April 1, 2009

Mug Shots

Rocky’s returns to its superb beer-list roots

During the time of its original incarnation opposite the boatyard in Jeffersonville, Rocky’s Sub Pub was a genuine beer-list innovator.

To appreciate the extent of this achievement in the context of the time, it helps to know that the American craft beer revolution didn’t really arrive in the Louisville metropolitan area until the early 1990s. Prior to that, beer choice hereabouts was measured in terms of imported and primarily bottled beers. Rocky’s had these in abundance, thanks in part to a fortunate convergence of things.

Roughly a quarter-century ago, archaic Kentucky pricing laws provided a competitive advantage to Indiana package liquor purveyors, the most prominent of which was Cut-Rate in downtown Jeffersonville, where ubiquitous Kentucky license plates testified to the commonwealth’s weekly loss in tax revenue.

A short distance away on 10th Street was the warehouse of the now-extinct Nachand Beverage Company, a beer wholesaler owned by the late Ed Schueler, who quite simply was one of the finest gentlemen I’ve ever met. He saw a profitable, underserved niche for the steadily escalating supply of imports, and marketed accordingly.

Thanks to Nachand Beverage, Cut-Rate had an uncommonly large off-premise retail selection of imported beers. Many of the same brands also made it to Rocky’s Sub Pub, to be enjoyed on site with the eatery’s signature pizzas and sandwiches. We’d sample beers at Rocky’s, and then stop at Cut-Rate on the way home to stock up on the ones we liked. It was the Sunny Side’s own version of triangular trade, one that added inestimably to my knowledge of beer.

Kentucky eventually changed its laws, dooming Cut-Rate. Ed died far too young, and an Indianapolis wholesaler bought the distributorship. The orbits of my life and work completely changed, and at some point during all of it, Rocky’s Sub Pub changed, too, vacating its funky original site for reinvention as an Italian grill amid purpose-built, upscale digs in the shadow of the Clark Memorial Bridge.

It had been a long time between visits to Rocky’s when I passed through the entrance on a recent rainy Saturday afternoon, enticed by the news that the establishment had come full circle by adding a nifty new draft system that pushes the number of beer taps up to 32.

My friend Jerry and I ignored the vinyl banner outside touting a “domestic pitcher” special and settled onto comfy stools with women’s collegiate lacrosse on one of several flat screens above the bar. I subjected the taps to the scrutiny of trained and periodically jaundiced eyes.

Happily, the prognosis is quite favorable. Only a half-dozen of the draft lines carry certifiably forgettable domestic mass-market specimens like Miller Lite, Killian’s and Blue Moon. All around them is evidence of intelligent design in the brand selection, which to a beer enthusiast means stylistic diversity: Doppelbock and Belgian Tripel, with Double India Pale Ale and Coffee Stout for accent — and many more. Gumball Head, anyone?

Recalling the legacy of imports at the Rocky’s of old, there now are proportionately fewer draft beers from outside the USA and an obvious (and fully justified) emphasis on American-made craft beers. Louisville-area microbreweries are well represented, and upwards of six taps were pouring Indiana microbrews the day we stopped in. Five taps are devoted to seasonals from Sam Adams, Schlafly, Upland, Bell’s and BBC.

As a minor criticism, the beers are served tooth-numbingly cold and in frosted glasses, both of which hinder one’s ability to taste good beer even if they render mass-market lager drinkable. However, there’s a bright side in that bar patrons can pass time waiting for the beer to warm by snacking on a softball-sized roll of bread, olive oil and grated Parmesan cheese provided free of charge.

Now that Rocky’s has added such an array of beers suitable for experimentation in food pairings, I’ll return soon for a full meal and the opportunity to utilize another clever sales touch: Consumers can create their own flights of five sample draft portions, making it easy to tour the lesser known selections and match them with pasta, salads and pizza.

Rocky’s new drafts aren’t 1985 all over again. They’re better.

 

Roger Baylor is co-owner of the New Albanian Brewing Co. in New Albany. Visit potablecurmudgeon.blogspot.com for more beer.