Monday, January 25, 2010

I Promise This Is The Last Time I'll Call It JT Whitneys

As many of you know by now, JT Whitneys' space on the West Side of Madison at Odana and Whitney Way is now occupied by the owners of the Vintage. They have decided to call it Vintage Brewing Company. It opened maybe a week or two ago (?), and the brewery is currently inactive with nothing planned until March, at least. Thus, admittedly, this review may be a bit premature; however, since it is a bar in a place called "X Brewing Company" I think it's fair to get a feel for the place.

Before I get to the pub itself, I want to go off on a quick diversion because I think it really sucks that they've chosen to import a brewmaster from outside of Wisconsin to brew here. There are quite a few very talented brewers in the city of Madison and Wisconsin generally that are currently unemployed and looking for work. However, most of the breweries in the area are set for brewers and assistants, so jobs don't open up often. Thus, when one does open, I think it would behoove the owners of said facility to at least interview some of those unemployed brewers and try to support our local brewers rather than be nepotistic and hire a relative from out-of-state.

Anyway. With that out of my system, I was able to hit up the Vintage Brewing Company on Friday night and, unfortunately, I can't really recommend it. I'll get the worst of it out of the way first: the mac and cheese was awful. To quote Mrs. MBR: "I'd have rather had Roundy's Shells and Cheese". It was all of the worst things about bad macaroni and cheese: it had been cooked too hot, the cheese had separated, and any binding agents had caused it to be gritty; the shells were over-cooked and mushy. The $12 crab cake (note: not crab cakes) appetizer wasn't much better; though the top was finely crusted, the bottom was soft and mushy and the inside was cold; and the mango salsa was most generously described as "interesting." The pulled pork sandwich was fine. But for one crab cake ($12), a pulled pork sandwich ($9), and mac and cheese ($14), we spent $31 and one of us didn't hate our food. In all, I wouldn't recommend it for the food; though as a cook and eater of food, I tend to be a bit more forgiving since we all have off-nights.

So, OK, the food was less than stellar and moderately over-priced, but you aren't reading this site for the food. How was the beer?

Less than interesting, unfortunately. A (very) limited tap and bottle list that, to its credit, focused on local beer was wrong. A fellow diner ordered the "Sprecher Abbey Triple Alt" (sic; no such beer exists, by the way, though it was listed in exactly that way on the menu - presumably it was the Sprecher Abbey Tripel and the "Alt" was a typo) and was served a MadTown Nut Brown instead. He wasn't asked if this (not even remotely close) substitution was acceptable. And while taps are $4.50, Strongbow, listed with the rest of the "tap beers" was inexplicably $6, with nary a price to be seen anywhere on the drink menu in any event.

To me, though, the biggest disappointment was what seemed like a conspicuously strong and pointed disinterest in quality beer. What taps and bottles they had, which wasn't much (about 6 taps or so, and maybe 10 bottles) overlooked seasonal and special releases in favor of predictable, unadventerous, year-round releases. Of course, something can be said for offering something that the general public, typically unfamiliar with more exotic and bold beers, can readily approach. But does that really need to comprise the entire tap list? Morevoer, I'm not sure that bodes well for what could be coming from the brewery itself. If the restaurant and bar is this disinterested in craft beer when they have the entire universe of Wisconsin craft beer to pick from, what will they do in the infinitely more challenging arena of creating their own?

Combined with a less-than-stellar menu, it seems that Vintage Brewing Company isn't really interested in providing a craft experience. The goal here is not to present skilled art in a manner that might appeal to a general public. Rather, the goal here is to take advantage of a fad and try to get dollars out of people by presenting a superficial sheen and a facade over what is otherwise the same thing you can get at any of the chain restaurants down the street at the mall.

Look, I hate writing bad reviews and you'll probably call me a cynic. I choose to think that I have high standards, and see little reason to excuse, or give a free pass to, mediocrity. And, yes, I'm perhaps a bit more vehement than I might otherwise be, but it really irks me that the Vintage came into this space, bringing in outsiders in the process, jumping in line over many other groups. Groups that were actually interested in using the space to brew good beer and provide an experience that JT Whitneys wasn't in my time, but I am assured was in its glory days. It irks me that this space could be used for such great things, and they not only blew it, but did so in such a shallow, callow, poseur, manner.

Look, admittedly the place is new, and it's not yet brewing. I'll go back when the brewery is up and running, but frankly I see no reason to go here instead of The Great Dane, or even Granite City down the street.

28 comments:

  1. Ugh. Don't people realize we're in a Great Recession? $9 pulled pork sandwich - fine, but $14 for Mac 'n Cheese? I can tell you that my wife makes a Mac 'n Cheese that would put tears in your eyes and a smile on your face, but the ingredients (and prep time) would cost less than that for your ordinary cheeseburger. Now I just checked the menu on vintagebrewingco.com and it's a "baked" Mac 'n Cheese, but still... Overall it seems like the prices are ~1-2 more expensive than other local pubs? For example at The Old Fashioned (very yummy) burger with bacon and blue cheese is $8, while at The Vintage it's $9.75. The Great Dane Mac 'n Cheese is $9.50, etc. Surprisingly enough, I would normally expect to pay *more* at a downtown location as opposed to one on the outskirts of town.

    As for beer, I'll take a wait-and-see approach until they can get things up and running. If their beer selection was their permanent offering, it would be something to be concerned about, but maybe it's just a hold-over until they can get the brewery operation up and running?

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  2. To clarify, the pasta wasn't shells but tubes. Luckily, it was RP Pasta so the pasta started out great and couldn't get too bad, but they were overdone, and the "cheese sauce" was awful. I really hope it was an off night there.

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  3. Nice to know. I liked JT Whitneys, but I think I might just go to Great Dane if I want to go to a westside brewpub.

    When will we get a review on The Cooper's Tavern? While not a brewpub, the selection is impressive.

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  4. Hi. My name's Scott Manning. I'm the "outsider" brewer tapped to brew beer at the Vintage Brewing Company. As a Wisconsin native and proud alum of the UW, I'm nothing short of estatic to be returning home to Madison. When I left Madison a decade and a half ago, there wasn't much opportunity for a young brewer. I took my chances on the road: London, Tucson, L.A., Phoenix, Orange County CA, Reno NV. I've brewed on systems 7-50 Bbl and brewed thousands of batches in myriad styles. Through ups and downs I've been blessed with continual employment in the industry I love all these years, and I sincerely feel for those who wish to find work and can't, for whatever reason.
    Why did they ask me to come brew on the corner on Odana and Whitney? Why leave my good job to "take my chances" at this new upstart? Well, at a certain point working for yourself at any level usurps all. This is a family project, and I'm honored my family saw fit to include me (and craft brewing) into the mix. Though our brewing has not yet commenced, rest assured the quality, variety, and intrigue of our beers will be difficult to match.
    In the meantime, I'm proud of the current Vintage Brewing Company draft line-up (and apologize for the typo, ie. Alt). I personally selected these brews to showcase a diverse yet accessible local lineup- something for everyone. With only 10 selections on tap, I find it hard to imagine "Hopalicious", "Knot Stock", "Warped Speed" and "Raspberry Tart" (for example) are poor choices.
    Re-entering a great and highly sophisticated beer community such as So. Wisconsin is an honor and a priviledge. We take nothing for granted and have everything to prove. Our guest drafts will remain strong. Our bottle selection will improve as we increase our cold-storage. And above all, our VBC in-house beers alone will be worth your visit. That's a promise.

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  5. Hi Scott - Welcome back to Wisc.
    I thought the tap line-up was good and I'll stop by often since it's near my home. I'm also eager to try the Vintage Brewing beers when you get them up and running.
    Couple of things - please do what you can to make sure the beer menu's are current and that the servers aren't beer ignorant (oh, and make sure they ask if a substitution is ok before serving it). You'll have your hands full with the brewing, but do what you can.
    I look forward to meeting you.
    Cheers!

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  6. As a former Mug club member #129, I miss the excellent beers made by Rich Becker. His beers were quite good. It's a shame what happened to the place. Shut down on the spot, it took me months to get my mug back. I hope the new place does well. But they sound kinda pricey. Now I've joined the club over at Granite City, the beer is not as good as Rich Becker's, but the food is quite good. You can't beat the wings at GC!

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  7. Scott or “Scotty” is a Rock Star when it comes to brewing. It is good to have you back in Wisconsin and I am defiantly stopping by for a pint or two and I know that anyone who likes good beer, no great beer will make Vintage their place to be, if they are not in Mount Horeb of course.

    I typically don’t read MBR, Rate Beer or any other beer blog, I look at increasing sales and I listen to our guest praise of the beer we serve, and I know from your experience and professionalism that you will be quickly climbing to the top of the brew biz in Madison and Wisconsin.

    Mark Duchow,
    Brew Master, the Grumpy Troll

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  8. Scott, thank you for your great comments. While understand your connection, I had to at least express my frustration or disappointment that those in the Madison area weren't even offered a shot at one of the few open positions to come along.

    As for the taplist, I have no real problem with any of the individual choices. Rather, my problem lies more in the collection as a whole which comprises almost entirely year-round, flagship beers for these breweries. Of the two exceptions (Supper Club and Raspberry Tart), one is not particularly "craft-like" (the former) and the other is a great choice (the latter). So, instead of Warped Speed why not Milk Stout? Instead of Hopalicious, why not Satisfaction Jacksin? Instead of Knot Stock, why not Makeweight? Etc.

    I truly hope that I can be won over. I live in this area and would love to hang out there again. But, with a taplist (and bottle list) that doesn't really contain anything I can't get elsewhere, and food and service that leave a lot to be desired at this point, I have a hard time recommending that people go out of their way to go there.

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  9. To intermingle Scotty with nepotism and crab cakes merely suggest an unfounded rant. And how can you rail so pointedly on a guy just trying to "come home" with his family, to his family? There's people out of work all across the country too, but not many people are willing to invest in their place of work from their own savings, or miss a paycheck or two for the good of the house. It's a family investment. Our loss out west is your gain, without a shadow of doubt. Enjoy the brew and appreciate life's simple pleasures.

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  10. I was at the new Vintage about a week and a half ago and then again a week ago. When I was there a week and a half ago I had dinner with two friends. All of our food was good, I had the Salmon Sandwich with Wasabi Aioli, it was extremely good. My friends has a burger and a black bean burger they both loved there dinners as well. As for beer I drank the Stella witch I love. I went there fot the second time with my boyfriend, I liked it so much that I wanted to take him there. We had already eaten so we just went there for drinks, I had a Key lime Martini, it was to die for. Its a great place with a great atmosphere, I would recommend the Vintage to all.

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  11. I've been tryin' to keep my pie-hole shut tight since I seem to stink at keeping quiet at the right times, but wanted to chime in and say that Scott greeted me very warmly a few weeks back when I walked in unannounced and introduced myself while dropping off a tap handle for Knot Stock (thanks, btw!). I wish him and his extended Vintage family the best and very much look forward to trying Scott's beer when the time is right.

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  12. Any info on prior JT Mug Club mugs -- I had tried to follow-up to see if I could obtain mine, but at the time was assured that they would be openning up "real soon"...

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  13. Anonymous #2 (the one immediately below my prior comment): I'm not railing against Scotty personally. I don't know him, I've never met him. From his comments he seems like a good guy. And from the comments of others he seems like a great guy; I know Mark and Chris well and I trust that if they say "Scotty's awesome" then, by God, Scotty is awesome. I look forward to drinking his beer, if he's anywhere near as good as Mark suggests - he doesn't use the term "Rock Star" lightly.

    Like I said, my disappointment is with the situation, not with Scotty. I can't begrudge the man his job and livelihood back here with his family.

    But, I can intermingle the situation with crab cakes (the food), and nepotism (the situation itself) to make a general statement about whether I would recommend The Vintage Brewing Company as it currently stands.

    Can my opinion change? Absolutely. Will my opinion change? Don't know, we'll have to see next time I'm in.

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  14. Are you kidding MBR? How is Scott not a Madison brewer? He is a Wisconsin native, went to school here, and was invited by his family to help launch a brand new independent brewpub, one that is replacing one that was lost in an underserved part of town.

    You are sadly fulfilling the worst stereotype of a beer snob, one that has thankfully been kept at bay in Wisconsin when compared to the West Coast myopia that sadly reigns supreme in most online quarters. Supper Club isn't a "craft-like" beer? Maybe not on the burned-out tongues of stuck-up hopheads, but it certainly fulfills the definition of a small-batch and personally crafted beer, one coming from one of the best breweries in the state, and one that happens to focus on the German brewing tradition.

    Do you need some kind of payola for your consulting biz to give a good review, or even behave in a responsible manner when it comes to reviewing a new establishment? For Christs sake, it just opened. Any place is going to go through a wind-up and shake-down period, and have issues with availability and quality. That's why any responsible reviewer or blogger waits a fair portion of time before pronouncing judgement on a place. The criticisms of price are valid, but complaining that they serve Knot Stock instead of Makeweight or Satisfaction Jackson instead of Hopalicious?

    Are you kidding me? Not every place is going to be the Malt House, nor should it be. While I have absolutely no idea what the proprietors of the Vintage have for their long-range goals, I am certain that first and foremost they want to provide a good place to drink, and eventually brew, beer for people who live and work on the west side of Madison. That's their market, not you. Stop giving the rest of us beer dorks who appreciate a broad range of options a bad name.

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  15. Hey anonymous right above me. I agree with everything said, except I take exception to the comment of "beer dork". I would prefer the term beer enthusiast.

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  16. The place is mildly overpriced. I won't be back before they start brewing.

    That said, a hint to MBR: when your loudest and most repeated complaint about a place is that the wrong people are doing it, you sound quite petty, and it diminishes the value of your review. When the review is obviously tinged by a negative personal bias against the proprietors, how is someone who doesn't share that bias supposed to weigh the remainder of what you have to say?

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  17. Sheesh, Dude, what a snob you are.

    A. Why do you hold the demise of JT Whitneys against the new tenants? They have nothing to do with the owner of JT's looting the joint and getting it closed by Johnny Law. Grow up.

    B. It's a bar, not a snobby Castro-Pub.

    C. Get over yourself.

    D. Before you write a screed against a new Business, learn something about it. Be responsible.

    F. "jumping in line over many other groups." This line denotes that you are harboring some sort of personal issues with Vintage that you are not disclosing. That makes you a very corrupt person. Seriously.

    So, you went there to hate on it and now you are doing all you can to hurt it. Very honorable of you.
    I'm just a guy who likes fine Beers, but I have to say, I am done with your snobby blog.

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  18. Alright, first. I have no biases for or against the Vintage. I've never even been in the one downtown. Hell, I don't even know where it is. I do know that there were other projects looking at the Whitneys space and they came in and bought it in a relatively quick period of time which prevented others from putting together counter-bids.

    I don't hold the demise of Whitneys against the new place. I'm not even sure how you would arise at that conclusion.

    Based on the interior when I was there it is "dressed" more like a "snobby castro-pub" than a bar. The lights were dim, dark wood and neon signs. Sounds more "snobby" than "bar-like" to me.

    What was I supposed to "learn" about this business before I wrote anything? It's a restaurant. I didn't like it. Deal with it.

    I assure you I did not go there to hate on it. I had absolutely no preconceived notions of the place before stepping foot in the joint. The only thing I knew was that they hired a relative to come in from out west to brew. That's it. I was with two other people, both of whom held the exact same opinion of the place I did.

    Again, my only bias is a quibbling point that they didn't hire anyone from Madison to do the brewing. Period. Everything else in the review is a legitimate complaint. The food wasn't good. It was moderately over-priced. The drink menu was wrong and didn't include prices. The beer menu was, in my opinion, uninspired. That's it.

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  19. Dear MBR,
    I read your review and decided to go and see if your review held water.
    I can and will say right here that I did not experience any of the food issues you seem to have experienced.
    First, the Crab Cake was properly cooked, well browned on both sides and not in the least bit mushy. And while it was a single Crab Cake, it was the biggest darned Crab Cake I have ever layed eyes on, but I guess if it was two small ones you would have liked it more. The hot sauce it was served with was very enjoyable, fresh and lively, made with Papaya, Banana and Habanero.
    The Mac and Cheese (while not a dish I normally eat) was not broken and was of a perfect consistency. Also, not grainy. The Rigatoni was perfectly cooked. Also, made in house from scratch with Aged Wisconsin Cheddar (I asked)
    The BBQ Pork was actually very cool, in my opinion. The BBQ sauce was obviously not straight from a Sweet Baby Rays jar like 99% of restaurants seem to serve, but instead a custom thing made at Vintage, including peach and chipotle. I found the interplay between the BBQ Pork and the Cole Slaw to be quite entertaining.
    What I don't get is if you are going to write a review of a place and you think something was cooked wrong, shouldn't you at least let them know and see how they handle it? Perhaps let them get it right? (and do right by you?)
    And to the person above who just dissed the food based on price, isn't there a difference between buying pre-made stuff from Sysco and making it from scratch? Just because 2 places serve an Alfredo at differing prices... doesn't mean the one that costs more is over priced or worse. There is a wide difference between various Alfredo's...
    I guess Madison customers, or customers on this blog are only concerned with price and are just fine with having crap straight from the freezer to you. For me, I found the prices to be reasonable, and if I was still in NYC, a giant bargain.
    For me, well, I lived in NYC for a long time, and I want real cooking and I'm willing to pay for it.
    I can honestly say that the food I just had at Vintage was more pleasurable than the meals I had at Granite City and Great Dane.
    Maybe you had a bum visit to Vintage, but hey, that's why responsible restaurant reviewers go at least 3 times before they write about a place.
    I'm having a hard time seeing how Vintage is just the same as the other restaurants around... The Food menu seems to have plenty of interesting things with their own unique twist to them.
    As for the Beer menu, I have to say, there is a wide range of customers out there, so I really doubt anyone is going to invest a million or two dollars into a venture and just carry exotic and obscure fair. At least not if they want to remain in business. One can not survive long outside of major cities with elitist fair.
    Oh, by the way, turns out the Brew-master is one of the owners, so I guess you think he should still hire someone you approve of, just because he has been away from his home town for some years? Maybe some of your fabulous Brew-master friends could put together their own project?
    And to complain that the people of Vintage got the space instead of your friends, that's just sour grapes, and in the world of business, childish.
    It seems to me, after talking to various employees of Vintage this evening, the only thing shallow, callow, poseur about this whole thing is, well, you and your 'review'.
    So you won't be going back to Vintage... well, judging from the heap of jive you dished up for them, I doubt they will miss you...
    For the record, I focused on the food and business part of your screed because I am a working Chef.

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  20. Wow i thought i have to go see this place as soon as i read this review! I went for lunch and i was pleasently surprised. Not only was the staff very nice but the food was outstanding! They do a fish and chips everyday and after talking to my server i found out they batter it right their. As far as their are alot of really good brewers out of work........If you are a good brewer you wont go without work.I find it hard to believe someone like dean coffey would ever go more than a week without work. I would think a good brewer would be highly sought after.(maybe im wrong) My hats off to the vintage and to the guy who maned the fryers for my fish Mmmmmmmmmmmmmm!!!!!!!!!!! Cant wait to try the beer.

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  21. Accusing Jeff of prematurely reviewing the place and not giving it enough chances are fair. Claiming that ulterior motives were involved and implying that he's lying are not. Different people having good meals and bad meals at the same restaurant are entirely possible, and even the best restaurants have bad days. You'd think that after three years of honest reviews, inclusive dialogue and airing his biases out in the open (as was the case with this review), Jeff would have earned a little bit of trust regarding his intentions.

    Accusing him of snobbery is an emotional appeal that misses the point. Vintage intends to be a brewery, and it's logical to expect that its pre-brewing tap list will be representative of its brewing philosophy. If you open a tiny brewery thinking "I'll make beer styles with mass appeal because they're already popular", you're going to lose because you'll be producing a commodity that other breweries are already making for much cheaper because their facilities are more efficient and can take advantage of economies of scale. That's why breweries who produce primarily American light lagers need stellar advertising. If you don't have that, something else needs to hook people in. For example, new beer experiences or phenomenal food. That's why Jeff essentially said he was disappointed with the lack of differentiation in the tap list. Even if you don't agree, his position makes enough sense that labeling him an elitist is a conclusion looking for evidence. Did he not just praise Cooper's Tavern for its selection of everyday (in Europe) German lagers and English ales? Did he not recently admit that Point Amber one of his go-to beers? Chill out, people.

    How many breweries are in town? That's how many brewmasters this town can support. If Dean Coffey has a falling out with Ale Asylum, do you think Grumpy Troll is going to fire Mark Duchow to hire him? With both breweries having vastly different resources, how could anyone even claim that one of them is a better brewer than the other? Regardless of their qualifications, brewers have extremely difficult times landing jobs above the entry level - especially if moving all over the country isn't an option. Just ask Scott, Dean, Mark or Dan Carey.

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  22. I recall that locale was empty for a while (what six months or so)? Why should you care that the Vintage folks "bought it in a relatively quick period of time". You make it sound like they cheated somehow. My guess is that the owners of the property wanted to lease it out within a feasible time period to start making money on the place again. Wouln't they have considered proposed businesses and bids quite carefully before making their choice? I personally like to deal with people who have all their ducks in a row. Maybe the entrepenuers of the other proposed projects (which you said you were aware of)just didn't have all their ducks in a row a the right time.

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  23. Its on the west side..they have low standards...it will be fine ;-)
    Seriously though...its not a chain, and its probably going to have better beer than old chicago. West side is short on good beer bars, let alone ok beer bars.
    If it's run well...it will do fine, regardless if the beer selection isn't east side cool.
    Not every place has to have a super deep selection. I mean look....JT's wasn't that great. Ok beer and food that bordered on not so good, ugly/dirty inside. Had a run when they were alright..but went downhill to the point that no one I know ever went there anymore.
    Vintage doesn't even have to raise the bar much to do better over there. I wish them luck..and hope they do well.

    fwiw...they can hire who they want... I know as a business owner..I would hire someone I knew (who could do the job) over somebody I didn't know (just because they're local) without even having a second thought, no matter the industry.

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  24. Dean can have my job. It's too cold up here.....

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  25. Wow. Just... Wow. I really can't believe the whining and complaining going on here. A place got a bad review, and the reviewer has already said that he'll be back to do a follow-up. It sounds like people on here would prefer that the reviews include the entire range between A and A-, and that no establishment should get below a "it was awesome, you guys really have to try this" on the ratings scale. MBR received mediocre (or bad) food, the place was somewhat expensive and it had a lackluster beer list. Obviously some of your opinions are different, and that's why they're called "opinions" (similarity to a certain body part omitted).

    Mr Jones - Really? Calling out MBR for not being a "responsible reviewer"? This isn't NYC (where I grew up), MBR isn't Mark Bittman and he's not getting paid a 6 figure salary with all of his expenses paid for. He's one guy (and his wife) who shells out his own money to buy beer, go to bars and give his opinion. If you think he's going to go to a bar 3 times, shelling out $50/trip before he writes a "review", I think you're a bit mistaken...

    MBR, keep up the good work. Please don't let this become a "it was awesome, you guys really have to try this" type of website...

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  26. Went in on a Sunday,the Vintage "idea" is cool dtown but canned beer at a brewpub-wakeup?? Poor tap selection and no miller lite in a bottle?Don't drink it but alot of women do! Food is seriously OVERPRICED and the fries sucked.Will try again when they have there own beer (which they started today).

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  27. Had lunch at this place on Saturday. The lunch special, a pulled beef short rib sandwich on a ciabata bun with arugula and mashed potatoes on the sandwich and waffle fries on the side for $10.50 was quite delicious.

    I was the second customer to try their first in-house produced brew (a hefeweizen) as they had just got it online around noon.

    The hefeweizen was very well made. If the rest of the beers are brewed as well as the hefe, I'll be back numerous times!

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  28. MBR, Three weeks ago I visited this forum and my initial reaction to your review "style" was, "Everyone is entitled to an opinion, or maybe you stepped in dog crap that morning, or perhaps that chafing rash is back". Returning today for additional beer commentary I can see that you have not slept. You actually sound like a bitter Dick Cheney all jacked up on Coors Light.

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