Stop Bashing The Yard House – It’s Your Date’s Best Gateway Beer Bar

Classic Yard House Logo

Being a craft beer evangelist is fraught with many dangers.  Wondering if I’ll actually have to dig a pair of Sanz-A-Belt slacks out of the Do Not Go There Drawer is only one of them.  Another is the risk of missing a critical plot twist in Homeland while responding to a friend in need – a friend in a far away, unfamiliar bar.  A friend in need of emergency advice before the bartender loses his or her patience.  I get those texts so often that some of my buddies don’t even bother to type words.  They simply send the name of the bar or send a picture of the tap list (often a daunting challenge to decipher after they’ve already had a couple of starter brews).

A couple weeks ago a good friend was on his way to Kansas City for business and knew he’d have a few hours of free time one evening so he asked me to suggest a good bar.  Not knowing where he’d be staying I set out to look into the local KC craft beer scene by checking out some reviews on RateBeer.  Before long I began reading multiple reviews of the Yard House and, being somewhat familiar with the bar, I was surprised to see so many negative comments.  First things first, I sent my buddy there (though he never made it), then I went back to the reviews.  Some clear patterns emerged.  The more I read, the more I understood the reasons for the complaints but the more I disagreed with them – for the most part.

The Yard House is a moderately large chain.  By my count there are 44 currently open and 8 more on the way.  I’ve been to two of them: Scottsdale, AZ and Pasadena, CA.  As best as I can recall I’ve visited each location 4 or 5 times and I’d happily return for another 4 or 5 sessions.  So why is it that my opinion of the Yard House differs so significantly from that of so many other craft beer fans?   Simple.  They’re all wrong.  That’s usually the case – well, maybe not always (I did say “usually”).

Here’s the thing: The Yard House isn’t a craft beer bar and it doesn’t hold itself out as one.  Unfortunately, many of the people who give it poor reviews do it from the wrong perspective.  They hold it to the same standards as a they would the Toronado Pub in San Francisco, Blind Tiger Ale House in NYC or Map Room in Chicago.  The comparison is unfair.  No Yard House location with its 120+ gleaming taps can match any of those iconic craft beer bars.  Again, it doesn’t try to – doesn’t need to.

Nice Job With Those Pours

Nice Job With Those Pours

The Yard House is more than just beer – and there’s a lot of that.  All of the locations have a similar, though not identical,  industrial design, large casually upscale pub-influenced menu and classic ’70s & ’80s rock.  Who can get enough of REO Speedwagon, Flock of Seagulls & Dexy’s Midnight Runners?  Not me – and I’ve tried.

The star of each space remains the beer.  Most locations have well over 100 taps, usually arranged around a large center island surrounded by a stainless steel bar.  Sleek, clean, industrial, purposeful.  So with over 100 taps what is everybody complaining about? (Well, not everyone complained.   I noticed a Canuck who still hasn’t figured out that Canada is Milwaukee’s largest suburb posted some complimentary remarks).

The truth is that craft beer flows from only a minority of those 100 taps.  It bears repeating: this isn’t a craft beer bar.  When I want to visit a world class craft beer bar in Scottsdale I hit Papago Brewing but when I want to catch a game, listen to some Men Without Hats and have a Bear Republic Racer 5 or Deschutes Black Butte Porter, I’m heading to the Yard House.  Granted, many of the taps are domestic and import Big Beer swill (Bud, Miller, Coors, Molson, Corona, Stella, etc) or widely available “Big Craft” (Sam Adams, Shiner), but you’ll find a handful of solid craft choices as well.  One criticism I do have is that local craft brewers aren’t well represented.  Last time I visited the Scottsdale location they only had one Four Peaks brew and no other Arizona breweries and there were no Craftsman handles in Pasadena.

Typical YardHouse Tap Island

Typical YardHouse Tap Island

That said, craft beer fans can multitask here.  While enjoying a New Belgium Ranger IPA they can introduce their buddy or, better yet, their second date to a New Belgium Fat Tire (OK, maybe handing her something with “fat” on the label would present additional challenges regarding plans/hopes for later that evening but you get the picture).  We often talk about gateway beers such as Blue Moon.  Perhaps the Yard House is a gateway beer bar.  Yes, the tap list skews a bit heavily towards quantity over quality but there are some gems in there.  Might not be diamonds like a Founders KBS but there will be a few gleaming rubies and with such a wide spectrum there are plenty of opportunities to help open minds and educate palates.

And for the hard core craft beer geek (like me), when the game’s over at the Yard House Scottsdale there just might be an Alaskan Pilot Series Double Black IPA with your name on it in the cooler at Papago down the road.

Cheers!

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The Converging Coasts of Craft Beer

If you’re reading this you’re either a craft beer fan, a friend forced to visit the blog under penalty of fatwa or you landed here after misspelling the topic you intended to search on Google (understandable given the fact they cram so many keys on these keyboards).  If you’re here by accident please don’t leave – you’ll probably add more more to the conversation than everyone else (and if you do leave I’ll add you to the fatwa list).  Those of you who are craft beer fans have plenty of other interests too.  I’m also a big college basketball fan.  Big East born (sort of) and bred.  My freshman year at Syracuse was also the inaugural year of the Big East Basketball Conference.  So I’m watching ESPN last Fall and see that the Big East is welcoming a few new schools including San Diego State and Boise State.  Wait…what?

Last time I checked San Diego was in California and Boise was in Idaho and neither of them are east of much of anything.  Despite the geographic anomaly, those schools are moving east.  They’re not the only things moving east.  Over the past year, no less than five craft brewers have announced plans to build or have already begun building breweries far from their western homes.  Most in the craft beer community welcome the expansion.  I’m not so sure I’m on board.  Not yet anyway.

Green Flash (Nature's Version)

Green Flash (Nature’s Version)

That’s a picture of the mythical green flash and I spent many a sunset on various Southern California beaches in San Diego, Malibu and points in between hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive phenomenon.  I don’t know if I ever saw it.  If I did, I’m sure Will Smith walked up soon after and slipped on those sunglasses.  In any event, when I think of Green Flash I think of the green flash and that takes me back to California (yes, the Eagles were right.  I checked out many years ago but I still haven’t left).  So my perspective on the eastern migration of west coast craft brewers is greatly influenced by my years out there. In that respect, my opinions may be very different than most.

As of last count, three California craft brewers are opening new eastern breweries and two Colorado brewers are doing the same.  Specifically:

  • Green Flash (San Diego) to Asheville, NC
  • Sierra Nevada (Chico) to Asheville, NC
  • Lagunitas (Petaluma) to Chicago
  • New Belgium (Ft. Collins) to Asheville, NC
  • Oscar Blues (Lyons) to Asheville, NC

Granted, there are plenty of great reasons for these guys to open major brewing operations in the Southeast.  Asheville is a worthy craft beer destinations these days.  I get it.  The economics just make too much sense.  Green Flash and the rest of the reverse geographic pioneers almost have to have a presence out here if they want to increase market share and production while greatly reducing distribution costs and all the logistical nightmares that come with trying to get fresh craft beer onto shelves 3000+ miles away.  Distribution up and down the eastern seaboard out of NC is certainly more advantageous than doing it from San Diego.

Which Coast IPA

Which Coast IPA?

Craft beer fans (myself included) will have plenty to raise a glass to once the fermenters and bright tanks are up and running in the shadow of the Biltmore Estate:

  • Availability – No more empty shelves in Philly.  When Lagunitas sucks we’ll all get plenty to cheer about.
  • Variety – California (or Colorado) only limited brews may see the light of an Atlantic sunrise.
  • Freshness – There will always be challenges (individual retailers won’t be off the hook) but it stands to reason that it will be much easier to keep fresh brews on the shelves when it’s brewed closer to home.

All great reasons to applaud and look forward to the days when the new breweries are up and running but I’m only clapping with one hand.  For me there will be something missing.  Authenticity.  When I pour a Green Flash West Coast IPA I want it be just that – a legitimate west coast IPA from the the real San Diego.  I’m sure they’re going to do it right.  The brews coming out of NC will probably be indistinguishable from the ones brewed in CA.  That said, it’ll just feel a bit like I’m buying a label – buying a brand.  That’s not a good thing IMO.  That’s not why I check out from the craft beer shop any time I want and leave with California in the 4 pack.

The Crafting of a Craft Beer Geek

Oak Creek Brewpub in Sedona, AZ

Oak Creek Brewpub in Sedona, AZ

Ask me almost anything about beer and there’s a pretty good chance I’ll know the answer.  “What’s the difference between dry hopping and continuous hopping?”  I know that. “Does chocolate malt really contain chocolate?”  I know that too, and – no, it doesn’t.  “What’s Fritz Maytag’s claim to brewing fame?”  Yeah, I know that and it doesn’t have anything to do with inventing a combination Maytag dishwasher/brew kettle.   “Who brews Pliny the Elder Ale and what styles of beer pair well with Thai food or Texas BBQ?  Yes, I can tackle those as well.  The list goes on and has gone on at beer tastings and other events for a while now.  I’ve been a proud bearer of the beer geek tag for a good 8 years.  I’ve hosted countless beer tastings, reviewed hundreds of beers, sampled hundreds more, brewed my own beer, given purchasing advice to a handful of owners, buyers and beer managers at local liquor stores and designed flights for some local craft beer bars but one question has evaded even a poor answer despite many attempts:  “when did you become a beer geek (or beer nut as the question is usually posed)?”  For far too long, the best and most honest answer I could come up with has been, “I don’t really know.”  Absurd, how could I not even know enough to take a weak stab at such a basic and obvious question?  Well, never one to be comfortable with not knowing the answer (especially to something so seemingly simple), I sat down with a contemplative pint or two of Great Divide Yeti Oak Aged Imperial Stout and determined to come up with something better than “I don’t really know.”

When it came to beer in the first place I was late to the tap handle, not having my first one until midway through my second semester of sophomore year at Syracuse University.  A self-imposed goodie two shoes I can honestly say that I never had a drink at a high school party and I didn’t even thought about sneaking a little something from my parents bar.  Throughout Freshman Year I never uncapped one of the Haffenreffer’s my future roommate, John Chawner, and his future wife, Cathy, were so quizzically partial to.  When I did start to accompany my college buddies to the bars adjacent to campus I tended to stay away from beer completely – just hated the taste of it and couldn’t understand why anyone would drink it.  Embarrassingly, I would usually be caught with a vodka Collins in those days but that’s another story.

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