Friday, February 7, 2014

Passing the Bar

This past Monday night I stopped by Albany's newest craft beer destination, the Madison Pour House. This new pub is in the exact location of one of the Northeast's former beer Meccas, Mahar's Public House. Purchased a year or so ago, by BM&T management—a local restaurant group—the location received a full gutting and was re-launched as a beer-focused pub.

I have to say, it looks great, and even though I know it was a compete reno-job, it still retains a cozy, hand-huned charm. It was packed—as was expected for its grand opening—but the service was great, the pub-grub looked good, and their 40 taps, plus another bunch of bottles was impressive.

Is that enough? And by "enough" I don't mean more beer, either.

Is it sufficient in this day and age—and into the future—to simply be a nice place with a big beer selection, especially in a small market?

Albany is a small city. It has a population of just a under 100,000 people in a 21.8 square mile area. So let's impose a few national averages onto our microcosm. Rounding the number of "of age" drinkers in Albany to meet the national average of 70%, drops our pool of possible beer drinkers to to 70,000. Gallop's 2010 poll question "Do you most often drink liquor, wine or beer" puts beer at the top of the list, nationally, at 41%. Using that percentage, moves Albany's beer drinking numbers to 28,700. This number though, assumes all beer, not just craft. Figuring that craft beer holds about 10% of the total U.S. beer market (by sales) today, and assuming sales are similar in Albany to the national level, then of the 28,700 possible beer drinkers, about 2,870 are buying craft beer.

Now, I'll admit math is not my strong point—so don't quote me on any of these numbers—and not everyone drinking craft beer in Albany lives in Albany, but I think that 2,500-ish, plus, craft beer drinkers in this area sounds reasonable.

By my count, there are at least eleven beer-focused bars within the city of Albany (including the soon-to-open World of Beer at Crossgates Mall). To clarify beer-focused, my criteria is:

Any bar with more than eight taps featuring craft beer, excluding brewpubs and generic chain restaurants. Food may be served, as well as liquor.
Using that very scientific approach, it works out to a beer-focused bar for every two-square miles within the city's limits. Dividing those eleven bars among our our earlier population number of about 2,870 craft beer drinkers, totals just about 260 available craft beer buyers per bar.  

Here's where I think it gets hinkey.

It used to be the rank and file bar/restaurant stuck with the major beer brands—with a Sam Adams or Guinness tap to satisfy the "dark beer" drinker. The times they are a changing. A lot of locally owned restaurants and not-necessarily beer-minded bars are are jumping on the craft bad wagon—not to mention the chain restaurants. Although I excluded them earlier, we do need to include them, now. More and more national restaurants are offering extensive selections of great beer. Places like TGI Fridays, Red Lobster and Pizzeria Uno are selling, not just national, but also local craft brands—and quite a bit of them, too. 

Aside from the sheer volume of good beer being sold in not-beer minded establishments, what about the potential "good beer" drinkers themselves? Of the 260 potential patrons per bar, how many of those folks regularly frequent the city's eleven beer-focused bars? And don't forget, the rest of the Capital Region also has number of great beer venues competing with Albany for those punters, as well. 

But, here's where I see the biggest pitfall—all eleven of those bars are buying the same beer from the same five or six vendors. The beer itself is great, As great as the Madison Pour House is, realistically, I struggled to find a draught beer I hadn't already had. The Pour House serves the same beer as the City Beer Hall and the City Beer Hall has the same basic selection as the Lionheart. The themed, or niche beer bars—like the city's German (Wolff's Biergarten), English (the Old English) and Belgian (The Merry Monk) establishments seems to be on to something. I think that's what played into Mahar's success for so long—it's uniqueness. It surely wasn't the service, but Mahars had something—for a very long time—that simply wasn't available anywhere else in Albany, or the Capital Region for that matter. That can't be said about any beer bar in the area anymore. 

Now, before everybody gets all crazy, I'm not seeing the collapse of the beer bar in Albany anytime soon—although there have already been two casualties—Savannah's and the Excelsior Pub (although I have it under good authority that "the Excelsior will rise again") . I'm also not waving the "End is Nigh" banner for the craft beer bubble, or revolution—or whatever you want to call it. I'm just making an observation. The beer-bar-for-craft-beer's sake, might start seeing the squeeze—in Albany—as more of those types of place open—and more will open. 

I suppose my real question is, what's the beer bar saturation point? When will the sponge take no more?

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