Denver's First Draft, the Bar of the Future, Lets You Pour Your Own Beer
A few dozen U.S. saloons are testing iPourIt technology. Will it catch on?
You know the drill: Sit down at the stool, check out the taps, and wave your hand like Obi-Wan. The bartender comes over and gets your order. As she returns with your drink, you two might chat for a second — depending on your loneliness level or status as a regular — perhaps longer, and that’s that. Repeat.
Now, that age-old paradigm may be shifting. At least a bit. A few years ago, iPads began popping up for ordering at bars in airports and beyond. Now, there’s iPourIt. Founded in 2009, the company created a system for — you guessed it — pouring your own beers. Through a nimble combination of tablets and wristband registration, patrons can pour as much (or as little) of a particular beer as a given glass will hold. The technology is being used in 30-plus taverns across the States. When I heard that Denver’s First Draft would be employing the system, I headed there to peep it out.
Opened on July 24th in RiNo — the hood is blossoming into Denver’s version of Williamsburg — First Draft has 32 beers on tap, as well as six more rotating slots for wines and ciders. There’s a full kitchen, helmed by fine-dining vet Eric Lee, which offers beer-friendly, haute-ish choices like artisanal cheeses, charcuterie, offal, and rabbit leg confit. The space has a warehouse feel: lots of wood ‘n’ steel with high ceilings and open floorplan. On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Rockies fans flocked in after the day game to give the joint a go.
It’s pretty simple, really, after a bit of a learning curve. The folks at the register swipe your credit card and hand you a bracelet. You take your new beer-bestowing jewelry, swipe it over the tablet that tells you which brew you’re gonna get, and pour. The spout puts out anywhere from 1 to 16 ounces, and you’re charged by the ounce. (The price-per-oz varies from beer-to-beer but is displayed on the tablet screen.) Repeat.
“Here, it’s all up to you. You get to decide what you want,” owner Mark Slattery told me as we lean against a high top. I’d decided on Crux Fermentation Project’s Half Hitch, an Oregon imperial IPA that’s a rare find in Colorado. I sipped it as we spoke. “Our average pour is only five ounces,” Slattery said. “People are really utilizing the function of tasting a bunch of different beers that they want. The biggest feedback that we’ve gotten is that people really enjoy being in charge of how much or little they want to taste.”
Slattery sees his operation as a taproom for experimentation. “People have the ability to taste a bunch of different flavors and styles, that they normally wouldn’t when they go out,” he said. At a regular bar “they’d have to get a whole beer or a half of a beer, or they’d have to bother the bartender for a taste here or there.” Not so at First Draft, which — during my visit — boasted suds from Colorado breweries like New Belgium, Crooked Stave, and Oskar Blues, as well as out-of-staters like Victory, Ballast Point, Green Flash, and Ommegang.
Is it just for beer geeks, then? No, but they’re definitely showing up. “For an expensive beer, you’re locked in at 12 bucks for 10 ounces at a lot of places,” said Slattery, who also runs the blog Denver Beer Guy. “Here, you can get four ounces of it and still feel like you had it.” He’s also identified an audience that you might not expect. “We do get a lot of young females who are really into the beer scene,” he said. Looking around, I saw that he was speaking the truth. “Traditionally, they drink a little bit less but they want more of a variety. They want to try it out before they buy it and this gives them the opportunity to taste before they find out what they really like. And it’s not being judged by a bartender or a boyfriend or husband. It’s on their own.”
Reactionaries might wonder if this is the beginning of the end for the bartender. “They took our jobs!,” the worrisome cried out when ATMs where introduced and robots started counting groceries. The reality is that First Draft has as many as three “beer ambassadors” on the floor at a given time, explaining how to use tech and giving tasting notes that go beyond what’s posted on the tablet screens. (The mini computers even have a button marked “Learn to Pour,” which instructs you as to the correct angle to hold your glass as the liquid dives in.) As one ambassador told me, “We do everything but pull that tap handle for you.”
Asked whether he sees himself as a figurehead who’s looking to scorch the earth under the traditional bar, Slattery took a nuanced view. “It’ll be bigger than it is now, but I don’t think it will 100 percent replace traditional bars and restaurants,” he said. “Just like there are still regular ice-cream shops and there are ones where you serve yourself. There’s a place for it.”
The viability remains to be seen, and the iPourIt equipment is expensive. Slattery wouldn’t comment on the cost but it even looks pricey: a sight to behold, with flow meters, lights, tubes, and RIFD wristbands and readers. Patrons are gonna need to pour a lot of beer to recoup the investment. In my visit, I sampled three beers and a cider for less than ten bucks. Great for me, not spectacular for First Draft.
And there are minor confusions that are second nature at a local watering hole. Where do I put my glass when I’m done? How long do I have to wait after someone finishes pouring to tab my wristband? And, most importantly, does this HAL-like iPourIt system have the ability to launch a bomb?
The idea might at first feel gimmicky, but not to those who love choice. Pour one, use the water tap at the end of the line to wash the glass, then pour another. Repeat.