Does self-serve beer mean the end of bartenders? In the past few years, a version of that rhetorical question has popped up in the headlines of articles about this technology-aided barroom trend. The short answer: No, at least not in the near future. Back in 2009, the now-defunct River North sports bar Bull & Bear installed the first self-serve beer taps in the midwest at five of its tables; its sister bar Public House followed two years later with 12 tables featuring built-in taps. In the years since then, a few more local establishments, including Fatpour Tap Works and El Hefe taqueria, have added tabletop taps, and a four-tap self-serve beer wall opened at O’Hare. Bars dedicated to the pour-your-own concept have opened in several other cities—but it wasn’t until this year that Chicago got its first entirely self-serve bar.
Now there are two (three if you count the eight-month-old Red Arrow Tap Room in Elmhurst). The first, Tapster, opened in Wicker Park in March, and just last month Navigator Taproom opened its doors in Logan Square. The technology that they use has been available for much longer, though. The tap systems at both bars come from Pour My Beer, a company based in the north suburbs of Chicago. (It’s the same one used by Fatpour and El Hefe; a company called Table Tap supplied the systems for Bull & Bear, Public House, and Red Arrow Tap Room.) But while going from zero self-serve bars to two in less than six months is a significant jump, bartenders needn’t worry about their jobs quite yet. For one thing, two bars in a city as big as Chicago is fairly insignificant: there are more bars than that in the Chicago Athletic Association alone. And while the bars don’t have to employ people to pour drinks, they do need hosts to explain the concept to customers and handle the financial transactions.
The concept is pretty straightforward: you hand over your credit card (much like opening a tab), get a card with a chip that keeps track of how much beer you’ve poured, and then make your way over to the wall of taps to see what looks appealing. Screens above the taps list what’s being poured at each one, and you can touch the screen to reveal a description of the beer, ABV, and price per ounce. You can pour as much or as little as you like, but to avoid excess foam you have to pull the handle all the way forward and hold your glass at an angle, hosts at both bars informed us. Tapster added that for sanitary reasons you should get a fresh glass for every beer. As you pour, you can see how many ounces you’ve got and the cost for that beer, along with your total. After 32 ounces you’re cut off until you check in with a host, a measure to prevent overserving inebriated patrons.
It turns out that pouring your own beer is fun (at least at first); my friend was so mesmerized by watching her first beer flow into the glass that I had to shut off the tap for her. There are options other than beer as well: both bars offer eight wines and a couple ciders, and Tapster has cold-brew coffee, soda, kombucha, and about a dozen cocktails on tap.
Navigator offers cocktails of the more traditional variety, mixed to order by a human. For most of my visit the bartender was hanging out behind the bar unloading the dishwasher or looking bored; he seemed a little surprised to see me approach. The brief cocktail list keeps things simple, but I was intrigued by a couple of whiskey-based ones served in smoked glasses. The smoked rosemary aroma of the Rail Tie came through so strongly that the lack of the purported hickory smoke in the Nav was surprising; the bartender said that it was probably because he’d mixed the Nav first (the bar has only one shaker so he had to make one drink at a time). Unfortunately both drinks were syrupy-sweet, but the bartender, who came over to ask for feedback, said he’d pass along the criticism to the higher-ups.
I fared better at Tapster, where most of the cocktails are two-ingredient classics like gin and tonic or whiskey and cola, with a few more complex options. I enjoyed a Greyhound that tasted just like fresh grapefruit juice, a fruity blackberry “piscojito” (a mojito made with pisco instead of rum), and a smoky, spicy mezcal-tequila concoction with strawberry- habanero soda.
In addition to lacking servers, both bars lack physical menus. There are large screens on the walls that list what’s on tap in a font (the same at both places, which suggests it’s controlled by Pour My Beer) that’s too small to read while sitting at any of the tables. At Tapster, the screens switched to a baseball game shortly after we arrived, which meant that the only way to see what was available was to touch the small screen above each tap to see the name and description of the beer. It’s a time-consuming way to decide what to drink, and at both bars I found myself wishing for a paper menu. At Tapster it was all the more frustrating because I’d checked out the tap list ahead of time and seen quite a few unusual beers I wanted to try, including Paramour, an oyster gose brewed by Illuminated Brew Works and Parachute restaurant; Whiner Beer’s Scoby-Deux, a cabernet-barrel-aged kombucha beer; and Freedom of ’78, a guava IPA from Half Acre and Short’s Brewing Company. (I found them all, but it was harder than it needed to be.) Navigator has a similar focus on local craft beer but seems to lean toward more mainstream selections. There are some slightly more interesting choices—but out of nearly 40 beers, I had trouble finding more than a few I wanted to try.
At most bars, a few beers to try would be plenty. But a major draw of the pour-your-own concept is the ability to taste as many beers, ciders, and wines as you like without annoying your bartender by asking for endless samples. At both places the beer is a bit more expensive than it would be at your average corner bar; price per ounce varies, but macro brews are about 25 cents per ounce, while craft beer ranges widely, averaging about 50 cents an ounce for all but the highest ABV offerings. That works out to around $4 a pint for Old Style or Miller High Life, or $8 for your average craft beer. The markup is easy to swallow if you’re tasting a few ounces each of five or six beers for the price of a couple full pours. But if you just want a pint of a familiar favorite, you’re better off at a traditional bar.
In some ways the pour-your-own concept is like a buffet for beer (minus the associations with low-quality food). You can try lots of different things on your own time line. There’s no waiting around for a server to notice your empty glass or standing in line at a crowded bar as the overtaxed bartenders slam out drinks. On the flip side, you don’t have someone to tell you about the drinks on offer and bring you your selection while you remain comfortably seated. It’s a different way to drink, and it’s kind of fun. But it’s not likely to replace the traditional bar anytime soon. v
Navigator Taproom 2211 N. Milwaukee, 773-270-1690, navigatortaproom.com
Tapster 2027 W. North, 773-661-2182, tapsterchicago.com
Correction: This article has been amended to reflect which company supplied the tap systems for Bull & Bear, Public House, and Red Arrow Tap Room.