'Bartender' learns neighbors' capacity for new brews


October 16, 1991|By ROB KASPER

I worked the beer booth at my neighborhood festival last week. It taught me two things.

First, it taught me that a surprising number of folks are willing to venture beyond the mainstream beers of Budweiser, Coors, Miller and Heileman.

Second, working the beer booth taught me that I never want to own a restaurant or bar.

Let's take the first point first. From time to time I think that the campaign to drink different beers has very few followers. Most of the movement, I think, is made up people like me, professional tasters.

It is, after all, my job to regularly visit the city's two brewpubs, Sisson's and Baltimore Brewing Company, and to keep a close watch on the state's other two locally brewed beers, Oxford Class and Wild Goose.

When a new brew hits town, such as the remarkably smooth, canned, yes canned, Guinness Stout, I am there to drink it.

I sit around reading books like "Brewery Adventures" (by Jack Erickson, RedBrick Press $14.95.) that tell you how to spend your summer vacation touring the microbreweries of the American West.

But when pressed, I have to confess that I suspect most folks aren't looking for a story or an adventure when they drink a beer. Instead they want a familiar friend.

So I was surprised at the way the crowd at my neighborhood festival lapped up the special Marzen Beer, an Oktoberfest brew made by the Baltimore Brewing Company.

Of course the crowd had no choice. It was the only beer sold at the one-block long Bolton Hill festival. And the beer was cheap, $1 for a 10-ounce cup.

Yet as quaffer after quaffer complimented the unfamiliar amber brew, I shook my head. While this Marzen beer wasn't a dark, or heavy brew, it was darker and heavier than the popular American beers.

To give you some idea who is winning the beer wars, Budweiser supposedly spills more in one day than all the microbreweries make in a year.

Yet here were people I knew to be Americans, drinking this Oktoberfest brew and loving it. It ran counter to accepted wisdom.

Theo de Groen seemed to be taking all the quaffing and compliments in stride. He is the fellow who brewed the beer. It is one of the five beers he brews and sells at The Baltimore Brewing Company.

When the czar of the neighborhood festival called de Groen and asked him to abandon his brewery and restaurant and spend Saturday afternoon standing in the street selling nonprofit beer, he said yes.

I still don't understand why he said yes. He doesn't even live in the neighborhood. That means he could have wiggled out of festival duty, without suffering wrath of folks he sees every day.

That was what snared me, a combination of neighborhood pride and guilt.

One of the things I've learned about living in this town is the importance of being loyal to your neighborhood. In Baltimore, a person without a neighborhood is like a minister without portfolio, a sandwich without bread, an oyster without a shell. It just doesn't look right.

Similarly, you can call the president of United States names and folks will just shrug. You can rant and rail about the mayor or the governor and life goes on. But if you get on the wrong side of the folks in your neighborhood, buster, you are in deep trouble. People will talk about you. And they won't talk nice.

So when a neighbor called and asked me to work the beer booth, I said I would glady serve.

It wasn't demanding work. I may not have an Arnold Schwarzenegger upper body, but I can pull down a beer tap. And once I stopped dropping full kegs of beer on my foot, the work was not very painful.

What was difficult was putting up with all the unsolicited advice you get when you are in the food and beverage biz, even for a day -- which brings me to my second point.

People sound off. Your cup is too small. Your beer is too expensive. (I set the price at $1 a cup, because I didn't want to test my math skills by making change.) Your location is all wrong. Your booth should be in the middle of the street. No! over by the curb. You need a bigger sign. You need two locations.

I thought it was amazingly nervy, but de Groen told me that is what happens in the restaurant business. People give you all kinds of advice, most of it terrible. What you do, he told me, is, smile and go about your business.

Not me. I want to get even. I want to rub my critics' noses in the suds of the beer booth's success: We sold out.

Which proves to me that if you brew a good beer, people will find it. Even it is the "wrong" color, and your booth is too close to the curb, and your cup is too small.

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