New System Aims to Replace the Traditional Taproom Chalkboard
Innovation usually comes to beer in form of a brewer tinkering with recipes or perhaps experimenting with fermentation techniques and vessels. Occasionally a new style is created.
But for the most part, as it has been for thousands of years, beer remains the end result of combining hops, grain, water and yeast.
A pair of Florida entrepreneurs has created a way to revolutionize one aspect of the craft beer experience that has been around for a good while: the taproom chalkboard seen in pubs and tasting rooms around the world.
Nelson Crowle and Mark Simpson created What’s on Tap At?, an electronic network that can replace the hand-written list of a bar’s current offerings with an easy-to-use multimedia format.
The two were kind enough to answer some questions and explain how it works.
First, full names and ages, where you live, where you’re from.
NELSON: Nelson Crowle, age 56, live in New Port Richey, Florida, grew up in the fresh air / beautiful mountains / beer mecca of Colorado.
MARK: My name is Mark Simpson, I’m 39, live in New Port Richey, and am originally from Long Island, New York – Levittown, specifically. I’m the Account Representative for What’s On Tap At?
Tell us a little about your backgrounds, specifically the experience/skills that led you to developing this product.
NELSON: I’ve been a beer geek for 35 years, starting with a variety of imports, then enjoying craft and micro beers as they were created, and as the market exploded. I’ve been brewpubbing since the early ‘90s, and been rating beers since then. I’ve also been a computer programmer for 40+ years, so I often build tools and toys on the computer and on the Internet that “help” me with my beer needs. For example, I built a program that assists me in developing recipes for homebrews. As a frequent customer to the beer bars in our area (and when traveling), I was occasionally frustrated by outdated information (old chalkboards, way-old websites, etc.) – I went into tap bars to taste beers that I really wanted to try, and they no longer served these sought-after beers. So, I created a tool that the bar owners can use that keeps their tap lists current on all their media (TV screens, cell phones, tablets, laptops, Twitter, Facebook, website, etc.).
MARK: I started homebrewing in 1995 while living in Chicago and got consumed by the craft beer itch around the same time. I was the North Brooklyn/Queens Account Representative for Craft Brewers Guild, the distribution arm of the Brooklyn Brewery around the turn of the century, which introduced me to several more facets of the beer industry. I’ve was bar manager at the old Cockney Rebel in St. Petersburg, Florida (back in 1997 when it was the only decent beer pub in Pinellas County) and at the International Beer Garten in Lutz, Florida, before they lost their craft/import beer focus. I’ve been abusing my liver around Tampa Bay for about the last 3-4 years and got to know Nelson, What’s On Tap At’s developer, who approached me about being the sales guy based on my sales and bar experience.
Q. Give us a quick overview of What’s On Tap at and how it works.
NELSON: WhatsOnTapAt (WOTA) is a web-based set of programs that helps the bar owner manage the bar’s tap list. It tracks what beer is on each tap, and includes extra information about each beer (ABV%, Beer Advocate and RateBeer ratings, if available, color, clarity, beer style, etc.).All of this information is in the WOTA database, so to change a tap, the bar owner need only select which tap to change, select the new beer, and click the Update button (the whole process takes 15 seconds).The new tap information is instantly changed on any electronic chalkboards (TVs running a web browser).The info is tweeted and sent to Facebook immediately. If the bar owner clicks the Update Website button, the website tap list is instantly updated, including links to ratings for each of the beers. Also, since this is a web-based program, it runs on any cell phone with a modern web browser, so anyone sitting at the bar (or sitting at home, deciding when to come to the bar) can pull up a full list of what is on tap RIGHT NOW. Cell phones (and tablets and laptops) can also find out what beers are new (last day, last week, last month), or can sort the beers by beer style (“What IPAs are on tap?”).We provide the bar with a QR scan code that can be used by most cell phones to go straight to the tap list page for that bar.
MARK: WOTA replaces the chalkboard at your local pub with an easy-to-maintain “virtual chalkboard” displayed on a large-screen TV. I highly suggest putting the code above urinals so folks can figure out their next beer while disposing of their last one.
Q. There are other “tap list” apps out there. What does yours offer the consumer that the others don’t?
NELSON: Portability – updatable from any computer, tablet, or cell phone. Additional information about each beer with links to Beer Advocate and RateBeer. WOTA saves the bar owner several hours per week by combining updating of the chalkboard(s), website, Twitter and Facebook into a single 15-second operation. It also generates printed menus. It’s a single data entry point that covers TV chalkboards, cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, and the bar’s website.
MARK: This one is currently geared more to the bar owners than consumers. However, the benefits for them translate into a better experience for their customers. WOTA is extremely easy to use, which in turn encourages the staff to keep up with it.
Q. What does it offer bar and taproom owners?
NELSON: WOTA has all the beer information already in the database, so the bar owner does not need to spend hours looking up beers on Beer Advocate or RateBeer, or entering data. The data is correctly spelled in the databases, so the bar owner or the chalkboard updater does not need to guess. Most of all, WOTA provides an up-to-the-minute tap list so that patrons who have come for a beer that they found on the bar’s website, or on the WOTA tap list, will be able to get what they came for – generating customer loyalty – and this tap list is available everywhere immediately. Imagine the rush to the bar when Twitter announces “Black Tuesday was just tapped at Nelson’s Tap Bar – 5 gallon keg will go fast!” The tweets and Facebook posts keep the tap bar always in the customer’s mind.
MARK: It offers convenience most of all. Because it does all those things mentioned above so efficiently, owners give their customers the opportunity to enjoy all the special beers they go through a lot of trouble to stock. What’s the point of having a ton of great beer if no one knows what you have or what it is?
Q. Where do you have the system already installed, and are you working to install it in other places?
NELSON: Currently installed at Mr. Dunderbak’s in Tampa on a big screen TV, and at Palm Harbor House of Beer. We are in discussions with many of the other tap bars in the Tampa area, and hope to have 10-20 more installations in the next couple of months.
MARK: We also set it up for the recent Re-Re-Re-Occupy Saint Somewhere event, which showed off the ability to instantly update silly comments on the screen. It’s our goal to make WOTA the standard for every self-respecting beer joint, so yes – we’re working on getting it at every bar that cares about great beer.
Q. How is it working? Any particularly nasty bugs you’ve had to squash?
NELSON: It’s been fantastic! They like the instant access to the tap list, even when they are not in the bar. The bar owners of currently installed systems have been very helpful providing feedback, both from their view in updating the database, and from what they hear from the customers. We have made several design changes (one of the earlier versions actually looked like a chalkboard on a brick wall, displayed on the TV – looked cool, but was not as popular), and we are continuously updating the software to provide the bar owners and the patrons with additional features. We did a lot of testing before releasing WOTA, and so far, we have not had any significant bugs – most of the changes are for ease of use or ease of viewing.
MARK: We’re getting great feedback from Mr. Dunderbak’s and starting to generate some buzz via Facebook. As far as bugs go, it was in pretty good working order when we first approached a couple of bars. As far as I can tell, Nelson’s only had to make some very minor adjustments, usually based on customer preference, rather than tragic issues.
Q. Could you paint a scenario of how a beer geek would use the app on a night out?
NELSON: The night starts as I leave work early because Nelson’s Tap Bar just tweeted me that Hopslam is on tap, and it’s in a 20 liter keg! I know that it will go fast. I go have a pint. Yummy!T here are a lot of people there, and a lot of Hopslam is sold. As the keg nears empty, I receive a couple of text messages from less connected friends – “Do you want to go to the Tap Bar tonight? I hear that they might have Hopslam!” While enjoying the Hopslam, I look over the beer list on my cell phone, and have a goblet of Rodenbach Grand Cru. Meanwhile, several tweets have been coming in from the local tap bars, and when I see that Mark’s Tap Bar just tapped Petrus a minute ago, it’s time to go! I retweet the Petrus announcement so that my friends (who already missed Hopslam) can meet me there. As I’m enjoying my Petrus, I get a tweet from Fred’s Tap Bar for a beer that I’ve never heard of – so I click a link to get info about the beer. Hmmm,it’s “rare” and also highly rated: time to move out again!
MARK: How I would use it myself would be on Friday afternoon I’d probably see a Facebook update about an interesting sounding beer being tapped at one of my locals, inspiring me to check out the entire draft list. Then I’d start a flurry of sharing to get my posse together in order to put a solid dent into the keg in question, judiciously using my newfound knowledge of the rest of the selections to entice my friends into joining me. Then, while on the patio with my dog, and out-of-sight of the chalkboard above the bar, I’d scan the barcode on my table tent to choose my next beer.
Q. I’m going to throw out this statement that I can foresee some hardcore beer geeks asking: “The old chalkboard adds to the charm of my favorite pub, and I don’t want to see it replaced with some high-tech gizmo.” How would you respond to that?
NELSON: As a long-time beer geek, I enjoy the nostalgia and charm that a chalkboard gives to a bar. However, the chalkboards in many bars are not continuously updated (some bars do, but some are up to several days out of date), so I’d much rather trade the ambiance of the chalkboard for current and correct data. Hard core beer geeks are generally all about the beer.I want to be able to look up on a website from my home or office, on my phone while on the run, or on the chalkboard as I sit at the tap bar, and be able to select my next beer, knowing that what I see is actually available.
MARK: Chalkboards are great, except they never seem to work well. How many times have you gone to a bar and ordered three beers off the chalkboard, only to be told that all three have been replaced, or strained your eyes to decipher the chicken scratch scrawled in hieroglyphics up there? Also, WOTA adds additional information which no chalkboard has room for, such as ABV, style, Beer Advocate/RateBeer ratings, price, glass it’s served in and personalized messages from the bar about particular beers such as “on cask,” “won’t last long” or “dry-hopped with Citras,” etc. Also, when looking at the menu on your own device (phone, tablet, laptop) you can sort beer by style, making the list more manageable.
Q. What’s the typical cost of this system to a bar owner?
NELSON: The cost of WOTA easily pays for itself because it saves the bar owner several hours per week updating websites, changing chalkboards, etc. AJ at PH HOB looked on in disbelief as I updated 50 taps to the website with one click of a button – it took one second. Specific pricing depends on the size of the tap bar (how many taps).We are currently discussing ways to lower the cost to the bar owner by providing advertisements from breweries and beer distributors.
MARK: That’s a work in progress. We are restructuring our prices to make them more attractive to more bars. Basically it depends on the number of taps they have.
Q. How long does it take to install?
NELSON: Database setup for a new account takes me about 30 minutes. This includes setting up the number of taps, bar name, log-in information, glassware and pricing information, etc. Initial database entry of the current taps can take about an hour, depending on the number of taps. Setting up the TV takes anywhere from five minutes to several hours, depending on the brand of TV, the type of web browser it has, and the type of remote that is available. So, if the bar owner provides a TV with web-browsing capabilities, we can do a complete installation in 2-4 hours. Generally what takes the longest is collecting the information from the bar owner – the pricing and glassware that the bar uses, display color options, etc.
MARK: Nelson can get everything up and running within a couple of hours.
Q. Who should people contact if they are interested in your system?
Q. Anything you care to add for our readers?
NELSON: We are very excited about WhatsOnTapAt – Mark and Caroline (my wife, and WhatsOnTapAt partner) and I have seen the need for an instantly updated tap list for several years. It’s pretty cool when the tap bar changes a tap, the tap list on the TV chalkboard changes, and then I go to my cell phone, and it’s changed there too, along with a new tweet waiting for me! We continue to expand the features to provide additional capabilities both for the bar owner, and for the patron, and we would love to hear feedback: kudos are great, but more importantly, tell us how you use it, and how we can make it easier for you!
MARK: WOTA is a great tool for bar owners and customers right now, and we’re constantly developing new bells and whistles to make it more interactive and rewarding for everyone. We welcome feedback via our Facebook page, firstname.lastname@example.org or when you see us out and about, which is fairly often. Hopefully customers start expecting this leap forward in tap list display from their better watering holes. We hope to cure the frustration of ordering a beer from all the great beer bars which have come along in the last few years. It’s the logical progression: first great beer selection; next, great ease in selecting it. As the masses become more interested in craft beer, every tool to make that transition easier makes it easier to sell it to curious customers, increasing the chances of making more converts to the cause!
Road Trips for Beer caught up with Mark and Nelson at Saint Somewhere Brewing in Tarpon Springs, Florida, where they agreed to go on camera and talk a little more about the system.