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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Time for Brewpubs to Step it Up

My wife and I came to Florida this week to meet old friends, spend time on the ocean and see St. Augustine and Jacksonville. As usual, I was on the lookout for good beers, wines and spirits, with an eye towards finding a candidate for a Weekend Watering Hole or Tuesday Tasting spot on this blog. For a moment I thought we might have found one in the River City Brewing Co., but the experience was a reminder that it takes hard work and dedication to run a good brewpub.

River City has tons going for it. It sits along the St. John's River not far from the home of the Jacksonville Jaguars and local arts and entertainment venues. It has a million dollar view of the river and city skyline, plus a marina for boaters. River City is in an attractive building, with a taproom, dining room and facilities for banquets. There was a wedding reception being held at the location on the day we visited. We arrived just before the start of happy hour, where River City offers $2 pints of craft brew. It should have all added up to a great experience.

So what could be wrong? It appears that River City, which was founded in 1993, suffers from what I believe is a problem at as many as 25 percent of the brewpubs across America. The days of announcing "we brew our own beer" and having people turn up because of the novelty factor are long gone. River City felt like a place riding on past success and its location. When we walked into the taproom we were hit by a stale air odor. No one came to our table and it took a couple of minutes for the bartender to get to us when we came to the bar, even though only a few others were in the place. The salsa we ordered arrived with mostly small broken pieces of bottom-of-the-bag chips. The Riptide Porter and Jag Light we tasted were just OK, not crisp or fresh like you should expect from a brewpub. In short, River City Brewing gave us no reason to hang out or come back on future visits.

It's important to note that not everyone coming through the door of a brewpub is going to be a beer geek. On this trip to River City, I was out numbered 3 to 1, so the food, service and atmosphere has to carry the day with the rest of the group. It is a bit embarrassing to bring friends into a brewpub and have a poor experience.

River City is not alone in my recent experience. I had similar types of mediocre brewpub journeys to spots in Morgantown, W.Va., and Syracuse, N.Y., in the last few months. Where is the passion to make great beer and serve it in a friendly and welcoming environment? The investment to get one of these places up and running is huge, but it takes an equally high investment in daily energy and commitment to deliver a great experience for everyone who walks through the door.

It's time for brewpub operators across the country to take a closer look at everything from the cleanliness of their restaurants to the training of their staffs. The failure rate of restaurants is traditionally quite high. With a limited number of brewpubs in most cities, it is important for beer fans that they beat the odds. I'm hopeful that every brewpub -- including River City -- steps it up and meets the challenge.

1 comment:

Stephen Beaumont said...

Here, here, Rick. The key to the future growth of the craft-brewed beer market lies much more in the conversion of existing mainstream beer drinkers and less in the maintenance of existing craft beer aficionados, although the latter can hardly be ignored, of course. Brewpubs and beer bars and beer cuisine restaurants will do this by being experiential places, where beer is combined with other elements -- setting, food, ambiance, entertainment, etc. -- rather than just left to stand on its own.