40 Years in Beer (Book II, Part 42): Barr built the bar, and the Guinness began pouring

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Barr at his bar; winter of ’92-’93, after we annexed the adjoining suite and installed the strange window.

Previously: 40 Years in Beer (Book II, Part 41): Just a singer in a rock and roll band (1992).

And so it came to pass that during high summer of 1992, I finally clocked in for full-time duty at Rich O’s BBQ. My lifelong friend Barrie “Barr” Ottersbach came with power tools and built the bar, and I swept up his sawdust. We bought an ancient but functional three-tap keg box, cleaned and serviced and painted it, found a source for the needed nitro mix, and scored imperial pint glasses.

A keg of Guinness was tapped, debuting on Tuesday, September 29. It surely was the first one in the history of Floyd County, given that our wholesaler was compelled to learn how to order kegs for the establishment of inventory. Guinness was followed a few weeks later by Carlsberg golden lager; the “third tap” came later.

Guinness on tap was tantamount to our ribbon-cutting ceremony, and soon enough I was zipping down the other side of the roller coaster, round and round, up and down, all the way until 2018.

I’d already become accustomed to well-meaning naysayers informing me that Guinness could never sell in New Albany, so I confiscated a gently used cocktail napkin and calculated otherwise, seeking to quantify my hunch with numbers like those wankers in business school might do.

It began with an estimated total of adults in New Albany, and a guess at how many of them consumed beverage alcohol. How many would drink a black beer from Ireland that didn’t resemble Old Swillwaukee in the slightest? Admittedly, not many, at least yet. Perhaps more out-of-towners would opt for the Black Gold; we cautiously assumed that no one would cross the river from Louisville to drink a pint, even if many eventually did.

However, we had an ace in the hole, right there in plain sight, which precious few of the sidewalk superintendents noticed. For two years the F.O.S.S.I.L.S. homebrewing club had been brewing, drinking, growing and educating. I knew from the start that club members would be the pub’s vanguard, both in terms of patronage and propaganda, and it always was quite likely that they alone would be constituency enough to move beers with sufficient speed through two (and later three) draft lines.

Clearly, if 50 or so customers came in to Rich O’s once or twice a week and drank a pint or two of Guinness each time, a keg would easily deplete every 10-12 days at the absolute worst.

I’ve always pretended to be surprised that the inaugural keg floated in three days flat. It actually didn’t surprise me; I’ve never liked to say “I told you so,” but when the shoe fits, you tip back that mother and drink Stout from it.

When my work officially began at Rich O’s BBQ, the public-house-in-waiting was confined to a mere six tables, four chairs at each, in a single formulaic, carpeted, drop-ceilinged and relentlessly inoffensive small “front” room with floor-to-ceiling front windows offering a stunning vista of … well, mostly the parking lot.

(If Muzak hadn’t already existed to provide an innocuous accompaniment to just such a setting, America’s insurance and real estate professionals, reposing in balsa-festooned strip mall offices from sea to shining sea, would have had to join together and invent it.) 

Beyond our own small expanse of asphalt for vehicle storage, the suburban north side vista was dominated by the Pillsbury baked goods plant, at the time one of New Albany’s biggest employers. Pillsbury’s third shift workers were Sportstime Pizza’s morning breakfast hour regulars. Fortunately the added elevation of the gentle slope where our building was located enabled a line of sight to the wooded Knobs (hills) behind Pillsbury, and on occasion, a genuinely attractive sunset.

Apart from that, we weren’t a pub with much of a view; by necessity, the unique experience had to come from within, conjured by smoke and mirrors. In short, interior design mattered.

The immediate predecessor of Rich O’s was the local branch of the Indiana State Teachers Association. They left behind purely generic décor. During the period of her stewardship of Rich O’s, Amy had touched up the front area nicely, and her customers found it cozy and comfortable. However, our allotted square footage still didn’t much resemble a pub.

Consequently various remodeling projects stopped and started often during the coming years, and the transformations never really ceased, because the objective remained consistent: Incessant, incremental and inexpensive changes (and lots of performance art) to make it seem as if this strip mall were a beer shrine.

To access the dining room at Rich O’s, one entered a modest lobby by means of a standard-issue exterior glass door. The lobby divided the building’s two wings and housed the restrooms. In 1992, Beauty World (hairdressers and a boutique owned by my high school classmate PJ’s family) occupied the south wing, to the right of the entry. Paul Rutherford Public Accountant was situated to the rear of the lobby, in the back of the building, and Rich O’s was to the left. Each tenant had its own glass entry door.

The aforementioned front room at Rich O’s led to two unfinished back rooms via a single passageway, which might have boasted a door at one time. One of the rear rooms was a bit larger than the other. All of it was separated from the kitchen, and hence from Sportstime Pizza, by another narrow shotgun office space, as yet occupied by an insurance agent (he departed in 1993, providing the space for the coffee area and Red Room).

However, when Rich O’s materialized prior to Amy’s involvement, the rear of the insurance agent’s suite already had been annexed and reconfigured into a workers-only corridor, lowering his rent by a few bucks and enabling kitchen access.

Significantly, in all of this only two load-bearing walls existed, neither of which figured into our initial plans for alteration. The rest of the layout exemplified American post-war suburban sprawl-borne interiors design, delineated by 2-by-4s, drywall, chintz, and pre-planned impermanence.

Mulling the available options, and forever hesitant to spend too much money to improve what was rinky-dink by design, we at first considered tearing out the two non-load-bearing interior walls and making one big space from front to back.

However, the best location for situating a small bar was between the two rear rooms, where a rectangle of wood and dry wall could be removed, then refinished, with a keg box for draft beer one on side of the rump, bar stools on the other, and a bar top wedged between them. Because we wanted the bar area to be the sort of place where patrons could hide from the world if desired, we elected to leave the other front-facing wall intact.

This decision proved prescient.

F.O.S.S.I.L.S. meeting in September, 1992. The sign facing out reveals the date Guinness debuted.

Allowing the front-facing wall to stand was the bar-none (pun intended) easiest way to comply with the Indiana Alcoholic Beverage Commission’s myriad stipulations. The ABC, later to be redubbed the ATC (Alcohol & Tobacco Commission), remains the state’s regulatory micromanagement arm, displaying an almost fetishistic regard for the floor plans of licensed beverage establishments. While  learned some of the rules while working at Scoreboard Liquors, the commandments were more numerous as they pertained to on-premise consumption.

The ATC would need to be shown points of entry and exit, public areas versus employees-only places, and the location of storage rooms, offices and even safes (recall these obsolete devices used to protect tactile cash).

The vintage phonebook-like thickness of the ATC’s regulatory playbook is impossible to fathom, much less memorize, although when it comes to doorstops, there are none better. Then as now, there is little choice save for working one’s way through it, one question (and soon-to-be-scolded misapplication) at a time.

From Sportstime Pizza’s inception in 1987, its alcoholic beverage license allowed beer and wine sales only, not liquor, and the building’s ATC floor plan had been redrawn to include Rich O’s on the same license.

In fact, the two business identities were integrated for the most part as one entity from the very start, even if they appeared to be separate from 30,000 feet – or from the building’s immediate exterior. The chuckleheads who’d worked with Rich O’Connell to “open” their own BBQ business at Rich O’s only thought they were independent.

And what of liquor (distilled spirits)? Actually, it was never part of the equation.

Indiana’s post-Prohibition regulatory regime has always viewed beer and wine as combined entities existing over here, with liquor a far more complicated concept situated over there, requiring many added hurdles.

Granted, the twain can and do meet, but not without heavy lifting. “Three-way” licenses as a classification were (and still are) numerically restricted in terms of population, and ones that aren’t being used can be held in escrow by their owners to await spikes in demand, to be resold to the highest bidder, thus removing permits from circulation when they’re needed most.

Consequently, traditional “three way” permits tended to be frightfully expensive, although a great many exceptions have been created in recent years (“riverfront development” permits and the like), which are restricted and cannot be sold or transferred.

Concurrently, “two-way” (beer and wine) permits are limited only by the nearness of churches and schools (with work-arounds for the former), and are altogether easier and less expensive to obtain.

A two-way beer and wine permit is what Noble Roman’s, Sportstime Pizza Inc. and the New Albanian Brewing Company Inc. each have had, and when the brewery came, it had its own portfolio of licenses, each with a roster of cans and cannots. Barring a great regulatory change, which is unlikely given the Indiana legislature’s propensity to append targeted exceptions to the rule rather than re-examine the whole rotten edifice, it probably will always be this way.

We made peace with the madness long ago. It’s a pizzeria, with beer and wine being plenty enough. Need booze? Visit Jack’s, next door.

In 1992, Indiana ATC rules governing licensed floor space were stricter than today. A barroom, where alcoholic beverages were poured, had to be kept physically separate from the family room. Only those 21 years of age or older were allowed in the barroom, while all ages could be together in the family room.

Hence the reason why the wall needed to be left in place at Rich O’s. The existing front room would become family seating, and the emerging barroom appropriate for 21-years-of-age and over, only. At the time, the delineation was so absurd that visiting ATC officers would refer to “sight” lines; under-aged guests seated in our family room weren’t supposed to even see beers being poured.

Once we received a warning from an ATC officer who came in while a man, woman and their months-old baby were seated in the family room. The officer informed me that the underage baby could clearly see the taps at the bar because the swinging doors had been left ajar. I replied that it was unlikely the baby could see past the edge of the stroller in which he was swaddled – and then I shut up.

You wanted to laugh, but couldn’t; these officers possess full police powers and a bit more on top, and can padlock the door at their discretion if they find violations, however insignificant. I’m happy to say that during the intervening decades, the situation has gotten far less absurd. The ATC’s mission hasn’t changed, and the rule book remains a paving stone, but the rules have become far more rational.

To reiterate, our mission was to gradually transform Rich O’s BBQ into a beer-forward haven for the same un-American ideas that people kept telling me were impossible in New Albany; if not as a carbon-copy, Bavarian-style Gäststatte or a British pub, then at least we could carve out a place where pizza and pork sandwiches could be washed down with Salvator Doppelbock and Fuller’s.

The first two checklist items were remodeling the back into usable space, including the addition of a bar, however small, and the acquisition of a keg box. Basically, the bar would be built around it.

Homebrewing club connections quickly yielded the keg box. The Louisville Grain and Extract Research Society (L.A.G.E.R.S.), whose existence predated F.O.S.S.I.L.S. by about a year, held its meetings at The Tollbridge Inn, an alcohol-free restaurant in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood owned by a man named Herb, who was a joyfully opportunistic food service operator of the old-school type, forever ready to take advantage of a temporary (yet favorable) lease situation by virtue of his possessing his own, personal restaurant supply store – a West End warehouse filled to the ceiling with equipment, glasses, cutlery and other items he’d scavenged over the years.

Herb had just the size of keg box we needed, old but requiring only cleaning and basic servicing to get cold, and for the affordable price of $300. Our preferred commercial refrigerant expert Mark had a look, and a wholesaler swapped out the beer lines and hardware. During the years to come, there’d be just one major compressor repair (costing more than the original price), and the keg box lasted well into the early 2000s; when it finally was replaced, the reason was rust that opened small holes in the drip tray area, allowing beer to slowly leak into the insulation, creating an insoluble fruit fly procreation issue.

The former Rich O’s keg box set in my garage for several years, to be used periodically when we had gatherings; finally I gave it away to a F.O.S.S.I.L.S. club member, and as of this writing, I believe it traveled to Iowa when he moved.

At the time, Barrie – my pal since elementary school – was completing his teaching credentials; as of 2024, he’s completing an entire teaching career and will retire soon. His schedule in the summer of ’92 allowed time for him to come to Rich O’s and build the bar. It’s been there ever since, punching above its size, small and mighty.

Somewhere there is a VHS video that documents the work “we” did (know that I served as mere lackey). Most of it appears to have taken place in August. Barrie set up a tripod at the opposite end of the room and set the video camera to shoot a few seconds each hour. The result was comical, with the action obscured by billowing clouds of cigar smoke – it would take another eighteen years before smoking completely left the building – and occasional pizza and bottled beer visitations.

After a couple of weeks of on-and-off labor, everything was roughed in. The keg box was in place. A floor-to-ceiling back bar was bolted in, with a small space behind it for storage. What we hadn’t resolved was sourcing the actual bar top, and at this point a group of early pub regulars rode to the rescue.

They worked at a nationally renowned veneer business in the nearby industrial park, and were allowed to claim mistakes and leftovers from previous projects, among which were found two hunks of veneer-clad hardwood perfect for cutting down to fit our bar top needs.

Either that, or they stole it. All I can do is shrug, and express hope that the statute of limitations has passed by now.

Duly measured and trimmed, the bar top was dropped into place like the final piece of a jigsaw puzzle, and henceforth, beer mugs and elbows had their appropriate resting place. The only part I regret was an impromptu decision to glue the bottom of the bar top to the top of the keg box with Liquid Nails, which was given nary a second thought until those many years later when the old keg box had to be replaced – and the bar laboriously disassembled to extricate it.

Barr’s work finished, I bought lots of cheap corner molding made from pine, stained it, and began resealing the newly exposed drywall cracks. At first, the drop ceiling panels stayed as they were, although I painted the metal support beams dark brown as an accent; it tricked the eye into believing the ceiling was something more than it was. For the time being, although I detested them, the office-grade fluorescent lights stayed, to be gradually supplanted by softer variants.

Of course, we were constantly painting walls. Just don’t ask me to explain the green and lavender shades that emerged. I’d like to say they weren’t my idea, and this might even be true. We weren’t exactly overwhelmed with customers, and yet the days were long, and I’d often set a paint brush aside, rush to a sink to wash my hands, and morph into obsequious wait staff.

You’re right; I’ve never been obsequious.

Like everything else about those beginning days, my course of learning to be a restaurant server was a process of faking it until we made it, and I’m forever grateful to our guests for giving us the necessary time. We got there, eventually.

Next: 40 Years in Beer (Book II, Part 43): Facing the music at Rich O’s in 1992.

George and friend at the newly completed bar; the arrow points to where the Guinness tap was about to be installed.

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