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SaveOnBrew Exclusive Interview: Park Slope Craft Beer Pub Owner Bobby Gagnon

01.11.2013 09:00 AM

Bobby Gagnon is a legend in the New York City bar scene. He opened his Old World style pub in a dead district of Park Slope in 1997.

Mind you, this was long before craft beer became the phenomena it is today -- and long before Park Slope became a happenin', gentrified part of the city that attracted beer lovers and hipsters alike.

People like The Gate because they can bring their dogs and sit outside on the patio on a pleasant summer day. They enjoy people-watching, carefully selecting the next tune on the juke box, and scoring a fair price on a pint.

SaveOnBrew was pleased to sit down with the bar's owner to talk about his beer scene, as he sees it.

SaveOnBrew: What was your "gateway beer" into the world of craft brew? 

Bobby Gagnon: I grew up in Southeast Massachusetts and there drank mostly Budweiser and Becks (Germany) when I had the extra dough. I tried a bottle of St. Pauli Girl Dark and found a taste I’d never before encountered. The palette was now hungry! (I was sad to discover on a later trip to Germany, that this beer is not sold in the country! Brewed for export only!)

The gateway crossing over was completed in a move to California and bartending at Barney’s Beanery in Los Angeles, CA for 5 years. Barney’s is a world-famous place (now bought out and replicated) that had a beer list of over 200 (a draught list of 12 or so and a hefty bottle selection). The West Coast’s Anchor Steam (THE American pioneer) and Sierra Nevada, as well as the large selection of European and specifically Belgian beers did it.

In the middle of my tenure at Barney’s, I toured through Europe for a couple months. Upon discovering the myriad beers of Germany, Belgium, England and Ireland’s Guinness at the sources, I was fully awakened to the concept of freshness and proper handling. No turning back now.

SOB: What’s your guiltiest 'cheap beer' pleasure?

BG: Most certainly a bottle of cold Bud! (When in Massachusetts mostly!)

SOB: Many people would say that you were crazy for opening a craft beer bar in an old Park Slope upholstery store in 1997 – well before the area’s gentrification and the subsequent craft brew explosion. What challenges did you face early on?

BG: The first and foremost challenge was, simply, to attract an audience. 5th Avenue in Park Slope was, to many, considered 'not Park Slope.' There had not been a new bar in the area for years and there was no bar in the area focusing solely on craft beer. There were only a couple of restaurants and plenty of Chinese, pizza and bodegas. After dusk, the foot traffic on the Avenue was negligible. The initial few visitors quickly became regulars and just inside 2 years, we had begun to show a profit. The upholstery shop you mention was the only business that was not a saloon to occupy the space here in 100 years!

SOB: What’s the craft beer scene like in Park Slope, and how is it unique from other scenes within The City?

BG:The craft beer scene has exploded. You would be hard pressed to find a restaurant, bar, small burger joint etc. with a couple draught lines that does not feature craft beer. The uniqueness derives from the Avenue’s former stretch of block after block of empty storefronts and a negative stigma to what is now somewhere near 150 liquor licenses running from the Barclays Center to the Greenwood Cemetary.

SOB: What sort of people come to your bar?

BG: We have had all walks here. Artists, writers, musicians, laymen, professionals. We have always been a pub. A place where all are welcome, 21 to 101. Not just a narrow demographic that many in this business seek. We have had regulars meet, marry, start families. We have had regulars move afar and return for a visit years later.

SOB: The New York Observer quoted you as saying: “We won’t carry Heineken because it’s crap.” In your opinion, what characteristics separate good beers from crap beers?

BG: I must have been in a great mood that day. I do remember that interview. Did I really say 'crap?' Well, in the case of Heineken, I was referring to wildly inconsistent product, mass produced with a higher regard for profit than for quality. In this same interview, I believe I brought up Budweiser as an example of a mass-produced beer that is a model of consistency. A craft beer is a brewing ethic. It involves attention to quality from the crop to the glass. It involves experimentation and a final product meant to be tasted, not merely drunk.  

SOB: How do you go about deciding upon beer prices?

BG: I am so glad you asked this. I pay close attention to price on every single keg that comes in the door. Beer pricing has gone off the rails over the past several years. Distributors are largely to blame and, in a small number of cases, a few breweries. Keg prices and a bar’s retail prices should match up as pricing changes, but I bear the burden and have -- for the most part -- eaten most price increases.

Consider that a keg of standard American Craft that shipped to me 10 years ago for about $100 is now anywhere from $150-$200 or more. A full price pint 10 years ago was $5 and is now $6-$6.50. Many bars and restaurants are priced significantly higher. However, I remain conscientious of my neighbourhood and my regulars and keep the cost of a couple of beers within reason.

All of my per glass pricing is according to an evolving formula and stays as close as possible to two criteria: an acceptable margin for operation of the business and an acceptable fair price for the customer. There are several breweries that I must mention as actively supporting the retailer of their products by keeping pricing fair: Sierra Nevada, Lagunitas, Founders, Southern Tier, Captain Lawrence, Smuttynose -- to name a few from a much longer list. The pricing of a keg of beer in the craft industry should by its very existence as craft, pay better attention to the retailer of the product.

SOB: Who is your favorite brewmaster or brewery owner to hang out with over a beer?

BG: Having met a slew of amazing artisans in this business, each with his/her own brand of uniqueness, this question is akin to 'Who’s your favorite jazz guitar player?' The list is replete with innovators, maniacs and the -- and I mean this in a good way -- deeply disturbed... Sam Calagione [Dogfish Head], Garrett Oliver [Brooklyn], Tony Magee [Lagunitas], Adam Avery [Avery Brewing Co], to name a few notables.   

SOB: We heard you recently visited the Dogfish Head headquarters in Delaware and returned with the top prize in the Bocce Tournament! What was most memorable about your experience there?

BG: Sam Calagione put us through a grueling competition fueled by a dastardly array of DFH brews and an amalgam of retail owners he hand-picked. We were assembled to inaugurate Sam’s annual appreciation of his retailers, dubbed 'the Olde School Retreat.' The weekend was filled with laughter, discussion and beer. The Gate was, I believe, Sam’s 2nd ever beer event in NYC and we sat then and drank his beer with a humble few others and wondered aloud if this was all ever going to work. It's incredible to say that now.  

SOB: We also heard you have a killer collection of vintage brews in your cellar. Tell us about a few of your most special celebratory beers.

BG: I store and save, experimenting with the possibilities in my own way. What is down here, I cannot divulge! One of my most celebratory beers would have to be the Magnum bottle of Anchor Christmas 2001 that I saved for 10 years and drank with my staff Christmas 2011.

I lost a dear friend on September 11 and that Christmas was difficult. I put away a case of 6 Anchor Christmas bottles that year, deciding to keep one through to 10 years. This is a beer that should not have held up that long and did. It was fantastic.

Another gem we rolled out last winter was a 6 year old Lagunitas Brown Shugga -- when Lagunitas skipped a batch and we couldn’t get any!  

SOB: Many people presume that beer should be sucked back right away – and that collecting and storing is for wine-lovers. What special considerations go into collecting and storing beer?

BG: Beer can be stored! However, the understanding curve is still steep for the consumer. The craftheads are all over it, seeking out the distinct cellarings of certain beers. At The Gate, I have at odd times played fast and loose with some of the brews normally not intended for cellaring just to see what happens. As an example, I had Adam Avery here and for him I rolled out an aged keg of his 'Karma' Ale, one of my favorites. We drank it, but later, over dinner, he told me I was nuts! But honestly, it was excellent.  

If you're in the New York City area, stop in and see Bobby at:

The Gate

321 5th Avenue

Brooklyn, NY 11215

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