Molly Oleson Barrel Proof ILLUSTRATION
Read to the end. It's worth it. Illustration by Molly Oleson

Walking into Barrel Proof, on Mission between 19th and 20th, presents me with a conceptual bar problem: How many TVs does a bar need? Even a sports bar?

Seriously, how many? Five? Six? Eight? Ten? Twelve? 

Eventually, don’t TVs in a bar reach a point of diminishing returns? There’s got to be a point at which even the TV junkies say they want less screen with their beer. 

My quick count at Barrel Proof was 15 TVs, each tuned to a ballgame, and it gave the impression that I hadn’t gone to a bar so much as a discount electronics store run by an alcoholic with lots of friends.  

The odd thing is that despite all the TVs — and, it turns out, I undercounted by a large margin — Barrel Proof doesn’t feel like a bar with TVs. Its ground floor has a small front room and a big back room with two sizeable bars, a pool table, and lots of communal tables. For all that, the menu includes $4 Miller High Life, Bud Light, and PBR Tall Boys, and it’s also big on a rotating list of draft beers of fairly high quality. It includes “adult slushies” ($9) yes, but also decent California wines, nitro cold brew coffee, and a small list of craft cocktails – even barrel-aged cocktails – that looks like it was lifted from the kind of bar that uses manual typewriters as decoration. 

Even the music didn’t fit a sports bar ambiance: It was post-punk band “The Slits” performing covers. 

I sat down at the bar, and was puzzled.

Bartender Henry hosts and serves the thirsty soccer fanatics at Barrel Proof, on June 11, 2018.

I eyed the beer list, but then saw that one of their cocktails, “Clarissa’s Morning,” has Bay Area-based Lo-Fi Aperitif’s “gentian amaro” as its base, and I was in – I’ve been on a kick about that spirit for ages. The drink (gentian amaro, basil infused elderflower liqueur, lemon juice, brut sparkling, cucumber bitters, $11) ended up wasting all the flavors I particularly love about that amaro, but was also pleasant and charming. Somehow a waste and a win at once.

Ed came in and joined me. He ordered a “In Mezcal We Trust” (union mezcal, hose pineapple gomme, cardamom bitters, orange bitters), and proclaimed himself satisfied. 

We had a lot of catching up to do. “So you’re working again?” I asked him. 

He nodded, and slapped himself across the face.

“You know what I’ve figured out?” he asked me. 

I did not, though I could see the direction this was going.

“Even the best tech company … it’s still a tech company. Whatever else it is, whatever else they’ve got going on, they are a tech company. And you’re kidding yourself if you believe them when they say they’re different. Every time.”

I considered. “It’s interesting that those of us who are outside of the industry figured that out before those of you working inside of it …”

“You know what else I’ve learned?”

“What’s that?”

“There are two kinds of people in offices. People who, when you give them a cookie …”

… he cut me off before I could ask. “The cookie is a metaphor.”

I gestured for him to go on.

“… People who, when you give them a cookie, their primary drive is to hold on to that cookie, and protect that cookie, and that’s what they care about. Maybe if they can get another cookie, that’s fine, but whatever happens they’re going to protect this one. And then there are people who, when they get a cookie, think that’s great, but their focus is going to be on the next cookie. That’s more important to them. And … if your office has an imbalance of one of these types of people over the other? Things don’t work over the long run.”

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It was definitely time for another round of drinks. I gestured over to the bartender, and ordered a “Black Buffalo” from the barrel aged cocktails section (it’s a Black Manhattan – bourbon, Averna amaro, Carpano Antica, Angostura & Luxardo cherry, $14). 

“Hey,” I said, before he went to make it. “So, I’m trying to figure this place out, and here’s the story I’m telling myself about it. This bar was founded by two guys, business partners, and one of them wanted to own a sports bar that would show all the other sports bars up, and the other guy wanted a chill-but-hip whiskey cocktail lounge. And instead of not making a bar together they just each did what they wanted to do, and this is the result.”

The bartender thought about it. “I like that story,” he finally said. “We do really try to have something for everyone: We’ve got 30 TVs, pinball machines and video games upstairs, a lot of sports … but craft cocktails on the menu, we’re trying to encourage day-drinking, which is a much chiller vibe, but when it gets late and there’s games on, especially Monday Night Football, it’s really crowded and intense … yeah, I like that story. I don’t think it’s true, but I like it.”

He walked away to make me my drink.

Ed and I picked up an ongoing conversation about what the next big cultural movement is going to be: We think festivals aren’t played out, exactly, but we also doubt that the next big cultural innovations are going to come from there. We’re pretty sure it won’t be tech: As long as tech’s imagination is constrained by what’s fundable, rather than what’s possible, it has nothing new to say.

VC’s don’t want new culture, they want to be richer in this culture. We doubt it will even come from the Bay Area. But where?

Stymied, we ordered food: Barrel Proof has a “really good for a sports bar”-kind of menu, and sports bar kitchens are often underappreciated. He ordered the chicken pesto sandwich, I ordered the fried chicken sandwich. Each was delicious, and came with an abundance of fries. I also had a Blushing Monk ale from their tap selection – a great choice, though only a 9-ounce pour.

Just after we ordered, a Corona rep came over, offering us small plastic cups of product, and encouraging us to sign up for email alerts about Corona-sponsored music events.

“If it’s music, in the Bay Area, that I’m interested in,” Ed told her, as we both declined, “trust me, I’ll already know about it.”

“That’s one of those moments,” he said after she’d left, “where you don’t even know how in over your head you are here.”

At the end of our meal, the Corona rep came back. She wanted to know, since we hadn’t wanted to sign up for the email list, what is it Corona could do that would make us feel more connected to it? What could Corona give us?

What could Corona possibly give us?

“Okay …” I said, “okay …” I couldn’t actually think of anything, but I wanted to try. Maybe this could become some kind of moment. “I would like Corona to take over a city block, a complete city block, just take it over, and offer some kind of experience there – outside of commerce – that would be worth remembering 20 years later.”

“But what would that be?” she asked.

“Let’s figure it out. Something they could do for people that would be life-altering in some way, if they only walk down that block …”

“I know!” she said. “A zip line!”

I blinked and was quiet for a moment. “Wellll …”

“Yeah,” Ed said, and patted me on the shoulder. “A zip line. There you go.” 

Sometimes alien elements come together in just the right way, and sometimes they don’t connect at all. Barrel Proof is an odd bar, but a pretty good one. But what I will remember from that night is that when I asked for a whole new culture, I was offered a zip line.

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  1. I miss the days when dive bars were just bars and didn’t have sports playing on TVs. Something happened around when the Giants starting winning.