It’s about more than just the beer

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Interior of McSorley’s

My annual January pilgrimage to New York City for a business conference has typically involved visits to renowned craft beer bars to seek out the latest brews from the city’s quality craft brewers and discover beer from new brewers that weren’t around the previous year.

This year I tried to retreat from the never-ending chase of the new and take things a little easier. This decision was substantiated after I began reading Drink Beer, Think Beer, which I took on the trip as I had been asked to review it and I thought down time in New York would be a great opportunity to read it.

One of the arguments author John Holl presents is people have become far too wrapped up in seeking the latest beers, eccentric styles and cutting-edge breweries to the point it’s taking away some of the enjoyment beer should bring. Beer drinking is not all about scooping double dry-hopped beer from the latest cool brewery to emerge in Brooklyn and then bragging about it on Twitter and Instagram. There is more to it than that. The fact is, the beer you are drinking is only one aspect of the overall experience.

With this thought in mind, I ventured into McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village, which has been there since about 1850. I hadn’t been through its doors since my first visit to New York about 20 years ago and from what I can remember, nothing has changed. There was definitely one member of the bar team who was around then and he was extremely entertaining – a true character of the type who gives you myriad reasons to go to a bar rather than buying beer at the supermarket and drinking it at home.

Kung Fu fighting in McSorley’s

He contributed massively to my experience and took it beyond being simply about the beer. Talking of the beer, they only had two options – light and dark. Naturally, I had one of each. They weren’t potential winners of a global beer award but although not particularly memorable by taste, they were served with great theatre. Every ordered beer was dispensed into two separate half-pint glasses at great speed and with an attractive foaming head.

The character barman assured me this was because the place gets so rammed at times they have to dispense it at great speed – apparently two glasses is faster than one. While it sounds plausible, I think it’s more about it looking cool and a point of differentiation from the thousands of other bars in town. The venue also has history to further its appeal and give it some stand-out from the industrial chic of many craft beer bars.

McSorley’s reminds me of U Fleku in Prague, which is the city’s original brewpub and has incredible history dating to 1499. However, this Czech gem has a paucity of options compared with its US counterpart. It has half the amount of choice because it only serves one beer – its dark lager. These are served in great volumes around U Fleku’s multiple dining halls by its team of bartenders, who hold trays of many small glasses of this renowned brew aloft.

One of U Fleku’s numerous dining/drinking halls

I say it’s renowned because that’s the feeling you get when a bar only gives you one beer option. I guess it’s the same with house wine – what foolish operator would offer poor wine? In reality, the beer might actually be rather ordinary but it’s about the overall experience you get from spending time in U Fleku. It provides you with something much richer than simply downing a beer in any old bar.

Clearly what such bars have is the attraction of history. In these craft beer days they have the luxury of not having to draw people in through the offer of a great beer selection. But what all other bars and pubs need to understand is they must give a better overall proposition than simply creating a great beer menu. I’m coming to the conclusion – and my New York trip proved the point – that it’s the combination of service and experience combined with decent beer that will determine success. One without the other is simply not going to cut it in these increasingly tough markets. Easy!

Glynn Davis, editor of Beer Insider

This piece was originally published on Propel Info where Glynn Davis writes a regular Friday opinion piece. Retail Insider would like to thank Propel for allowing the reproduction of this column.