Beers with a Stoic: On Hop Atomica, brewery taproom expectations and generation gaps

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Long ago and faraway, it was explained to me — again and again — that responsible (read: profit-seeking) restaurants and bars simply could not afford to ignore the will of the people by refraining from stocking mass-market items like Miller Lite and Diet Coke (as well as some sort of vaguely chicken-like nuggets for the kids).

I’d be told: Look, it’s all well and good to specialize in better beer, and institute a Lite Free Zone, and have the media slobber over you, and update the Sportstime Pizza menu only once per decade, whether it needed changing or not.

Just face it, Roger, you’re a niche kind of guy, while the rest of must try to appeal to everyone. We have to please them, and not openly annoy and offend them the way you always do, or they’ll spend their money elsewhere and we can’t pay the electricity bill. 

I usually found these rejoinders to be both highly flattering and remarkably flaccid (not to mention that Sportstime Pizza always carried Diet Coke, and the NABC Pizzeria still does).

Anyone who has worked in the service sector for as little as ten minutes knows that the most exhausted of all business axioms is “the customer is always right,” which contains many more holes than the typical putt-putt golf course, and is best remixed with a pinch of candor to read this way: The customer periodically is right, often purely by accident.

In fact, in my assessment of recent history, the decline of American civilization can be traced to 1974 — and no, President Nixon’s resignation that summer was only a coincidence, because it was the same year when Burger King kicked off a new advertising campaign.

Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce. Special orders don’t upset us. All we ask is that you let us serve it your way.

It’s been all downhill for the USA ever since. Seriously? The customer’s way?

But Burger King went and said it, and the genie escaped from the bottle. A half-century later we’re still trying in vain to stuff him back into captivity.

Those various tyrannies of boilerplate hospitality aside, there certainly is a difference between expectations and amenities between, say, a dive bar reheating frozen hot pockets in a microwave, and a Michelin-starred white tablecloth eatery.

There are services rendered at higher-end restaurants that are neither expected nor necessary at lower-level establishments. It’s the way of the world, and in large measure consumers possessed of bare minimum literacy (guffaw) can find all the information required to make intelligent choices even though an ineradicable element of “let the buyer beware” will always present during any transaction.

From both management’s and the consumer’s perspective, the daily trick is aligning expectations with good-faith efforts to meet them.

At a Chinese restaurant, I expect there’ll be soy sauce, and from a burger-oriented food truck, mustard. These condiment examples are relatively simple even if there’ll always be a patron out there prepared to argue (with forehead veins bulging) about the precise brand of ketchup, in precisely the same way I once berated establishments for disregarding the sort of beer I wanted to drink.

However, it gets harder. For instance, must a local brewpub comprised of a small brewery and kitchen offer Miller Lite because the spouse of an IPA drinker might desire it on those two occasions a year when they stop by, or is the in-house brewery’s low-gravity golden ale sufficient?

Doesn’t the mere presence of Miller Lite jarringly contradict the entire purpose of small-scale brewing? Ah, they’d say — we have no choice; after all, the customer’s always …

During the early period of my Bank Street Brewhouse co-ownership, we began by offering menu items perhaps best described as befitting a “gastropub” (a word I genuinely despise, but it conveys the proper meaning), alongside our own house-brewed beers, a small selection of cocktails and bourbon, and local wines from Huber, Turtle Run and a couple of other Indiana wineries.

It was a fine, albeit compact roster. We didn’t have a soda gun fountain system, and stocked canned and bottled “craft” soft drinks instead — and in the beginning, Diet Coke was not among them.

A substantial number of guests accepted our beers and understood what we were trying to do with the remainder of the beverage selection, although there were the inevitable requests for mass-market, beer-scented pet shampoo, which seemed to escalate along with our customer count.

But I was gobsmacked by the sheer vehemence greeting the absence of fountain Diet Coke, free refills of it, soda straws to suck it down, and “good” wine; after all (as I was lectured multiple times), local wine is uniformly sweet and awful, and folks coming to a brewery-owned gastropub to drink wine demanded better, or they just couldn’t handle it.

Oh, it’s a brewery! Can I get a Chardonnay?

When I responded that local wineries were producing dry and food-friendly wines, too, because I’d visited them, spoken with them and tasted their options myself prior to committing to purchasing them, back came the death glares threatening to bore holes in my skull.

How could a lowly beer guy like me judge wine? It was terror, not terroir.

Yes, it’s complicated.

The reason for this lengthy windup is LEO Weekly’s recent story about the advent of a “new” brewery in Germantown: Hop Atomica. The reason I’m bracketing “new” is because Hop Atomica isn’t, having originated in Savannah, Georgia in 2020. It was there that two Louisvillians (one a native of Savannah) patronized the brewery and resolved to transfer its utter uniqueness to Kentucky.

(Which means it’s no longer unique, but I’ll stick to the narrative.)

The text: “Locals Paul Berrier and Kenneth Suchower have brought the Savannah, GA-based brand to Louisville and put their own unique spin on things.”

I’ll give LEO credit for trying to square “local” and “unique,” and I struggled to keep my mouth shut — and failed miserably, like always.

A legitimate question for discussion, not at all aimed (strictly) at Hop Atomica: Given the creativity of local brewing in Louisville, why are outside ideas necessary? Beyond the free market, and all that. My guess is that bourbon aficionados would not be interested in whiskey from Georgia. What’s different when it comes to beer?

Now, whenever a conventional franchising or chain formula is at play, Louisville’s traditional media outlets enjoy rendering “new” as “new to market,” another grouping of words I loathe, but which yet again is accurate enough.

Louisville’s “adapted” Hop Atomica branch does not appear to represent a conventional franchising arrangement, as the owners evidently licensed the Savannah brewpub’s intellectual property. On the positive side, at least they’re actually brewing in Germantown and not just purchasing wort from Bumfuck Innovations.

Beers with a Stoic: “Pardon the (fermentation) interruption”

And yet my comment stands.

At the end of the day, Hop Atomica is a composite of someone else’s ideas, not the local community’s ideas. It really isn’t a pejorative, notwithstanding my nods and winks. It’s a conceptual statement of fact.

Fair’s fair, and I dine at White Castle occasionally; when I do, the word “locavore” flies out the window. The idea has always been to shift spending to local businesses (and by extension, to local ideas), and not to bash our heads against the wall in pursuit of ideological purity. At the same time, one must be aware of the bigger game’s stakes, and those realities inherent to consumer capitalism’s marketing deceptions, to know what “shift” implies.

While my mantra remains “death to chains” (and franchises), we’re all aware that our consumerist lives in Cookie-Cutter America are largely beyond any semblance of control. We play the hand we’re dealt, all the while looking for loopholes — or at least I do.

To be clear: Hop Atomica Louisville Remix is only a convenient example to illustrate a phenomenon that has nagged at me for decades, to be examined during the remainder of this column, and none of it should be construed as a vicious assault on Hop Atomica or its founders.

I’m sure it’s fine, and I’ve enjoyed my share of beers and meals at Gordon Biersch and Rock Bottom over the years, and tried to make the best of human systems that vex me.

At this point, LEO Weekly having posted, and with having answered, someone else replied to my query: Dylan Greenwood, a stand-up fellow and Falls City’s former brewer, now working at Sig Luscher Brewing in Frankfort, Kentucky.

I’m grateful to Dylan for giving me something to think about, and tying Hop Atomica’s advent to my many past ruminations about consumer expectations and small business obligations.

I had this thought when Hi Wire came to town. I think breweries are closer akin to bars than distilleries these days. Back in the day people liked the experience of drinking at a place that brewed their own beer. Nowadays people treat breweries as their neighborhood pubs. They don’t care if it’s shipped in from out of state, they just want a bar they can take their dogs and kids to and have a decent pint.

Why would people treat breweries as their neighborhood pubs? It’s because the taproom model has come to define breweries. The Gnarly Gnome takes a stab at defining it.

A taproom is a place that serves beer… and mostly beer. Like most of these categories, this gets more and more confusing as breweries keep evolving. It’s not strange these days to find taprooms that have food, a full bar, wine service, etc. If you find yourself in a “bar” that is beer-focused – you are most likely in a taproom.

With all that being said – you’ll quickly notice that a brewery can have a taproom, a brewpub can have a taproom… and there are even standalone taprooms that sell beer made somewhere else – including a wide variety of other breweries in the same city or region.

It wasn’t always this way. In the beginning, quite a few small breweries (think BBC Shelbyville Road, Cumberland Brews and Against the Grain Slugger Field) were brewpubs, combining small breweries with restaurants, and as the Gnome notes, with an overall restaurant feel.

The course of the early microbrewing/craft brewing revolution in America was determined on a state by state basis according to the post-Prohibition legal regimens of each, and as such, it wasn’t always possible to operate a brewery taproom as we’ve come to know them more recently.

Gradually the majority of states have loosened restrictions, heightening ambiguities about breweries, brewpubs and taprooms, but helping small breweries remain operational. This is because the taproom model, while neither a cash cow nor beertopia, enables on-premises pints and takeaway package beer to be sold at their most favorable margin of profit, sometimes with food (the brewery’s own, a kitchen leasing arrangement or from food trucks), and sometimes not.

The wholesaling/middlemen tier is cut out of the equation (and that’s a delightfully utopian ideal). Consequently, see if you can guess whose lobbyists traditionally fight taproom enablement most stridently.

The “taproom model” gradually became the solution to the problem of craft beer’s over-heated expansion, which left many small breweries without shelf space and draft lines to vend their wares out in the wider world.

Instead, while they may not have originally viewed themselves as destinations for the public save as a place to take an occasional tour, many breweries perused their state statute books, contacted legislators, changed laws, bought picnic tables and lots of plastic cups, and began thinking about a shady place with shrubbery to welcome consumers.

And, having done so, consumer expectations changed.

As Dylan wrote, brewery taprooms as social gathering spaces brought people (often younger people) who expected them to be more like pubs or bars, and not just a place where beer is brewed.

Conversely, these more youthful customers — who already have distanced themselves from the authentic craft beer narrative — have tended to eschew the values propagated by their elders, and aren’t exactly picky about the origins of the beer they’re drinking, so long as the amenities they expect are available.

I’m playing the “youth” card on purpose. Dylan surely is right in suggesting that taproom expectations and amenities explain in part why fewer and fewer habitues care where the concepts came from, and this notion bolsters my recent grudging acceptance that the single factor unsettling me the most about the erosion of beer appreciation in the present time is a widening “generation gap” in the world beer, wherein a “spin the wheel” future cadre contrasts with an accompanying “silent majority” comprised mostly of older beer drinkers.

It’s a logical conclusion that I’ve hesitated to make in hopes that I’m wrong, but as my late friend Kevin Richards was fond of saying, it is what it is. The factors motivating us to pursue better beer are not the same as those of today’s youthful demographic. I care about things they don’t, and vice versa.

There’ll be more on this, but another time.

As with all previous “generation gaps,” it’s ridiculous to imagine that these changes in attitude will be reversed. Rather, they’ll mutate into a new normal. Ideas clash; the old ways die, generations to come step forward, and when this happens someone, somewhere will think to consult the philosopher Hegel.

Hegel identified dialectic as the tendency of a notion to pass over into its own negation as the result of conflict between its inherent contradictory aspects.

When it finally comes time for me to consider Hop Atomica’s merits, and I will do so, the scorecard will be marked the same as always: Is there a tasty low-gravity “session” beer available there of the sort I can drink two or three of, and not be debilitated — not over-hopped, or resembling a milkshake, or reminding me of a cake baking experiment gone awry?

As for the other house beers (more power to sample trays, I say), is the lineup balanced, well-executed and drinkable? And can I make these determinations without being forced into a costume for social media selfies? Irrespective of my conclusions, Hop Atomica should perfectly capture the Germantown zeitgeist, and I’ll continue to work my side of the POV street.

Confucius has the takeaway for today.

Old age, believe me, is a good and pleasant thing. It is true you are gently shouldered off the stage, but then you are given such a comfortable front stall as spectator.

Previously:

Beers with a Stoic: Shouldn’t the local beer vanguard be respecting beer?