!