Tippling in Topsy-Turvy Times
Eugene’s bar scene thrives despite the recession
By Jessica Hirst
So you like to quaff a few brews here and there, and maybe treat yourself to some cocktails on Friday night. But the economy is receding and perhaps your belt, too, is cinching up uncomfortably. Newscasters keep throwing around economic numbers that sound unreal, and you’ve been having dreams about Suze Orman’s perfectly white teeth.
Do you hunker down at home, sipping diet soda in a dim, cold kitchen while clipping coupons? Or do you just roll with it all, give the finger to the Dow and keep your simple alcoholic pleasures, thank you very much?
If you live in Eugene, your weekend nights probably haven’t become a scene out of an Edward Hopper painting. Although more people might be opting to buy their liquor and take it home, Eugeneans are still out and about, filling the bars and lounges, imbibing energetically despite — or possibly because of — the downward Dow. At least here, the time-tested pleasure of a good drink in a communal setting isn’t losing any ground.
I had begun to wonder about Eugene’s bad-time drinking habits after noticing that most bars around town seem to be doing a swift business these days, even as for-sale signs tacked to lonely storefronts blow in the wind. Is it true, as I’d heard, that people drink during good times and bad? And if so, what are they drinking?
To fulfill my journalistic duty of staying on the front lines of the recession, I took to the streets to explore a critical issue: the current state of drinking in Eugene. My strategy was to visit a pub, a brewery, a wine bar, a liquor store and a lounge with a cocktail menu. The research was grueling: It involved downing three craft beers, one honey ginger cocktail and a glass of merlot within three days. But sometimes journalism requires sacrifice.
What I discovered, in a nutshell, is that people seem to be drinking more these days, but they’re drinking less expensive drinks. At each of the establishments I visited, overall liquor sales and revenue are up, even though people aren’t going for top-shelf liquors and pricier wines as much as usual. And if you own a brewery right now, you’re in luck.
I began my journey at the Bier Stein, figuring that this hub for specialty beer would register the pulse of the city’s beer drinkers pretty well.
On a recent Wednesday night, it was hard to find a seat anywhere. After my companion and I finally selected our beverages (me: Wolaver’s All-American, my current favorite; her: Piraat Blonde), we appraised the scene. College kids, after-work 30-somethings and rosy-faced guys in fleece mingled over microbrew pints, their collective good mood filling the room with a low roar. We finally wedged ourselves into a tiny space against the far wall and took in the congenial vibes. I watched a group of what looked like work acquaintances slowly get more and more animated as the rounds flowed, their bodies leaning in closer together and their laughter cresting over the hum of the room.
Owner Chip Hardy confirms that the Bier Stein’s sales are up 15 to 20 percent. December is usually the pub’s busiest month, he says, but this January was even busier than December. “I wouldn’t say that we’re recession-proof, but people can afford to spend $20 on beer and dinner and have a good time,” Hardy says. “When times are good, people drink, and when times are bad, people drink,” he says. (Bingo.)
Hardy says that sales of bottled beer are down, and that people are a little more reluctant to fork over $20 for a bottle of specialty beer. Still, he says, draft sales have risen since the recession began and overall revenue is up.
It turns out that Oakshire Brewery, a local craft brewery, isn’t hurting for business either. “Breweries are doing great right now,” says co-owner Jeff Althouse. “Our products are selling wonderfully, just as much if not even better than last summer,” he says. “We’re expecting sales to continue to increase.” He adds that the company expects to start selling bottled beer this summer.
Althouse points to craft beer as an “affordable luxury” that people don’t need — or want — to give up during tough economic times. “When I go out to drink, most places are more crowded,” he says. “It seems to me that people are really thinking about where they’re spending. But the last thing they’re going to give up is good beer.”
In a recession, Althouse muses, Eugeneans might also prefer to support local businesses. “I think people are really concerned, and it’s easier to say, ‘Here’s what I can do to help my local economy,’” he says. “People know local companies support local jobs.”
Oakshire doesn’t serve its beer on site; instead, it distributes to bars and restaurants in Eugene and surrounding areas. Althouse says that while most restaurants aren’t currently making many changes to their tap lineups, they will do so more easily for local breweries. He notes that demand is up for the brewery’s most expensive beer, the Overcast Espresso Stout, which is brewed with one shot of Wandering Goat espresso per pint. With the stout, he says, “bars are supporting two local businesses.”
Both Hardy and Althouse say that they haven’t needed to lower their beer prices in response to the recession. But Hardy says he decided not to raise draft beer prices to adjust for the 2009 minimum wage increase, even though he usually does so each year.
The microbrew taps might be flowing, but wines and high-end liquors are a different story. On a Tuesday evening at Davis’, the bar was a little slow — a well-dressed couple chatting easily, a gray-haired man writing in a notebook and me — but it began to pick up as I talked with owner Tom Kamis. He told me that beginning last October, the restaurant saw a “pretty major dip” in wine sales. In response, Kamis revamped the wine list, cutting out the priciest wines. Now, the list is shorter than it used to be, and it includes more wines by the glass in the $4-$6 range, and no bottles over $40.
Top-shelf liquors — what Kamis calls the “super premiums” — aren’t selling as well as usual, and beer sales have risen a bit, he says. And cocktails are doing well, he says.
Although Davis’ food sales are down, Kamis says, overall liquor sales are still the same as they were a year ago. I reason that that must mean his customers are downing more drinks in general, and he replies that that seems to be the case.
At Uva Wine Bar, manager and sommelier Phillip Patti says that he’s needed to further stratify his wine prices because of the recession. “People are still ordering higher-priced wines, but sales of lower-priced wines are up,” he says. “There’s a good balance,” he adds. “People are still buying good wine and they’re still splurging. It’s not happening as often, but it’s still happening.”
Patti also says that he thinks customers expect to see more lower-priced wines on the menu these days. “There’s some recession paranoia, and even if people aren’t directly affected right now, they’re conscientious.” Still, Patti says that a number of his customers have either lost their jobs or experienced some type of change at work as the result of the recession.
Uva, which opened last September, is still trying to build its customer base, but Patti doesn’t think the recession is slowing down business too much. “Alcohol tends to be recession-proof,” he says.
While customers might be less inclined to splurge while they’re out on the town, they don’t seem to be cutting back on store-bought liquor. “For the most part, people are drinking more, they haven’t changed what they’re drinking, and we’re getting more customers,” says an employee at the Downtown Liquor Store.
“People drink when they’re happy and they drink when they’re sad,” he offers. “It’s not something that they give up.”
So there you have it. Judging by trends at a cross-section of our town’s drinking establishments, the spirits are still flowing. Maybe we’re drowning our sorrows, or maybe we’re simply carrying on with our merriment despite the NPR reports, knowing that good food and drink with friends doesn’t always need to break the bank.
As Uva’s Patti puts it, “In times like these, contracting our ability to enjoy something like food or wine is counterproductive. You can spend less and be conscientious, but that shouldn’t affect your enjoyment.” It looks like Eugeneans have this one down.