In October, just after we returned from vacation, I dropped into Pints&union early one evening for a beer with my old pals Steve Crull and Terry Hollen.
I was delighted to find numerous friends and acquaintances enjoying their beers, too: Fuller’s ESB, Paulaner Hefe-Weizen, Pilsner Urquell, St. Georgenbrau Keller Bier, and many others. They’re the type of “better beers” I’ve spent most of my adult life advocating, and the ones I drink myself. They’re my metaphorical and philosophical bread and butter, and that’s precisely the way I’ve always tried to sell them.
It’s been a tough year for many indie businesses in downtown New Albany, with interminable street and bridge repair projects constantly disrupting commerce, and yet through it all the fundamental laws of hospitality still apply. As the Irish Rover reminds us, a pub is a poor man’s university. It’s a place that promotes communion, and provides refuge from the prevailing palaver.
But as with life itself, absolutely none of it can be taken for granted. As the years fly past, the underlying foundation of our daily lives becomes ever more important. In the end, all we can do is try our level best to pass along the principles and useful knowledge we’ve gleaned—not in a heavy-handed or overbearing way, but in a spirit of mutual acknowledgement that learning and experience are worth the effort required to attain them.
There’ll always be people seeking such wisdom, and speaking only for myself, I’ve always tried to be accommodating, and to share what I know about beer with others. The object is to broaden interest, and help others develop the tools to make choices.
Returning home from the pub on the evening in question, I posted these words on Facebook: “Loved seeing y’all on Thursday evening. Thanks for stopping in. I certainly appreciate you.” And yes, I was truly grateful for this unplanned interlude, which reinforced all the reasons why my 41 years in beer (link) have been so uniformly wonderful.
But one must always be prepared to accept the bad with the good, and as such, I regret to inform readers that after five years of service my position at Pint&union as beer director has been eliminated, effective Friday 10 November, which means my employment at the pub is coming to an end.
Granted, this may come as a surprise to those New Albanians who, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, have continued to insist that I’ve been the owner of Pints&union all along.
No, not exactly. Joe Phillips and his wife Regina have been the owners of Pints&union from the start, and for the past five years, I’ve been an at-will employee, as charged with devising and maintaining a unique beer program, one purposefully differing from the contemporary norm.
Because: If everyone else is doing beer the same way, there’s no remaining creativity to be squeezed from it. Copycats are utter crap. Why not be a unique one-off, and have your own market entirely to yourself?
Of course, the very idea of a beer “program” will baffle some, even if it differs quite little from the methodology of a chef devising the food menu best suited to individual establishments and their varying aims and circumstances. In short, it surprises no one that bills of fare at Vietnam Kitchen, Jeff Ruby’s and Vincenzo’s are gloriously disparate.
Granted, most diners understand the rudiments of culinary diversity; sadly, far fewer beer drinkers ever consider their beverage apart from its idiotically icy temperature when served, which explains why there was a critical need for an American beer and brewing revolution in the first place.
Hence my career in beer. In my estimation, four decades of involvement reinforces my value as a beer professional, although lately it has come to my attention that beer professionalism isn’t always valued.
My beer program at Pints&union has stressed classic imported and craft beer brands. I’ve sought to restore traditional pub values, and elevated expertise and experience at a time when scattershot ephemerality, ratings aggregation and numbskull crowd-sourcing have combined to make dizzying tap rotation an idiotic default. To my way of thinking (there I go again, mentioning beer thoughts), the frenetic spinning of hamster wheels is capable of pleasing only those with atrophied attention spans, and overall, it devalues the exercise.
To the contrary, I believe in the slow and patient cultivation of brand loyalty, with a guiding intelligence when it comes to selecting beers (especially though not exclusively drafts), according to criteria best able to produce more broadly educated beer drinkers, who in turn will become regular guests.
I believe in minimizing tap rotation so that these guests can choose their favorite beers and stick with them—because why should mass-market lagers like the Silver Bullet be the only beneficiaries of brand/tap loyalty?
I believe that in the main, this core selection of daily drafts should be comprised of lower gravity beers (what some call “session” strength, or generally below 5% abv), ones displaying ample flavor but possessing less alcohol, which means that a guest can have three beers instead of two (for instance) and still be trusted to drive safely home.
(This methodology doesn’t harm the bottom line, either.)
I believe in an accompanying can and bottle selection that intelligently extends the draft range by incorporating as many different beer styles as possible, and itself is a list remaining mostly fixed, providing favorites that guests can return to again and again.
I also believe that nothing about my current approach condemns it to approval by “old white guys” alone.” Youth always must be served (assuming they’re 21 years of age), but it’s a mistake to conclude that young people never drink the same beer twice. I’ve encountered a great many of them who are eager to learn about beer, and see the merits of form and structure.
And, I’ve learned that a principled, consistent “better beer” program can coexist with mass-market lagers, as well as complement almost any kitchen and bar program. Pints&union sells lots of High Life and Paulaner Hefe-Weizen. The latter moves fast, and I’ve long since made my peace with the former, being perfectly content to let those sorts of beers be what and why they are.
I may be departing the pub, but I’m happy to report that my “contrarian” beer program has been an unqualified success. Beer as a whole has perennially been one of two top sellers in terms of gross sales categories at Pints&union, and I very much feel vindicated, watching as regulars come back again and again to drink their favorite beers, and also knowing that our commitment to sense and sensibility is being rewarded with their trust.
Beer appreciation has come full circle, and the traditionalist approach I’ve articulated at Pints&union—building brand loyalty and advocating expertise over amateurism—now must be regarded as the only revolutionary strategy in beer today.
As for the basic difference between the present age and previous days when better beer rose to popularity, back then, we were not compelled to “dumb down” the program in order to succeed. We constantly sought to expland our mandate via instruction. At Pints&union I’ve proven that it can be this way again—and in addition, I believe this approach can be as successful just about anywhere.
In closing, any reporter worth their salt should ask me: If the beer program at Pints&union was such a hit, then why have you (Roger) been let go?
It’s a good question, which I’ll answer by reminding readers of what is meant by “at-will” employment.
“At-will means that an employer can terminate an employee at any time for any reason, except an illegal one, or for no reason without incurring legal liability. Likewise, an employee is free to leave a job at any time for any or no reason with no adverse legal consequences.”
It isn’t my choice to leave, but employers may part with at-will employees as they please, for any reason they please, or none at all. If owners wish to go in a different direction—whatever this means—I fully respect their right to do so. This parting hurts, but it is entirely amicable, seeing as I explicitly agreed to these terms of employment in the first place.
Consequently I’m serene about the whole of my experience at Pints&union, in spite of the pandemic’s disruptive intervention, our sad Common Haus Hall expansion reversal, and the many privations that have resulted from both of these, as well as difficult local conditions in downtown New Albany. The stress and sacrifice required to deal with these challenges obviously fell to Joe first and foremost, and continues to do so.
I’m very grateful to have been given the marvelous chance to prove that the fundamental things DO still apply as beer drinking times go by, in spite of what we’re usually told by various poorly informed social media influencers, bandwagon jumpers and plain dunderheads.
What kept me inspired throughout, amid good times and bad, is the question lying at the heart of this experiment: Can older-school beer values still find an audience?
The answer is an emphatic “yes,” and while I remain wary (and weary) of a planet insistent on dumbing down, I’m leaving Pints&union quite secure in the knowledge that a future for principled beer appreciation still does exists.
The dimension of my next beer biz adventure is a coin toss, but I feel strongly that something good will happen. I’ve been advocating for better beer since 1982, and it’s too late to stop now—and so any and all employment leads are cheerfully appreciated.
Thanks most of all to our guests, to each and every one of you who’ve made me scramble to keep our shelves stocked and the kegs tapped. As Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds said to the team’s fans just the other day after his contract was not renewed: “It couldn’t have happened without all of you.”
Very, very true. How many beer adventures are left? Let’s find out.