Review: The Brickskeller, Washington DC

I’m generally an easy going sort of diner, and never really understood the motivations of complaining restaurant reviewers who don’t have anything positive to say about the places they ate, but would rather nit-pick at the tiniest flaws they can find. Half of me wants to say “…Until Now,” but the other half is holding on to the notion that this post isn’t going to be a typical annoying restaurant review.

The Brickskeller (“Brick Cellar”) is an old beer bar in Washington DC. They’re proud of having been in business since October 7, 1957: long before there were any major national beer festivals, before home brewing was made legal, and before Michael Jackson (no, not that one) had his first sip of beer.

Well, I wasn’t born until 1971, and didn’t make it to the Brickskeller until 37 years later. While I appreciate everything The Brickskeller may have done to promote the cause of good beer in America over the years, they’re no longer the only game in town(s). Unfortunately, being the first is not the same as being the best, and I don’t think the Brickskeller is the best anymore. That said, they do have a great selection of beer, and it’s definitely worth going if you want to try something you’ve never had before.

The Brickskeller has decades more character than the beer bars I’m used to going to in Pittsburgh, in both the good and the bad sense. The overall feeling was, as you might expect, of a brick cellar. It seemed to have several smaller separate rooms. Apparently there is also an upstairs, where the taps are: it wasn’t open until 7:30pm, so we were limited to their large selection of bottles.

They have a large collection of beer cans on display, from the days when even good beer came in cans. Some of them looked like old oil cans: metal quarts with a screw-off cap. There was a nice model sailing ship behind glass next to our table.

Unfortunately the chairs and tippy tables also looked like they were circa 1957, but hadn’t been reupholstered frequently enough. A speaker from some remote juke box over our table was too loud for conversation, but only played music sporadically. The menus were flimsy photocopied paper, but far messier and more worn out than their disposable nature should suggest. There were many pages dedicated to their list of beer in bottles, but the list was not updated recently. Several more pages were dedicated to the history of the bar and their importance in the American beer scene. My overall impression was of a place heavy on character but light on charm.

Their beer list was impressive, numbering around a thousand different bottles. I limited my time to the Belgian selections, because they had several choices I haven’t found in Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, it took me four tries before I found a beer on the list they actually had: Caracole’s Saxo. I enjoyed it, I’d get it again. Marla wasn’t driving either, so she had a Kasteel Rouge. For my second beer, I gave him a first and second choice of two more Belgians I hadn’t had before, and ended up with my second choice: Floreffe Triple. This one was also good, with a curiously different sweetness. The beer was slightly but not exceedingly more expensive than bottles in my normal haunts in Pittsburgh, which wasn’t entirely unexpected.

The menu was mostly very basic bar food. It wasn’t very expensive, but our meals also weren’t spectacular. The pizza was quite bad, actually. My sandwich and the fries were fine, and the cheese board and bread were very good.

Part of my problem might be my high expectations. Pittsburgh is a only small city: bigger cities like DC and Chicago must have better places than we do, right? I expected the Brickskeller to be better than Sharp Edge’s selection of taps, food and decor, and better than D’s selection of bottles. Unfortunately I was wrong. The beer selection was comparable to D’s, but you weren’t allowed to go pick up your own bottle. The food was worse than D’s, the decor was worse than Sharp Edge, and I never even got to see a tap list.

I’m sure I sound nit-picky and unhappy with my experience, but I’m glad I went, and I’d consider going back again (for the beer, but not for the food). I think I would’ve liked it better with more beer and fewer kids. But the biggest reason I enjoyed it was to remind me of what I have back home. I’m glad I enjoy my regular haunts better than a place I can’t go very often, and I’m glad I no longer have to wonder whether that’s the case or not.

Change and Technology

I learned at a fairly early age that I “fear change.” I had a lot of stress entering new schools or changing jobs, for example.

Eventually I also learned that I’m “risk averse,” especially with respect to finances.

But some of my other characteristics do not seem to fit these labels. While I don’t generally consider myself an “early adopter”, I am very comfortatble with technology, gadgets, and the change that is propelling our increasingly “digital lifestyle.” This doesn’t seem consistent with my “fear of change.”

I recently found the name for a pattern which is consistent with all of my self-observations. I hate to admit it, but just like almost everyone else in the world, I have a fear of the unknown. The difference is, the things which are unknown to me are different than what is unknown to many other people.

Although I’m very comfortable with the predictable nature of computers, I am very uncomfortable with social interaction with other people. I don’t know how other people will react in a social situation, and when people start behaving aberrantly I don’t know how to to debug them. The fact that I call it “debugging” is probably another indicator of where I’m coming from. Some of the strongest negative memories I have are related to social fauxes pas I’ve made in the past. The unknowns I’m afraid of almost always have to do with people and social situations. The fact that I fear failure in a social situation means I must care about this; I’m just not very good at it.

On the other hand, I know that many other people are afraid of the unknowns related with technological change. I know this, because businesses are throwing millions of dollars trying to stifle certain forms of technological innovation, and lawmakers are trying to pass laws against certain previously unanticipated uses of technology, even when the constituents I’m most familiar with and most sympathetic with disagree with these policies. From my perspective, there must be a very great fear of the unknown or fear of change driving these dangerous trends.

I don’t remember exactly who made this observation, but it stuck with me: Generally, when businesses imagine potential uses of technological innovations, they tend to frame things in a way which benefits the business, but doesn’t harm or significantly change their current business model. They imagine the current industry leaders will be able to take advantage of the benefits of new technology without significantly changing or impacting their current business practices.

The biggest current example of this is the electronic distribution of content (of any form), versus the incumbent physical object distribution industries: The Internet vs. Everyone Else. Making a copy of electronic content is essentially free, and that copy can be made at almost any remote location just as easily as where the original resides. On the other hand, books, magazines, photographs, movies, and even audio CDs have huge costs associated with them, both in making the copy, but also in moving, storing, promoting, and selling the physical objects themselves.

The incumbent content distribution industries saw the Internet from a long way away, but they imagined a world where they would benefit from the reduced costs of making copies for free, while still acting as a distribution oligopoly. Step 3: Profit!

The reality is somewhat different: reducing the cost of a copy to zero lowers the barrier of entry so far that it’s a risk to incumbent businesses. Many middleman companies have become irrelevant, because content creators and the end users of content can now connect directly and bypass them completely. In my mind, this is a good thing, and we should embrace it. Unfortunately, the industries which no longer need to exist are bleeding money in an effort to resist change, instead of finding a successful place in the new world which is to come.

In recent months I’ve read some very good articles describing the changes which are currently going on, and some of them have positive suggestions for how incumbent industries might change to survive in the new reality.

Clay Shirky recently wrote an excellent article about how the newspaper industry has been dealing with technological change (or not dealing with it, as the case may be) in the last few decades. One quote (about the syndicated newspaper column, specifically) which really stuck with me, from the early 90’s, rings as true today as it was then, but unfortunately no one was listening: “When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.”

Ian Rogers gave a talk to the Record Industry basically about how they need to get over it, and either change (with suggestions on how to do this) or die. Seth Godin gave a similar talk about the future of the music industry, to a bunch of music industry execs a year ago. They both seem to agree that the music industry is not failing, but the recording industry is; and, that this should not matter at all to the primary parties involved: the artists, and their fans.

I understand the Internet and the change it has brought, so I do not fear it. What I do fear is the reaction other people (or industries) are having to that change. It may be a painful change, but in the long run I think it’ll be better for all people and the welfare of the planet itself, when we can all access the content we want to access, without the waste associated with the creation, distribution, and disposal of physical objects.

Elitism vs. Progress

I had been thinking lately about the divisiveness I see in the attitude held by some “cool” bicyclists about cars. I don’t like the “us vs. them” (bicyclists vs. cars) mentatlity some cyclists tend to have.

Today, I read a piece by Paul Spinrad which describes my thoughts much more succinctly than I could hope to:

In politics, I think there are two competing motivations for voters to support a cause publicly. One is to influence the majority to agree, to make changes that you believe in, and the other is to distinguish your opinions as superior to most other peoples’. These two motivations generally cause people to act in similar ways, but I’ve found some “tells” that reveal the underlying elitist motivation.
Under a democracy, the elitist motivation is self-defeating: If your true aim is to distinguish yourself from the masses, you really don’t want your side to win– your aim is better served when more people vote the other way, and then you can be disgusted with most peoples’ stupidity and wash your hands of responsibility.

Paul goes on to use this example to criticize anti-religious atheists for their counterproductive, divisive tactics. I think this principle applies much more widely, especially anywhere elitism and the “cool factor” can be found. In order for a movement to be worth joining, it must be worth it for that movement to succeed; anything else is fashion and a waste of time.

Bringing this back to bicycling and bicycle commuting: Some people fear their pastime might become popular or trendy, and believe this will somehow lower its value. I don’t commute by bicycle because I’m cool, or better than other people. I do it because I enjoy it. I want more people to enjoy it.

By the Keg: EEBC’s Session Ale #21, “Grisette”

Last year I got sick of recycling beer bottles, and the tremendous waste associated with this. Recycling glass is better than throwing bottles away, to be sure. But fifty years ago (or today, in almost any other country) bottles were regularly cleaned and reused. Why not now?

Some consider the “give a hoot, don’t pollute” ad campaign, and its modern “recycle” replacements to be nothing more than a giant exercise in externalizing costs. Companies reduce the cost of their products by using inexpensive disposable/recyclable containers, and forcing taxpayers to pay for their disposal. After moving to disposable packaging, companies had so much money left over they could afford TV ads to tell people not to throw trash on the ground.

It turns out that in some cases, bottles are still reused today. I started making an effort to buy my beer in refillable Growlers (half gallon jugs) as often as possible. I rode my bike to East End Brewing Company on growler days, and filled up at D’s occasionally out of convenience.

But growlers have their own problems. The beer is relatively expensive: you nearly pay bar prices, at D’s. And you need to refill them fairly often. This led me to consider filling one of my soda kegs (aka “Cornelius Kegs” or “Sixtels”) at EEBC, but I never got around to it.

Then, I tried Session Ale #21: “Grisette.” This is a small (low alcohol) Belgian style beer. It is excellent! It’s spicy and flavorful, and doesn’t send me under the table (or my foot into my mouth?) too quickly.

Both of my homebrew kegs were empty, so I got one filled with Grisette (well, Marla did: thanks!) and it has been great. The beer stays carbonated (with some help from my CO2), and I won’t need to refill it often. Even better, a 5 gallon keg costs as much as 5 half-gallon growlers, so it costs as little as an average beer in a case (in Pennsylvania, anyway).

For anyone who brews beer, I definitely recommend considering kegging your beer instead of bottling it. It’s faster, more convenient, and when you use CO2 to dispense your beer, it stays fresh almost as long as in bottles. I bottled my Gruit, the first bottling job I’ve done in a long time, and it was no fun at all: label removal, bottle washing, and then floor washing after the mess of filling everything up.

The main downside of kegging is the startup cost. Luckily, Dad found some kegs at a scrap metal yard around the time they were being phased out in soda vending locations, and bought them by the pound. But knowing what I know now, I’d still invest in kegs if I had to buy them.

And as a side perk, you can probably get your keg filled at a local microbrewery, for only slightly more than the cost of brewing a batch.

Bad Bike Racks

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that Pittsburgh City Councilman Bill Peduto proposes installing bike racks with advertisements on city parking meters. Since I’m not a city resident, I can’t complain to my Councilman, so I’ll rant here instead.

This arrangement seems to make a lot of sense, from the city’s perspective. We get more bike racks, which was an issue already on the agenda. And, the city doesn’t have to pay for anything. Everyone wins!

However, from a cyclist’s perspective, this makes no sense at all. Cyclists can already lock their bicycles to parking meters, so they do not stand to gain anything through the installation of these racks. In fact, the racks are bolted onto the parking meter poles, and are smaller than a bicycle, which creates a new point of failure that didn’t previously exist.

The racks do provide a small advantage to cyclists who use a cable lock. A cable lock can be slipped over the top of a parking meter, but it can be locked safely to the loop on the auxiliary rack. However, anyone with a cable lock can already attach their bicycle to something larger such as a telephone pole.

These racks provide little benefit to the cyclist, while plastering our urban environment with even more advertisements. I would prefer new bicycle racks in locations where bicycle parking is not already available, instead of this waste of energy and resources for the sole purpose of increasing commercial billboard space.

Lego Batman: Toys vs. Games

Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood recently released their nominations for the 2009 TOADY award for Toys Oppressive And Destructive to Young children., an excellent video game news site, pointed out that LEGO Batman: The Videogame is among this year’s contenders for the TOADY award.

I agree with the CCFC’s general intent, and the other four nominees seem entirely appropriate for this award. However, I think CCFC has missed the mark in a fundamental way, when nominating LEGO Batman for this “award.”

The problem is, LEGO Batman: The Videogame isn’t a toy. It’s a game.

Good toys provide a platform which inspires play, without limiting a child’s freedom. A good game provides a strict framework which restricts allowable actions, while providing goals which must be accomplished while following those restrictions. Both toys and games are valuable tools for learning and playing, but they are valuable in different ways, and for different reasons.

Saying that LEGO Batman is an oppressive version of a LEGO building kit is like saying Go (the board game) is an oppressive bowl of rocks. While true, it completely misses the point: a game is a game as opposed to a toy exactly because it has rules and structure that good toys lack.

I will admit that the branding and marketing of LEGO Batman is somewhat heavy-handed compared to the average hand-carved wooden toy car. But unlike almost all other video games launched along with a movie, the LEGO video games are not primarily cobranded “shovelware.” The marketing may not be ideal, but the games themselves can easily stand on their own merits even in the absence of the movies they were launched with. LEGO Star Wars is a far better game than the abysmal Star Wars movie it was originally launched with.

All of the LEGO video games (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Batman) share some very positive qualities that are hard to find in other video games marketed for children:

  • Cooperation: Multiplayer Lego games are cooperative, not competetive. Players must cooperate to make progress in the game. Cooperation, compromise, and civil conversation between children, or even between a parent and child, can be difficult, and games are a good place to practice these skills.
  • Creative problem solving: These are primarily physical puzzle games, not fighting games. Some of the puzzles are quite difficult to solve, and repeat play provides useful practice with remembering and executing a multi-step process.
  • Exploration: These games have fairly large worlds to explore, and many hidden surprises to find.
  • Money management: In the Lego games, you collect “Studs” which you can use to buy additional characters or other gameplay elements. This progressive mechanic teaches that you can’t have everything for free right now, but that you must “work” for it. Using money instead of a typical simpler “unlocking” mechanic forces kids to choose between alternate rewards, when using their limited resources.

It is unfortunate that an excellent game like Lego Batman has to suffer the wrath of proxy parenting groups, when even within the realm of video games, there are much more worthy candidates for the TOADY. Lego Batman seems to be singled out for defiling the long-beloved LEGO name. Instead, I am glad that products with the LEGO name on them still have high quality in comparison to their direct peers.