02 March 2010

A Call for No More Big Multi-Tap Houses?

So says an essay by Andy Crouch at his blog and in Beer Advocate.
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.
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 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.

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.


tfols1 said...

I have on two occasions (out of the three times I've been at Max's), had to return a beer due to it clearly being old/tired, and one case of a tapline not being cleaned out.

Somehow, never had this issue at Churchkey, but their turnover of stuff is huge.

Alexander D. Mitchell IV said...

Somehow, I have the impression that it also wouldn't be an issue at Max's if Max's had just opened in Harbor East or whatever hot, trendy new part of Baltimore was "in" at the moment..... AND Baltimore's economy were similarly able to immunize itself from the current economic depression in a manner that Washington finds itself able to do by being largely dependent upon "other people's money".....

Let's see just how well Church Key is doing in, say, two or three years. We don't hear much about R.F.D. anymore in D.C. now, do we?

tfols1 said...

We aside from the biting comments on DC.. *shrugs* Time will tell with Churchkey. I know RFD's and Brikskeller are still talked about regularly on the DC-Beer mailing list.

RFD's has had similar tap freshness and cleanliness issues in the past.

Jay Zeis said...

I, too, have had to return a beer at Max's. Once. I make a weekly trip there, and for the past 3.5 years returned one beer. I will take those odds everyday.

Alexander D. Mitchell IV said...


RFD actually doesn't get talked about much on the DC-Beer e-mail listserv. And some of the recent discussion about the Bricks wasn't exactly 100% positive (but revolved more around service than beer quality.... though I wonder what would happen if someone started a round with that topic?).

Right now, Church Key doesn't have to fret too much about serving lines and beer age, because 1) it's a new place with new lines, and 2) being the "hot new place" in town, it's got a crowd that will eagerly empty every keg, sixtel, or firkin tapped before them, even a "lawnmower light" as long as it's the "latest new" brewery or brand.

tfols1 said...

I don't disagree with you at all on your comments on Churchkey not needing to worry. Heck, I don't even fault Max's too much for it - I just had a couple bad beers, and that happens.

I was mostly commenting on the fact that in some of these larger places, that does happen. I should have including my RFD thoughts in the first comment. I would be interested to see if there is a higher occurrence of beer quality issues (either age, cleanliness, or otherwise) at the places with more taps, and how much a factor "popularity" plays. CK is never not crowded... I haven't been to RFD's recently to see how busy it's been over the past year.... intriguing.

I know whenever I poke my head into the DC beer list, I see mentions of RFD... but then again, until recently, I generally wasn't paying too much attention (I just got my filtering set so it's easier to keep up). I was involved in the Brickskeller negative service conversation, actually. Beer quality... I agree, that would be an interesting discussion.

The Oriole Way said...

I'm inclined to agree here. I love being able to access a variety of beers, but, frankly, I don't need 15 choices of stouts, 12 IPAs, and 13 pale ales to accomplish that. 25 seems to be a reasonable higher end, except for maybe one or two places in a given city. 10-15 staples (predominantly locals, please) and then 10-15 guest beers that rotate based on the season, special events, and what's been getting a lot of publicity lately. Any place that offered even 15 craft beers would more than meet my definition of a "great beer bar."