40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 46: Expansion culminating in espresso and the Red Room in 1993

40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 46: Expansion culminating in espresso and the Red Room in 1993

40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 46: Expansion culminating in espresso and the Red Room in 1993

Previously: 40 Years in Beer (Book II) Part 45: The Silo and Oertels, as well as a pivotal newspaper article (1992).

There were two trips by plane, separated by twenty years. In retrospect, they seem like bookends.

The first came in July of 1991, when I left New Albany for Košice to teach English, returning after seven months, and subsequently entering the O’Connell family restaurant and business. Then, roughly five hundred years later (okay, January 2, 2010), I flew back from a Christmas season in Germany with my second wife Diana; we’d been married in 2004.

There followed a line in the sand, an purely involuntary 42-month moratorium on foreign travel owing NABC’s Bank Street Brewhouse project, which was my idea, but had struggling mightily since its 2009 founding. Already we seemed headed toward perpetual non-profit status (the brewery was NOT incorporated as a charitable write-off), and the coming years resembled trench warfare.

Speaking of metaphors, to this very day I’ve never been to the Waterloo battlefield in Belgium, but why go there when I experienced my own personal Waterloo at BSB. By 2015 the garbage chute was greased for a metaphorical boat ride to far-off St. Helena, and bags were being packed.

Those 42 months of BSB-induced travel deprivation definitely made Roger a sour character, and in some ways they broke me. Being trapped in America was a reminder of how spoiled I had become during the years 1991 – 2010, from ages 31 through 50, when it had been my enduring good fortune to set foot on the European continent at least once every single year – if only for those first two days of 2010.

The record totaled 28 separate trips, and what’s more, I was still young enough to enjoy them.

Concurrently, the original restaurant and pub business – by then properly referred to as NABC Pizzzeria & Public House – was at its very zenith of influence and sales volume, and it had to be, or else the expansion project in downtown New Albany could not have been sustained without subsidies. In fact, there was never a time when BSB could stand on its own feet financially.

And yet in spite of the inevitable setbacks, the period 1991 – 2010 arguably was my heyday in terms of achievement as a forever reluctant adult, although at no point did I ever feel “all grown up” (and probably never will). Here’s a roughly chronological bullet list.

  • Full-time employment at the Public House.
  • A neurological health scare (surpassed).
  • Marriage to Amy and the purchase of a house.
  • Further remodeling at Rich O’s BBQ, which soon became the Public House.
  • Michael “The Beer Hunter” Jackson’s visit to Louisville (and our fledgling beer business).
  • Sportstime Inc.’s founder, my father-in-law, was consumed by his personal demons.
  • I became a co-owner of the re-incorporated New Albanian Brewing Company
  • NABC’s first exploration into brewing on site was useful, but went nowhere.
  • NABC expanded into the entire building at 3312 Plaza Drive.
  • A walk-in cooler was added and equipped with 12 additional draft lines, paving the way for …
  • … Gravity Head, perhaps my greatest ever “hit” in the beer biz.
  • My father died at 76 in 2001.
  • A small brewery was added in 2002.
  • Amy and I were divorced but continued working together.
  • Diana and I were married and bought a house in downtown New Albany.
  • I became involved with civic affairs and neighborhood revitalization.
  • Bank Street Brewhouse opened, and I became a member of the board of directors of the Brewers of Indiana Guild.
  • A dozen or more beer-themed group trips to Europe were organized, first aboard busses and later structured around beercycling.

Wherein I emerged grudgingly as a recovering shy/extroverted Falstaffian front man (well, someone had to do it), becoming a poster child for eating, drinking, cigar-smoking and all-purpose merriment, while working stupidly long hours, riding perhaps 10,000 miles on a bicycle, walking thousands more miles for recreation when not biking, learning what “social media” meant, being periodically devoured by it, and finding time on rare occasions to court, spark and sleep.

Looking back, it exhausts me completely – and I’m leaving out the kegs changed, floors swept, tables cleaned, employees trained, tabs settled, pizzas eaten and FOSSILS newsletters printed, stapled, stamped and mailed, not to mention drinking enough beer to float a battleship around (thanks, Ronnie Van Zant).

Small wonder that knees, hips and shoulders are eroding as retirement age beckons.

I might concede to have been living the dream throughout, except I never really knew what the dream was supposed to be. Ultimately, cashing out of NABC in 2018 for pennies on the dollar precluded any dream of recouping my considerable investment in sweat equity; however, it was the right thing to do, for them and me, and helped to manifest an entirely different dream about shedding stress and being able to enjoy a mutually gratifying and fulfilling second marriage.

In 2019 a song emerged to succinctly describe those years, courtesy of The Hold Steady’s “Denver Haircut.”

It doesn’t have to be pure.
It doesn’t have to be perfect.
Just sort of has to be worth it.

Most of the time, it was — and every now and then, I thought it might kill me.

From the outset of my new job at Rich O’s Public House and Sportstime Pizza, there was clarity. We were leaping into uncertainty, devoid of promises about pay scales, time off, European vacations or “success” of any sort. Working for yourself, you trust only that busting your butt leads to good things.

At first I barely understood what I was doing. But I knew there was a latent “work ethic” somewhere deep within, seldom revealed but fully capable of rendering mundane tasks into an every-waking-moment crusade excluding common sense. After all, my European travels always were organized as detailed learning opportunities that involved mastering a process (budget travel) and furthering my education. Fun was permitted, though only periodically.

The reason I’d always tiptoed around my work ethic was a fear that I’d become obsessed and mutate into my Depression-era father. But now it was time.

During those first months at Rich O’s I learned that a crusading (shall I suggest “evangelistic”?) mentality wasn’t negotiable; rather, it was required for me to be my best. I had to be fighting for something, or against it, and maybe both simultaneously, or else the juice simply wasn’t worth the squeeze.

If I couldn’t convince myself that we were changing the world (as unlikely as this might be), then my morale sagged. So it remains all these years later, as I continue to search for ways beer can epitomize and encapsulate all of life.

Our first post-Roger growth spurt at Rich O’s came in 1993 when the buttoned-down insurance agents occupying their sliver of beige office space at last vacated, making possible a more direct route between kitchen and pub.

Concurrently Rich O’Connell, whose imminent departure from business, family and narrative will be surveyed in due time, bought an ancient cafeteria-style eatery in Louisville’s Butchertown neighborhood called East End Café, widely known as Min’s after its longtime matriarch.

The sellers were Burkhard, a native of Germany, and his wife Kay from Kentucky, and while the Min’s experiment proved short-lived, I’ve been friends with them ever since. Would Rich be flipping Min’s or running it? We didn’t find out until he had vamoosed.

Clouds of drywall dust resumed as the Rich O’s front room was expanded toward the wall delineating the rear of the kitchen, where an old swinging wooden door with handy porthole “borrowed” from Min’s was installed to lead into what would shortly become known as the Coffee Room.

In the barroom, beers kept pouring and projects coincided with customers. Seating space was created that soon became the Red Room. Yet another small back area remained, to be converted into office and storage space, where a primitive early computer began whirring. This “office” was separated from the bar by a suburban-grade window.

I’m surprised to recall that our second keg box and back bar modification didn’t occur until early 1995, adding three draft spouts and a future doorway into the next annexation.

From its inception, The Red Room pleased and confounded patrons in roughly equal measure, although by my own calculation, 12 – 14 added seats were the best part of it – proving that I’m not totally immune to the bottom line. Décor was the big question, and when I saw the unadorned beige office walls, the answer came fairly quickly: red paint and posters.

One day many years later, I received a question via e-mail, so here’s a Red Room digression.

A little while ago I noticed there was a room that had pictures of several mass murdering, genocidal, tyrannical dictators on the walls. As a customer what meaning should I take from that? In my opinion it seems to show support from the owner of New Albanian of these tyrants? I enjoy the pizza at NABC but I don’t enjoy the thought of supporting someone that idolized people like the pictures and posters you seem to proudly display. Maybe I misunderstand their meaning.

My initial reaction was annoyance: Who’d sneaked in and pulled down my nasty commie posters, replacing them with nastier fascists like Hitler, Mussolini and Idi Amin?

Then I realized the writer was referring to Red Room stalwarts like Lenin, Castro … and Gus “Mad Dog” Hall. Here’s what I told him in reply.

It isn’t necessarily a misunderstanding on your part, but what I can tell you with certainty is that there is no idolatry on mine. I remain a leftist, broadly speaking, and I traveled in the East Bloc and USSR as a young man in the 1980s, but while I found these countries fascinating from a number of standpoints, they were not places where I ever wished to live.

Your question is asked every now and then, and my answer always has been the same: The Red Room means whatever the observer wishes for it to mean: Kitschy poster art emporium, spoils of Cold War victory or a shrine of reverence.

However, the primary intent for me is for it to serve as a talking point to help keep a piece of still-recent history living, in the sense that with each passing year, fewer (mostly younger) customers have any idea what the era even was about.

The verdict of history is fairly clear when it comes to the legacy of Stalin and Mao, and I have confidence that interested parties will reach that conclusion, as you and I surely have. But they must first be interested, and motivated to investigate. In my view, the Red Room periodically serves that purpose.

To the best of my knowledge, the preceding explanation is true. Now that decades have passed and the older generations have departed, precious little discussion takes place about the “-isms” dominating the entirety of the 20th century. Forgetting history begets repeating it, as either Santayana or Carlos Santana once said. It is my intention not to do so.

He probably never made it through the first paragraph, the poor sot.

In truth, my prime motivation in 1993 was almost entirely to have a place to display the many propaganda pieces I’d schlepped home from travels abroad. I’d never had properly scaled walls at my living quarters sufficient to display more than a poster or two. One thing led to another, and there it was, with the three-panel Lenin triptych going up first.

Lenin endured for 20 years, suffering severe humidity damage from proximity to the dishwashing area on the other side of the wall, before being removed, photocopied and replaced by graphics wizard Anthony Beard following my exit from the company (I have the original Lenin art at home). More recently, Tony created a completely new Leninesque image taken from his longtime Elector Ale template.

When the Red Room first debuted, Bank Street Brewhouse was still 16 years away, but my favorite example of consumer behavior pertaining to history-related content occurred at BSB not long after we opened in 2009. Once again, it was about the them comm-a-nists.

Mimicking the Red Room’s design, our brewer David Pierce had the idea of affixing red stars and names to identify the fermenters and various brewery other tanks. Tony improved on Dave’s rendition and suggested the faces (originally, the fermenters were to be the Mt. Rushmore of the -ists). John Campbell helped with the names, which eventually included Hoosier legend Eugene Debs.

Large red decals were produced, which were visible from the public area in front. One evening a BSB server was asked by a visibly agitated male customer to explain Roger’s political beliefs in light of those red stars and leftist images, right there on the shiny new brewing equipment.

Our man on the floor, who’d studied history and political science, made a game effort to simplify complex complex threads of geopolitics, economics and the art of brewing for the customer (if I were to divulge that this customer, scion of an identifiably Falangist regional family, is a commercial pilot … would you knowingly shake your head?)

He responded by scribbling “Tell your Commie boss to share the wealth” on his charge card receipt and leaving the gratuity column blank, thus brutally stiffing the server while doing me no harm whatever.

Besides being dull, Fly Boy also was mistaken. I always share the wealth of my knowledge, as teachers tend to do. My advice to the aggrieved server, should such a question ever be asked again, was to say this: “We don’t care what sort of ‘-ist’ Roger is, just as long as he keeps signing our paychecks.”

The Red Room became immensely popular, and most of our patrons took it for what it was – or wasn’t. However, accompanying it was an innovation that produced decidedly mixed results: The Great Espresso Experiment.

With something like 150 square feet to spare adjacent to the new kitchen portal, with plumbing and electricity in close proximity, we installed a sink and built a counter on one side with stools for public use, then added a heavy duty employees-only storage bar facing it, meant for an espresso machine for our foray into caffeine.

Time in Europe convinced me that an American bar specializing in good beer should also offer espresso, for my personal consumption if no one else’s. In 1993 Louisville was not awash with espresso (Heine Brothers opened in autumn of 1994), but there were coffee vendors in a few of the malls, and one of them was closing up shop.

All we really needed was a small commercial espresso machine built for rough treatment, like the ones intended for drive-through coffee kiosks in the Pacific Northwest, so of course I fell head over heels for the first gaudy Italian-made Gaggia that winked at me, human or mechanical (my relationships are enduringly predictable).

In this instance, it was a modern “Potemkin” facsimile of a 1920s-era faux copper-clad machine.

It had a golden dome topped with a stirring, martial eagle, along with useless knobs and levers for show, conjuring espresso’s boiler room origins. Gorgeous coffee bins were included, far larger than might ever be needed. But I could envision grandiose track lights illuminating the dome with sight lines extending into the parking lot.

However I didn’t foresee people gazing through the smudgy window at 9 a.m., annoyed that Rich O’s wasn’t open yet, because COFFEE IS FOR MORNINGS, right?

The espresso machine’s price was bizarrely low, perhaps because it had a million-plus miles on it. The seller said she’d gladly teach us the ropes, which never happened, so after weeks of tinkering (and purchasing a brand new coffee bean grinder that cost as much as the whole machine itself), an older man named Joe emerged from the shadows, billed as one of the few humans residing in Louisville who could actually repair such a beast.

But Sierra Nevada came to town in 1993, and because these beers weren’t yet in Kentucky, it was a solid draw from across the river. Those cases of mass market swill were for our side hustle, a pet shampooing salon.

Joe was affable, and able to apply enough duct tape and baling twine to enable liftoff, and it was all downhill from there. Some years later we offloaded the Gaggia to a different mall operator in return for a ristretto to be named later; the “coffee room” was repurposed, and lessons were or were not learned.

Seems my European understanding of espresso didn’t align with Twin Peaks or Northern Exposure, neither of which I’d ever bothered watching. I assumed people who happily allowed me to pick their beers would also follow my explicit instructions to drink shots of espresso just the way the Deity intended damnit, but no, they wanted elaborate espresso-based drinks, requiring the purchase of a small dorm fridge for storing six varieties of real and artificial milk, along with whipped cream, syrups, chocolate sprinkles and go-cups.

And they wanted these extraneous annoyances in the morning, not at night. We weren’t close to being staffed sufficiently any time of day that such that bottom-line food and beer service could be paused for ten minutes to construct a frilly drink. The word “barista” didn’t even exist. Oddly, customers were displeased to learn there was no milk again today, and ignored my pleas to drink the damn thing black, won’t you?

Then Joe the espresso whisperer died, and after that the better coffee era quietly collapsed in a heap, yielding a financial bath, but some great afternoon times and tunes with my friend Jon, who’d stop by during off hours to discuss books and music over proper espresso shots.

Just as the Deity intended, all along.

In the summer of 1993, Amy and I were married by our friend, customer and “judge for the day” Lee Cotner via a decidedly unconventional civil ceremony at the Optimist Club in Georgetown, with an enormous rock and roll sound system manned by “Deejay T.R.”, and surely the finest draft beer lineup ever seen at a Southern Indiana wedding up to that point (and possibly since).

Defying all known standards of wedding etiquette, we demanded cash, not gifts, so as to enable some quality time in Europe – a special vacation, as it came to be known.

Next: The special vacation included a great many beers.

The front wall was gone, and the rear wall was about to be.