When it comes to the global pandemic that more or less shut down on-premise beer consumption for a full year in the U.S., there were always going to be casualties. Early coverage of how the COVID-19 pandemic might affect the U.S. beer scene seemed to disproportionately focus on the breweries themselves, and how they might adjust to doing business in a market where taprooms were suddenly out of operation. There’s no doubt that the year was brutal overall for those small breweries in particular—“craft brewers” as defined by the Brewers Association ceded 9% of their volume share of the overall beer market in 2020, making up only 12.3% of the market instead of 13.6% just a year earlier. To watch the craft beer industry actively shrink for the first time in more than a decade was tough for beer fans to witness.
Less publicized, but perhaps even more devastating, however, were the challenges faced by the class of non-brewery businesses we beer geeks once collectively referred to as “beer bars.” Whereas many small breweries were largely dependent upon on-premise sales, the vast majority of beer bars were entirely dependent on them, leaving many businesses at the whim of their own state’s regulations when it came to dealing with the pandemic. Few businesses in the hospitality world would be more adversely affected, in fact—at least your average brewpub or bar and grill could still potentially fill to-go orders for food. For a business where draft beer was the primary draw, the pandemic was uniquely challenging.
And yet, the pandemic wasn’t simply some black swan event that came along and upended the status quo of beer bars that were otherwise thriving businesses. Rather, for many of these institutions—many bars with 20 years of history or more—the pandemic was instead the final nail in the coffin, capping off a stretch in which it had become increasingly difficult to keep the doors open and lights on. A changing beer culture, and the proliferation of small brewery taprooms had already eroded the unique allure once offered by bars such as Colorado’s Falling Rock Tap House, a legendary beer bar and trend-setter that announced its closure this week after more than 24 years in downtown Denver. It’s only natural that fingers are pointed at the ripple effects of the pandemic when it comes to tallying up all the classic beer bars that have closed permanently in the U.S. in the last year, but that doesn’t really tell the whole story. Rather, it increasingly seems like this style of business has become sadly defunct in many markets, made obsolete in the eyes of the very craft beer culture it originally incubated.
And so, for the Falling Rock Tap House and many others, let’s offer a fond farewell to an era: The era of the American “craft beer bar.”
RIP, Falling Rock.
What is a “beer bar”?
The first thing to do here is obviously to define our terms—what are we talking about when we write the words “beer bar”? Every bar has at least a few beer lines, after all, and yet we wouldn’t be describing them all as beer bars. So what does the term mean?
A “beer bar,” for the purposes of this article, is one where craft beer is the primary focus of the drink program, especially in the form of draft beer sales. Typically, this means a notably large number of taps (Falling Rock had 90 draft lines), perhaps an extensive bottle or cellar list, and a passionate crew of staff who act as beer evangelists, able to make suggestions and help a customer find the perfect beer for them. A beer bar may have an in-house restaurant, but the importance of the food is typically understood to be secondary to the beer—the same can be said of its cocktail or wine program. The beer on tap, meanwhile, is ideally a balanced blend of styles that appeal to all sorts of drinkers, often with a focus on rarities or beers otherwise difficult to find in the marketplace.
There are of course plenty of classic beer bars that fit this description, still excelling in their home markets. Chicago still has the likes of The Map Room and Hopleaf. Atlanta has its Brick Store Pub. New York City has TØRST and Blind Tiger, while New Orleans has The Avenue Pub. Thing is, they all seem like immovable institutions, right up until they’re not. Until this week, Denver’s Falling Rock Tap House was part of that same fabled family, a place that seemed like it would persist forever.
The culling of beer bars
Cast your gaze out over the wider beer bar scene, and you start to see all the closures of similar bars where a wide beer selection was always the primary selling point. The stories begin to sound indistinguishable from one another, in fact.
In San Francisco, the legendary Toronado reopened its interior just last week—arguably the most famous beer bar on the West Coast, it’s the kind of old-school place that cares so little for modern innovation and marketing that it hasn’t updated its own Facebook page since 2013 at this point. Its fans are no doubt happy to see the place finally back in operation, after more than a year of intermittent outdoor service. That year, however, proved deadly to the wider Toronado brand, as Toronado locations in both San Diego and Seattle closed down for good in 2020. In Seattle, Toronado had been in operation for about 7 years. In San Diego, the Toronado shut down after 12 years of slinging pints. Both locations were considered fixtures of the local beer scene, but neither could make it work during the pandemic, despite the famous name.
Other West Coast closures tell a similar tale. San Diego’s Tiger Tiger closed at some point during the pandemic after 10 years, saying only on its website that “the future is unwritten.” Oakland’s Beer Revolution and its 50 taps likewise called it quits after a decade, saying that “the current landscape is not conducive to this environment,” which is true on many levels. Hollywood’s pioneering Blue Palms Brewhouse closed after 13 years. On the other side of the country, Syracuse, New York’s beloved The Blue Tusk announced its closure just this week, after 26 years. It’s worth noting that these weren’t new concepts that failed, or inexperienced restaurateurs making their first stab at a fun beer concept. These were well-established, locally beloved tentpoles of the craft beer community.
A bar can only deal with empty stools for so long.
Major beer bar chains likewise shed many locations in the last year, even when those locations had decades of history behind them. Flying Saucer Draught Emporium closed multiple locations, including its bar in Austin, Texas. In Columbia, South Carolina, the local Saucer closed after 16 years, citing the “oversaturated market” that surrounded it. And in Dallas, the Flying Saucer closed at the end of 2020 after a heartbreaking 25 years in business. The Midwestern HopCat beer bar chain was likewise devastated by a sweeping series of closures, which shut down locations in Detroit,St. Louis,Louisville and Chicago.
Still other classic beer bars haven’t specifically closed down, but remain stuck in limbo—a period of stasis that has lasted far longer than anyone would have expected as the pandemic descended upon the U.S. in the spring of 2020. The iconic ChurchKey in Washington, D.C., for instance, is still “temporarily closed” more than a year after it initially shut down, as its ownership seemingly continues to debate the correct time to reopen. Others in this boat include San Diego’s Hamilton’s Tavern, still currently “temporarily closed” after being damaged by a fire last November, or Louisville, Kentucky’s Holy Grale, whose website also describes it as “temporarily closed,” with a promise to be back in “spring 2021.” It’s hard not to note when those dates come and go, without any further acknowledgement—there’s a tacit implication that the more time passes, the less likely the reopenings seem to be.
Beer bars lose their niche
In the summer of 2019, in a time when we all would have scoffed at the idea of losing an entire year to a deadly pandemic, a Charleston, South Carolina beer bar called Craft Conundrum announced it was shutting down for good. Its owners, married couple Richard and Karen Easterby, put out the following statement explaining that in the end, their business simply couldn’t compete with the influx of brewery taprooms that had come to surround them in Charleston:
Craft Conundrum opened around the same time as the Stone Bill was passed in SC. While the owners of Craft Conundrum are nothing but huge supporters of craft beer, the bill hurt business concepts such as theirs by bringing the availability for on premise consumption and wider sales opportunities to the local breweries. With each additional brewery that has opened since early 2014, they have felt the pinch of a percentage of sales lost. Year after year, brewery after new brewery. Breweries are fun and trendy—that’s where Richard and Karen themselves like to imbibe on their off days—so they get it. That said, everyone should know that the Easterbys love and support each and every one of those guys—some of them even got their start with Richard and Karen sampling their brews, and you can see that from the outpouring of love and support on their social media pages today after the announcement. But that shift in patronage from craft beer bars to breweries is a contributor to the decision to close the doors.
This is a story that has played out everywhere, and it’s a threat more existential than the still-onerous restrictions of COVID-19, a more pervasive sign that the time of the “craft beer bar” has simply come and gone in many locales. Because when you get right down to it, our patronage has increasingly shifted away from those old-school establishments, to the constellation of brewery taprooms that surround them. The more taprooms there are, the less often we make it out to the classic beer bar.
The hip vibe of the modern brewery taproom has been difficult for the old-school beer bar to replicate.
I’m as guilty of it as anyone, and it’s not as if there’s something inherently bad or undesirable about brewery taprooms. I probably visit several of them every single week, on average. These brewery taprooms have shaped the outline of modern beer culture for better or worse, however, particularly in the way that they’ve normalized the expectation that many breweries put out a new beer or two every single weekend, which hasn’t exactly been a great thing for quality. On the other hand, they’re also a far more efficient way to directly support local breweries in terms of the percentage of each dollar retained by the company via taproom sales … but those sales may be coming at the cost of the 20-year-old beer bar down the street, which now has a dozen brewery taprooms within a mile or two radius. It’s a double-edged sword, which has seen the beer bars being stung by the very “support local beer” ethos they fostered for decades.
Moreover, some breweries aren’t content with simply running a taproom on the site of their production facility, or opening a satellite location to pour their beer in a new city. Rather, many of them are able to essentially become fully functioning beer bars themselves, with dozens of guest taps pouring beer from out of state or even out of the country, depending on state law. This is what Falling Rock founder Chris Black took special offense to back in 2016, when he penned an open letter criticizing the arrival of an Oskar Blues taproom in Denver that was pouring beer from all over the country. Despite having given Oskar Blues their first ever tap handle in Denver, he was now being expected to compete against what was essentially an Oskar Blues-branded beer bar that mimicked the outline of his own business. This was five years ago, but you have to imagine that this may have been the moment when Black began to conceive of the issue that would finally put the Falling Rock Tap House out of business in 2021. A bunch of new brewery taprooms? That represents one type of challenge for your beer bar. A bunch of taprooms acting like beer bars, on the other hand, couldn’t help but imply that his business had become obsolete.
And perhaps these businesses are indeed obsolete in a practical sense, given that many were founded in an earlier era when craft beer was simply much more difficult to find in the marketplace. Still, I find myself missing some of the things that a great beer bar provides, and that a brewery taproom doesn’t often supply. Chief among these things I miss is variety—a great beer bar could be expected to to possess not just an “array of styles,” as you might find at a single brewery’s taproom, but the sort of true variety you only get from bringing together offerings from many different types of breweries, from disparate regions and brewing traditions. And even at the surviving beer bars, this kind of variety increasingly seems to be threatened, precisely because these businesses likely feel a compulsion to emulate the brewery taprooms they’re competing against, with their narrower focus on new, limited releases in a handful of popular styles. In general, that tends to mean “more IPA, more fruited sours, more pastry stout,” and less of everything else. The casualties tend to be those same styles that always get left behind in such a scenario—the lagers, the rauchbiers, the English-style ales, the imported Belgian abbey ales—once the staples of most classic beer bars, and now all too often consigned to the dustbin of history … or the bottle cooler, instead of the draft lines.
Sadly, this loss of individuality only makes many of the remaining, old-school beer bars seem more disposable in the end. One can hardly blame them for beginning to imitate the brewery taprooms that are crowding them out of the marketplace, but if they give up the few remaining features that differentiate them from their more youthful competition, they risk losing whatever dedicated core of regulars they’ve still retained over the years. I can only imagine that most of us older beer geeks—the people in our mid-30s and older—would prefer that the remaining classic beer bars retain the qualities that made us love them in the first place 15 or 20 years ago, but we may also have to acknowledge that there’s not enough people out there who want the same to justify it. And if we’re not planning on visiting that old favorite more often while we still can, then how much longer is it likely to remain an old favorite?
In the end, there are certain classic beer bars that will surely stand the test of time for as long as their owners choose to keep them in operation. Some simply have loyal, local followings that could see them through any hardship, or cults of personality maintained by ownership or staff. But there are likely just as many that have been quietly struggling in recent years, even as they present an image to the world of being an unchanging bastion of the local beer community. As more of them (hopefully) get reopened following the pandemic, it’s time for us beer geeks to acknowledge the threats that the old-school beer bars now face, and decide whether we want to play an active role in keeping them in business.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.