Friday, May 9, 2008

Once in awhile you get shown the light...

One of the most elusive prizes in the world of beer is that perfect pint of living, breathing, cask-conditioned bitter.  Despite the care and skill applied to its production and dispense, it is, by definition, fragile and dynamic.  This quixotic quest for perfection leads the seeker to a variety of pubs, bars, and breweries, often to find oneself enjoyably close but falling just a tad short.  No matter, as close is still pretty delicious, and some combination of good food, relaxing atmosphere, and conviviality usually surrounds a committed cask beer program.

Almost equally elusive is the magic that happens in a great pub, when all of those individual components come together in a whole far greater than the sum of their parts.  The pub, as an institution, can trace its roots all the way back to the tavernas of ancient Greece, and is cousin to many similar institutions: beer halls, brasseries, bars, inns, roadhouses, restaurants, and izakayas.  They all serve and strengthen their communities, bringing people together around food and drink.  But the pub may be unique among them in the special way it bestows a sense of ownership on the community around it.

I am both humbled and inspired by the many great pubs in which I have hoisted a pint, but at the same time, I know a pub can achieve even more.  Few pubs are actually attached to a brewery, and ours is the heart and soul of Magnolia, where we serve a muse that demands creativity, careful sourcing, and attention to every detail.  Brewing in small batches, experimenting with ingredients and techniques, managing an elaborate cask program...these are luxuries afforded to the small pub brewers like us.  This is the "brewpub" part of Magnolia, and it defines who we are.  It connects us to the pub-brewing of the middle ages, when a branch or wand was hung outside a home to signal a new batch of beer was ready for the neighbors to come by and enjoy.

Just as important to me, however, is the way the kitchen mirrors that identity, for that same family brewing the beer would have offered home-cooked meals as well.  That's the "gastropub" part of Magnolia, and it's about reviving a lost art of pub cookery that pre-dates the modern era of fried and simplified bar food made with mass produced ingredients.  It's about re-imagining what pubs might have been like at one time, by diving deeper into traditional butchery, charcuterie and sausage making, and other elements of nose-to-tail and farm-to-table food production.  

Brewing, at one time, would have shared the stage with such culinary endeavors, because in our agrarian past, that was all we would have known to do.  While I have little interest in an historical recreation of the past, I find the story of artisan brewing strengthened by this connection and I love the notion of bringing some of these connections into the here and now.  

Combined with honest and heartfelt hospitality, I think this is the path to a better pub, one that nourishes and sustains its loyal locals in a variety of ways.  And I hope that, far more often than not, we get everything "just exactly perfect" in this quest to be a good pub.

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