The Full Bar - all my pages

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Multi-tap experiment in Philly

Drew Lazor has the dope on City Tap House over at Meal Ticket. This huge new project (3925 Walnut, in the Radian in University City, so older farts beware: this place comes with a built-in college crowd) is running 72 taps, with about a dozen of them doubled macro stuff. The others are craft-dedicated, and broken down like this, according to beer operations guy Andy Farrell (late of Bridgid's):
Farrell is looking at things “from a local level, a regional level and a global level,” he says. About 60 percent of those taps will be dedicated to good-any-time-of-year craft beers — Dogfish 60-Minute IPA is one time-tested example Farrell gives, but also expect American craft and Belgian-and-otherwise standbys — while the remaining 40 percent be used to pour one-off specialty beers, harder-to-find regional selections, offerings from new breweries and so forth. They’ll definitely look local first, though, with attention paid to seasonality. “With the amount of great crafts we have locally, there’s plenty of room for representation for that,” says Farrell. “From both the beverage and kitchen perspective, [we are mindful of] the ‘buy fresh, buy local’ movement.”
And if "standybs" isn't damning with faint praise, I don't know what is. Still...copious beer lists, careful beer care, and private taps in a private dining room all sounds good, and it's great to see more good beer in University City (almost as good as seeing more good beer in the Northeast: thanks for buying the Blue Ox, Scoats!). The food sounds awesome, too. The space looks gorgeous.

Waiting for the "but"? Here it is: but there are little alarm bells going off in my head. I've seen too many overly-tapped places fail in Philly. There is a tradition in this town of keeping the taps in a lower range; possibly related to our one happy liquor-law-legacy, the requirement that taps be cleaned once a week, and that cleaning be logged. Cleaning taps is costly, in labor and in lost beer, and the more taps you have, the more it costs.

Or maybe it's care for freshness. The long-decamped-but-never-forgotten Jim Anderson used a memorable term for the balance between less selection and more freshness: "Small and firm" vs. "big and floppy." I've been in places where there were lots of taps, and they kept them all flowing fast enough to keep them reasonably fresh: Portland, Maine's Great Lost Bear comes to mind, or Max's on Broadway (recently mentioned below) in Baltimore. You have to be scrupulous about cleanliness, you have to cultivate the right crowd, and you have to move the beer when it's been on too long.

Start right up with 60 taps, smack-dab in the middle of a ton of college students? Maybe. Local 44's doing well, though they have fewer taps (and a lot fewer bottles) and they aimed right at the non-student population from the get-go.

Look, I hope this works. Really, I'd be fascinated to see what's going to happen when a multi-multi-tap place succeeds in Philly, because it may boost this already draft-mad city to a whole new level. But Mad Mex already has a ton of taps in U-City, and they're not setting the city's beer scene on fire.

Can you set a high-end beer bar down in the middle of college bar central and make it work without making it sloppy? Maybe, and clearly the Radian is working at keeping the bar high (so to speak). Iron Hill Lancaster is kicking ass right across the street from my dear old alma mammy. It looks like the folks behind City Tap House have the money to stay the course long enough to give it a fair chance. Best of luck; hope to stop in soon (and at Kraftwork and Munk & Nunn and Bruce Nichols' new Headhouse (not quite open yet) many bars! What a wonderful pain, to feel the longing to visit them all.)

One somewhat-related sad note: Tara Nurin notes the closing of Ortlieb's Jazzhaus...and now I'll never get to go. So many missed opportunities in this life; must stop going to the same places all the time.


Uncle Jack said...

HeadHouse is not yet open, so don't rush.

I hate to link to myself, which is rather cheesy, but I haven't seen this anywhere else as yet. City Tap will have a, shall we say, rather auspicious debut to the local scene during Philly Beer Week.

Tim said...

I was just told about this project last night and had the same concerns. Maintaining that amount of taps is a arduous task. Wish them the best of luck though. Seems like drinkers who have just reached legal drinking age are picking up on craft beers more and more.

Post script: I also never got to experience Ortlieb's. :(

Lew Bryson said...

Fear not the cheese, Jack. And yes, I should note HeadHouse is not yet open. Thanks.

sam k said...

Oh you guys...even I've been to the Jazzhaus, and I live three-plus hours away. It's the only place I ever drank Ortlieb's on tap, though at the time it was coming out of Baltimore, and even that brewery's been closed for years.

Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone?

RICH said...

And with Al Paris in the kitchen at this new place, food will be excellent and vibrant.

The Professor said...

I wish them well of course, but _72_ taps? Other than a heartfelt "yipes", my first impression when I walk into a place that has more than a dozen or so is that it smacks more of gimmickry than a real appreciation of the beers.
Maybe it's just me, but I'd rather see 12 or 15 well considered and rotating drafts like the once great OLD BAY of New Brunswick, NJ had back in it's heyday under the guidance of the late and very discerning bar manager, Chris Demitri.

But, whatever...if they can keep all of those faucets running clean and turning over reasonably fast, more power to them. But if they are running a co2/compressed air mix to save money pushing the beers out of all those faucets, that wouldn't bode well...not for the beers anyway. To me that would be a heavy concern.

But again...I _do_ hope they can make it work and I'll be sure to check them out next time I'm in the city.

Lew Bryson said...

Prof, I'd lay very long odds that any serious beer bar was running compressed air, and if these guys are, I'd be shocked. There's a lot more knowledge out there about draft systems -- the Brewers Association has an excellent and extensive free manual -- and there are bars right here in Philly that use all of it. I did a piece on draft tech recently, and the advancements in cleaning are amazing. I've e-mailed with Andy since I posted this, and I'll be going down to have a look.
The thing I wonder about is this: if you've got 12 doubled taps of mainstream beers, in a college neighborhood...are those drinkers going to crowd out the folks that you'll need to drink up the other 48 taps? I'm sure they've considered that, and I'm curious to see what happens.