It was just a matter of time. First it was ATMs replacing bank tellers. Then it was self-checkouts eliminating grocery store cashiers. And now it's self-serve beer systems taking the place of our beloved bartenders and servers. With the recent opening of DeMore's Offshore Bar and Grill in Sandusky, self-serve draft beer systems officially have landed on our shores.
"We're starting on the outside, in Sandusky, with the hopes of working our way to Cleveland and other major metro areas in Ohio," explains Cole Christensen, a spokesperson with iPourIt, the technology that allows customers to pour their own beer. "I wouldn't be surprised if you started seeing these pop up all over the place."
Ohio is a big beer state, with countless bars, breweries and taprooms. So to say that Christensen and his competitors in the field have their eyes fixed on the Buckeye State is an understatement. iPourIt is just one of a handful of start-ups selling and installing self-serve draft systems that range from small table-top towers to "walls of beer" with up to 40 taps.
When customers tell their server that they'd like to try the self-serve beer system, they are handed a wristband that employs RFID technology. When a tap handle is touched, the wristband communicates with the system, which then displays information like the customer ID, the amount of beer poured and a running tab on a small screen.
The screen, often an iPad mounted above each tap handle, also displays useful information such as the beer style and description, price per ounce, and tips on how to properly pour a draft beer. Built into the tech is a cut-off point — typically 36 to 48 ounces — at which the system will no longer dispense beer to a particular user. Employees can override these limits after a quick inspection of the customer reveals a less-than-plastered individual.
Benefits for the Owner
"On average, 10 to 20 percent of every keg is lost due to over-pours and giveaways, but with this system, you're getting almost 100 percent of your beer revenues," Christensen explains.
When a bartender pours a beer, they often run the line to clear foam. Bartenders, being human, also "forget" to ring up every beer. Both of these practices result in a loss of profits for the bar owner. With iPourIt and systems like it, beer is charged to the customer at quantities as small as tenths of an ounce, meaning if the beer leaves the tap, it's on somebody's tab.
Benefits for the Customer
Not having to wait around for your server, who might be in the weeds, every time you want a cold beer is definitely a good thing. But perhaps the tech's best feature is the ability to pour (and pay for) as much or as little of any beer as you'd like. Eyeing that pricey holiday seasonal? Go ahead and pour yourself a few ounces and give it a try. Grab a few extra glasses and you can build your very own flight.
"A lot of our customers are enjoying this because sometimes you want to try a beer and not pay for a 16-ounce glass and maybe not like it," says Tracey DeMore, proprietor of DeMore's Offshore Bar and Grill, adding that she invested between 10 and 20 grand on her eight-tap system.
DeMore says that the self-serve system is designed to augment not replace her stable of servers and bartenders. "We haven't eliminated our bartenders altogether," she says. "This system allows them to handle specialty drinks and bottled drinks."
"I know it's not rocket science, but it does take a certain amount of skill to properly pour a beer," says Erich LaSher, a beer consultant and wine rep for Private Reserve. "Some people can't even handle the soda machine at Subway. And when someone pours a beer with too much head or whatever, you better believe they're going to bitch to their server."
LaSher also downplays the benefits of the try-before-you-buy aspect of these systems. "You're not buying a fucking car. I realize that not every single beer I try will be the best in the world. But everybody wants to try something." And those who do, he adds, can usually request a sample from their living and breathing bartender.
But the biggest downside, says LaSher, is the loss of the human touch. "With the state of craft beer these days, all we do is field questions — and that's what we like to do."
"I don't know," he says. "This all feels very impersonal. It's like the self-checkout at the grocery store. That's one less job for somebody."