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“Buyer beware,” the server says, “the first one is always foamy.”
We were seated in a dark subterranean booth at Meridian Pint in Columbia Heights, receiving instructions on how to pour our own beers from two shiny tap handles installed in the table in front of us.
The directions seemed simple enough: Pull the lever down all the way, tilt the glass ever so slightly to catch the streaming liquid. But it was easier said than done right. True to the disclaimer, my first pint was a frothy disaster. Its substantial head accounted for about two-thirds of the glass.
Had this mess arrived from the bar, we could simply send it back. But this was our own doing. And we were paying for every ounce of that foam. Better let it sit there and settle.
Such are the hazards of self-service, be it at your local filling station—where the errant spray of the nozzle can bleed you upwards of $4 per gallon (plus the added fire-hazard liability)—or at a trendy bar with fancy newfangled pour-your-own-beer technology. There, not only is the price per volume of each mistake substantially higher, but the risk of social embarrassment in front of your peers is also dramatically elevated.
Rather than stand idly by while patrons drain their reputations and wallets simultaneously, the staff at Meridian Pint at least attempts to educate newbies before the drink-o-meter begins clocking their every ounce.
“I’d say most people who would sit down at the table taps without directions would just pour straight foam,” says Sam Fitz, the popular tavern’s beer director. “Then they’re upset.”
Yet even with the staff’s troubleshooting assistance, one friend struggled in vain to pour a semi-decent pint for the duration of the evening. At one point, he became so frustrated that he dipped his hand in the glass to scoop out all the extra foam. “I derived no pleasure from the endeavor,” he tells me later. “In fact, I found it tiresome—the taps, not the company. My mitten move was probably the most fun I had.”
Meridian Pint holds bragging rights as the first D.C. establishment to provide thirsty District brew hounds with the proper facilities to pour their own pints, however frothy they may turn out. The table taps debuted last summer; since then, three other venues have followed suit.
The technology is so new that D.C. alcohol regulations don’t even come close to addressing how to govern self-pouring suds. “It’s not anything I can comment on, because it just hasn’t come up,” says Cynthia Simms, spokeswoman for the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. She likens the phenomenon to the longstanding nightclub practice of bottle service, where patrons can purchase an entire container of liquor, usually at a steep markup, to keep at their private table and pour at will. Otherwise, about the closest thing to boozy self-service in the rules is a provision allowing restaurant patrons to re-cork and take home unfinished bottles of wine, Simms says.
Regulatory limbo and operator error aren’t the only things that can go wrong when you serve your own draft beer. At Meridian Pint, further confusion arose from a technical glitch in the delivery system. On tap that evening were two choices: One of the District’s new beers, DC Brau, described as a hoppy ale, which we were all excited to try; and Scrimshaw, a pilsner with a more subtle hop profile, which garnered a bit less enthusiasm among our particular group of drinkers. Attempting to take the local route, we immediately sensed something was wrong—what we poured had a light color and an inexplicable lack of hops. Eventually, we tried the opposite tap. Paydirt! Our server later informed us that the lines had been mistakenly switched. We paid for that error, too: 4.68 pints of the beer we didn’t want at $28.08.
For the bar, the gimmick seems to have paid off marvelously. “When we opened, I think it was a novelty,” says Fitz. “But at this point, people continue to make reservations. Every weekend and a lot of other days, we have the tables fully booked.” (My recent trips to the popular spot seem to support this; even on a Tuesday night, my friend needed to pounce on a table as the prior group left in order to secure us a seat.)
The table taps’ apparent popularity stands in contrast to the venue’s reputation as a haven for serious craft beer enthusiasts, many of whom would undoubtedly prefer to have their pints poured by a professional rather than muck things up with their own mitts. True aficionados also generally opt for a wider selection than the limited options at the dueling private taps.
Even the venue’s own beer director would rather take a stool over a booth. “Honestly, if I came into the Pint, I would probably sit down at the bar, where I had direct access to 24 different beers,” says Fitz. “But I think for a lot of people they enjoy not having to wait for another beer and having access to beer whenever they want it.”
Manufacturers currently marketing the machines as a way to “get paid for every drop” by cutting down on spillage and freebies might also explain why local venues have so quickly embraced the technology. Atlanta-based Table Tap LLC, for one, pegs the average waste at your typical bar at roughly 20 percent, compared to 0.5 percent with the automated pour-your-own system. Implementing a self-service model, according to the company’s sales pitch on its website, “can eliminate virtually all of the waste involved with operating a draft beer system since every ounce out of the tap is charged directly to the customer.”
In the months since the Pint debuted the self-service model, several other places around town have invested in the table taps, with varying degrees of success.
Chinatown’s swanky sports bar Redline was next, opening up last November with a total of eight booths outfitted with two personal taps each. The selection of mostly mass-market brews would leave the most discerning beer snobs nonplussed; the venue’s thunder was further subdued as patrons quickly found out that self-service came at a substantial premium. Not only would the table taps require some labor before drinking, but it was less expensive to order from the bar. (By comparison, Meridian Pint charges the same rate per pint regardless of stool or booth. It just requires that you imbibe a substantial amount to maintain your perch at the private taps: 12 pints per hour is the minimum on its busiest nights. Which means you probably ought to show up with a reasonably large group—good luck pouring proper pints with just two drinkers downing six per hour each.)
This past spring, Grand Central in Adams Morgan added a new twist to the burgeoning self-service scene, unveiling a pair of table taps on wheels. The innovation, however, quickly took its toll on the physical plant. On my first visit to inspect the things, the hefty new equipment, which one manager described as weighing 550 pounds (that’s without kegs inside), was out of commission, having left some major gashes in the wood flooring from all the moving around. On my return trips over the next several weeks, the table taps seemed routinely neglected, tucked away in a corner off the entrance. The one night that staffers actually wheeled out one of the contraptions, it remained untouched for hours as scores of kickball groups opted for cheap pitchers and flip-cup tables instead.
The latest venue to hop aboard the pour-it-yourself bandwagon is Scion restaurant in Dupont Circle, which unveiled two custom-built five-by-three-foot self-service tables just last week, including one located on its sidewalk cafe overlooking P Street NW. The outdoor taps currently feature two locally sourced varieties: Flying Dog Raging Bitch IPA from Frederick and Port City Optimal Wit from Alexandria, both at $7 per pint.
“It wasn’t like I was trying to jump on a trend or anything like that,” says owner Joanne Liu. “I think it has kind of turned out that way. I just wanted to do something fun for our patio, essentially.”
Liu declines to divulge the exact price tag of her new toys. “It’s a substantial investment,” she says. And one she isn’t expecting to generate a direct return. “In fact, we kind of know that this isn’t something we’re necessarily going to make money off of,” she says. “People are going to sit on this patio and eat and drink no matter what. So it actually takes up revenue space. I could put two tables here.”
Consider it more of a marketing expense than anything. Liu is hoping the gleaming taps will help catch the eyes of passersby otherwise headed to rival beer joints in the neighborhood. “People that like beer and like beer events, they’re going to think of us and say, ‘Let’s go to Scion’ instead of Bier Baron or Pizzeria Paradiso,” she says.
Scion’s brand-spankin’ new machines offer the latest in self-service technology, including a pair of pressure gauges that Liu points to under the hood that are supposedly designed to help keep the levels of foam to a minimum, she says. It’s not a perfect fail-safe, however, which Liu fully demonstrates in pouring her first pint of the day. The foam takes up half the glass.
“That one is pretty awful,” she laughs.
Meridian Pint, 3400 11th St NW, (202) 588-1075
Redline, 707 G St. NW, (202) 347-1248
Grand Central, 2447 18th St. NW, (202) 986-1742
Scion, 2100 P St. NW, (202) 833-8899
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Photos by Darrow Montgomery