In 2022, the futuristic world we’re living in seems to hide a lot of its problems behind the veneer of consumer choice and convenience. Self-checkout frees shoppers from long lines at the register [and lets stores pay only one employee to monitor six registers at once]! Restaurant robots keep employees safe from hot fryer oil [and don’t demand health insurance]! And though it’s a more benign example, self-serve taprooms similarly promise to “streamline” bar operations while giving patrons the agency to pick and choose their beers. But these pour-your-own-beer joints are not a concept I am ready to embrace, even as they become more inevitable throughout the bar landscape.
The self-serve taproom model has been here in Chicago for at least five years, but it hit other cities earlier, and has since expanded out to pretty much any city where more than two breweries compete for dominance. Anecdotally, I was surprised to find a big new self-serve taproom in my college town of 30,000 people—a city where multiple bars have closed since the start of the pandemic. The new taproom opened in the fall of 2021. So, yes, it’s a trend on the rise.
It works a little differently from place to place, but at most spots, you’re given either a wristband or a plastic card along with a glass and led over to a wall of taps, perhaps as few as a dozen or as many as a hundred. Most are beer taps, but at many establishments you can also dispense your own wine and draft cocktails. Each drink lists its per-ounce price, and with a swipe of your card or a tap of your wristband to unlock the tap, you can pour as little or as much as you want (up to a certain ounce limit) into your glass. At the end of your drinking session, you pay the total bill at the register.
There are a lot of reasons this model might be seen as beneficial to both the business and the customer.
As Kate Bernot has pointed out in the past, the pour-your-own concept lets indecisive drinkers get a little taste of everything without having to flag down a bartender to do it. There’s less waiting in line—I won’t say there’s no wait, because the more popular taps might already be occupied, and perhaps by someone unaccustomed to dispensing their own beer. But generally, you’re free from the whole “placing your order” element of the bar-going experience.
It’s also an opportunity to try a lot of different beers in one trip, if you consider yourself a brewery completionist, or you want to make sure you’ve tasted every type of porter out there to ensure you’re drinking the one you like best.
“It’s a great way to fill out the Untappd check-ins,” notes John Carruthers, referring to the app that calls itself “the social networking platform for craft beer.” When Untappd users try a new beer, they can “check in” that beer on the app, then receive engagement from fellow users and rack up enough check-ins for badges and other forms of recognition. If you’re able to knock out 10 beers in one trip to a self-serve spot, all the better.
For the bars themselves, we can only assume that the pour-your-own model translates to fewer employees per shift. One employee can monitor a lot of self-serve taps simultaneously, and can only pour two, maybe three pints at a time behind the bar (a feat that is glorious to watch). It’s the same amount of bussing, cleaning, and the like, but it means fewer service bottlenecks and fewer overall bill transactions (no “buying a round” when you’re all wearing computer chip bracelets).
Beyond that, there are the intangibles: It’s simply fun and novel for customers to be given the chance to pull on the taps and try to get the perfect amount of head on their pint, like we’re all a bunch of kids playing bartender. But that also leads into the cons...
“Forget the self-serve taps—I’ve been self-serving beer at home for going on two years now,” Kate Bernot tells The Takeout. “I crave seeing and interacting with bartenders more than ever.”
Two years into a pandemic, those words really resonate with me. Bars and taprooms are, after all, a place to gather, and not just with the members of your party. Bartenders represent the sum total of expertise, care, and customer service that make “heading to the bar” a worthwhile activity in the first place. To remove them from the process feels unnecessary, and even unappealing.
Though the tasting notes for each beer are listed on the digital placard above each self-service tap, nothing beats a personalized recommendation from a professional based on what you already like.
“I think people really underestimate how knowledgeable and convivial an experienced bartender or server can be,” Carruthers tells The Takeout. “The journey to that next beer can be half the fun.”
Besides, I’m the first to admit that the per-ounce prices can really take you by surprise in the end. A taste here and there can end up costing just as much as a couple pints at a classic establishment. And for someone with my particular brand of indecision, the infinite choices of a self-serve tap setup isn’t as helpful as a more curated list of offerings. I usually end up kicking myself asking, “Out of all the beers along the wall, why on earth did I go for the piña colada hazy IPA?”
But no matter my own thoughts about the pour-your-own concept, it’s a model that might be here to stay. These establishments have a predictable layout that can map well over vacant industrial buildings and boutique locations alike; they require fewer bartenders per shift; and passively encourage customers to make ultimately more expensive selections. As long as they can continue to convince us they’re trendy, why would these joints ever go away?