Serve-yourself bar offers unique experience

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Chris Kyle says that Draft, with about 60 different beers (30 of which are from Virginia), has the largest collection of local taps in the state. Photo by Tom Daly Chris Kyle says that Draft, with about 60 different beers (30 of which are from Virginia), has the largest collection of local taps in the state. Photo by Tom Daly

The Downtown Mall’s newest bar doesn’t have a bartender. Technically, it doesn’t even have a bar. At Draft, there is no barrier between the customer and 60 taps of beer.

“It is pour-your-own, with no bartender,” says Chris Kyle, Draft’s technology manager.

On arrival, customers stop in at the front desk, where their IDs are checked and a credit card is swiped or cash is taken to activate an electronic pass card. Above each of the beer taps (plus four wines) is a touchscreen that displays the name, alcohol content, bitterness and other information about the beer, with a slot in which to place the pass card. Beer-lovers are only charged for the exact amount of beer they choose to dispense into their glass.

The magic is enabled by a wide range of technological innovations. Kegs of beer are transported into the basement on a special miniature elevator into a cold storage room. Beneath each keg (some of which are only five to 15 gallons to ensure that less-popular beers do not become stale) is a precise electronic scale that measures exactly how much beer is poured. Unlike most bars that only chill the kegs, Draft also refrigerates the beer lines all the way up to the tap.

Running a bar this way is a first for central Virginia. One Petersburg wine and beer retailer, The Bucket Trade, has a similar automated system with 16 taps that was installed months before Draft opened. Unlike Draft, The Bucket Trade also offers growlers for off-premises consumption.

“The card system that we have is in use in other parts of the state but not on this scale,” says Kyle. “We believe that in the Mid-Atlantic there is nothing like this.”

One of the first concerns about a bar without a bartender is how to stay on the right side of the regulations enforced by the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

“That’s something we went after in the beginning,” says Rich Baker, general manager of Draft. “…We went directly to the ABC and explained how the concept worked and made sure that it met their requirements. It’s called a ‘virtual pitcher,’ which says that a customer can have a certain amount of beer but then they have to have an interaction with staff.”

When Draft’s computer logs that someone has poured 32 ounces, he is cut off until he speaks with a staff member to have another 32 ounces approved. No big deal—just a friendly chat with one of the hosts that demonstrates you aren’t sloppy drunk.

“I have to say, I was really impressed with not just the efficiency of how they operate but how they want to make sure that everyone is doing the right thing and following the law,” says Baker about ABC. “Even before we applied for a license they were courteous and helpful. Then going through the licensing process they kept us informed at every step of the way. …So maybe there’s a new ABC? Working with ABC was a great experience. They do care. They want to be business-friendly…our whole impression of them changed through this process.”

At a recent test run for friends and family, dozens of guests swiped their cards and filled glasses. But a funny thing happened: Almost nobody was holding a full-sized pint glass. Miniature tasting glasses were the most popular.

“It caused a little bit of surprise,” says Kyle. “We found that people were much less likely to pour a full pint of beer. People wanted to [sample] smaller pours and go back and try a few ounces at a time. I believe it is the largest collection of local taps in the state at 30 taps, plus 30 or so of national and international taps.”

“If you went to a [normal] bar and told a bartender, ‘I want to try all these different beers,’ they hate your guts!” says Baker.

Even the glassware (in three different sizes) is high tech.

“It’s called etched, laser-cut,” says Eric Lane, one of Draft’s hosts. “At the bottom of the glass they cut into it, where it is going to allow bubbles to form around where the cut is, where it is a little rougher than the rest of the glass. It will cause the carbonation to rise up and make any beer you are tasting a little more aromatic.”

Draft, which opened last weekend and operates as a sister restaurant to Commonwealth Restaurant & Skybar across the Downtown Mall, also offers food, with a focus on light, quick fare, such as sandwiches, pretzel bites and a Greek-inspired take on nachos. In addition, a seafood steamer cranks out mussels, clams and shrimp, and a few heavier entrées are available for dinner. Draft is also open for lunch, but the focus is on beer and sports.

Twenty televisions ring the walls of the bar, four displaying the menu and 16 showing different live sporting events. But unlike many sports bars, patrons aren’t bombarded by the sound of roaring crowds, whistles and announcers. Like Draft’s beer offerings, you only get exactly as much as you want. The sets are all muted, and patrons are encouraged to use a free smartphone app called Tunity.

“If you point your phone at a TV that is playing a live event, the audio from that event will be streamed to your phone and you can listen with headphones,” says Kyle. Inexpensive headphones will be offered at the front desk.

No tipping is expected, but if you insist, the money is donated to charity—staff are all paid a living wage.

Some visitors may miss the presence of a bartender, but Draft’s managers believe that being freed from hustling out drinks and keeping track of tabs will free up staff to interact with customers and talk about beer. And there will never be another long wait for a bartender who is buried in orders—just fill up your glass yourself.

“At Draft you’ll never have to wait to get a drink,” Kyle says, “and you get to go home with your bartender every night!”

Contact Jackson Landers at eatdrink@c-ville.com.

This article was updated at 9:30am October 20 to reflect the bar system is the first of its kind in central Virginia.

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