Is Self-Service Beer the Trendy New Normal? | Food Feature | Indy Week
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Is Self-Service Beer the Trendy New Normal? 

Pour your own pint at Durham's newest taproom.

Photo by Caitlin Penna

Pour your own pint at Durham's newest taproom.

In most respects, Pour Taproom has much in common with the new generation of Durham bars. Except, of course, that Pour invites you to step up to the tap and pour your own beer.

Walking in, you're seemingly in the center of a dining hall in a small Scandinavian airport, with your face to a wall of beer taps and your back to a cash register. Light pine covers the place, with low, four-person wooden booths along the sides and taller communal tables in the center.

For your access to the sixty-plus beers on tap, a cashier hands you a rubber electronic bracelet that you scan at the tap before each pour. Some nights, the bar hosts social events (like cornhole, trivia, and bands), taking advantage of the ample public space outside.

A bar's spirit is usually manifest in its physical self and the personalities of the people servicing it. So what to make of a bar that asks you to pour your own drink? What is the essence of a self-service bar?

Maybe the beer, which is good. I drank a fresh Bookworm IPA from Foothills Brewing which, at forty-five cents per ounce, came to around seven dollars for a sixteen-ounce pour (similar prices to Alley Twenty-Six or The Durham, but a dollar or two pricier than many nearby spots). But in a craft beer town like Durham, good beer isn't exactly a rarity. It's worth delving deeper into what Pour is trying to offer from its central downtown location.

It's not the physical space. The Americana-meets-IKEA interior is inoffensive, multipurpose, and capable of hosting a few large groups or many smaller ones. But with a combination of exposed bench seating, wide windows, and unusually bright interior lighting, Pour lacks the physical comforts most bars offer.

"The variety and freedom that you deserve!" touts the bar's website, clarifying how we are meant to engage with the taproom. Like much of Durham's new development, Pour views itself as an open-ended, do-it-yourself consumer experience. (The chain, though, has outposts in six other Southern cities and one in Santa Cruz, California.) You're unlikely to make it through most of the beers on tap, but if meandering through the many dozens of options to land on a few choice discoveries sounds appealing, then you—like the gleeful out-of-town customers under observation at the time of this writing—will have a great time.

Pour plays to a specific consumer fantasy: that an experience is authenticated by one's perceived control over it. The actual range of choice might be the same as that of a normal bar, but here the luxury of service is overshadowed by a direct link between person and alcohol.

Are there any meaningful costs to this experience, or is it just a question of aesthetic preference?

The standard bar—putting the establishment at the physical and interactional center of the consumer experience—offers some distinct social characteristics. One might, for example, sit at a counter alone without feeling ostentatious, drink and read a book without feeling exposed. Social groups intersect—and grow or shrink—while ordering and waiting for drinks. The bartender could be a temporary friend, a begrudging counselor, or an ultra-local celebrity. To those who acknowledge and appreciate those roles, the social alienation of bar and bartender from consumer is notable and probably troubling.

And what about the alienation of bartender from bar? Pour isn't listed as a member of the Durham Living Wage Project, and it's difficult to imagine that the tip jars complement hourly pay by much. We progressive consumers bemoan the un- and underemployment generated by broader trends in automation, but it is undoubtedly odd to freely take on the work of Durham's hospitality workers, and to consciously self-automate a simple, transactional process that has for centuries tethered people and classes together.

Pour might be a unique experience in a modern, diverse Durham that aims to please every sort of consumer, or it might hint at the future of social life in a town now well-known for trend-setting. Maybe it's just in the past that we went to the bar to be served a beer or two. Today, we stop in to pour ourselves a drink. We pay a premium for a new control probably few of us ever asked for but are encouraged to embrace by peppy signs, cheerful staff, and a vaguely folksy feel.

What about the future? Perhaps what we truly seek is the entirely deconstructed beer experience—some hours of unpaid labor in the alehouse to earn the privilege of purchasing a few nice drinks. It is not an intuitive decision—paying more for less, under the presumed auspices of freedom and choice. Still, it is an undoubtedly modern and American one.

More by Michael Burrows

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