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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