BYO Bartender: What’s the allure behind self-pour taprooms?

First Draft Taproom & Kitchen in Minneapolis is one of several self-pour bars that have opened in recent years // Photo by Tj Turner

First Draft Taproom & Kitchen in Minneapolis is one of several self-pour bars that have opened in recent years // Photo by Tj Turner

Consider the self-pour taproom an antidote to “Give me the usual.” The concept—inviting customers to belly right up to the taps and serve themselves ounce by ounce—is driven by endless exploration and beer rotation. It’s the Snapchat of drinking experiences. And while Minnesota’s earliest iteration of the self-pour taproom, Community Keg House, fell flat in 2016, self-pour taprooms are the anchoring experience offered by a growing number of establishments in the Twin Cities. To get a first-hand taste of what’s behind the self-pour bar trend, we visited three: Union 32 Craft House, First Draft, and Tap Society.

Exploration Beer

First Draft’s bracelet system for self pouring // Photo by Tj Turner

To speed up acclimation to the self-pour concept, gray-shirted staff at First Draft Taproom & Kitchen‘s Minneapolis location offer patrons a quick tutorial. Provide a credit card and valid ID in exchange for a wrist strap that activates taps and tracks your pours. Grab a beer or wine glass and peruse the screens above each tap for beverage descriptions (beer, cider, and wine are served), low-keg warnings, and pricing, which runs 50 cents to $1.20 per ounce—the highest prices of the three spots we visited (Tap Society and Union both start at 35 cents per ounce and cap at 65 and 80 cents, respectively). Translating to your glass, you’re looking at an average of $6 to $10 dollars per pint, although costs can quickly climb if you’re tending toward the higher-priced beers.

An industrial craft-brewery aesthetic dominates the First Draft space, complete with long wood tables and high-tops along the walls. An island of taps takes up the center space and taps fill three walls; the fourth contains a window and door into the vault that holds the kegs.

First Draft general manager Ashley Hauf explains that the bar prides itself both on tap variety and exclusivity. To keep the 54 tap lines frequently rotating, First Draft buys single kegs of beer from breweries, often opting for higher-priced, more unique varieties. This gives patrons an opportunity to taste rare or experimental brews that can be quite costly by the full pour but are relatively affordable as smaller samples. Hauf admits to having favorite breweries that she regularly reaches out to, but says First Draft gets approached by breweries, too. Eighty percent of their draft beers are from Minnesota; all are from the U.S. “We want to cultivate the Minnesota craft brewery scene as much as we can,” Hauf says.

The per-ounce pricing, according to Hauf, keeps First Draft’s prices competitive with regular pint prices—with one distinct advantage. “You’re not stuck paying for a full beer you don’t like,” she explains. She estimates that most visitors try six to nine beers per visit, and pour an average 4.5 ounces per taste. (That said, I found it difficult to pour less than four ounces at a time—it is definitely an art to pour a truly small sample.)

Neighborhood Bar 2.0

The full self-serve experience at Tap Society // Photo by Tj Turner

The full self-serve experience at Tap Society // Photo by Tj Turner

Beer is clearly the focal point of the First Draft space, with its numerous taps and peekaboo wall into the keg hookups. But over at Tap Society in South Minneapolis, the self-pour wall feels almost like an outcome of its business model—which is to produce a high-value, low-frills experience for the neighborhood. It’s the beer version of a self-serve, cafeteria-style eatery.

Tap Society’s card system for self pouring // Photo by Tj Turner

Co-founder Mike Fritz says Tap Society operates using the most successful food service elements he encountered during his years of working for Macy’s food division, including self-service, fast food, and efficient customer service that maximizes value. This values-focused mindset drives the bulk of decisions at Tap Society: food is ordered on iPads and the limited menu reduces overhead costs and requires only a small kitchen. Eliminating servers translates to reduced expenses, which in turn passes savings on to the customer and funnels proceeds into higher-than-average wages for employees.

Tap Society uses a card system to activate its taps. Screens next to each tap feature beer descriptions as well as the tally of each pour’s cost and the card’s total bill, allowing you to easily assess the amount you owe as you go. Tap Society’s selection is more modest than at First Draft, but their 26 taps (including two ciders and three wines) offer a constant rotation of multiple styles—highlights during my visit included an imperial stout from Lupulin and Odell’s Sippin’ Pretty, a fruited sour ale. Local breweries still dominate the taps, but out-of-state options commonly rotate through. Coors Light even had a brief residency, but Fritz removed it after customers consistently gravitated toward craft beers.

During my visit, several patrons filled full pours from the wall, forgoing the option to sip and sample. Fritz says roughly half of Tap Society’s patrons opt for full pints. “Part of it is habit. Part of it is they know what they’re looking for,” he says. “We have a good selection. A lot of times they come here knowing we have the beer they want.”

The food menu offers unapologetically classic bar fare: burgers, seasoned fries, and shakes. Pairing milkshake IPAs and Berliner weisse with fries and mac ’n’ cheese bites may run counter to the aioli schmears and quaffs of microgreens that many food trucks and beer hall menus carry, but it fits the environment.

The Self-Pour Brewpub

Union 32 Craft House is Minnesota's first self-pour taproom that also brews its own beer // Photo by Tj Turner

Union 32 Craft House is Minnesota’s first self-pour taproom that also brews its own beer // Photo by Tj Turner

Tucked into an unassuming business center off of I-494 in Eagan, Union 32 Craft House claims the title of being Minnesota’s oldest self-pour bar in operation. It’s also the only one that brews beer on-site, thanks to founder and owner Dan Redpath’s background as a homebrewer. The “32” in the name is a nod to Minnesota being the 32nd state to join the Union and is also the number of taps of beer and cider on the self-pour wall.

Union 32’s self pour wall sits in the back of the space set into their rough cut wood paneled wall // Photo by Tj Turner

The brewpub has a laid-back vibe. TV screens and arcade games provide entertainment and a walk-up counter reminiscent of a food truck offers beer-friendly fare like burgers, tacos, and cheese curds made with Union 32’s Northern Lite ale—a classic light lager that is always in rotation.

“We like to appeal to multiple audiences,” says sales experience manager Samantha Brown. “We always are consistent about having […] a lighter affair that is more comparable to a Michelob Light to appeal to that audience.” Union 32 is consistent about offering an IPA as well, in addition to rotations that recently included a rye ale and a porter.

In addition to the tap wall, 10 behind-the-bar taps carry Union 32’s house beers and a rotation of limited offerings, such as hard seltzer, barrel-aged beer, and cider.

Of the three self-pour bars, Union 32 comes closest to riding the line between being a reliable, pour-a-pint neighborhood standby and an experimentation incubator. Over the course of the afternoon, just a handful of customers used the tap wall; the rest ordered full pints and food directly from the bar.

“I think our self-pour beer wall is a real fun experience, but I also don’t think that is the only thing that defines our space or who we are,” says Redpath. “Having a full liquor license has been a huge success for us, even though our liquor is a small percentage of sales compared to beer.”

The rise in self-pour spots is a good thing, Brown says, because each location serves a different neighborhood and offers its own experience. Adoption of the approach continues to climb, too: Can Can Wonderland in St. Paul recently added a self-serve tap wall, and this spring saw the opening of The Lab, a St. Paul–based bar and brewery concept that helps develops recipes and brews beers on-site for clients and tests the results on the Lab’s tap wall.

What remains to be seen with all the self-pour places is whether—once the concept becomes more familiar—patrons will embrace the experience or return to the more traditional options of flights and full pints. Union 32’s hybrid of neighborhood joint and self-pour bar may prove the right recipe, serving those who are happy to stay in their comfort zone but also open to branching out when the mood strikes.