A Night With Self-Serve Beer

Tir Na Nog becomes the first bar in the city to offer self-serve beer.

By Mark Maurer
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 29, 2010

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Self-serve tap at Tir Na Nog

Should Philadelphians be legally allowed to serve themselves alcohol from the tap at a bar? Tir Na Nog’s new hands-on craze comes with a greater burden of responsibility.

I picture—for PG audiences with an “X” sharpied on the back of their hands—some guy open-mouthed under a slushie machine until he succumbs to brain-freeze. For the 21-plus crowd, it sounds like a damn near mobocracy of incorrigible automatons guzzling booze, the ramifications of which could amount to greater detriment than a headache or departed brain cells.

Self-serve could very well promote anarchic levels of alcohol consumption, but the current system of a digital counter and a waiter’s warning maintains control.

The portable Draft Master, as it’s called, seats up to eight people, typically dispensing Guinness and Danish beer Carlsberg. A 20-ounce Imperial pint costs $6.50. The bar isn’t sweating a return on the investment. In six months, at a rate of two kegs sold per week, the bar expects the $10,000 it spent on Draft Master to be paid in full.

Adorned with artistically carved metal inscribed with the Arth Guinness insignia, the Draft Master is a fancy addition to a bar that’s arguably a league above its classification as Irish pub. Below the round wooden plank is the Draft Master’s chemistry set—two kegs, a glycol unit, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and a gas blender. Irish company Ellickson International—which from its website seems to cater exclusively to drowsy rugby players—manufactured the machine. Ellickson has teamed up with Guiness parent company Diageo to install about 300 in Ireland and so forth.

It’s the first of its kind in America, Tir Na Nog bar manager Ken Merriman claims, though in the past two years select food-and-drink joints in Chicago, Atlanta and other places in Georgia unveiled similar tabletop taps.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board isn’t sure just how many of these will be cropping up statewide, but self-serve is permissible as long as the establishment adheres to the general code’s prohibition of serving to minors and the visibly intoxicated. Bars don’t need a separate license, the Board says.

On a recent Friday, I stopped by to casually drink with my friends at the bar’s sole self-serve table, which sparked tension and competition from onlookers. Points and stares were sent our direction. A gaggle of bros with soccer fever and American flag bandanas fastened around their buzzed heads plotted to overtake our stools, flat-out demanding it to the hostess.

Draft Master is a smash in Ireland, where it has excelled as a social lubricant among ebullient strangers. But it seems to create animosity or ambivalence here. Aside from the conniving, angry bros, no one thought to approach us or join in.

You’d think the waitstaff would be up in arms about Draft Master. After all, if you can serve yourself, you don’t need them, and tips plummet. But curiosity and grapevine gossip have kept the waitstaff’s tip stack alive and well. Waitress Kate Soloff says she talks to patrons even more than usual, in order to explain just how it all works.

To save yourself money, turn to your mathematician friend who can crunch numbers when soused. The digital readout keeping track of how much you’ve imbibed—a decimal figure to the nearest hundredth—equates 1.00 to about 20 ounces. The wait staff rounds up to the nearest pint if your figure is more than halfway to the next whole number. To squeeze out an extra pint, taper off your last brew at .49.

Jason Harris, owner of Keystone Homebrew Supply in Montgomeryville and sponsor of the Philly Beer Geek competition every year, bailed on an invite to see what the fuss was about, decrying the lack of selection on tap.

If Harris had it his way, patrons could call ahead to request an on-tap selection. Harris’ cult picks for self-serve selection during a Philly summer: Troegs Flying Mouflan, Yards Brawler and Sly Fox.

Sure, an old-school beer elitist and Luddite who pines for classier, craftier suds could view this tableside toy as a distraction. But, if self-serve doesn’t put barkeeps out of a job, doesn’t take a bite out of waiters’ tips, and can thrive without prescribing mayhem, then perhaps it could be a neigh-beer-hood boon.

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