You’ve been waiting at the bar for what feels like an hour. It’s so crowded that you’re squished against the counter between two suspiciously sticky barstools. People push their way to the front, arms extended, demanding another drink. You finally order, but the poor bartender is running around like a chicken with its head chopped off, trying to please an increasingly angry mob.
It’s this unpleasant experience that California native Nate Tomforde wanted to avoid when he decided to open Pour Taproom, which he says was North Carolina’s first 100% self-serve bar, in Asheville in 2014. Pour has since expanded to nine locations, including Wilmington, Charlotte and Durham, and offers customer-poured beer, wine and cider by the ounce.
“It feels more casual, almost like a house party,” says Tomforde, who previously worked in medical-device sales. “It creates a relaxed atmosphere that people have really enjoyed, and the technology has supported that environment.”
Self-pour taprooms cut out the middleman of the bartender. Patrons’ IDs are checked when they come in the door, and they receive either a wristband or a QR code card that can be scanned at any of the smart tablets above the row of taps. The tablets display information about each beer, such as flavor notes and the brewery’s background. The wristband and code cards activate a valve release that pours the beverage, and a smart-flow meter measures how many ounces are poured. The tablet then updates the customer’s tab.
Customers can help themselves to as many different types of beer as they want — that is, until they reach 32 ounces. If they want more, they must check in with a staff member, who will up their beverage allowance if they do not appear too intoxicated. For higher alcohol content beverages such as wine, the limit is different.
“We call it a beer festival every day,” Tomforde says. “There’s no other way to give people that freedom and variety in selection. … It gives people the opportunity to sample a lot of different craft beers from North Carolina, across the U.S., and even internationally.”
Self-serve taprooms have sprung up across the nation due to their popularity among both business owners and patrons. iPourIt Inc., a Lake Forest, Calif.-based company that develops hardware and software technology behind self-pour taps for bars and restaurants, has 4,000 smart taps deployed across the country, with 1,100 more on order. The configurations sell for an average of $1,100 to $1,600 per tap. Darren Nicholson, vice president of sales and marketing, says company revenue has doubled over the last four years.
“The fast-casual and casual-dining market is making a major change right now,” Nicholson says. “Millennials want a completely different experience, and [self-serve taprooms offer] an opportunity to create your own experience.”
For business owners, self-pour taprooms provide higher keg yields than traditional bars or brewery tasting rooms, Nicholson says. The average keg yield at a bar or restaurant is 76% due to returned or incorrect orders, excess foam, overpours, giveaways or free tastings, he says. That compares with 99% in a self-serve taproom.
“Everything that is poured is sold,” Nicholson says. In a self-pour taproom, there’s also “more opportunity to sell a smaller taste of a higher-cost product.”
iPourIt has taps in more than 155 U.S. locations, but Nicholson says the concept is most popular in Southern California, Colorado and — you guessed it — North Carolina.
“It has to do with the type of people that live in areas that are entrepreneurial … and places that are known for their craft beer,” Nicholson says. In recent years, self-pour taprooms have opened in Asheboro, Greenville and Raleigh.
Hoppin’ owners Rich Moyer and Drew Nesemeier opened their Charlotte self-pour taproom in December 2017. Hoppin’ offers 62 iPourIt taps serving wine, beer and kombucha and served more than 127,700 unique customers in 2018. They plan to open at least two more locations in the coming months, including Pinhouse, a self-pour 1920s themed bar with four duckpin bowling lanes in Charlotte’s trendy Plaza-Midwood neighborhood.
Nesemeier says one of the most appealing things about self-pour service is that you don’t have to commit to a full pint of beer.
“You can try 2 ounces of this, 2 ounces of that,” Nesemeier says. “Within your 32-ounce allowance, you could try 16 different beers if you wanted to.”
Critics might conclude the self-serve taprooms eliminate the human aspect typical restaurants offer and will take away jobs. But both Pour and Hoppin’ say they have just as many humans running the show as any other taproom.
“As the food and beverage industry changes, if you can use technology to create a consistent and quality product … you are doing it for the right reasons,” Tomforde says. “Jobs don’t have to be lost through technology; they can be transitioned.”
Moyer says he believes customer service at Hoppin’ is more personal than at a typical bar.
“If you’re at a bar, the bartender has to help a bunch of other people, so all they care about is getting you your drink and moving on to somebody else,” he says. “We give you service when you check in. Someone’s there to greet you with a smile on their face and explain the process. Our staff’s there to show you how the taps work. And there’s always staff running around picking up and cleaning up after everyone in here.”
But the key to self-serve beer?
“People like the convenience,” Moyer says. “It’s like you’re at home. You can go to the fridge and grab another beer. Except our fridge is a lot bigger.”