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Last call at the Tap and Mallet

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On a sunny Saturday in October under a white tent outside the Tap and Mallet on Gregory Street, revelers dressed in lederhosen danced the waltz to the accordion, lubricated by hearty steins of Märzens and schwarzbiers.

There, at this Rochester mainstay beer bar, was a who’s-who of the beer scene, from brewery owners to brewers, influencers, beer writers, distributors, and bar owners. Among them was Tap and Mallet owner Joe McBane, a towering Englishman decked out in his finest Oktoberfest garb.

It was a bittersweet celebration for McBane. He had already decided, but had yet to announce, that after 14 years he would bring the bar to an end. In retrospect, it was a de facto send-off for the establishment.

“I couldn’t say anything at the time, but I kind of knew it was our last big hurrah,” McBane said a few weeks before he closed his place for good. “So it had a sort of special meaning to me as well. I had the best time. I was the most German-English guy in Rochester that day.”
Changing market dynamics and the COVID-19 pandemic led owner Joe McBane to ultimately shutter Tap and Mallet. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • Changing market dynamics and the COVID-19 pandemic led owner Joe McBane to ultimately shutter Tap and Mallet.

Last call at Tap and Mallet will take place on Dec. 31, marking the end of an era for Rochester beer. A confluence of the pandemic’s toll and changes where beer consumers prefer to drink, had brought the bar to its knees. McBane said he plans to focus on his other bar, The Sheffield on Monroe Avenue in Brighton.

Among Rochester beer-lovers, there is no overstating the role Tap and Mallet played seeding and developing the now-vibrant local beer scene.

In 2007 when McBane and business partner Casey Walpert opened the bar, two breweries existed in the city of Rochester — Rohrbach Brewing Company and Genesee, the latter of which seemed to be sliding toward its demise. Today there are 12 within the city limits. Many of them sent their first kegs to the Tap and Mallet.



The bar was a homey mix of hardwood and taxidermy oddities. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • The bar was a homey mix of hardwood and taxidermy oddities.
“Tap and Mallet would be, for me, where I met about 40 percent of the people I know in this industry,” said Geoff Dale, co-owner of Three Heads Brewing Company. “There was a moment from 2010 to 2015 where the who’s-who of who was in there was ridiculous. Joe created an incredible spot. Everything, to me, what a pub should be, Tap and Mallet emulated.”

Tap and Mallet became a catalyst for Rochester’s beer scene through a combination of events, ranging from special beer releases and weekly meetings of beer enthusiasts to the annual Rochester Real Beer Expo, and a rotating tap list of sought-after but hard-to-find brews.

It introduced Rochester to hazy, heavily hopped New England IPAs, nurtured the nascent homebrewing scene, and played host to countless conversations between wide-eyed entrepreneurs who would one day open their own taprooms.

The pub was dimly lit but cozy and warm — both in temperature and atmosphere.

The ubiquitous hardwood of the furniture, flooring, and the J-shaped bar were broken up by odd knick-knacks such as taxidermied raccoons and jackalopes. They gave the place a sense of hominess. Fast friends to be made over brews at Tap were a draw, but the beer was the main attraction.

On a given day you could sample local favorites like Young Lion, Three Heads, or Fifth Frame, but also highly sought-after Belgian beers like Cantillion or heralded domestic beers along the lines of JW Lee’s Harvest Ale or Hudson Valley’s Suarez Family Brewery.

It wasn’t just that Tap and Mallet had a lot of beer on tap. It had good beer on tap. McBane, who arrived in Rochester by way of Sheffield, England, in 2000, honed his palate working at The Old Toad, a staple beer bar on Alexander Street. If McBane didn’t find a beer up to snuff, it would not be poured at Tap and Mallet.

On Tap and Mallet's beer list, you'd find an eclectic mix of beers, many never before seen in Rochester. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • On Tap and Mallet's beer list, you'd find an eclectic mix of beers, many never before seen in Rochester.
“It was just great to go one week and then come back in a week and have everything be brand new, something that you haven’t seen on draft really before,” said Andy Cook, owner of Swiftwater Brewing Company in the South Wedge and a longtime friend of McBane’s. “And a handful of things you’d never seen on draft before.”

It was no small wonder that fledgling brewery owners flocked to Tap and Mallet.

Jen Newman, owner of Young Lion Brewing Company in Canandaigua, frequented Tap for years as she toyed with the idea of launching a brewery. For her, a night at the bar tripled as beer school and a networking event.

“It was the place where you could go to truly discuss this liquid that we love,” Newman said. “It was a place that you could go to learn something new, to have your opinion and try something new.”

With Tap and Mallet, McBane wanted to create a haven for Rochester beer lovers. While at The Old Toad, he found there was a market in Rochester for a bar focused exclusively on world-class beer.

There was. And maybe there still is. But times have undoubtedly changed since McBane opened Tap and Mallet 14 years ago.

Beer bars are slowly fading away as a cornerstone of the craft beer world. Locally, MacGregor’s, a legacy craft beer bar chain in Rochester, put its locations in Brighton and Penfield up for sale this past year. Unter Biergarten, a German-style beer hall on East Avenue, closed in December.

In October, the New York Times reported that beer bars across the country were closing en masse and being replaced by breweries with their own taprooms.
Paul Leone, executive director of the New York Brewers Association, said he believes the situation is more nuanced.

“I think a lot of people are quick to say, ‘Oh, the brewery taproom is really at fault here,’ and I don’t entirely agree with that,” Leone said. “People do like to hang out at brewery taprooms, but they never hang out at one brewery taproom, they hang out at different brewery taprooms because they like variety.”
The importance of Tap and Mallet to Rochester's beer scene is difficult to overstate. - PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • PHOTO BY JACOB WALSH
  • The importance of Tap and Mallet to Rochester's beer scene is difficult to overstate.

One explanation is market saturation. After Tap and Mallet showed Rochester that a bar with a diverse tap list was in demand, copycats popped up. It’s not unusual now to see a Rochester bar with 25 or more taps, or serving beers like Brooklyn-based Other Half Brewing Company, which Tap and Mallet first introduced to the city. Other Half now operates a brewery and taproom in East Bloomfield.

“Where Tap and Mallet was once entirely unique of a destination, it wasn’t so unique anymore through time,” Leone said.

Rochester’s beer industry is flourishing in large part because of Tap and Mallet. As McBane prepared to close a chapter of his life, he looked back with pride on the impact his bar had on the city, even though it ultimately played a role in his creation’s demise.

“I want to be completely clear here, I have no bitterness or animosity in regard to this,” McBane said. “Quite the opposite, while I have sort of contributed to a much greater increase in competition, it’s something I really championed: good beer and introducing people to good beer.”

Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or gino@rochester-citynews.com.