ADVENTURES IN BEERLAND
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Who doesn’t like “Happy Hour”? While some might (justifiably) think that’s the term for my stand up comedy routine
coming soon to a club near you, it has to do with drinking. To be more specific, for readers of this column, that’s
drinking beer at a discount. And unlike the sign seen over many a bar – Free Beer Tomorrow – the Happy Hour
discount is real. I’ve seen it vary from zero off on drinks but deals on food to half off anything in the place that is
editable or drinkable. The time allotted for this “hour” might be as short as 60 minutes or even upwards of 4 hours.
The general rule of thumb is the longer the hour the happier it is.
It all can get a bit confusing just like the origins of the term itself. Some credit Willie Shakespeare for coining the term
in reference to a period of merry making and entertainment in King Henry V, written around 1599. I think that’s the
play where Henry V asks Henry IV to trade his kingdom for a horse named Romeo but they couldn’t find wherefore he
art. Eventually Henry III gets involved and well it’s complicated. Other Shakespearian scholars (those who drink a lot
- which by the way makes Willie’s plays much more understandable ) cite The Merchant of Venice in which Lorenzo
says to Portia “Fair thoughts and happy hours attend on you.” Portia is also the name of a local bar in Venice so you
see the connection.
There is one version of the term’s genesis that most agree on. It has to do with the US Navy. There’s evidence
reaching back as early as 1914 that has sailors conducting shipboard “Happy Hour Socials”; an hour of general
entertainment (not drinking). By the 1920s, the phrase “happy hour” was officially used by the Navy for a period of
scheduled athletic activity or fun amusements (still no drinking).
It’s a short jump from the 1920’s to the 1930’s and Prohibition. You remember reading about that in History class,
don’t you? The 18th Amendment made all alcohol illegal which resulted in record levels of its consumption. Hey,
what did you expect to happen? It soon became a trendy fad for people to get together before dinner for a libation
or two or three at ubiquitous (though illegal) drinking establishments called speakeasies. These semi-law abiding
patrons of the distilling and brewing arts then logically began using the phrase “Happy Hour” to refer to the great time
had drinking with friends, neighbors, and total strangers, though no one remained a stranger very long thanks to the
miraculous effects of bathtub gin.
The first mention in print of “happy hour” as a time for social drinking came in a 1959 Saturday Evening Post article.
The term caught on and by the 1970’s the food and beverage industry began to exploit it to increase their business.
However as the practice spread so too did the resistance of the neo-prohibitionists. Their forces still hold sway today
as eight states maintain some sort of anti- Happy Hour laws despite evidence that shows outright bans haven’t
necessarily caused a reduction in drunken driving crashes compared to states with no such bans. As Illinois
politician Earl Fredrick Landgrebe famously said, “don’t’ confuse me with the facts, my mind is already made up.”
I for one smell an intricate conspiracy in those eight states. I suggest that the force behind the bans are bar and
restaurant owners. Think about it - with the bans in place, drink prices can remain high. As an added bonus the
establishment doesn’t have to worry about competing with some pub down the block trying to increase business with
a happy hour price war. I’ve also heard that some of these against Happy Hour bar owners were seen behind the
Grassy Knoll, but that’s another issue.
Perhaps the best Happy Hour competition I’ve ever seen was between J.B. Bitters Bar and Pizza One, located one
quarter mile away from each other in Libertine, NJ. Bitters began to advertise a Happy Hour price of 10 cents an
ounce on all beer with a minimum of 16 ounces poured. Yes, that was the price for all their beer including the good
stuff of which they had a respectable amount. Pizza One - PO to its fans, PU to the haters - countered with their own
10 cents an ounce deal valid from 5 to 7PM, the same time frame as Bitters. Angry, the management at Bitters
extended their “hour” from 4 PM to 7 PM. PO quickly matched that and then did the unthinkable, they added a “Late
Night Happy Hour” from 10 PM to Midnight. This was a duel that brought joy to a beer drinkers’ heart. Bitters choose
not to match the time but added an unofficial twist that turned the tide in their direction. As 7 PM approached the
bartenders quietly advised each customer that they could “back up” their drink at Happy Hour prices. Your tab was
billed for whatever you wanted at the low 6:59.59 PM price but you could have it served whenever you wanted. As a
special thank you to regulars the bartender would also advise “order as many as you want now.”
To indicate you had one already paid for, the bartender placed a small plastic cup used for catsup in front of you.
The cup was a valid marker until closing. Think of it as a bar bitcoin. It wasn’t uncommon for some beer lovers with
great foresight and frugal instincts to have three, four, or five small cups in front of them. That practice went on for
quite a while until management began to notice a run on extra ketchup (yes, I spelled it differently this time just to see
if you were paying attention). It seems that some unscrupulous patrons were ordering French fries with extra, extra,
extra, extra ketchup which meant a lot of extra, extra, extra, extra small plastic cups being placed in front of them. It
was an easy task to quietly go to the restroom, wash out the cups, return and place them on the bar. Considering
the beer was only ten cents an ounce these guys were seriously cheap Then again they were ordering food.
That somewhat shady practice was carried too far when one particularly sharp character found the same brand,
style, and size cups available at his local supermarket, on sale at $1.20 for 100 cups. As you might imagine it didn’t
take long for the backup policy to end once cups flooded the place. Ah, but it was great while it lasted.
Currently the standard Happy Hour here in North Jersey seems to be from 4 to 7 PM with a few spots ending early at
6 PM (we know who you are and that’s why no one goes there any more). On the other hand, one enterprising
place in Verona has a pre- Happy Hour Hour with an additional discount from 3 to 4 PM when the regular Happy Hour
kicks in. That begs the question, if you miss the pre- Happy Hour Hour are you really losing money when you get the
regular Happy Hour discount?
The majority of pubs seem to offer $1 off beer among other discounts. Some limit the discount to “domestic” brews
which translates to beers you don’t want to drink unless of course they were giving you the beer free plus that dollar.
Note to any bars out there – if you do that I’d like to order a round for the house.
A significant minority of places however have gone to $2 off all beers, including craft. Admittedly even at that many
beers are still well overpriced. I'm not complaining mind you; two beats zero every time. I was most pleasantly
surprised when I went to a “Beers From the Vault” night last week at a nearby hotel bar, The Hat. All beer, including
Kentucky Breakfast Stout and several other legitimate gems were available with a $2 discount. Even more, all
sampler flights, regardless of what beers you selected, were $2 off. My hat is off to The Hat. They made a few
friends that evening.
For quite a while many places included free food during Happy Hour. Well, calling it food might be a stretch if you’re
looking for minimally healthy nutrition. The fare was always deep fried, heavily salted, and most importantly,
exceedingly cheap for the place to make. One establishment I frequented specialized in fries. Monday they gave
you curly fries, Tuesday steak fries, Wednesday crinkle fries, and Thursday was a mixture of all the leftover ones.
Friday’s were special – mozzarella sticks. On occasion there even was sauce. The downside was you had to eat
quickly since once the initial serving trays, regardless of content, were empty there were no refills. When new
management took over they ended the giveaway and opted instead to place bowls of stale pretzels on the bar. That
too quickly ended though it was still possible to get them if you asked. Few did, and few ever returned to the bar.
The lure and power of Happy Hour is a significant force. Case in point -Ten Central, a decent craft beer bar and
restaurant has a famous Happy Hour that features half off (as in a legit 50%) everything from craft beers to trendy
martinis to quality wines to the bar food menu. Happy Hour begins promptly at 4 PM and ends just as promptly at
6 PM. It’s always crowded with a most eclectic group ranging from brief case carrying suits to beer stained t-shirt
wearers. It’s always loud. It’s always congested. It’s always full of energy and high spirits. It’s all that and more until
exactly 6 PM. At 6:01 the place instantly transforms into the Ghost of Bars Past. A few stragglers nurse their
deadline beating drinks, a few nibble at a pizza that now costs double the price, and a few rest near the entrance,
bruised and sore from getting caught in the mad stampede out the door.
And where was the crowd going to in such a rush?
Down the street to the bar with the Happy Hour that ends at 7 PM of course.
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