The TV Question

Draft Picks by | Feb 2013 | Issue #73

When John Holl goes to his favorite bar in Jersey City, N.J., it’s rarely to catch a game. On a recent Friday afternoon at Barcade, the screen on the lone television set was black. It’s just the way Holl, a frequent patron and the author of several books on craft beer, likes it.

“Bars are meant to be social, and too often we get sucked into watching the flickering screen just because it’s on,” says Holl. “If I wanted to zone out mindlessly, I’d just stay at home.”

Many bar owners and managers say the decision whether or not to have a television in their beer-centric business is a highly conscious one. When Scott Cooper opened Meadhall in Cambridge, Mass., in 2011, several people involved in the project told him he needed to put televisions somewhere above his 100-plus taplines in the modern, industrial space. Cooper resisted, keeping the main, downstairs bar TV-free, instead putting three TV’s upstairs in the lounge area.

“The reality is, we don’t miss it,” says Cooper. “The beer culture is really kind of an inclusive culture. You come here after work with your friends, coworkers. Maybe you’re solo and you want to hang at the bar and strike up a conversation with someone next to you.”

But sometimes patrons want to focus on something on the screen. Bob O’Guin, owner of Common Ground in Allston, Mass., uses his four televisions to show Red Sox and Patriots games, among others. During big events like the Super Bowl, he rolls out a giant screen to a packed house sipping on Sierra Nevada Torpedo and lagers from nearby Jack’s Abby Brewing. O’Guin says the televisions can also serve a social purpose.

“You have individuals who take a few minutes to warm up and strike up a conversation,” says O’Guin. “A TV is a good thing to get people going.”

Common Ground may air the big games, but it’s not a sports bar; sports bars have been slower in coming around to the craft beer trend. Cleveland’s Winking Lizard chain of bars is an exception to that rule. Launched as a sports bar chain in 1983, the restaurants still have a sports bar feel, with large tables full of college football fans soaking up Saturday afternoon games during the fall. Two years after opening, Winking Lizard began their “World Tour of Beers” program. They’ve since added American craft options, many of them local, to a beer menu with over 100 selections.

“It is our challenge every day to broaden people’s horizons,” says John Lane, vice president of operations for Winking Lizard and the chain’s beer buyer, before adding, “The most important thing is to maintain some balance.”

Lane says about one in three draft beers Winking Lizard serves are light beers, down from one in two just two years ago. Those numbers point to a growing overlap between sports fans and craft beer drinkers.

While Winking Lizard is a sports bar-cum-beer bar, Max’s Taphouse, in Baltimore, Md., is its inverse. Max’s boasts 140 rotating taps, five casks and over 1,200 bottles. It also has more than 18 TVs, and game days are their busiest.

When Ron Furman took over Max’s 25 years ago, “we wanted to get people to start appreciating the finer beers in life,” he says. “Most of the population didn’t even know about craft brew—it was a Budweiser world, a Miller world, a Coors Light world. Guinness was a big import. So we used those televisions and sports to draw them in. And while they were there, subliminally, they saw all these other beers, and they started trying them and they found out they liked them.”

From sports fans who’ve discovered they like craft beer to purists who prefer pixel-free bars, the options are certainly becoming more varied.