category-iconOP-ED

Have Taprooms Replaced Dive Bars?

January 17, 2018

By Aaron Goldfarb, January 17, 2018

As I was growing as a beer geek in the early aughts, my bank account was (unfortunately) not keeping pace. Thus, I was often forced to eschew New York’s then-pricy craft beer dens like Blind Tiger and The Ginger Man – where a tulip of beer might run $7 – in favor of dives, where I could cop a full pitcher for that amount. I lived in Hell’s Kitchen at the time, a place no longer as gritty as its name would suggest, though it still had plenty of shitholes to drink at. My usual spot was Rudy’s, though, a dive bar par excellence.

Opened the year prohibition ended, a statue of a pantless pig doing a beauty pageant half-wave with his hoof guarded Rudy’s door like a porcine bouncer. Inside, ripped pleather bar stools and vomit in the bathrooms was mostly ignored because hot dogs were free and beer was dirt cheap (while the tap lines were flatout dirty). My brew of choice was something called Rudy’s Blonde – learly some re-labeled macro-swill, it was the best thing they had to offer.

I didn’t particularly like Rudy’s, it was simply all I could afford.

Today, New York City, and the U.S. at large, is awash in quality drinking options. Third wave coffee shops, fancy cocktail bars, and, most significantly, craft brewpubs and taprooms. Meanwhile, dive bars are closing the countryside over.

Last year, the Boston Globe noted that 20 of the 70 dives featured in Luke O’Neil’s book Boston’s Best Dive Bars had shuttered. Even in 2011 when the book was published, O’Neil wrote of the great contradiction of a dive:  “[I]t’s a bar that has somehow withstood the test of time, but isn’t long for the changing world.” The rapid proliferation of gentrification, re-urbanization, and the rise of a youthful money-blowing leisure culture has made that changing world change even quicker.

Rudy's Bar & GrillNot long for this world? Or a beautiful vision from another time?

Newsweek had already noticed that “Yuppies Are Killing the Dive Bar,” with Alexander Nazaryan noting that “The way we drink, where we drink, largely reflects how educated we are, how much money we have, whether we even have the leisure time for unhurried bibulous consumption.”

More bluntly put, according, to Money, “The trendy young professional millennials who overwhelmingly desire to live in cities and most likely to reside in urban neighborhoods once clogged with dive bars are quite different than the regulars of old racking up monthly tabs of Olde Style (sic), Pabst, or ’Gansett tall-boy cans.”

Last year, Washington Post writer Christopher Ingraham reported that there are 12,000 fewer bars in America today than there were in 1998. While Nielsen research found that six “neighborhood” bars are closing per day. Many of those are surely dives, though that number is nearly impossible to statistically track, for there are enough internet arguments about what exactly constitutes a “dive.”

The reverse numbers are easy enough to follow, though. There are now over 5,300 breweries in America, with nearly 2,000 of them being brewpubs. Hundreds of new places to drink quality beer (brewed on site!) are opening per year.

While people my age and older (I’m 38), witnessed the emergence of craft beer firsthand, those much-maligned millennials entered a world that was already built for them. Whereas BudMillerCoors was all that was really known during my high school and college days, even today’s “shitty” college bars and Irish pubs have dozens of different drinking options. The fetishization of “crappy” beer simply isn’t there for most twenty-somethings; the desire to dram next to an old dude asleep on the bar-top even less tantalizing.

If you think about the neighborhood pub, it’s not really in a position to offer 35 beers on tap.”

Likewise, while muckety mucks waste their energy complaining about America’s youth wasting their money on frivolous items, twenty- and thirtysomethings will continue to prefer swiping their cards on experiences rather that “stuff.” Better to start the day with a $5 latte and end it with a $100 bar tab than have that mortgage and leased luxury vehicle in the boring suburbs.

If Tim Gurner hates millennials munching on $15 avocado toast so much, just wait ’til he finds out how much they are spending every weekend on pounder cans of juicy IPAs in Boston, Brooklyn, and beyond.

“If you think about the neighborhood pub, it’s not really in a position to offer 35 beers on tap,” explained Mario Gutierrez of at Nielsen when discussing the closing of neighborhood bars. “That tends to be a specialized establishment.”

These “specialized” establishments are, of course, often taprooms, one of the experiences today’s emerging urban drinker most enjoys frequenting. And, they are opening in the same, once-downtrodden neighborhoods that used to be crammed with working class dives with $1 pops. There the rent is (or was) cheap enough to accommodate such large brewing spaces.

The last half-decade in New York alone has seen terrific taprooms open in formerly dive-dotted areas like Astoria (SingleCut), Long Island City (LIC Beer Project), Gowanus (Threes Brewing), East Williamsburg (Interboro), and the famously rough-and-tumble Bushwick.

Roman GomezKCBC's taproom has a different feel from your Rudy's situation.

Just a few years back, Bushwick was mostly a land of dive bars like The Wreck Room and Lone Wolf. Dingy bars with graffitied walls, aging locals, and cheap canned crap. Even if Bushwick had followed Williamsburg’s path and began gentrifying in earnest in the aughts, dives had continued to control the neighborhood’s drinking landscape until just recently.

Then, the Wreck Room, the so-called “diviest of Bushwick dive bars,” closed in 2014. While Lone Wolf was sold in October of last year.

Just a few blocks away and a few months beforehand, Kings County Brewers Collective had become the neighborhood’s first craft brewery. It was the antithesis of a Bushwick dive, with an aesthetically pleasant taproom with good access to sunlight and bright white walls. Stroller-pushing, leash-tugging Brooklyners came to the airy space in droves, to play Jenga and drink strawberry guava Berliner weisses. They began forming the same sort of “third place” communities that dive bars used to be lauded for. Suffice to say, KCBC is a big hit and I’d wager more Bushwick breweries will soon follow.

I haven’t been back to Rudy’s in years, and I’m not sure I have much need to ever visit it again. I am heartened though to see from their now way-too-nicely-designed website that the bar still stands. Since I lived there Hell’s Kitchen has become a neighborhood that may have no brewery taprooms just yet, but now has quality craft beer spots aplenty in places like Beer Culture and As Is. I’m likewise heartened to see that pitchers of Rudy’s Blonde are still only $8; compare that to the $12 eight-ounce pours of Firestone Walker Bretta Rose currently sold at As Is.

Aside from that eternal Blonde, though, Rudy’s beer list has drastically improved from the era when I used to visit. Today, several IPAs are available. You can’t have a successful bar without an IPA these days! So while that Sculpin draft line might be enough to stay Rudy’s execution, if the pig wants to still be standing another 84 years from now, if not just another five, they might need to try something even more radical.

Yes, before you know it, Rudy’s might need to actually be the ones brewing that Rudy’s Blonde Ale.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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