"Back in the day." People usually utter that when conjuring fond memories from the past. But for craft beer drinkers, “back in the day” holds little appeal. Two decades ago, there were very few options beyond standard macrobrews for fans of ales and lagers seeking a taste of something a cut above. And given the micro-nature of the customer base looking for craft quaffs, there was little to be gained by bar owners who endeavored to add craft offerings to their inventory.
Today, two trailblazers who stepped outside the cold box and made a reach for craft beer in the early nineties—Joe Austin and Sam Chammas of North Park dive bar Live Wire (2103 El Cajon Boulevard)—can look back with a smile. Hindsight’s twenty-twenty, even with beer goggles on, and they recently reminisced with me about what it was like going out on a limb with suds that went beyond American adjunct lagers as they prepare to celebrate 20 successful years in business, much of which has been fueled by patrons who appreciate them raising the bar.
What drove you to start offering craft beer? Sam Chammas: We were in our mid-twenties and craft beer—imports and microbrews—was simply the beer we loved drinking. It tasted better than other beers. Joe and I said, “How cool would it be to have all great beers and only on-tap—no bottle s of anything?” And that’s what we did. Joe Austin: Opening Live Wire gave us an opportunity to highlight what we perceived to be standout beers and to make a statement about quality by having a conspicuous absence of the pissy yellow domestics.
What were the initial craft beers you rolled out? SC: Guinness, Bass, Harp, Watney’s Red Barrel, Pete’s Wicked Ale, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Paulaner, Heineken, Anchor Steam Liberty Ale and Porter, Redhook ESB and Double Black Stout, Sam Adams, Blind Pig IPA, Old Nick Barley Wine, Pilsner Urquel, Newcastle, and Karl Strauss Amber Lager.
What did customers gravitate toward? SC: When we tapped the first IPAs…Blind Pig, Pizza Port Solana Beach Swami’s, Racer 5—that style built a following but it stayed small. The majority of customers thought the style was too bitter…too sharp. But for others, it was like, “Wow, what’s this? It’s like nothing I’ve ever had before…and it’s strong, too!” As we know now, IPA has grown to dominate the scene. It’s hard to imagine they weren’t immediately huge.
What are some big differences between life at Live Wire now and 20 years ago? JA: There are tons of differences—music, fashion, and beer line-ups. But as I reflect on the last 20 years, I keep coming back to the one feature of that bar that never changed: cold beer, warm friends. Those words have been on that bar sign since its inception. We opted to leave them in place and they have stood the test of time more than any other feature of the bar itself.
What are some things you’d never thought you see in regards to craft beer? SC: I never thought I would see craft beer in every liquor store and taking up almost every cooler. I never thought I’d see fresh beer to-go in growlers. I’d seen it in Europe, but it’s so cool to see it in the US. I never thought I would see a whole generation of beer drinkers that have had only craft beer. They may never have a Budweiser and probably won’t have any reason to. I also never thought I’d see beer release parties, merchandise, t-shirts, fanzines, blogs and publications. JA: I’m shocked and pleasantly surprised at the number of amazing craft breweries that have sprouted up in San Diego and the capacity of our bar-going community to support them all. There really doesn’t seem to be an end in sight and it kind of defies conventional wisdom about market saturation. I think the rationale is that brewers are focusing on quality and there’s always more room in the market for quality offerings.
To celebrate the big two-zero, Chammas and Austin have a trio of events planned for this weekend (October 19 through 21)—a bartender reunion on Friday, a live music concert with aMiniature and No Knife at The Lafayette Hotel on Saturday, and a bicycle bar tour starting at Live Wire and ending up at an undisclosed watering hole on Sunday.