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Imagine your favorite bar in the near future. You walk in, take a seat, and a robot bartender scoots on over and parks itself in front of your stool. It looks a little like if Rosey from “The Jetsons” and Bender from “Futurama” had had a baby, if robots could bang. Its base is slotted into a track in the floor and its arms are hella long, nearly dragging on the absolutely spotless, unspilled-upon ground.
Using facial recognition, it identifies you as a Regular™, and modulates its “voice” to the gender, accent, and tone you’ve selected in the bar’s app—“female,” “Midwestern,” and “surly” for me, please. Based on your purchase history, logged ratings, and taste preferences, it recommends a handful of beers currently on tap, along with a suggestion of which one you’re likely to enjoy most, according to its predictive algorithm. (It’s probably an IPA.)
You order verbally, like you would with a human bartender, though blinking twice at the appropriate area of its LED display would suffice. The robot’s right arm, the one with the fingerless, LEGO-like cupped hand, raises, grabs the proper glassware, and spins fancifully as it extends to place it on the bar. The left arm, the one with five Perlick faucets for fingers—each perfectly smooth and slightly tapered and obtusely bent as if poised to play a synthesizer in a minor key—actuates and fills your glass.
Just as the last drop falls, but even before it enters the glass, you feel a vibration in your pocket. The near-field-communication device embedded in the bartop has read the mobile payment information from your phone and opened a tab on your account, including a 10% discount for being a Regular™.
This might sound like something out of a science fiction movie, but all that technology already exists—just not yet pulled together in a way to create your Dynamic Robotically Optimized Interactive Drinking (D.R.O.I.D.) bar. That’s the thing about sci-fi: It has the habit of becoming nonfiction if given enough time.
As an example, the android-like robots from Fritz Lang’s 1927, sci-fi-pioneering “Metropolis” took over 73 years to find a real-life approximation in Honda’s ASIMO robohumanoid. In contrast, the video calling software in “2001: A Space Odyssey” took only 35 years to debut IRL with Skype. The military drones from “The Terminator” needed just 17 years to find their way into the limelight in America’s War on Terror. And the human/AI rapport portrayed in “Her” took less than a decade to appear in our everyday lives, thanks to Siri and AirPods.
Using that logic, it’s actually surprising our fully automated, artificially intelligent, smartbar+ doesn’t exist already. Given how far other industries have moved, it’s strange that bars and restaurants haven’t progressed more.
But there has still been meaningful change over the last several years. In the ways we interact. In the ways we order. In the ways we pay. And new habits are taking hold. Contactless payment and curbside pickup might have been used previously, but have become ubiquitous this year. And with a global pandemic wreaking havoc on the service industry, and upending the way we socialize, other habits that were forming are now stagnating. Habits that were ingrained are starting to erode. And habits that seemed inconceivable just a year ago are beginning to stake a claim to our future.
The question is, will any of these shifts in our behavior—in how we approach, consume, or gather around alcohol—lead to lasting change in the way bars and taprooms function? Or will our relationship to booze and the places we drink, and how those places operate, continue to look like it always has?
WHAT IS DEAD MAY NEVER DIE “The horrible and reassuring thing about history is that nothing ever changes,” laughs historian and author Christine Sismondo. “Not even a tiny little bit.” Sismondo literally wrote the book on bars in America, chronicling the role taprooms, taverns, saloons, and speakeasies have played in American life throughout our national, political, and societal growth.
She maintains that bars won’t look too different on the other side of the pandemic. “You can look back at this institution that has survived so wonderfully for so long, in almost exactly the same form,” she says. But it’s not business as usual for American bars. They’ve never faced a situation quite like the one they’re currently experiencing, battling social distancing and lower-occupancy requirements, earlier closing times and citywide curfews (and in some cases, temporary shutdowns), all in response to a full-blown public health crisis.
Not even the 1918 influenza pandemic could provide lessons for 21st-century bars. At that time, most areas of the country were dry, for one thing. By the time the flu struck the U.S., Prohibition had already been passed by Congress, and many municipal and state governments had banned the production and sale of alcohol. And by April 1920, when the flu was finally beaten back, the 18th Amendment had been ratified, ordering remaining bars closed and alcohol producers shuttered.
“[After Prohibition] they put all these new laws in place about how things could get served, and who could sell beer, and who could sell liquor, but they came back regardless. And that’s one of the reasons why I think the bars now will be okay.”
— Christine Sismondo, historian (Imagine facing a multi-year, globe-spanning, life-altering, indiscriminately murderous disease without the help of a little sauce to get you through. Eesh.)
But even after all that, and after 14 years of not existing in any kind of legal capacity, when bars finally re-emerged from the national embarrassment that was Prohibition, they looked much like they had in 1917. That’s despite the fact that, as Sismondo is quick to note, state and federal governments tried their damnedest to make bars different.
“They put all these new laws in place about how things could get served, and who could sell beer, and who could sell liquor,” she explains, “but they came back regardless. And that’s one of the reasons why I think the bars now will be okay.”
She has a point. By all indications, this current pandemic is expected to last less than half the time it took the Spanish flu to run its course. And in this case, instead of the government working to put them out of business, legislation is being drafted at the local, state, and federal levels to help breweries and bars survive. But even so, Sismondo shares a common sentiment: “Dive bars are the ones that I’m most worried about.”
Even before the pandemic, neighborhood dives were starting to disappear. But now that their dark, cramped, and well-worn nature runs counter to the proclivities of a nation in search of bright, open, hygienic spaces, their future is even more uncertain. And changing the nature of dives to be more compliant with safety recommendations changes them in fundamental ways that run counter to their very existence.
“The last place anyone should be is inside a small, enclosed, neighborhood bar getting hammered,” says Michelle Hill, “and I say that with that being one of my favorite things.” Hill has owned and operated the St. James Tavern—a bona fide dive—in Columbus, Ohio for 24 years.
Hill made the decision to close the St. James on March 14, one day before Ohio Governor Mike DeWine ordered bars and restaurants across the state shut to in-house patrons. She’s remained closed since. “It’s going to be damn near impossible for me to put safety measures in place,” Hill says. “And even if I did, I could probably have about 12 people in here safely.”
At that point, she wouldn’t be profitable. And worse, she’d be risking the health and safety of her own community. So she’s digging in, hunkering down, and planning to stay closed until she, and the country as a whole, can open up safely again. Even with positive vaccine news, she’s prepared to hold fast. “I’m just going to stay closed, as long as I don’t run out of PPP money,” she laments. “It could be next spring or summer, quite honestly. Even fall with the rate things are going.”
The fact of the matter is that change isn’t easy for businesses like hers. She’s considered putting in a small kitchen to rent out, or removing one of the pool tables to install a few tall booths, or expanding into her paltry outdoor space with a few stools. But there’s hardly any wiggle room, physically or philosophically.
“People come to a bar like mine to sit and talk to each other closely, to have conversations with their bartender, to play pool, and to get a little drunk. I could try to change things up and put in barriers, but that would lose the entire vibe and point of being in your neighborhood bar.”
While history may tell us that most things don’t change, current realities suggest some simply can’t. But that doesn’t mean everything will look identical when things come back to life.
HABIT PENDING “All the laws around alcohol were written during Prohibition,” says Jeff Libby, founder of Table Tap. “So they didn’t foresee people pouring beers from iPads and things.” He’s right about that. Even in their wildest dreams, the puritanical politicos of the early 20th century could have never conceived of a company like Libby’s.
Table Tap specializes in self-pour technology, which allows consumers to bypass the bartender and streamline their drinking experience by serving themselves. This happens, most commonly, via the WallTender, a system that consists of wall-mounted taps, each unlocked by an RFID card reader, and controlled via an iPad display. Think of it like an age-protected, ounce-monitored, interconnected Coca-Cola Freestyle machine for beer, but without the ability to mix and match.
Libby has long believed Table Tap’s solutions make its clients’ businesses more efficient, more profitable, and more enjoyable. But even he admits it can be difficult to overcome the novelty of it all and affect customer habits. “People were very close-minded to the idea in the beginning, everyone kind of knocked it and said it was just a fad, that it was kinda cheesy,” he explains. “It’s always been a challenge to get people to change their behavior.”
In a pandemic, however, when consumers are trending toward less interaction and more automation, self-pour technology is uniquely suited to grow. And there’s plenty of room for innovation. Libby notes that Table Tap is currently in development of a smartphone-based, entirely touchless tap system that uses QR codes instead of RFID cards, with a patent already filed.
But while systems like the WallTender may solve some problems, they create others. Even though the taps aren’t all grouped together, they’re still well within six feet of each other, meaning two people pouring at adjacent stations would not be socially distant. And instead of one or two bartenders being the only ones dispensing beer, each customer is, at present, required to pull the handle, exponentially increasing the amount of contact points and germs being swapped.
Without a crystal ball it’s difficult to discern if self-pour systems or other technological advancements will have a seismic and long-lasting impact on the beer industry, or if they’ll go the way of the Cascadian Dark Ale or Brut IPA and fizzle out after a few years of buzz.
Daniel Levine, a futurist, trends expert, and director of the Avant-Guide Institute, thinks there’s at least a marginal chance for the tech to endure. “One of the things the pandemic has been revealing is that a bunch of trends we didn’t expect to be on our doorstep so quickly, are all of a sudden right in front of us,” he explains. And one of those trends is self-service.
Self-service can take many forms, whether that’s ordering for yourself with a QR code menu, pouring your own via tech like the WallTender, or checking yourself out with a service like Arryved. Arryved’s business has really “thryved” (I’m so sorry) during the pandemic. From March through July, the company’s touchless transaction point of sale service grew from about 400 to 600 “craft beverage establishments”—breweries, distilleries, cideries, and the like—amounting to about $1.5 million in transactions per month.
While Levine sees the self-service trend continuing beyond the pandemic, he doesn’t see it as a universal change. The way he describes it is more of a tiered adoption, a bifurcation of technology and humanity. The lower tier—dives, neighborhood bars, and “bar” bars—likely won’t embrace new technologies, for a variety of reasons. Maybe the initial investment cost is too high. Maybe that kind of change wouldn’t resonate with clientele. Or maybe it doesn’t fit within the “concept” of the establishment.
The middle tier—sports bars, fast-casual restaurants, and “run-of-the-mill” taprooms—are much more likely to include technology in their businesses. These places are about volume, and they’ll entertain anything they can to increase that volume and decrease wait time and impediments to ordering.
Levine compares the mindset to fast food restaurants. “A lot of McDonald’s franchises, for example, are putting in touchscreens,” he says. “And they’re doing that because it will enable them to employ fewer people, and it’s faster and better for them. But this technology is not always better for the customer.”
Think about using the janky self-service screen that’s increasingly popular at airport bars and restaurants. At best, it’s frustratingly complex, requiring you to swipe through page after page of questionably categorized menu items like some schmo thumbing through the yellow pages, searching for anything that might taste decent but sufficiently numb you until the drink cart rolls out. At worst, it’s a completely unusable bricked iPad, supposedly refurbished after some college student atop a giant inflatable swan dropped it in a pool last spring break.
But Levine is quick to note that different types of consumers prefer different types of service. “It’s hard to say which comes first with trends, the chicken or the egg. They sort of grow up together, with the technology changing us, and us changing the technology.”
He draws the analogy of a grocery store. Older people generally check out with an actual human cashier because they don’t want to deal with technology and the hassle of doing it themselves. But younger shoppers prefer the self-checkout terminals because they don’t want to deal with people. Even though it takes them a lot longer since they suck at scanning items, use way too many bags, and definitely do not know the numerical keycode for the avocado or kale they’re buying. So there’s a generational component at play, as well.
Getting back to Levine’s tiered theory: That top tier—high-end cocktail bars, bars in fine-dining restaurants, and most craft breweries—will be unlikely to adopt any automated practices. “We’re going to see humans be more involved here, because interacting with humans is becoming a luxury. And you’re paying a premium for that interaction, for that service.”
He adds a final thought to really punctuate the exchange. “Outside that premium sphere, the robots are coming for our jobs, eventually, and it’s disingenuous to say otherwise. But it’s hard to get people to change their behavior. That’s maybe the hardest thing. When the pandemic is in our rearview mirror, I think a lot of the future is going to look a lot like the past did.”
So a futurist and a historian walk into a bar and both order from an actual human bartender. That’s it. That’s the joke.
TUBE VACANCY When Jester King Brewery closed down in March, its staff had no idea when they were going to reopen, or, when they did, what their reality would look like. Because Jester King is a literal farmhouse brewery whose in-person experience relied heavily on the communal nature of its space and its beer—and often generated festival-sized crowds—the idea of limiting human interaction and increasing social distancing was daunting.
“We knew our entire experience was going to be different,” founder and owner Jeff Stuffings says. “We went from weekend days where we'd see somewhere between 1,000 to 2,000 people coming through, and we had to shave that down quite substantially to about 300 people as a maximum at any one time.” To get there, Jester King transitioned to an online-only reservation system that allows customers to book time in two distinct sessions, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, with a hard reset and thorough sanitization in between.
In a video posted to the brewery’s website announcing its reopening in May, Stuffings explains, “There was a sense of excitement to slowly begin to rebuild what this place had been leading up to the pandemic, and to do so responsibly by really embracing social distancing, embracing the outdoor nature of Jester King, and by embracing technology to rekindle community, but to do so safely and responsibly.”
“All the laws around alcohol were written during Prohibition. So they didn’t foresee people pouring beers from iPads and things.”
— Jeff Libby, Table Tap The idea of using technology to rekindle community seems slightly contradictory given the fact that, you know, the robots are coming for all of us. But to hear Stuffings tell it, it makes perfect, logical sense. In fact, he’s come to see real value in a lot of the adjustments the company has made.
“The biggest knock on our experience was always the long lines,” he explains. “And granted, it would be feast or famine, but on the weekends we would get overrun. Now with the reservation system, our staff knows exactly what to expect. We'd like to have more people on site than we do now, because revenue is down as a result of fewer people. But going back to that huge, festival-like crowd is not something I think we’ll do.”
To make up for the lower on-premise revenue, Jester King is looking to increase sales of canned offerings of non-farmhouse beers like its IPA and Lager product lines, each introduced in late 2019. Additionally, it has seen a huge uptick in sales via home delivery services, which has helped to fill the void, at least somewhat. But Stuffings is committed to keeping the number of guests lower, long-term.
He acknowledges that some people might be upset by that, but he’s quick to point to the enhanced experience for both guests and staff. In addition to the online reservation system, Jester King has pivoted to a QR code and app-based ordering system to streamline its service, allowing customers to spend less time waiting away from their tables, and more time with their family and friends.
Those are the types of advancements likely to endure after the pandemic ends, and to become ingrained in the drinking experience long-term: things that benefit the customer and the business alike. For adjustments like online ordering—both on-premise and off—and curbside pickup, the toothpaste is out of the tube. There’s no getting it back in.
Stuffings sees big things for online ordering via delivery services in particular. “I've absolutely loved the rise of third-party delivery options that chip away at the three-tier system,” he says. “It's not that I'm anti-distributor—distributors are essential to the beer business—but the rigidity of the three-tier system is unnecessary.”
Other breweries with a national footprint seem to agree. Businesses like Sierra Nevada and Bell’s and Deschutes have all incorporated home delivery services, specifically Drizly, prominently on their websites. That’s the type of convenience consumers won’t want to give up on the other side of this. And something that can help breweries make up for lost revenue, with larger margins found in bypassing the distributor tier.
But direct-to-customer delivery laws are different in every state, allowing some brewers to handle fulfillment themselves, while others, like Jester King, need to rely on third-party services. Similarly, not every locale is as conducive to nearly year-round outdoor drinking as Austin, Texas is.
As such, brewers above the Mason-Dixon line are having to get creative with how they provide safe outdoor drinking conditions for patrons during the less temperate months. Among the many, Solemn Oath Brewery, outside Chicago, has introduced what it has dubbed the Community Dome Forest, a grid of private geodesic domes outside their taproom. (Don’t want to drink in our larger, moderately ventilated hall that might harbor deadly germs? Maybe you’d prefer one of our hermetically sealed galactic igloos that undergo a space-aged ionized air cleaning between intimate chug sessions?)
Others still are facing the harsh reality that, based on their circumstances, they may not be able to welcome guests back safely until the spring, or until a vaccine is widely available—whichever comes first.
SAME AS IT EVER WAS As wide-ranging, predictive, and influential as science fiction has been in shaping the evolution of technology, it hasn’t really promised us much about the future of bars.
The Last Resort bar in “Total Recall,” The Snake Pit in “Blade Runner,” hell, even the Mos Eisley Cantina from “Star Wars”—arguably the most famous sci-fi bar in history—all paint a mild portrait of a futuristic bar-going experience. Sure, the patrons might be mutants or aliens, and the decor might be unstuck in time, or there might be some semblance of technology here and there—but the bar itself isn’t radically different than what we’ve been seeking out for hundreds of years.
“[...] Interacting with humans is becoming a luxury. And you’re paying a premium for that interaction, for that service. Outside that premium sphere, the robots are coming for our jobs, eventually, and it’s disingenuous to say otherwise. But it’s hard to get people to change their behavior. That’s maybe the hardest thing. When the pandemic is in our rearview mirror, I think a lot of the future is going to look a lot like the past did.”
— Jeff Levine, the Avant-Garde Institute In each instance, a free-thinking, non-robot being is standing behind an elevated bartop, doling out drinks to, and chatting with, paying customers. There’s music and dancing and no doubt debauchery, which are all things we’ve always sought in the bars we frequent. There aren’t even any innovations in how the booze is dispersed. Bottles and taps and glassware like we’ve always used still reign supreme in these advanced and informed visions of the future.
It's difficult to extrapolate trends into fantasy—accurately, if at all—in areas that are so historically and thoroughly averse to change. Think about what constituted state-of-the-art technology around the turn of the 20th century. Automobiles! Airplanes! THE RADIO! And look at how far we’ve advanced over the last 120 years. Now look at the way a saloon functioned pre-Prohibition. Look at the basic operating principles of a tavern in the 1300s. Go all the way back to the kapeleia in ancient Greece.
While things on the periphery have changed dramatically over millennia, and will continue to, the way humans obtain alcohol has advanced in baby steps by comparison. In these troubled times we find ourselves chattering constantly about “the new normal,” and resigning ourselves to the fact that “things will never be the same.” But there’s plenty of evidence to suggest they will.
At least in the ways that matter most. The ways that breed intimacy and familiarity and comfort. The ways that affect how we gather and celebrate and commiserate. The ways that have gotten us through the darkest of times and served as the bedrock of our societies.
And that’s great news, if, like me, you’re none too thrilled about ordering your beer from an artificially intelligent kegerator on wheels.
Words by Kyle Kastranec
Illustrations by Ben Chlapek