Machine for Drinking
2400 4th St. NE, Minneapolis; (612) 789-7429
Hours: 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. Daily
One of my proudest possessions is a thing that is not to be believed. It's a music box encased in Lucite made in 1971, which fits on top of a whiskey bottle. When you tilt the bottle to pour, it plays "Pop Goes the Weasel." When you place the bottle upright, an itty-bitty weight slides down a wee wire and stops the music. This thing, I have thought many, many times, is an ideal liquor delivery device.
Ideal. Consider: Who among us has not been bored by the mirthless hours that drag as one waits for the whiskey to transfer from bottle to glass? Who has not wished that small music boxes would quit monopolizing valuable floor space, and would instead get up and out of the way, to perch atop booze? Further, I can report, after long, repeated experiment--and no, not ceaseless experiment, as my enemies would say--that this device becomes more fascinating with extended exposure. For example: Why does the Royal London Company specify it as a musical "whiskey" pourer? Not gin? Not Scotch and Canadian "whisky"? If not "Pop Goes the Weasel," then what would the tune be for the musical pouring of gin? "Achy Breaky Heart?" And of course: Why was that monkey chasing that weasel anyway? What did he ever do? If you ask my opinion, some monkeys just won't give a guy a break, and that's the root of all the heartache.
In a startling coincidence, I've learned that beer, too, has an ideal delivery device: Grumpy's Bar, in Northeast. I learned about this when I was chasing down a Minneapolis legend that I've been hearing for years, namely that the northeast Grumpy's pours the best Guinness in town. I called up Pat Dwyer, who owns the northeast Grumpy's and the Washington Avenue Grumpy's with partner Tom Hazelmyer, to see if there was any truth to this story. He said it was sort of true: There are a handful of bars in town that pour Guinness right, including the northeast Grumpy's, nearby Gasthof zur Gemütlichkeit, and the Dubliner Pub in St. Paul. All it takes is a bar owner willing to install a costly system to regulate the blend of nitrogen and carbon dioxide that gives Guinness its distinctive mouth-feel and maintains its freshness, a bar clientele willing to drain the kegs rapidly so the beer never gets stale, a staff poised to regularly clean the hoses that lead from the kegs to the taps so residues don't build up and (once again) spoil the taste of the beer, bartenders willing to complete the whole three-minute pour that results in a "ruby-black" pint of Guinness with its distinctive three-quarter-inch head, and, finally, an architect who had the foresight to build the whole place as an enormous beer-delivery device, around a heart of pumping kegs.
What kind of architect would do such a thing? Why, a brewery-house architect, of course. Turns out that Grumpy's in northeast was built by the old Grain Belt brewery, and that many, if not most northeast bars born before Prohibition were constructed by breweries as mechanisms to distribute grain beverages in a mill city. This I had to see. I raced over to Grumpy's for the deluxe tour, because when do you ever see that much functional design in architecture? I've always been intrigued by the architect Le Corbusier and his ideas on houses, which he called "machines for living." What makes a machine for drinking?
Short answer: Everything. Long answer: This place is functional in a way that's nothing short of ingenious. First, the beer was delivered via a method that ensured maximum liquid for minimum labor. There's a big, double-wide trap door in the sidewalk. Open the door and you find a large steel keg-chute, a sloping slide that looks like a roller-coaster track, which is designed to transport an enormous 31-gallon keg straight from sidewalk to cooler. (Keg trivia: Before World War II beer kegs were always 31-gallon full-barrel beasts made out of wood. After 1947 or so the norm became the stainless-steel 16-gallon half-keg. Today, old beer-delivery pros still use Grumpy's chute to deliver beer. Clueless beer-delivery kids pick up their half-kegs, walk all the way through the bar, down the steps, and across the basement to the cooler to deliver them.)
Second, the beer cooler itself is placed to ensure great beer taste. It's literally right below the bartender's keg taps, so the beer has to travel only a few scant feet between keg and glass. In comparison, lots of bars today have literally hundreds of feet of plastic tubing between the keg and the bar, which leads to flat, warm, dirty beer. (Bonus: The cooler also provides additional structural support for the heavy terrazzo, one of the easiest, cleanest surfaces for bar flooring.)
Third, the bar is designed so that beer bottles can be recycled at the flip of a wrist. They slide down a sloping chute that leads from the bartender's side to the basement, where the bottles angle into a zigzag set of sloping steel shelves that allow them to roll to a gentle stop, awaiting return to their cases. "This makes nothing but sense," says Dwyer. "The environmental stuff, yeah. But more, it's a lot of work to throw out this many bottles--maybe more work than recycling them."
I could go on and on. Foot-thick glass blocks make up the windows, allowing light while providing privacy and insulation. Itsy-bitsy bathrooms ensure no one ducks out of the action for too long. Is it any wonder there's a core of regulars who have been coming to Grumpy's--through various name changes--for decades?
"When we came in three years ago, that's the first thing we said: These guys, they own it just as much as we do. They've been coming here 30, 40 years. I'm not going to be some Irish brat coming in here and turning it into Shillelagh Junction." Dwyer comes from a big Irish family in Chicago, where he picked up his fondness for Guinness--which Grumpy's serves for $3.50 in traditional British Imperial pints, measuring 20 ounces, instead of our domestic wimpy pints, which cower at 16 ounces. "Guinness was the first beer I ever tasted with my dad. I think he poured a little into a glass thinking I wouldn't like it, since it was this bitter, black, scary, scary liquid. But I finished what I got, and now I own a bar where we go through four or five kegs of it a week. I've got a love for Guinness--hopefully that's translated here."
A love for Guinness, but also, a love of Grain Belt. In fact, when Dwyer and Hazelmyer realized the old-timers were devotees not of Grain Belt Premium, the most popular Grain Belt beer, but instead drank Grain Belt Golden, Dwyer says he got the Minneapolis Brewing Company, which now owns Grain Belt, to put Golden in kegs for the bar. (Subsequently other bars, mostly in St. Paul, have gotten Golden on tap.) I'd never had Golden before; it's a fuller, more robust beer with a nice maltiness and body to it. I called up the Minnesota Brewing Company to find out more about it, turns out that Golden is the beer Grain Belt built its name on, and it's been continuously brewed in Minnesota--except for a lapse during Prohibition--since 1893! Phil Gagne, MBC's brewmaster, says he's been brewing the beer for 21 years. "It was a popular beer back in its time, but it's growing again," he says. "Everything's new that's old, right? I guess people are learning to appreciate a German-style lager with more character to it." Golden currently has the bottle cap made so familiar by the sign near the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, but MBC plans to bring the cap out soon on Premium, too.
I also talked to Jeff Crawford, vice president of sales for the MBC, who told me a little more about that old practice of breweries owning bars. Practiced eyes can ferret out lingering signage, he says, to tell them which brewery built which bar: Hamm's, Schmidt, Glueck's, and Grain Belt being some of the bigger local ones. Crawford also explained why there will never be a Summit-built bar. "After Prohibition ended, breweries were prohibited from owning on-premise or off-premise accounts," he says, because breweries were considered to have been unscrupulous in pushing their product and had made themselves little monopolies besides. "That's where the saying 'Lock, stock, and barrel' comes from," says Crawford. Breweries had the saloon business so tightly sewn up that they owned the lock on the door, the stock of inventory, and, of course, the barrels of beer.
Now though, Dwyer, Hazelmyer, and, I guess, whoever's been sitting on a stool for 40 years owns the beer, and they can do whatever they like with it. Dwyer showed me something he's developed with Hard Core Cranberry Cider and Guinness. He calls it the Lava ($4) and it looks pretty neat-o. Black Guinness floats over red cider, and the flavors combine in a brisk way. I asked Dwyer about Black and Tans, and quickly learned that I must be the only person in the world who doesn't know that a Black and Tan is a politically charged drink. Black and Tans were what the Ulster British defense force was called--the people that occupied Ulster for the crown. As a consequence, it's a symbolic drink in which Irish Guinness and British Bass Ale are inseparably blended. Yikes! What Dwyer serves are half-and-halfs, made with Irish Guinness and Irish Harp Ale. Though I think there's a case to be made for a Minneapolis variation: half Guinness, half Grain Belt Golden. Hell, you order it, and I'll even sing "Pop Goes the Weasel."
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