For a certain kind of adventurous beer drinker, places like River Rock Taproom in Sunnyvale represent a great leap forward for humankind.
Finally, they can follow their curiosity up and down a beer menu, try something unusual, take a drinking buddy’s recommendation, evenif they’re willing to face the disapproval of the entire beer-nerd universemix a splash of triple IPA with, say, a swallow of chardonnay. There’s no waiting for a server or committing to a pint they might be uncertain about.
What came to gas stations and buffet restaurants decades ago has finally come to brewpubs: self-service.
River Rock, located on Murphy Avenue in downtown Sunnyvale, is part of the latest trend in beer-craft technology, allowing patrons to serve themselves from 40 taps displayed at eye level along one wall. With no bar or bartender, beer lovers pay by the ounce and may sample as much, or as little, as they want from a dizzying variety of brewsfrom light to dark, sour to porter. There’s a beer with more than 11 percent alcohol by volume, and another that comes in at about 4 percent. There’s even red and white wine, cider and a single tap of kombucha.
Here’s how it works: Customers show a valid ID and credit card and get a wristband in return. The bracelet serves as a running tab. Each tap contains information about each particular beer. The customer can then wave the wrist band near the sensor beside every tap and then pour a pint, a half pint or just a taste. Drinkers are charged by however much they pour.
The concept lends itself to adventure, which means, at least at River Rock, there aren’t many familiar brand names. Those who love their Sierra Nevada or Blue Moon or Goose Island would probably be happier elsewhere.
“I don’t have those kinds of beers here,” says River Rock’s owner, Venkaiah C. Jetti. “They are available everywhere else. My customer wants something new, something different.”
River Rock’s tap list reads like a curated tour of small, indie brewers, many from the Bay Area and several from other spots across the U.S. They have San Jose’s Umunhum Brewing as well as beers from Dogfish Head Craft Brewery out of Milton, Delaware. The tap list is always subject to change, but on a recent visit, the offerings included a grapefruit shandy (a citrus-beer mixture), a sour designed to evoke a gin cocktail with cucumber and mint, a chocolatey porter named after a Hitchcock movie, and a stout that features milk sugar.
Jetti says that a drinking tab will run on average $8 to $10 per pint, though it could go higher. The taproom also serves food, including appetizers, burgers, sandwiches and salads. It opens mid-afternoon on weekdays and at noon to serve lunch on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
River Rock Taproom opened its doors in December 2017. At that point, it had a little educating to do about the concept and the technology. Today, Jetti says, the business has developed a clientele of regulars, but he is still occasionally called on to explain how self-pouring works. Self-serve taps are still rare in the Bay Area; others include the Hops & Sessions taproom in Livermore, the Brew Coop in San Francisco, Thirsty Bay Tap ‘n Pour in Dublin and the Pour Taproom in Santa Cruz.
Blast & Brew, located in North San Jose, also has a self-pouring system. There, customers are given a swipeable card instead of a wristband.
The technology gives the proprietor the ability to monitor a customer’s drinking via a dashboard, and allows businesses to engage in the traditional bartender’s duty of telling a customer when they’ve had too much. At a certain point, the customer will be prompted to check in with the house before they can continue pouring.
Even so, Jetti says, self-pouring is a technology with which millenials feel comfortable. “The older people,” he laughs, “they just never come in.” After a year and a half in business, he’s learned that people often come in after dinner for a light, maybe fruity brew or cider. With 40 taps, he said, there’s almost never any waiting. “I certainly can’t hire 40 people to serve beer.”
Jetti must also make every effort to keep up with trends in local brewing, including new products and seasonal brews. The tap list will require constant tinkering to reflect emerging beers and brewers. He can’t fall back on old dependable brands. His business plan is based on novelty and change. “People want to try everything,” he says. “That’s the beauty of this concept.”
River Rock Taproom
155 S. Murphy Ave, Sunnyvale
Blast & Brew
55 River Oaks Pl, San Jose