Starting with 40, 65, or 80 tap handles, these early mega operations served beers from around the country, including many of which suffered long, hot journeys on their way to far-flung beer bars. The patrons often didn’t care about the quality or age of a particular beer because it was such a welcomed departure from the fizzy yellow monotony that dominated their usual drinking sessions. These local bars were soon followed by chains that featured as many as 250 different beers on tap at one time. These chains now serve everything from Dogfish Head and Stone to Michelob Ultra and Miller Lite.I think we've dodged a bullet with this. If we acknowledge the "sweet spot" as being around 25 or so to allow proper turnover, line cleaning, etc., then the only spots in our area even in question are Baltimore's Max's Taphouse and Washington's RFD and Church Key (though there's still this planned City Tap House in Harbor East, discussed earlier here). Most other places with lots of taps--Mahaffey's, Ale Mary's, Frisco, Judge's Bench, Alonso's, Racers--have enough sanity or sense to keep the tap inflation at bay and not engage in the pointless "I've got more than you got" game.
Twenty plus years since their founding, the time has come for some reflection upon the continued relevance of multi-taps. In traveling to bars around the world, both as a writer and a beer lover, I’ve developed a bit of a theory about how the number of tap lines a bar maintains corresponds to the quality of its selection and offerings. I’ve found that there is sort of a sweet spot for many bars, a standard measure above which tends to result in diminishing returns for the consumer. That magic number tends to be 24 as a select few establishments around the country, and frankly anywhere, that can manage more than this number at a time. While I appreciate the availability of 75 or 150 taps in theory, the practice becomes the beer equivalent of having 500 channels of television programming and nothing worth watching. And the signal often gets fuzzy.
I seriously shake my head a bit at how a place like Max's gets by with its 75-ish taps, fret a bit about its plans to install 20-25 more, and shudder in fear at the prospect of any place trying to offer 200 drafts and keep enough of them moving to assure quality control.