I’ve been to a handful of new bars that are operating under a new method of service: the self-pour bar. The idea being that you have a card or wristband synced up to a credit card and your ID that records what you’ve poured, and charge you when you close out. It’s brilliant on a lot of levels, the main one being low overhead. There are typically two or three people running the entire front of house, checking you in, and then running food. There’s a full kitchen staff, but where you’d typically have servers and bussers and a receptionist, those three front of house folks do it all because they’re not taking orders. You have to come up to the counter to order your food, and again, you’re pouring your own beers.
The other cool part about this is the fact that they’re getting instant feedback on what they’re bringing in. All the taps have meters on them to show the user how much is left, indicating a good beer vs. one that isn’t as popular. But the restaurant also has all the data from the user coming back to them when they close out. I’m not sure if they do this, but they could theoretically look at my activity in there and see that I tried two IPAs before settling on one, and then poured a lager at the end of the night because we were heading home soon and I didn’t want a hangover the next day.
The two places I’ve been to, I absolutely adore. The first being The Wall in Orange, aptly named for their wall of taps. The Wall was a dangerous spot for me. When I lived in Orange, I was walking distance to it. I’d get off work, give some friends a call, and then walk down to the Old Town Circle. Patio seating and killer food, it was one of the only places you’d ever catch me drinking alone at. I got chummy with the staff and they let me in on the kitchen’s favorite secret dish: Elote Fries. So once or twice a week I’d go down and get the fries and a few beers. An employee once told me that they only order a keg of each thing, so once it’s out for the night, it’s out. I think that’s one of the reasons I kept coming back, because I could keep trying beers from different places and have a pretty great plate of Nashville Hot Chicken to go with it, all within walking distance from my apartment. It was my go-to spot if people were in town to visit, or just about any occasion, really.
The second place is in my new/old town of Livermore, Ca. Hops and Sessions is the same concept as before, but I might actually like their food a bit better. I base any place’s kitchen on the quality of their fried chicken sandwich. The Wall had the Nashville hot, and Hops has this great one with pomegranate bacon slaw on top that’s unreal. Also, if you have tater tots on your menu, it’s a +1 on the scale from me. Their beer selection is admittedly not as adventurous as the Wall’s, but that’s because the hazy IPA hasn’t fully penetrated Northern California yet. At any rate, if I’m going out in Livermore, I’m going to Hops at some point that night.
These places are great, but they’re not perfect. I don’t know if this is a common thing, but I believe there’s a lot you can learn about a person from watching them pour a beer. Are they tilting the glass correctly, do they want any head on it, etc. The taps at these places are not perfect, and it makes it look like this is everyone’s first time pouring their own beer. I’ve seen it hundreds of times; tap wristband, tilt glass, pull handle, and then FOAM. So much foam. Half a glass worth of foam. I think that it has something to do with shutting off the valve to the keg so that they can’t be poured at any time, but it’s got to get remedied. I can’t keep walking back to the table with a pint glass that has an inch of beer and three inches of foam because I just wanted to try that beer. It’s mortifying.
The onboarding process could improve, too. They always ask if you’ve been here before and if you want help, but people are dumb and stubborn and think they can figure it out on their own. So they lie and then you see that 40 year old guy rubbing his wrist all over the wall until something turns green. It slows down the process on busy nights for those of us who drink there a lot (read: too much). Which brings me to another issue: it’s a lawless world in the self pour bar. People will cut in front of you and take the last glass of the thing you wanted just because the taps aren’t clearly numbered according to the TV listing the beers above you. Worse than this is the patron that walks down each tap, reading the description of each one carefully, only to choose the Lagunitas they only have available for people with no imagination.
All in all, I think these places are a great idea. It’s a craft beer bar that works for you if you want as little human interaction as possible, with a good selection of constantly rotating beers. It’s like a new bar every week that also serves a killer fried chicken sandwich. 8/10.