How in the name of civilized boozing did drinking in a factory become a thing?
Bare brick walls and wet cement floors. A ceiling of metal rafters. Glaring industrial klieg lamps illuminating a maze of PVC pipes, electrical conduits and snaking ductwork. A bar made of unsanded two-by-fours that wouldn’t get a passing grade at the local vo-tech. Seating by Home Depot: picnic tables and 50-pound metal stools that give off a Dana Loesch rage shriek when dragged across the floor.
It has all the ambiance of a police interrogation, where conversation echoes against the cacophony of mechanical equipment, a din that is broken only by the insipid laughter of a toppled tower of Jenga blocks.
And, yet, here we are, enjoying ourselves at the local brewery tasting room.
“Tasting room,” did you catch that? It’s not a “bar” or a “saloon” or a “pub.” It’s a “tasting room,” which sounds so different from that stale, darkened corner where we used to bend an elbow. So antiseptic, so salubrious.
The drinking culture, or at least the one that surrounds the consumption of craft beer, is changing.
Where beer enthusiasts regularly sought out the latest and greatest at their local craft beer bar, increasingly they’re heading straight to the source: their local brewery. According to a study conducted for MillerCoors, about 9 percent of all bar traffic is now moving through brewery taprooms or brewpubs. That may not sound like much, but two things:
OK, that last point is debatable, and I’ll report further on this debate next week, with a view from bar owners contending with the tasting room surge.
But for now, breweries and others make a very strong case that people who drink in tasting rooms are not necessarily bar patrons.
A 2017 survey conducted for the Brewers Association showed about two-thirds of respondents who had visited a tasting room had not forsaken a trip to the bar. Instead, about a quarter said their stop at the brewery was in addition to their typical bar visits, and a startling 40 percent said they opted for a tasting room because it offered a different experience from a bar.
Presumably, many see it as a better experience.
Truly, this is a weird paradigm shift.
Because for the past 150 years or so, bars have been the go-to place for alcohol consumption outside the home. Y’know, Joe’s Bar & Grill. The corner pub. The place where everybody knows your name. Yes, the great American bar has changed its look over the years, from dusty roadhouse to urban den to cookie-cutter chain restaurant to whatever the hell Mad Rex is.
But the commercial arrangement was always the same. Breweries do what they do best: make beer. Bars do what they do best: serve beer. And customers: Remember to tip the bartender, OK?
Now, suddenly, it’s perfectly reasonable – maybe even preferable – to cut out the middleman and trudge on over to the place where the beer is manufactured. What’s up with that? We don’t chow down on burgers in a slaughterhouse, so why drink in a brewery?
I really don’t know the reason. I’ve talked to dozens of people about this, and I get all kinds of answers:
Maybe you have other reasons, and I’d like to hear them.
But to be fair, a good bar can hold its own on all those measures, and more.
The familiarity of barroom vibe, the beat of a jukebox song, the gossip from a friendly bartender, the patina of a well-worn elbow rail, the lineup of taps from a world of breweries, the flavors from the kitchen, the favorite stool, the one down at the end of the bar.
Yet, here I am in the factory, standing in the din under bright lights, tasting a flight of beers like they were laboratory test tube samples.
And loving it all, even that damn game of Jenga.