Monday, August 19, 2019

Crying Drunk: A Tale of Frozen Beer

[Author's Note: This article was originally written for a journalism class for summer quarter 2019.  Names have not been changed.  For a list of beers currently available at the D&M, click here.  The freezing problem is resolved and the drinks are now flowing freely... huzzah!  A note of interest: my two favorite beers, Cali Creaming vanilla ale and The Patsy coconut rye stout are both on tap as of the time of posting this.]

Crying Drunk:
Dogged by setbacks, the behind-the-scenes woes of a new bar’s operations will help you appreciate your next drink.

The customer has ordered the most popular beer on tap, the mango hefeweizen, and it’s up to J.T. to pour it. He tilts the glass and pulls on the tap. Foam erupts from the spout. J.T. winces; the spout sputters, spewing foam into the glass, onto J.T.’s shirt, and all over the unfinished wooden bar. He keeps the lever held down, waiting for the foam to settle into what might be a drinkable beer. The only other option is a lost sale, one that the Dragon and Meeple can’t currently afford.

For weeks, this has been the state of beer sales at the Dragon and Meeple, and it shows no signs of abating.

When most think of beer sales, and the setbacks that plague them, their minds turn to the acquisition and maintenance of a liquor license. This is certainly one of several hurdles the D&M bar has faced since it opened in March.

“It’s quite a lengthy process in the city of Los Angeles to get an authorization to use a liquor license, because there are two separate processes. The first process is applying to the state, and once the state approves you for the sale, the city places the conditions for which you can sell it,” explains the owner, Chris Buskirk. Seated at the bar, Chris perches on a high chair that seems too small for his heavy frame. One hand is curled around a hard-won glass of pale amber beer. In the center of the wall behind the bar is a massive metal sheet cut into the silhouette of a dragon, backlit by red. Chris wears a pale, coppery goatee that matches the warm colors of his beer and the light behind the bar; his flyaway hair frames his slightly reddened face. When he greets new customers with a smile that makes his small, deep-set blue eyes crinkle, he gives off the air of Clement Clarke Moore’s “jolly old elf.”

From his lookout, Chris watches J.T. wiping down a glass of beer. Beside it rests a pitcher, filled with foam. For every beer J.T. pours, three more go down the drain.

Liquor sales account for about half of Chris’s profits. The Dragon and Meeple is a gaming bar and liquor seems an indispensable facet of its business. But the bar floated for months without any liquor sales at all; the beer and wine liquor license was only approved by the city of Los Angeles two months after the business opened its doors. During those two months, operational costs outpaced profits. Like all restaurants and bars, the Dragon and Meeple experienced growing pains unbeknownst to its customers, who flock here in the evenings to sample any number of the dozen drinks on tap.

Two months of operational costs for a bar that is unable to sell beer was a devastating loss in revenue, but Chris’s struggle wasn’t over yet.

“Another round?” asks J.T., approaching a table.

“Just one more,” answers the customer, holding out an empty pint.

J.T. maintains a smile until he turns. The wince returns as he trudges toward the uncooperative tap.

Behind us, at long wooden tables, small groups bow over elaborate fantasy maps, talking in low voices and occasionally throwing a handful of 20-sided dice. They are unaware of the drama unfolding behind the bar. Half-finished beers stand guard at their tables, foam clinging to the sides of the glass. Patrons nurse their beers over the course of an hour or two, more interested in their games, but most finish two or three pints a session.

Those pints come at a high cost - for the business.

“Every restaurant has to face [problems] from time to time. But ours was particularly difficult in that one of the parts in the cold room that stores the beer was defective and every time-- occasionally, instead of the thermostat stopping the cooling, it would continue to cool indefinitely and freeze the room that should never get frozen. So it turns a cooler, a refrigerator, into a freezer,” explains Chris. He picks at a tray of shrimp and grits as he watches J.T. retrieve the foam pitcher. The second glass pours a little better than the first, but still, another beer goes down the drain.

After J.T. returns from delivering the beer, he wrings out his shirt and begins wiping down the splattered foam on the counter with the sufferance of someone who has had to do this many times before.

J.T. was present for most of the freezing incidents. There were eight, or nine, depending on who you ask. The cold room’s temperature typically sits between 38 and 42 degrees Fahrenheit, but overnight, it would plummet into the teens, freezing the beer in the kegs and preventing its distribution.

“A lot of foamy beers,” explains J.T. as he runs a rag over the countertop. “They were all equally terrible in their pour, which made every beer a hassle."

J.T. speaks about pouring the beer without mentioning the lengths he went to simply to get the lines unfrozen in the first place. A month prior, J.T. arrived at work to find the cold room’s temperature had sunk to 19 degrees Fahrenheit. He propped open the door with a wooden dining chair, revealing a stark interior; the only contents of this vault are the kegs, which squat on the floor and line three of the four walls. They trail flexible plastic tubing, or “lines,” that connect the kegs to the tap on the other side of the wall. When the room froze, these lines hardened into stalagmites. J.T. spent hours scurrying between the store room and a sink behind the bar, bearing a bucket of warm water and a bundle of rags. He swaddled the lines in blue terrycloth, but due to the cold, they instantly froze, and when he attempted to remove the old rags to replace them, they’d crackle like tundra frost breaking under footsteps. Steam ghosted from the rags into the air, and J.T.'s breath came out in puffs as he works to relax the beer lines enough to dispense foamy beer.

“We lost a decent amount of beer. It’s lost in the kegs, because every time the beer froze, as it unfroze, the beer in the lines became foamy, and it would take three times as much beer to pour one sellable glass of beer,” explained Chris.

I asked the other employees their take on the frozen beer. Though none have as great a stake in the business as Chris, everyone had an opinion, and none of them were positive.

The head chef, Rob, summed it up in practical terms: “Not good. Waste of products.”

But the effects of the freezing cooler extended further than that.

One of Buskirk’s managers, A.J. Harris, says that the repeated freezing of the cold room had “an emotional effect” on the business. “ I mean, you can expect things to go wrong, but it's just, it feels like for me personally, that things are going wrong more than normal,” he says, clearly frustrated. Rob is a reticent man and offers a single nod to this comment, which prompts A.J. to continue.

“We get into this idea that things are just gonna go wrong around here, and they're gonna go wrong all the time, and I was in a state where I'm just walking in assuming something has already happened while we weren't in here, you know, because of all the other things that have also gone wrong in this place just in the first, like, month. We had all kinds of problems!” he exclaims, gesticulating wildly. Rob offers another silent nod of agreement.

J.T. sums it up neatly: “The beer froze, and so did my heart. It was difficult; it was not a fun time.”

Entire kegs were lost in the series of freezes that hit the cold room. For this fledgling business, such setbacks were devastating. As a small, independent business owner, Chris is hyper-aware of the statistics against him; according to CNBC, 60 percent of new restaurants shutter within the first year. The Dragon and Meeple is now five months old, but its liquor sales only stabilized last month.

A few weeks after the most recent freezing incident, I ask everyone how much product they think was wasted over the three-month series of failures.

“More than I’m comfortable saying,” replied Chris with a pained smile.

“At least half the cans,” said J.T. “They were pressurized and the cans cracked, so we ended up with a beer lake in the fridge, and a bunch of warped cans.”

“A lot,” says Rob in his usual restrained manner.

“A lot,” echoes A.J.

The Dragon and Meeple has now been open for six months. A delivery of kegs, wheeled in through the front door on dollies, is greeted with enthusiastic cheers by the patrons. The delivery man offers Chris a clipboard, and he signs for the kegs as J.T. rolls them from the bar to the cold room.

The Dragon and Meeple is the last delivery of the day, and the man sits at the bar to order a brown ale. J.T. grabs a glass, tilts it, and pulls on a tap.

The tap, courtesy of the installation company, 21st Draft Systems.

The liquid pours out heavy and uniform.

“If and when we succeed… it'll certainly have been through effort and hard work, because of all these terrible things that have happened,” says A.J.. According to him, it’s been three weeks since a defective solenoid in the cold room was replaced; since then, there have been no new freezing incidents. Still, the staff remains wary.

“It seems to be resolved now. Knock on wood,” says Chris, rapping his knuckles on the bar as J.T. forks over the brown ale. Two fingers of foam crown the glass, the perfect amount. The driver drinks it, tips $2, and then bids everyone good-bye.

The shift change is demure and unremarkable. J.T. confirms with A.J. and Chris that he’s finished, and taps an ID number into a computer behind the bar. A time-stamped ticket prints on receipt tape; J.T. takes it, and then grabs a frosted glass from the cooler below the bar. He reaches up to pull down one of the taps and pours himself a sparkling amber ale. Going around to the other side of the bar, he pulls up a stool beside Chris and settles his beer onto a cardboard coaster.

J.T. typically enjoys a beer or two after work. With Chris’s blessing, he doesn’t pay for them. But he, better than anyone, appreciates the cost of a pint.

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