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Major in Beer

Tap lines of poetry

by | Apr 3, 2022

Dave Evans at The Great Lost Bear. photos/Tom Major

I can be a little judgy about tap lists. I study them like they’re poems, looking for themes. The best lists balance strength, hue, origin and popularity. A well composed list can be as short as an epigram; the Miss Portland Diner’s list is an elegant couplet – Allagash White and Shipyard Pale Ale. Andy’s Old Port Pub’s is more of an elegy, 17 carefully vetted Maine beers and a Vermont cider. The Great Lost Bear, which ran 80 taps pre-Covid but currently offers around 60, is a Homeric epic. 

I recently asked Bear proprietor Dave Evans to tell me some of his pub’s history, which, covering over four decades, is as epic as the beer list. Evans produced a menu from the earliest days, back when the Bear’s tap list was a quatrain: Genesee, Molson, Miller Lite and Michelob. It’s tough to parse that kind of poetry, but here goes… 

Miller Lite, the beer that posed an existential threat to Anheuser-Busch’s market dominance, could not be ignored by any sensible bar manager in the early 1980s. (True, it wasn’t on tap at Three Dollar Dewey’s, but nobody said founder Alan Eames was sensible. Visionary, yes, but not sensible.) Back then, Michelob was a premium lager, a grade higher in respectability than its stablemate Budweiser. Being an import, Molson was obviously a beer for the most discerning drinkers. And Genesee, a cream ale, wasn’t even a lager. For a four-tap bar, that’s a carefully crafted list for the pre-craft era.  

A menu with The Great Lost Bear’s original tap list.

Evans doubled the number of taps early on, but eight seemed the upper limit of draught potential. When Geary’s Pale Ale rolled out in 1986, the Bear was one of four bars to put it on tap immediately. When Sam Adams came to town, that took another tap. Again, an upper limit had been reached, so when Shipyard was launched, Sam Adams got the boot.  

Jim Koch, founder of Boston Beer Company, which makes Sam, didn’t become craft brewing’s first billionaire by ignoring details. Koch was soon on the phone to Evans, but instead of an argument, Koch offered an invitation. “He chartered a bus,” Evans recalled. “He took the whole staff down to the brewery in Jamaica Plain, got us drunk, then took us over to the Irish bar right nearby, where there was pizza and more drinking.”  

Before the visitors got back on the bus for the long, hazy ride back to Maine, Koch pulled Evans aside and told him something prophetic: “Never cancel a tap account to keep space for older American breweries. The future is in craft beer.”

“At that point, we realized … we had to put some more taps in,” Evans said.  “The distributors told me, ‘You’re out of your mind.  You’ll never sell the beer.’” But eight taps were added, and then eight more. “All of a sudden we couldn’t fill all the taps we had, so we went on a road trip down to Ipswich [home of Ipswich Ale Brewery, est. 1991] and said, ‘We’d like to carry your beer.’ And they said, ‘Well, we have to pay to get in the State of Maine,’ so we said, ‘We’ll pay the money and we’ll pick up the beer.’ We did the same thing for Boston Beer Works…. We’d go down every month or six weeks and have paperwork, saying it goes through Nappi [Distributors], but we were doing the ferrying.”  

“We’re not as much of a beer destination as we used to be,” Evans said.  “But we have regulars that know we put seventeen IPAs on at one time.  We’re not after a new crowd. We’re after a steady crowd, and we’ve got them.” 

And if Evans had to go back to a four-tap list now? The first three are easy. Allagash White, obviously (there’s a plaque on the wall celebrating the beer’s world premiere at the Bear). Bissell Brothers’ The Substance, which Evans was enjoying as we talked. Maine Beer Company’s Lunch. And the last? Several possibilities were mentioned, including Orono’s Tubular IPA, Lone Pine’s Portland Pale Ale, and Moat Mountain’s Czech Pilsner.  

Strength, hue, origin and popularity — like music to my ears.  

 

Got strong opinions? Send Tom Major your ideal four-tap beer list or favorite epigram at majorinbeer@gmail.com 

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