You’ll recall that it was a warm midsummer’s day in 1987 when I stepped into Sportstime Pizza for the first time to have lunch with my lifelong friend TR, who’d previously reconnoitered the establishment while I was in Europe.
Our experience at this former Noble Roman’s chain-pizza-purveyor-turned-local-independent was positive, and soon I returned for more, with visits increasing in frequency once bottles of Pilsner Urquell turned up on the beer list, a short time later leading me to a new friend, recently arrived from Czechoslovakia.
Then one thing led to another, and a weird and inexplicable time warp occurred, from which I was shaken awake on a chilly February morning in 2018, now seated at the generic conference table of a downtown law firm, scribbling my name on successive sheets of paper to finalize the sale of my one-third share of New Albanian Brewing Company (formerly Sportstime Pizza and Rich O’s Public House) to Amy and Kate, and transforming myself into their former long-term business partners.
What’s more, a glance at my driver’s license confirmed that I had reached the puzzling age of 57. Next door to the law office, New Albany’s ugliest building was gone, and with it Scoreboard Liquors. A few other seminal area stomping grounds turned out to have disappeared, too: Nachand Beverage, Fat Cat Deli & Pub, K & H Café and Bluegrass Brewing Company (St. Matthews), not to mention the Iron Curtain and its accompanying Warsaw Pact.
During those three decades I’d been married, divorced and remarried, and both of my parents passed away. In Europe, many of the breweries and beer pilgrimage sites introduced to us by Michael “Beer Hunter” Jackson had left the scene, and Jackson himself died in 2007.
However, back here in America the number of breweries was exponentially larger than before, grown from a couple hundred to many thousands, including two in New Albany that I’d played a role in creating, with lots more operating in Louisville.
In 2018, finding a good beer in these parts no longer was tantamount to trekking across the scorched Sahara without a camel in search of the random oasis. My own future was suddenly uncertain, and free agency frankly daunting, but in terms of what I’d chosen to do with my life I felt a powerful sense of vindication, and considerable pride at having contributed my own little bit to further the American beer revolution.
NABC was over for me. The dust gradually settled, and as I considered my options for the years to come, it felt almost like a post-binge spate of disorientation.
What the hell had just happened, anyway?
Book II of 40 Years in Beer begins now, picking up the story in the summer of 1992 when unforeseen circumstances of personal health convinced me to make good on all of my prodigious “talk is cheap” pipe dreams about beer biz creation, and finally get down to the nitty gritty of making it happen in reality – or, failing in the attempt, which in statistical terms was an irrefutable possibility (some might say likelihood).
In retrospect, it seems that my whole life had been leading up to this belated epiphany. I consistently displayed a clear pattern of blooming late and learning slowly; now I was being given a choice between Doors 1, 2, and 3, and ever the contrarian, I selected #4 … the stubbornly independent way, and likely the most difficult.
The fact that our ensuing Rich O’s Public House project endured is the only reason many readers know me at all, and I’ll never be able to thank our guests enough for making it happen.
Had I not become motivated to teach the community about better beer — and this assuredly was my core rationalization in 1992; to me it wasn’t a small business at all, but a classroom by another name * — my most plausible course of action would have been skulking back to college to gain teaching credentials suitable for secondary school, and this honestly struck me as a far more desperate, doomed measure than building a career on convincing Lite drinkers to try Trappist Ale.
At least if the Lite drinker rejected the ale, I could drink it myself (and often did). So, what were my expectations when the great fancy pants beer pub launched?
Beats me. I cannot recall having any, and instead merely accepted that if we achieved anything at all, it would take a good long while to get there.
Each day would be a learning experience, because I was all too keenly aware of my comprehensive deficiencies when it came to running a business, beer-based or otherwise, hence my reluctance to openly identify with glib descriptors like “capitalism” or “entrepreneurialism.”
Had the term “influencer” been around during this Pre-Selfie Era, maybe it would have made more sense to me; alas, being influential might have to wait, seeing as one immediate development that I never anticipated was the universally skeptical reaction of my friends, a great many of whom took the position that the sort of pub we wanted to create simply couldn’t be successful in New Albany (interestingly, the more optimistic sorts were nearly all F.O.S.S.I.L.S. club members, who in effect had been enjoying a two-year-long preview of what might be).
It’s true that the inherent mobility of a food truck implies one’s choice of resident municipality, or even an unincorporated area if the customers are there. On the other hand, bricks and mortar residency is taxable as a stationary entity, which is also the only way to get a license to sell alcoholic beverages. Hence the imperative to decide exactly where you’d like to be investing your time and money.
To repeat: Why New Albany, and not (fill in the blank)? Annoyingly, while my friends’ standoffishness came as a mild surprise, it wasn’t like they couldn’t muster supporting evidence.
By 1992 I’d seen plenty enough of New Albany to know that it invariably disappointed me for long periods whenever I returned home from Europe, at least until I could drink my way back into a state of grudging acceptance. As the decade dawned, the city was an appropriately shambolic setting for a dark, depressing Tennessee Williams play, replete with pent-up frustration, dashed hopes and shattered dreams.
It was the kind of place where you could pull up a rickety chair, light a cheap cheroot, listen to the infrastructure rot, then watch as the city’s best and brightest scurried away to find greener pastures.
At least New Albany’s distant past had been brighter. The city was founded in 1813 when a floating band of visiting New Yorkers decided the western side of Silver Creek was a suitable place to exploit, and laid out their grid on a patch of Ohio River flood plain opposite Louisville, with the Knobs (colloquial for “hills”) rising to the west.
We’ve been hemmed in to a tight riverside spot ever since, destined always to play second fiddle to Kentucky’s largest city, but forever unwilling to consider how best we might perform the bit part better.
During the 1800s, New Albany was noted for steamboats, tanneries, plate glass and veneer, although by the advent of the Great Depression these businesses were long finished or quickly fading. The city’s probable modern commercial zenith came just after World War II, yielding to a long decline into civic torpor, and an accompanying identity crisis, tinged by inescapable inferiority complexes, lasting well into the early 2000s.
An amusing and neatly customizable axiom (commonly misattributed to Mark Twain) fits my town perfectly: “When the end of the world comes, I want to be in New Albany) here because it’s always 20 years behind the times.”
Wave upon wave of post-war mayors, sycophants, ward-heelers and self-appointed civic elites, the same people drawn from the same sparsely-educated cohort of car salesmen, real estate agents and wood product peddlers, combined to produce impressively little in the way of imaginative alternatives to decay management.
Slumlords prospered, because apparently they alone bothered glancing at New Albany’s coordinates on those paper road maps of the sort once widely obtainable at Gulf and Marathon gas stations, realizing that vulnerable quad-plex tenants had plenty of routes to hitch rides to their abused and overpriced properties.
When I emerged from high school in 1978, New Albany was conveniently connected to the Louisville metro population center in Kentucky by three interstates and a direct bridge over the Ohio. Granted, the river has been as much of a psychological as physical boundary since antebellum times, when it separated the slaveholding Commonwealth from “free” Indiana, yet these interstates played their intended role in altering the regional development dynamic.
When court-ordered desegregation (read: mandated busing) commenced in Louisville schools circa 1975-76, Southern Indiana’s interstate entry portals suddenly experienced an influx of arrivals from Kentucky, these being the diaspora of those who could immediately afford to relocate and escape busing.
Their numbers only swelled over the ensuing years, pasture became subdivisions, and by the 1990s this new suburban bedroom community in Southern Indiana comprised an ideal demographic (and commensurate income) for any business pursuit that possessed an upscale vibe.
(Hint hint, nudge nudge — recall that Trappist Ale I previously mentioned).
Concurrently, and somewhat grudgingly, New Albany became ever so slightly smarter. As an example, Indiana University Southeast moved from Jeffersonville to New Albany during the 1960s and took up residence amid an attractive, freshly constructed campus on rolling terrain to the north of what was to became the Grant Line Road interchange on I-265.
Sportstime and Rich O’s were located less than a mile away on the south side of the same interchange, and in fact it wasn’t difficult to reach us from almost anywhere in metropolitan Louisville area. Although we never imagined Kentuckians crossing the river in great numbers to visit us, I never completely dismissed the prospect. After all, numerous socio-economic changes already were afoot, so who really knew how it would play out?
Yes, New Albany could perpetually be relied upon to opt for a stubbornly conservative and insular brand of knuckle-dragging ennui, irrespective of political party, and I won’t pretend to have understood every last bit of the socio-economic dynamic back then (or even now), except that my tenure at Scoreboard Liquors thoroughly convinced me there was a market for better beer hereabouts. I knew it because I’d been selling to it.
In turn, I foresaw better beer forming the basis of an upstart pub culture, and from there, a possibility of exerting influence over the overall cause of progress in the neighborhood.
Why not New Albany?
My skeptical friends provided the answer, given that virtually all of them quickly became regulars at Rich O’s.
From the very start, the idea was for us to be a very different beast from our competitors, and to be really good at it. If pizza and barbecue held our guests attention and filled their stomachs while I persuaded them to try a new beer, even better. Many already knew the food; what they didn’t know was the sheer joy of lasagna with Guinness.
A short time after I began working at Rich O’s, I attended an economic development seminar and learned that our chosen business strategy had a name: niche marketing. Who knew? This was all fine and dandy; I merely wanted to be serviceably eclectic, and attract word-of mouth patronage.
But as such concepts go, niche marketing deserves a brief digression, as it became widely referenced during the better beer revolution to come.
During the 1980s, conventional wisdom paralleled the automobile-centric, low common denominator dictates of America’s postwar suburban sprawl. Chain/franchise restaurants sought to possess all four corners of a highly-trafficked intersection, then rely on media-driven saturation advertising to attract customers.
If “big” fast food acted territorially to split the larger pie, I wouldn’t object. I’d rather go small ball, rehabbing the older, undervalued building down the road, embracing a neglected market niche, and be the only one in my segment competing for an admittedly limited audience, albeit it one displaying greater loyalty. Getting 15% of a thousand customers interested me far less than 85% of a hundred.
Furthermore, customers seeking out our beer niche would likely be willing to go out of their way to find it, whether they lived in Indiana, Kentucky or anywhere else. I reasoned that once they knew about us, and grasped we had a comparatively rare product they desired (better beer), there was an improved chance they’d be regular, return visitors.
The catch was that if our chosen niche was to be recognized as a haven for better beer, albeit anchored and abetted by food of proven popularity, we’d have to actively undertake the education of those beer-drinking customers who weren’t yet aware they needed our product.
How could we do this without funds for all the usual, expensive advertising and marketing schemes? No worries, because the most glaringly obvious of potential customer bases already was in existence: The F.O.S.S.I.L.S. homebrewing club (and to a lesser extent members of the L.A.G.E.R.S. club in Louisville).
F.O.S.S.I.L.S. was autonomous, possessing its own activities and agenda – but most of its monthly club meetings took place at our establishment, and this was the way I wanted it, even at the price of working club meetings on Sunday, on our only day off.
Furthermore, if better beer was to coalesce as a broader movement capable of punching above the weight of the liquid itself – and this was another of my goals all along – then a zealous revolutionary vanguard was needed, and that’s precisely what F.O.S.S.I.L.S. became.
The relationship between club and pub was mutually beneficial and self-supporting. F.O.S.S.I.L.S. members were our regulars, and moreover, they inestimably broadened my personal horizons. I made more lasting, cherished friends through the club those first two or three years at the pub than I had the previous decade.
In turn, this social milieu served the side benefit of helping me come to grip with my shyness. It was an unexpected but welcomed side benefit.
As a youngster I suffered from a speech impediment, which was successfully corrected by therapy during my first two years in elementary school. It may well have contributed to a crippling, debilitating shyness, which persisted into adulthood, helping to explain in retrospect why I preferred being alone with my books – and found refuge in writing. I learned early on that when the spoken words just wouldn’t come out, I could still express myself on paper.
Shyness meant that jobs like teaching, bartending and retail package sales became epic existential struggles, but as time passed I slowly began to grasp the usefulness of props like desks, bars and counters, all of which provided barriers that helped me feel safe while trying to speak.
Back bars proved especially helpful, as they were filled with tap handles, glasses and various other objects to move around with my hands in an effort to ease the stress of speaking. Old-timers will recall Johnny Carson’s pencils (and before them, cigarettes).
By the autumn of 1992, I was usually alone waiting tables in the Rich O’s dining room, trying to explain to total strangers why they should drink an imported beer that cost twice as much as Bud while taking care not to spill any of it on them. Gradually I got better at it, and as the months passed, I found that I’d unexpectedly assumed the role of front man (“I’m just a singer in a rock and roll band,” courtesy of the Moody Blues), not so much from choice as necessity, all the while conjuring a bespoke career in beer for myself, one that proved to be utterly non-transferable to any other juke joint in the world.
All this helped me greatly when it came to transcending shyness. However, we must always be careful what we wish for, because upon finding my voice, it occasionally seemed that I’d only swapped one set of problems for another.
Next: Hell, Rog, let’s just build a bar ourselves.
* At this stage I’d yet to visit The Irish Rover, which launched around the same time. The Rover’s menu bore this inscription on its menu: “The pub is the poor man’s university.”