How to Build the Perfect Brewery Part 2
This is part two of How to Build the Perfect Brewery: all the traits that brewers and drinkers immediately look at, whether they know it or not, when deciding on a new taproom. In the previous post, I talked about History and "The Smell," which are two things I immediately consider when checking out a new brewery. I'm going to dive in on the last traits right away, so if you haven't read the first half, go back now and catch up with us.
Intimacy is a very interesting quality in a brewery. Some people love it, and others see no need for it. It's a measure of how well you can get to know the brewery just by sitting there for a while. It correlates strongly with history and The Smell. Unfortunately for the brewer and the drinker that want to see their underdog taproom take off, it is often the inverse of popularity. A cozy little tasting room with eight seats where the bartender is the brewer themself is the peak of intimacy, like DogHaus in Leavenworth. The size of an actual dog house, that brewery has room for about eight people if half of them are standing. Even when it's packed, you still get to talk to the brewer and hang out with other patrons. If fact, that's basically mandatory. An intimate brewery could be the one that is normally crowded, but because you are here on a Monday night and you are lonely drinker, you are the only person inside. If you wanted to, you could go chat with the bartender who has nothing better to do than hang out. You won't disappear into the crowd at an intimate place. I'm looking at you, Fremont. When you come up for your second drink, the bartender recognizes you and sees you coming because they know it was about time you came around for a refill. You can become a "Norm" at an intimate place easily if you wanted, maybe after just a few trips, and before you know it, you recognize all the employees. I think you understand. How do you build an intimate brewery? You put seats at the bar. That way people who want to experience the intimacy of the place can get to know the taproom through the most qualified person there: the bartender. But that does you no good if the bartender is too busy to talk to you, so in order to preserve your intimacy, you need to have enough employees to handle your crowds. Nothing kills intimacy like super long lines and a busy atmosphere.
Now you are a brewery owner and you're thinking, "Ok you just made it sound like an intimate place is one with no customers in it. Why would I ever want that?" You're kind of right, but you won't always be full of people, and that is when you want your intimacy to shine through. It's only a part time venture. Don't make the mistake of the Fremont Brewing taproom. It's a place built for managing huge crowds all the time, so during it's off hours when no one is around, its bartenders are behind a bar with no seats, a dozen feet from the nearest possible customer. Its seating is all outside, so you are more intimately connected with the intersection of 34th and Woodland Park than the brewery. When it's crowded, you are being served by a finely tuned beer selling machine instead of people you have a chance of meeting and knowing anything about, and it doesn’t help that you are fighting for a table and yelling to your friends over the roar of other patrons. No intimacy to be found. I'm ranting now; I think you get my point. Before I go on, it's worth mentioning that plenty of people love Fremont Brewery; there's a reason it's packed all the time, and I believe that a factor of that is the fact that it is packed all the time. Plenty of people love to go where the people are, so packing yourselves into a brewery like Peddler to drink some beer and be lost in the crowd is exactly what the maltster ordered. Intimacy isn't for everyone. Maybe my love of intimacy at a taproom is just my hipster shining through.
Here's a drinking game for the next section: Drink every time I say cornhole, because I am about to do it a lot. God, I love cornhole. The game isn't even fun and I'm not good at it, but dammit I love what it means. If your brewery has Cornhole with a capital 'C', that means it's the kind of place that has cornhole, a fun little competitive four person game played outside. It has space to move around, it might have a patio, and it might even have grass! It's a standing up kind of place. Standing and drinking, when that is what I mean to be doing, is a primo experience. Beer in one hand, bag in the other, showing Danny a thing or two about putting corn in a hole. Ain't nothing better. Except board games. And hook 'em. Or ladder golf. Ok, so it's not just about cornhole. It's about the level of activities you can do while you're there. You don't need to have cornhole to have Cornhole. Sure, you came here to drink and be with friends or meet new people, but some places have that built in staying power in the form of Cornhole. It's one of the reasons I don't care for brewpubs. They might have a TV with some sports on, but for the most part they are trying to get you out of there to serve the next hungry group. Cornhole is about staying power- how long can you stay here before you feel like you've been here too long? Torched Hop in Atlanta has the most Cornhole of any brewery I have ever seen and they don’t even have cornhole: shuttle board, darts, video games, board games and bocce ball keep you rotating through the games and before you know it, you have worked your way down the tap list like it was nothing. These days most taprooms have a stack of Goodwill children's board games that are usually pretty bad, so there is certainly room for improvement in this department. I'm watching you, every brewery in Ballard.
The downside to Cornhole is that it runs counter to a classy atmosphere. If you want to create a taproom with sophistication where fancy people drink fancy beers, then Cornhole has no place there. Holy Mountain's sleek minimalist taproom doesn’t have room for the clutter of Cornhole, and that suits them just fine. A great idea I haven't seen is the gritty, dark, underground, speakeasy type taproom, and capital 'C' Cornhole would do no good in a place like that. The beer would have to be able to speak for itself.
It may surprise you to hear that the last thing I usually consider when I am checking out a new taproom is the beer. Almost every brewery I visit makes perfectly good beer. If they didn't, they certainly wouldn’t be trying to sell it. That's not to say that no beer is objectively flawed. There are degrees to which a beer can be wrong or bad and reasons a brewery might try to sell it anyway, but that's a different post. Once you've tried a good amount of beer, the question of whether a beer is good or not is almost always answered by whether or not you like the style. "I don't like their beer" is better stated as "I don't like the styles they brew." Beer is like wine in that anyone who tells you that one beer is objectively better than another is on the marketing team. Perhaps this dial would be better labeled "Variety," but that doesn’t do it justice. We don't just want variety. We also want depth. The standard taproom aims to have something for everyone. Some lighter beers for the craft novices, some sessionables for the marathoners, some IPAs for the hop heads, some dark beer for all those people in that phase of their life, and something crazy for someone who thinks they've seen it all. Some taprooms specialize. Urban Family specializes in sours and funky beers, so I'm not surprised when they don't have an amber on the menu. They still run a wide flavor and strength spectrum but focus on the particular yeasty weirdness they want to play with. The more beers you have on tap, the more different moods you can satisfy. If your brewery only has six or eight beers on tap, then you are a focused brewery. Just a handful of fun beers might make you a destination, but hopefully you know what you are focusing on because (and I can't speak for everyone) most people aren't impressed by the BJ's lineup of brewing one beer per hair color: Blonde, Brown, Red, and Dark.
Halfway through that I forgot who I was talking to. Was this a guide for the brewer or the drinker? I guess it doesn't matter. If you are a drinker, then hopefully now you are on the lookout for what draws you to your favorite place. You might start to notice The Smell, or maybe next time you'll realize the thing you were missing out on by not going up to the bar. If you are the brewer, then you now have the five primary colors of building a taproom. You can mix and match them in different quantities to create your perfect blend. Embrace The Smell or sterilize it. Fill your taproom with Cornhole to bring in marathon drinkers, or focus on your style and mystique to attract sophisticated Cicerone try hards. Go beyond TST (The Standard Taproom), and avoid hair color beers.
Thanks for reading! You think there is another factor out there? I'd actually love to hear it. What is it that makes your favorite taproom the best? Leave a comment below. Click the like button if you liked reading this 'cus that button is directly tied to my self-esteem like a morphine drip on a hospital bed. Like the Intrigue Brewing and the Cyclingc Cicerone on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to help me keep talking about beer.