The sign outside The Brew Coop says, “Self-Serving Individuals Here,” with an arrow pointing within. It’s the kind of joke that makes you wonder if the person telling it really gets it. Because yes, the Brew Coop is a self-serve beer bar, where beers are dispensed by machines. But even at its most generous interpretation, to understand the pun is to admit the possibility that “yeah, our customers are dicks.”
Back when people still thought tech was making everything better, there were a lot of articles about how technology would change nightlife – what would the cutting edge “bar of the future” be? How would tech change the experience? The Brew Coop is a step in exactly the direction most trendspotters predicted: “San Francisco’s first dedicated self-pour taproom” replaces as much human interaction as possible with machines. It is the bar equivalent of using an app to order food so that you don’t have to talk to someone on the phone.
With more screens per square inch than any bar I’ve seen, the atmosphere in The Brew Coop at 819 Valencia St. near 19th feels like a tiny food court within ESPN’s control room. There are seven TVs on two walls, all turned to sports, and three menu screens on a third wall, above the self-serve beer taps, which feature 20-odd small screens telling you what each tap provides.
There is no bar; you go to the cash register and give them your credit card in exchange for a key card that accesses the taps and keeps track of how much you pour, charging you by the ounce. If you want food, you order it at the same cash register and are given a restaurant pager. When it goes off, you walk around the corner to a window to the kitchen, where a staff member, who does not make eye contact, hands you your tray. You get your own condiments from a station and find a seat. Without a bar, it’s almost all small communal-style picnic tables.
Having communal tables should, in theory, make it easy to connect to people, and I think that’s the intention – The Brew Coop has a small selection of card and board games (Uno and Jenga were the most popular) that imply an interest in casual socializing. Paradoxically, it has the opposite effect: Physical bars are designated places for people who are on their own to go and be social. Sitting down on a bar stool next to strangers is a casual act; nothing is implied and there’s no pressure. Sitting down at a small picnic table next to a group of strangers is a much heavier-handed “can I join you?”
But even if they’ll have you, it’s too damn noisy to have much of a casual chat. The walls, where they’re not covered with screens, are bare, as are the floor and ceiling, and it’s a small room – so every conversation, along with the music, along with the sound from whichever TV they’ve turned the volume up on, echoes across the entire room.
I love going to bars on my own, but I never should have come to The Brew Coop alone. I’ve never once told my friends, “Hey, we should go hang around a bunch of vending machines in a small noisy room!”
But if I were to go hang around vending machines, I’d definitely want my friends there.
But, clearly, someone digs this. The room was kinda full, and the crowd was far more diverse than at most Valencia Street bars. And the beer itself is fine: They had 22 beers on tap while I was there (six of which were IPAs, and therefore objectively awful, despite how popular they are).
I started with a La Terrible Belgian Quad, by Unibroue, which was lovely, and moved on to a Faction milk imperial stout, which was odd but tasty. The pouring mechanism — put the card in the slot and monitor your spending in real-time like at a gas station — works fine. But I’m not sure what problem it solves. The idea is that you can get as much or as little beer as you want. But I’ve never once, in all my years of bar-hopping, gone to a bar where someone wouldn’t give me a small sample of a beer on tap if I asked. Or a half-order, if I didn’t want to drink much.
All that seems to be happening here is that I’m paying for my sample.
Nor is the user experience any better than, say, using your office Keurig machine to get coffee. Why would it be? I’ve met a lot of people who wished they could be bartenders, but never because they really wanted to work the taps. I’m not going to text a friend and say “Dude, I poured my own beer! You’ve got to try this!”
The food is good, but unspectacular: I had the Coop Adobo wings, which had a slightly sweet and mildly sour thing going on, and would order them again. The coleslaw they came with, though, was bizarrely bland … as though someone had forgotten to add the ingredient with all the flavor. I finished while drinking a Summercest “Shakeout” gluten-free blonde ale, which … no. I should not have done that.
Ultimately, The Brew Coop is in the tradition of technologies that promised to make the world incrementally better but ended up ruining what people actually loved about the experience. I can see a scenario in which the self-serve tap technology could be used well in a bar – it could free up bartenders to focus on cocktails, it could keep long lines from forming, and if a serious beer bar like The Monk’s Kettle were to institute it for their selection, you’d probably have to pull me out of there on a stretcher, which I mean in a good way.
But this is not that bar. This is a bar that, like so many tech solutions, is in search of a problem. It’s focused on beer delivery rather than the human experience. And yet if the margins are good, it’ll probably catch on.
As I was finishing the wings, one of the servers went off shift, and was leaving with a friend. They were going to another bar. “Hey,” another staff member called to her. “Make sure he gets drunk!”
Yeah, I’d go somewhere else for that, too.