How I Built a Barbecue Restaurant in Brooklyn: Stumbling Into the Beer Business

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[Photographs: Clay Williams]

The great American steakhouse is one of the world's finest value propositions. Not that it's cheap, but as steak expert Nick Solares has explained in the past, there's a higher profit margin on your $12 creamed spinach than your $100 ribeye.

Good steakhouses source USDA Prime steaks, dry-age them, broil them, and do the dishes, all thanks to a service charge called your alcohol tab. Beef prices are so high that cooking steak won't make anyone rich, but those French magnums and Scotch whiskies sure will.

Barbecue restaurants are much the same way, and that's why, from the beginning, I've always considered the Arrogant Swine to be a bar more than a restaurant. Cooking hog just doesn't pay the bills.

But opening a bar has its own set of problems, such as the fact that I have no idea what I'm doing. While I've worked in the kitchens of some of New York's most expensive restaurants, I've never changed a keg of beer, much less set up an entire massive bar program complete with 20 rotating craft beer taps, 25 whiskeys, and an entire encyclopedic division of labor known as cocktails.

Yet today we have a very awesome beverage program. Here's what goes into running it.

Hustlin' Suds

Opening day at the Arrogant Swine

The American craft beer industry has exploded in the past decade, with hundreds of breweries making thousands of beers, and every week I get emails from distributors about beers I should try. Buying a keg of beer isn't that different from playing the stock market. The main principle is the same: Buy low, sell high. And like buying stocks, sometimes you make it big and sometimes there are duds.

Some beers just fly off the shelves. Take the extremely limited edition and exclusive stuff. It's impossible to get, but when I do, I can pat myself on the back and count up my high profit margin. Then there are the duds: They sit around for weeks, mocking me and my stupidity.

The biggest duds are smoked beers. "You're a barbecue joint," they say. "Smoked beers would be a perfect pairing for smoked meats!" I'm sure a few overly analytical Cicerones would agree, but the idea doesn't work in reality, and I have a ban now on smoked beers at the Swine because I'm tired of getting screwed over. As it turns out, no one wants to wash down a pile of smoky pork with a pint of what essentially tastes like sausage. Even sour beers, a love-it-or-hate-it style, get more action than smoked beers; sour beers have a following all their own.

Overall, I try to keep my tap line diverse, from familiar West Coast IPAs to Baltic porters from Denmark. I take it as a point of pride when beer writers come in and compliment my list. Many of them hit up massive Manhattan bars with over 70 tap lines and never find a new beer to try, but when they come in to the Swine, they usually get something elusive they've been looking for.

In some ways, variety is the easy part. Writing about that variety is hard. Every IPA tastes like resin and citrus. Every imperial IPA has grapefruit notes. Got a dark beer? Well here come the coffee, chocolate, and nutty flavors.

So if I want any tasting notes for my beers, I write them from scratch, from the poetic:

A Belgian Quad brewed with dark candi sugar. Aromas of hangover Sunday raisin toast, apricots, English toffee, and pecan pie.

To the slightly racy:

I don't gotta tell you, Alaskan winters are mighty cold, so everyone has 12 layers of clothing on. If you can charm the panties off an Alaskan hottie, you, sir, got some serious game. An American style Tripel with coriander and the essence of Valencia oranges. Play on, playa.

And some get downright offensive. I won't post my description of the Big Dick's Olde Ale by Arcadia Brewing, but feel free to email me if you want to read it.

Dealing With Distributors

To legally sell beer in New York, you need to buy your suds from a distributor. There are several in the city that I work with: The giant monolith that holds over 70% of the craft inventory, the mid-size firm that's been a big supporter of me, tiny boutique firms, and even tinier local craft brewers that self-distribute.

Buying beer is all about relationships. A good sales rep who takes you seriously will snag limited keg allocations for you, knowing that's what you'll want at your bar. They take care of you.

But when I first started buying beer, I couldn't get our local giant monolith to even look my way. It's not just that I was new. Because I have a barbecue joint, they immediately shoehorned me into the "not worth the good shit" category. My rep figured I'd be more interested in low-margin American domestic beers, or bland themed ones to go with my barbecue motif.

The logical response would be to buy more beer from the tiny boutique guys. They're tiny, I'm tiny, they're selling rare stuff, I'm buying rare stuff. A match made in heaven, right? But even there, with the peons of the beer world, my new shop got ignored. My phone calls and emails went unanswered for weeks. Orders never arrived and I could never seem to get the proper tap handles for kegs.

Like Goldilocks and the three bears, somewhere in the middle is just right for me. The mid-size firm has a prominent place on my taps for a pretty simple reason: They pick up the phone and send me beer. If I have an issue with my lines, they come in and help me out. Their only problem is a relatively limited selection.

Eventually, the giant monolith realized that I do indeed crush through kegs of very beer-geek-worthy beverages, so my lines are basically divided between them and the mid-size guys.

Why I Don't 'Go Local'

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As the owner of a new bar in Brooklyn, I'm expected to pour and proselytize local Brooklyn-made beers. But I don't go out of the way to look for them; rather, my lines look like a session at the United Nations: Japan, Denmark, Italy, Germany, Belgium, and England alongside the U.S.

There are a few reasons I don't go crazy for local beer.

1) I don't get any goodies.

Beer companies have plenty of ways to win you to their side: They give away free swag like glassware and t-shirts, they host a tap takeover at your venue where representatives of both the brewery and the distributor bring their friends and spend money on barbecue and drink, and they give you first dibs on the "good stuff." Smaller breweries can't afford to do that, and the transaction is much more straightforward. From a Machiavellian perspective, I'm better off buying beer from Michigan than Brooklyn.

2) There's nothing interesting about them.

Many of my local breweries make what's essentially available all over the country. At the end of the day, beer is like sex and nachos: Even when it's boring or bad, it's still pretty good. While I have a soft spot for beers brewed in my childhood home, many have nothing unique going for them except that they're brewed locally.

Now I'll buy from folks like Finback in Queens because they're doing next-level shit like adding Sichuan peppercorns or doing a dry sour saison—that's something interesting my customers will want to try. But when every single local brewery is doing the same sessionable IPA, the same hoppy light pilsner, and the same roasted local coffee stout, brewing in Brooklyn isn't enough to justify a place on my list simply because the beer is local.

3) Many of them self-distribute.

There are some times in life where you want a large, cold, soulless corporation handling your stuff. Buying beer is one of those times. A self-distributing brewery takes and delivers their own orders, which is a huge pain in the ass for me. If I want to buy their beer, I have to contact a separate person than my four regular distributor reps who sell me beers from thousands of brands. And believe me, trying to get a local brewery to pick up the phone requires an act of Congress.

I sympathize. Small breweries are understaffed, but hey, so am I, and I don't have time to chase them down all day.

There's another problem with self-distributing breweries: keg deposits. When I buy a keg of beer, I have to pay a $30 deposit on it, and if I don't place another order with that brewery, they hold on to my money. Right now I have almost $200 in deposit money held up with these small breweries. And nothing is more uncomfortable than calling a brewery to ask them to pick up your kegs...without wanting to place a new order. It's like calling an ex and asking for your stuff back.

When you go through a distributor, on the other hand, reimbursement is easy as pie. You simply order whatever beer you want and they come by and pick up all their finished kegs.

A Proud Citizen of Beerlandia

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Headaches aside, I love having a bar. It's everything you could want in the hospitality industry. Bars don't get nearly the same number of ill-informed, snarky Yelp reviews that restaurants do. Because you have more direct interaction with your customers, they're open to having real conversations with you. And as a bonus, you get to change things up all the time.

My food menu doesn't change that much, and when it does, it's something small, like adding a new waffled side or serving some cheese sauce on the side. Even those small changes can be agonizing, though. The cheese sauce I now serve with my mac and cheese waffle means production costs are higher, but sales have shot way up. The change is one of those 20/20 hindsight things; I should have done it from the very beginning. If you really think about it, that's basically the secret of success in life: Stay in school, don't do drugs, cup o' cheese.

When it comes to beer, though, I have complete freedom. I can try new brewers, new styles, and new flavors all without long commitments. When things work, they work great, and when they don't, the consequences won't ruin anyone's day because we give free samples of all 20 of our beers.

Nothing puts a bigger smile on my face than when someone tries a beer they've never had, or samples a style they thought they hated, then orders a full pour and thanks me for sharing it with them. Hospitality is about sharing. That's a privileged position. When was the last time any of us got to share something new and exciting with a complete stranger and make their life a little better?

I'm lucky enough to do that every night.