Can a no-frills guy warm up to these barroom beer chillers?

Posted to: Mike Gruss Opinion 

Mike Gruss
Virginian-Pilot columnist
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© February 25, 2009 

America loves its beer and loves its beer cold.

The cheaper the beer, the colder we like it. Frostbite would be nice. Accompanying glaciers would be preferable.

That's why bars pose such a problem.

For centuries, drinking at a bar has worked like this: The bartender pours you a beer. You put your beer on the bar. You sit and complain about life. You ignore the jerk in a suit who keeps talking. You wonder if you can get in one more round before happy hour ends. The beer gets warm. You drink it anyway, then leave.

At the Monarch Sports Grille near Old Dominion University, the process deviates. The bartender pours you a beer. You put your beer atop a lighted disc on the bar. The beer stays cold. Everything else becomes secondary.

Maybe it's an effect of global warming, but cold is the new hot right now. Coors Light offers "cold-activated cans" that turn blue in the right temperature. Ice bars where people drink vodka and dress in weird Eastern Bloc outerwear are part of a high-end and odd-looking trend. And the Monarch is one of the first in Virginia to use a technology called Chilldisc.

It looks like a stainless steel coaster embedded in the bar, except the coaster maintains a temperature of 26 degrees and is guaranteed to keep cold a beer glass, bottle or, if you're the jerk in the suit, your girly umbrella drink.

The product was invented by Baltimore machinist Fred Kent, who wanted a place to keep his beer cold on Sundays while he worked in his shop and watched the Ravens game. For the past few years, along with investors and entrepreneurs, he's been trying to build a network of installers and distributors across the East Coast to ensure others have the same experience.

A few years after the business started, the Chilldisc technology has expanded to a couple of dozen restaurants and bars, almost exclusively in the Chesapeake Bay/Mid-Atlantic region. The Monarch is the only spot in Virginia outside the D.C. suburbs to have the feature.

Chilldisc has been met with resistance by some bar owners who fear if the beer is kept colder, consumers will stay longer and order less. Clearly, the beer would get warmer, their hearts get a little bit colder.

So why pay thousands of dollars for the installation just to keep beer colder? It's something to talk about, it lets customers feel a tiny bit appreciated (as much as you can feel appreciated at barroom prices), and, besides, Americans love their cold beer.

When patrons encounter the Chilldisc, "most of the time, they're pleasantly surprised," said Peter Cummings, the Monarch's manager. "It keeps 'em in their seats."

What's in it for bar owners? Supposedly, good word of mouth. Using only anecdotal evidence, bar owners have told Chilldisc the product is keeping customers at the bar longer, said Chris Beauchamp, one of the company's founders.

I don't like frills at bars. When I go out for a drink, generally I like what I call an honest beer. I'm not there to see or be seen. I'm there for friends and to enjoy the beverage.

And I can't stop thinking that Chilldisc is an unnecessary luxury. It sounds like a Rube Goldberg contraption.

Yet I find a perk like this completely captivating.

Business owners have to spend more money to get our attention. People are going out less, which means every experience needs to be even better than it was six months or a year ago. Every experience needs to be worth it, not just good enough.

Guadalajara in Virginia Beach spent an astonishing $180,000 on a bar for its Town Center location almost two years ago. People don't need grand gestures.

Sometimes, it's just as simple as keeping a beer cold.