Last Call for the Beer Bar?
When Chris Black opened Falling Rock Tap House in downtown Denver in 1997 with his brothers, Steve and Al, he sought the hoppy summit. The bar and its “no crap on tap” ethos grew to include 94 rotating drafts showcasing American brewing’s blossoming beers, especially during the city’s annual Great American Beer Festival.
But the bar’s sales flattened in 2015 and then dropped because of a confluence of challenges: property tax increases, business-disrupting street construction and the rise of taprooms run by breweries — suppliers who suddenly turned into competitors. As the number of craft breweries in the United States boomed over the last decade, to nearly 9,000 in 2020, beer bars like Falling Rock fell out of favor as drinkers flocked to brewery taprooms. Why patronize a bar when you can sip fresh beer directly from the source?
Several decades ago, the beer bar, with its dozens of draft options and deep bottle lists, delivered a liquid education in bitter I.P.A.s and monk-brewed Belgian ales alike. They were places “where customers discovered craft,” and helped the genre grow, said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association trade group.
But with growth of the taprooms, craft-bar release parties for special beers dried up. What was once “a prime way of bringing people into bars was gradually taken away by the breweries themselves,” Mr. Black said.
This summer Chris Black closed Falling Rock Tap House after nearly a quarter-century in business in downtown Denver. He took a road trip to the West Coast after the bar closed to bring the bar’s hand-painted signs to breweries.Credit…James Stukenberg for The New York Times
For Falling Rock, Covid-19 dealt the final blow: The fall beer festival, which brought 8 percent of the bar’s annual sales, was canceled in 2020 and 2021. The brothers closed the place in June. We’re “moving on to the next chapter,” said Mr. Black, who is leaving the bar business.
“It’s the end of an era,” said Natalie Cilurzo, who runs Russian River Brewing, in Santa Rosa, Calif., with her husband, Vinnie. They distributed beers, including the cultish Pliny the Elder I.P.A. to Monk’s Café in Philadelphia and to Falling Rock, where the couple attended the closing festivities with fellow brewers.
The number of bars in the United States has declined for decades, dropping to 42,176 in 2020 from 54,296 in 2001, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Craft beer is no longer the domain of select bars; it’s sold in stadiums, supermarkets and corner bodegas, leaving the future of specialized beer bars uncertain.
The pandemic accelerated the closings of some pre-eminent beer bars, including the original Houston location of the Ginger Man chain (it opened in 1985), and Deep Ellum in Allston, Mass., which opened in 2007. Needing kitchen and patio space, the owners of Deep Ellum expanded their adjoining Lone Star Taco Bar into the bar area, focusing on takeout food and tequila and mezcal.
“Beer sales are so low that I only have 10 drafts,” said Max Toste, an owner, adding that another 12 taps sit unused. “Nobody’s buying draft beer.”
The closing of indoor dining during the pandemic cut right to the heart of the bars’ business model: buying beer and serving it to customers seated on stools. By contrast, many breweries and affiliated taprooms fared better because they sold packaged beer for consumption elsewhere.
Many in the craft-beer bar business are taking that sales lesson to heart. Gerard Leary is a former owner of One Mile House, a beer bar in downtown Manhattan that has closed. In July, he turned a Sunnyside, Queens, florist shop into Sweet Avenue, featuring a dozen draft beers and refrigerators stocked with canned beer, sold to stay or to go.
“I was always chasing kegs, and now I’m chasing cans,” Mr. Leary said. The shop’s compact size, about 700 square feet, also minimizes staffing needs. “It’s a one-man show.”
Still, selling someone else’s beer will never be as profitable as making and selling your own.
Geoff Phillips founded Bailey’s Taproom in downtown Portland, Ore., in 2007, driving to breweries to bring unique kegs to the bar. His extra-mile effort drew locals, tourists and neighborhood workers, but the pandemic turned the area into a “ghost town,” Mr. Phillips said.
Uncertain of the neighborhood’s recovery, he sold the building, permanently closed Bailey’s last fall and is focusing on Level Beer, a Portland brewery that he helped open in 2017. It has three locations, and additional breweries and taprooms are under consideration. “It’s hard for a beer bar to compete,” said Mr. Phillips, who has no plans to open another.
Dave Pollack and his wife, Alex, opened the Diamond in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, in 2007. Their quirky bar featured bathrooms decorated with cassette tapes, seating in a backyard ski gondola and good beer, drawing on Mr. Pollack’s experience working for a beer importer. At first, the diverse selection, from imported German kölsch to up-and-coming American I.P.A.s, drew customers, but the owners eventually had to add cocktails to the menu in 2018 to compete with other bars in the area, which also had deep beer lists.
With an affordable renewal of their lease seeming improbable, the couple shuttered the Diamond in January.
Closings can leave longtime customers at a loss. Mariangela Lopez, a teacher and choreographer, lives near the Diamond, which she visited “almost daily” for years. She often brought her son to do homework, and even worked the bar in a pinch. Without a beer bar to call home, “the quality of my life is not the same,” she said.
Some beer bar owners are doubling down on renovations and reinvention. During the pandemic, Brick Store Pub in Decatur, Ga., near Atlanta, which specializes in Belgian and vintage beers, remodeled its kitchen and turned a dumpster-filled parking lot into an 80-seat beer garden featuring a food truck.
Dave Blanchard, an owner, also revamped an underused mezzanine into the “coziest little English pub” with a hidden TV unveiled for soccer matches and four beer engines serving unfiltered, naturally carbonated cask ale. Mr. Blanchard stocks the Cask Bar, as it’s called, with popular American beers like Bell’s Two Hearted Ale, an I.P.A., and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale that he special-orders from the breweries. “We’re almost selling it too fast,” Mr. Blanchard said.
Modern beer bars are also evolving with the times. Yard House, which opened a three-floor Times Square outpost in September, includes 20 local beers at each of its more than 80 locations.
Forging exclusive collaborations with breweries and deflating a snobby approach to beer are among the ways the Whale, in Asheville, N.C. differentiates itself. Andrew Ross and Jesse Van Note, the owners, offer rare beers (“whales”) alongside classics like Guinness, and have added locations in Greenville and Charleston, S.C.
Bartenders ask customers their names and the beer styles they like or dislike, then make suggestions and pour beers in a conversation that steers clear of “smugness and pretentiousness,” Mr. Ross said. “Half of our customers don’t even ask for something on the menu,” Mr. Van Note said. “They just ask the staff, ‘What do you suggest?’”
When Eddie Trejo and his wife, Joann Cornejo, opened Machete Beer House in National City, Calif., a largely Latino and Filipino city about 11 miles north of the Mexican border, they wanted to fill a craft-beer void in the neighborhood. The couple decorated the bar with piñatas and photos from the Mexican Revolution, including relatives of Ms. Cornejo, who grew up in National City. (Mr. Trejo is not related to the actor Danny Trejo, known for the Machete character.)
American and Mexican craft beers are on draft, and customers can order beers rimmed like a michelada with chamoy and Tajín. Pop-up vendors sell birria tacos and paletas. Machete hosts high-school reunions. Customers become bartenders.
“This is a place for the people,” Mr. Trejo said. “It’s from the community and for the community.”
As for Mr. Pollack of the Diamond, he hasn’t given up on beer bars. He placed the Diamond’s artwork, bar top and equipment in storage. The gondola is temporarily lent to a seasonal bar that he manages on Fishers Island in Long Island Sound, where his family currently lives. The hope is to someday, somewhere use the Diamond’s bones to build another jewel of a bar.
“I’m taking the gondola to wherever I’m going,” Mr. Pollack said.
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