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|To paraphrase (a gentlemen’s form of plagiarizing) a line from the great movie Casablanca, I’m shocked, shocked,
there’s good beer being served here. “Here,” in this case, would be the two most dreaded words for a craft beer
lover- hotel bar. Traditionally just about any hotel bar was to good beer what the Philadelphia Eagles are to winning
the Super Bowl. Yes, I know there are twelve other teams that share the dubious distinction of never having won, but
it’s only justifiable karma to single out the city that infamously booed Santa Claus.
Then seemingly overnight some hotel bars began to expand their beer offerings. For the true Pollyanna it was all
inexplicable. A realist however might see it simply as a self-serving maneuver to cash in on the craft beer revolution
while a scholar from the Conspiracy School of Advanced Cynicism would realize it was part of a brilliant plot to
inebriate traveling investigators who were close to finding out who was really behind the Grassy Knoll.
Regardless of the reason the first meager steps most hotel bars took to accommodate beer lovers was to add Bud
Light to their already impressive three tap lineup of Bud, Bud, and Bud. Then as craft beer sales became too big for
anyone concerned with the bottom line to ignore bar after bar began to add taps to meet the demand. Their answer
was to bring in more great Anheuser-Busch InBev products. If Bud was the King, these beers were at the very least
Princes. And so before you knew it bars in the fanciest hotels to the diviest of dives were pouring Bud Ultra, Bud
Light Lime, Shock Top, Natural, and for the serious connoisseur, Landshark Lager.
Not to be outdone by their most fierce competitor, Coors too sang the siren song of craft beer profits to hotel bars
and management listened. Soon countless more not only carried the already ubiquitous Coors beer but also heeded
the conductor’s call of ‘all aboard’ and signed on for a joyous ride on the Silver Bullet train. By the time the first
engine whistle blew, Coors Light had become the biggest selling beer in the New York Metro area.
Coors also had a most special item waiting in the Silver Bullet’s bar car, their own almost real, close but no cigar craft
beer – Blue Moon. Yes, Coors makes Blue Moon. No, not the one that saw you standing alone, the “unfiltered wheat
ale brewed with Valencia orange peel” one. And you can even get it served with a slice of real orange. It was an
instant hit with connoisseurs of pseudo craft. By comparison,Shock Top was viewed as joke, which on the other hand
was also true of Blue Moon compared to any real craft brew.
It was soon clear that craft beer was more than a passing fad as its sales numbers exploded by double digits yearly
for over a decade while the numbers for mainstream offerings sagged. Hotels from big chains to small entities began
to bring in some real craft for their customers. A few even had a brainstorm – why not serve an array of top level
craft beers that would not only make their guests happy but also bring in local beer geeks. It was a wise business
move especially considering that said geeks would be willing to pay prices of $8 to $10 a glass. It was (and is) a win-
win for all concerned. Except - you knew some problem was coming - many of the bars kept bringing back the same
beers over and over again. It became the never ending attack of the usual suspects. No, not the Keyser Söze kind
but Casablanca’s Captain Renault’s “round up the usual suspects" type. After all, what else but the usual suspects
can you call the likes of Sam Adams Lager, Dogfish 60 Minutes, Sierra Nevada Pale, etc.? They and their brethren
are all excellent beers but craft for me at least means new, different, and exciting. Frankly having my 6,000th pint of
Sierra Pale is a lot of things but exciting isn’t one of them.
A few hotel bars however have moved beyond that to become destination stops for serious beer drinkers. I know of
two just in my local area and since that’s enough data to reach a conclusion about the rest of the country (according
to top political pollsters in the last election) I’m sure there are thousands such hotels out there.
The Hat Tavern is located in the town of Hat. Well, actually it’s in Summit, NJ but they would get more tourists if they
really were in Hat. Anyway, the bar is in the Grand Summit Hotel, an appropriate name for sure. It’s a rather historic
place that traces its immediate ancestry back to the former “New Summit Suburban Hotel” which opened just months
before the 1929 stock market crash or if you prefer, 17 years to the day before the sinking of the Titanic. Over the
years the hotel has been the lodging of choice for many celebrities, notable sports figures, and politicians (at least
those who were unindicted or on parole). The bar of the New Summit Suburban was originally designed to resemble
a stuffy upper crust drawing room. In some of the old pictures I've seen you can almost make out the bar's name on
a gold plaque right above the spittoon. It was something like The Gilded Drawing Room, The Royal Yacht Club, The
Beyond Reproach Gentlemen’s Bar, or the If You Have To Ask About The Price Don’t Come In Pub.
Over the years the hotel itself has been revamped and modernized to the point where it is one of the best in the
area. The same could be said of the current bar. It’s pleasantly chic, with enough warmth and friendly feel to make it
comfortable for anyone. When I originally discovered it the beer list was decent with enough of the usual suspects to
make it a solid backup place to visit for a quick draft. Then it got a bit more serious. The Hat began hosting tap
takeovers, offered beers few other places were able to get, and always seemed to have something new on tap. They
even initiated a Happy Hour from 4 to 7 PM that remains the longest in the county. The credit for all this goes to the
bar's manager Mr. Walter Curtis When I asked Walter what drove him to perform such a magnificent changeover he
simply said “because I love beer.” At the very least he deserves a statue in front of the place.
Another hotel bar that has built itself into a major player in the best in state sweepstakes is a true destination stop for
beer lovers, the Tap Room at the Somerset Hills Hotel in Warren, NJ. It used to be a bar where if you loved beer
you’d be better off ordering wine. It then transformed to a place where if you love beer you go there. And you go
often. Under the direction of beverage manager, Kevin Torpey, certified Cicerone CBS, the Tap Room has survived
being flooded out, months of total reconstruction, ownership changes, and more to remain on just about every
publication’s list of top beer places in the state. How Kevin did it is a story unto itself which fortunately I was able to
chronicle a few years ago in an article called" Bud Not Spoken Here." And for the record, I've already contributed to
the Kevin Torpey Statue Fund.
For any hotel bar or bar in general that wants to become a place for serious beer folk there are five basic things they
should strive to accomplish as I see it. Now I realize some might disagree but be warned. I’m always right. In fact the
one time I thought I was wrong it turned out I was really right.
1. A good beer bar has to have at least twelve to fifteen taps with no more than four pouring Macro lagers, ciders, or
“crafty” offerings. Admittedly that’s a big percentage but I’m a generous guy. After all, there’s got to be some reason
for the people you’re going to make fun of to come there.
2. A good beer bar should have a solid Happy Hour. If the pub’s hour is sixty minutes in length then they may know
how to tell time but they don’t know how to sell beer. An acceptable Happy Hour is 120 minutes; a good one is 180.
The standard Happy Hour discount is a dollar or two off each beer though more and more places are going to ½ off
all drafts. I'd tell you where they are but I can barely get a seat now. The best deal I ever saw was at the former Pizza
Uno Brewpub (yes there was one and only one Uno brewery in the country) along with the JJ Bittings in Woodbridge,
NJ. Both had a 10 cents an ounce deal which they repeated at an "Evening Happy Hour" beginning at 10 PM. It was
short lived but nonetheless memorable.
3. A good beer bar should serve the majority of their offerings in pint glasses. It’s even acceptable (barely) if they
use those fake "pints" that hold 14 ounce ones since that's still better than the 12 and 10 ounce glasses being used
at more and more pubs. If they serve anything in an imperial pint glass they get an extra star but not if its Guinness.
Now before I get even more angry e-mails than usual let me say that “not for Guinness” only refers to the fact that
Guinness should always be served in an imperial pint glass. Ah, let me guess, the last Guinness you had was served
in a Coor’s Light glass. Next time that happens please perform a citizen's arrest on the responsible party. If you
prefer to be more official write the brewery and ask to be deputized. I understand the badge is quite nice.
4. A good beer bar should have a knowledgeable bartender. They don’t have to be a Cicerone or even a regular
reader of BeerNexus (except for my column). However, they should know about each beer being offered and be able
to make suggestions based on a customer’s preferences. And if that preference is a Coor’s Light they should be in
good enough shape to toss the offending individual from the premises.
5. A good beer bar should not only avoid the usual suspects but turn over the unusual suspects often.
Unfortunately when the bean counters in management find that a particular beer sells well they bring it back again
and again and again. Familiarity can breed contempt even in beer
Please note, however, that there are bars that don’t come close to any of these criteria that are great nonetheless.
In fact, if I could pick only one such bar to spend the rest of my life in it would be Rick's Café Américain in, you
guessed it, Casablanca. They don't serve beer but I'd get to drink cocktails with Bogart and Bergman and that's
enough for me...
And to tell the truth, Bogey really doesn’t have to be there.
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