Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The drinkdrank Interview: Mike Proctor of the Lionheart Pub

You may have picked up on this, but I want to officially state it:

The Lionheart is frickin' awesome.

I'm planning on doing a full scale post on the bar itself, but I wanted to showcase just one of the many reasons why I love this place. Mike Proctor has been working in bars around Albany for the past twelve years—ten of which have been behind the bar at the Lionheart. Along with being a great barman, Mike is also responsible, not only for slinging beer, but also figuring out what needs to be slung. He's in charge of keeping thirty-two taps flowing with the best craft beer available; and he does a damn good job of it. Saison Dupont, Dogfish Head World Wide Stout and Pretty Things Fluffy White Rabbits are just a few of the beers I've had the pleasure of quaffing, due to Mr. Proctor's diligence. Mike was kind enough to sit down with me, and give an insight into the retail end of the craft beer biz. Here's how it went:

Have you always been into beer, or does it just come with the bar tending territory?

Yeah, during college I drank plenty of swill and garbage like the vast majority of people. I've always been the type that preferred variety and try to find different things... There's that and more than likely, a healthy amount of boredom that got me drinking other beers. You start with, ya' know, Bad Frog and a bunch of other horrible things... Slowly but surely you wind your way up—at that point it was with Sierra Nevada and Sam Adams, which were just starting to pick up in the mid to late nineties.

So, how do you decide on the beer for the Lionheart?

I look at two things, mainly—I look seasons and I also look for role players. Here, about eight to ten taps rotate through out the year. I try to have, say at Christmas time, a spiced ale. I also like to have something hoppy on tap, that's a little bit bigger—your Double IPAs, or something you'd classify as an Imperial style. Something hoppy, something malty. Invariably, no matter what time of year, someone is going to ask for something dark and black—even if it's in July.

You also have to look at what breweries are up and coming. Who's hot, who's not, and what you can pick out to distinguish yourself from the other business in town. What happens when you start to look around at other bars around town, is that you see a lot of the same draughts—it's gotten a lot better, but there's still a cookie-cutter, tap-line stamp that you can see throughout town.

What your most popular craft beer?

Import, it's Guinness. Craft—if you want to argue it—would be Blue Moon. If not, it would probably be our Sam [Adams] Seasonal.

What surprised you as a beer you thought was going to do really well, but ended up flopping?

I put on, at the same time, Rogue Dead Guy—which is still on and still a solid performer, every week—and Red Seal Pale Ale. I really liked that beer, and I still do. I thought, "Wow! How can this miss?" I was more worried about the Rogue—it's got a cool tap handle and all—but I didn't guess at the time, that it would have as much celebrity as it did when I put it on. The Red Seal just stayed there. I really thought it would do better. It just goes to show you one of the unfortunate things, in any business, you can take a product, that's well made, deserving of praise, adequately priced—just an all-around nice, solid product, and there's no guarantee that it will do well. Someone working really hard on it, won't make a difference in the end game, unfortunately. (laughs)

What have you really wanted to get in, but can't?

Pliny. It's in Pennsylvania—Philadelphia—in limited spots. But there's always some beers that I looked at as a challenge to get in. Can I get? Can I get it? How can I finagle it? There's the horse trading part of it that makes it fun. This past year, I was able to check off one of those boxes. I was able to get Dogfish Head World Wide Stout on tap. It's released in lots, twice throughout the year—in kind of a difficult way— and it's not always available. A lot of the stuff that you want to get, means setting up your supply chain, your distributors... A month ago, I finally got a bottle of Sam Adams Utopias. That took—I don't know—eight years for me to get a hold of. I'd been asking for it, consistently, might I add, (laughs) to no avail until this year. Some of it is timing, some of it's getting to know the right people from the brewery—who'll say, "You're the kind of account—the kind of person—we want to sell this to. You won't screw it up or sell it as something it's not."

You mentioned before, hoppy beers and Imperial styles. How do you see those trends affecting your business?

One of the tough parts about a lot of those beer is that they are self-limiting. Stone Brewery is best known for Arrogant Bastard, which is a good beer, I like Stone; but it's seven percent, you can only have so many before you start to feel it. They make other beers that are within the five to five-point-five range. But that one that gets all the attention... With regards to higher ABV, I think there's a little bit of sexiness there. There's a little bit of a challenge. A brewery can say, "We got it this high." People always like to see things go up, not necessarily go down—there might be a human factor in there.

As near as I can tell, you're starting to see an trending down with the big hop bombs. That probably started about two years ago. You started to see stuff peak out—oddly enough when the hop shortage started. Look at any American style—the Harpoon Brewery always does this—I taste it and, it's good—a little too hoppy for the style, but that's just their way of making it their own. It's just a result of the American craft beer palate. 

As far as affecting the business, it gives us more variety. It gives us more options to pick from. Before it was just IPAs and pale ales then all of a sudden you had this, kind-of-cousin to both of them.

Why do you think that session beers and session drinking has not become more popular in the US?

America already has it's session beer—Coors Light and it's Bud Light. Light beers in general are America's way of re-branding the idea of session beers. Light, refreshing beers, that people can have more than three or four, and not worry that they'll be okay the next day. The argument of course, about session beers is: should you stick to the classic style? Transpose the English style and have that apply over here.... There's always a big thing about styles in general—How you should stay true to them, why they're there, and the whole idea of consistency, knowing what to expect and having industry standards. But I think they might be taking them a little too literally. You might be looking at a nice big green tree, but you're missing the forest. Some people don't want to hear it because they, for the lack of a better word, have this prejudice against Bud/Miller/Coors. I know, I get that. That doesn't mean what they are doing, they are not doing well.

What are you drinking at home?

Ya' know I had some Victory Sunrise, last night that I think is really, really good. It's really nicely balanced. I picked up a Sierra Nevada Beer Camp sampler pack, which is a little pricey, but so far it's been worth it. They've got some really nice stuff in there. I've got some Bellhaven cans in the fridge—just their regular ale. I found some Lefthand Oktoberfest bottles, which are excellent. We'll see how they stood-up, since I forgot about them. Ya' dig around in your boxes and all of a sudden you find a bottle. "Oh, yeah, I forgot about that!" You wonder if it's any good, and of course there's only one way to find out.

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