Pourman's brings table-top tappers to Brew City
Pourman's, the first bar in Milwaukee where patrons can tap their own beers, recently opened on Water Street in the former Fitzgibbons' Pub, 1127 N. Water St.
Owner Ben Hebl says he was first introduced to table beer tappers while living in the Czech Republic where he played basketball for two years in a European league.
At Pourman's, there are four tappers on each of three tables. Customers give the bartender an ID in exchange for a glass – one customer per group must provide a credit card – and can tap up to 32 ounces of beer per person right from their table.
If he or she wants to drink more after the 32 ounces, they check in with the bartender who assesses the patron's sobriety and, if they're not drunk, will program the tappers to dispense more beer.
"It's not only a cool technology, but also a learning experience. Customers are interacting with their beer, from using the iPads to read about specific breweries, to physically pouring their own pint. It's a very intimate experience," says Hebl, who is behind his bar seven days a week.
The benefits of table tappers, according to Hebl, are that customers only pay for what they drink. They do not even have to tap full beers or they can tap a beer for another person. The downside of the system, however, is that the customer gets charged for spilled beer or when they accidentally over fill their glass.
Although there is always a bartender working at Pourman's, as well as a cocktail waitress who comes to the tap tables to offer cocktails or a beer other than the four that are available through the self tappers, most of the duties of the bartender are eliminated through this system.
The name "Pourman's" is a play on words associated with tapping, or pouring, your own beer.
"Ben considers himself the original 'pour man'," says Mollie Campbell, Hebl's fiancé and business partner.
Hebl, 29, was born and raised in Milwaukee and has a long history of bartending in both the United States and the Virgin Islands.
In 2008, Hebl was signed by the ABA Texas Fuel, a semi-pro basketball team in San Antonio, Texas. He spent the off season that year tending bar at Mo's Irish Pub in Downtown Milwaukee.
In the fall of 2009, Ben signed a two-year contract with the European league and moved to Prague, Czech Republic. During his off-seasons, he lived in Milwaukee and tended bar at Steny's Tavern and the now-closed Dubliner Gastropub.
Hebl decided to give up basketball and moved to New York City with Campbell where he tended bar and helped open Long Island City's Alobar. He also tended bar at the Meat Packing District's prestigious Standard Hotel Bier Garten.
"While I was living in New York, I would buy my $12 Miller Lite and take as many notes as I could of all the things I liked in that particular bar," he says.
Shortly after their April 2012 engagement, Hebl and Campbell moved back to Wisconsin. Table-tap beer bars were cropping up all over the country and they were surprised Milwaukee didn't have one yet.
"We immediately started getting to work on writing a business plan," says Hebl.
Meanwhile, Hebl worked at Von Trier, the Iron Horse Hotel's Smyth and Brookfield's Cafe 124.
"We knew that Milwaukee, beer capital of the world, needed the tap-table technology, so we partnered with Atlanta-based DraftServ Technologies to bring it here," says Hebl.
In December of 2012, Hebl and Campbell leased the 125-year-old building and immediately got to work renovating every inch. The bar opened quietly in mid-February and the results are simple yet stunning, with lots of original woodwork, chandeliers, a large vintage photo of the building and antique mirrors.
Hebl built the tables and decorated the tops with hundreds of wheat pennies collected by his father. He also covered the back bar top in pennies.
"If I ever can't pay my electricity bill, I'll just hand over these tables," jokes Hebl.
Aside from the four beers on tap – which are currently Spotted Cow, Sprecher Amber, Pilsner Urquell and Miller Lite – Pourman's offers 20 more in bottles and cans, a menu featuring 10 classic cocktails (including Hebl's signature Old Fashioned), about 10 select wines and complimentary pretzels. Sometimes they serve complimentary cheese curds, too.
"Rather than trying to do too much with our offerings, we believe in doing things really, really well on a small scale. We don't overextend ourselves, and it shows in the quality of our cocktails and freshness of our beer. We also believe in being 'seasonally responsible,' so our menus will change with the seasons, bringing new and exciting options for our patrons," says Hebl.
Live music is in the works for the near future and this spring / summer, Pourman's will have a beer garden, possibly with cigar options.
Although the owners are trying to target the 25 and older crowd, they've seen a diverse mix of clientele since they opened.
"Being across the street from Bar Louie and Rumpus Room, and down the street from the theater, played into our business model for drawing in a 25 and older crowd. And while Water Street has gotten a negative stigma attached to it from recent events, we are hoping that maybe all it needed was a fresh face on the block," says Hebl.
Specials include Wednesday wine discounts of half-off any glass of wine and complimentary cheese plate pairings from 4 to 7 p.m. Hebl says he plans to have a daily happy hour in the near future during which half of all proceeds will go to a local non-profit.
"We are excited to be a part of such a vibrant, small-city nightlife community. Everyone has been very welcoming and we are looking forward to giving back to the neighborhood in a positive way," says Campbell.
Went in there last night with some friends and we had a good time despite how small the place is. We all commented that too bad they didn't have a table that could fit a larger group (More than 4) The staff was friendly and decor is a nice change of pace for Waterstreet. 4 taps on the tables that were Waterstreet prices (cheap). Shots Jameson $5.00 reasonable. Bouncer, Nice Guy, Waitstaff easy on the eyes and friendly. Owner, Professional. Now what I didn't like... Played music in the over priced digital jukebox ($2.00 per song Staple at every bar now) and Ben, THE OWNER mind you, started getting skip happy and skipped 6 of the 15 songs we played? My buddy went up to him and said something and we got a $1.00 back which covered half of a song :-p Why have a jukebox when you are going to just choose the music yourself meanwhile ripping off the customers and making them pissed? Clearly Ben you have little bar experience and need to learned the Do's and Don'ts of owning a bar. And for those wondering what music was skipped because clearly we were playing Heavy Metal or Justin Beiber WRONG Tv On The Radio, Walk the Moon, Muse, Mumford and Sons, Imagine Dragons, and Tame Impala. Will I go back yes, Will I spend any money in the Jukebox NO, I'll let some other poor sucker lose their money. ;-)
Kind of disgusted at the hatred in these messages. It's a new idea and new ideas scare people sometimes. Especially when a new bar goes in on Water St and it's not designed for guys who wear Affliction t-shirts. I think it's a great concept that will be popular once people get in there and check it out. Sounds like the owners are truly dedicated to putting a quality establishment into our drinking district and I commend them for their creativity and innovation. I haven't been there yet, but I will certainly stop in when I have the chance. I wish you the best of luck in your business and don't let the haters bring you down.
Wow! I'm a little surprised at all the negative comments.... Shouldn't we all be supportive for new businesses in our community given the terrible economy? I don't go to Water St. much but after attending a show at the Rep the group I was with walked down to get a drink. We decided to stop at Pourmans because none of us had ever been there before and knew nothing about it. And, unlike most Water St. establishments, it looked cozy and inviting... What a nice surprise! It was awesome! Unfortunately the tap-tables were all occupied when we got there so we moved to the back of the bar where there is a nice "lounge" area and our group was able to all sit together and enjoy our drink (hard to do at most bars). The groups sitting at the tap-tables looked as though they were having a blast! The prices were reasonable. Our drinks were great. The jazz on the jukebox was very nice. It was clean. CLEAN...on Water St! My wife even commented on how nice the women's bathroom was (and that NEVER happens at bars)! The only thing I can think of as a negative comment is that I wish there were MORE tap-tables. Best of luck to this young couple....We will be back and we'll bring our friends!
In regards to the pope's comments, I'm surprised you took the small city nightlife so seriously..as though it was some sort of insult to the Milwaukee community. As a Milwaukee native, I think that the term "small city" does not refer to a place in the burbs that could almost be called a 'town'. I think what they meant was that, by comparison to our closest neighboring big city (Chicago) with a population of 2.7 million people, Milwaukee would be considered 'small' at almost 600,000..not even a quarter the size of Chicago. Having lived here my whole life, Milwaukee is small in terms of night life. Everything in the downtown/Brady St/North Ave/3rd Ward area can be accessed in LESS than a 10 minute cab ride. And, most of the bars on these streets are very similar to one another in terms of style, crowd, etc. For Wisconsin (the birthplace of Miller Brewing Company, a world-wide brewing company) to have its first tap-table is a great step towards making our night life more fun, interactive and an all-around more interesting experience. I'm not too sure how I feel about your apprehension towards something new and refreshing for the Brew City, especially not having tried it yourself. Condemning the owners to a maximum of 6 months, seems a bit judgmental, premature and resentful. I heard about the tap tables and the class of the bar from a friend and stopped in with two others to see what it was about. Not only was Ben and the service great and engaging, but the music they play is so refreshing and up-beat I couldn't have been more happy. We sat a table and played games with the tap-tables, trying to land our ounces on the exact number, etc. Got the bill and the prices are just as competitive as any bar in Milwaukee, even at the high-tech tables. Bottom line, don't knock it til' you try it. And if it truly does not appeal to you in any way, don't put your bad vibes out there for young entrepreneurs trying to enrich a great city.
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