As I sat in the Flying Saucer in Columbia on Friday evening sipping on an Avery IPA among some old friends, I recalled my humble beer beginnings. I cut my beer teeth at the Flying Saucer back in 2003 and 2004. At the time, I was starting to branch out with beer. I had tried the the old favorites like Guinness, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and Rogue Dead Guy and liked them, but I had not ventured out much more than that.
It just so happened around the time the Saucer opened, I also moved into a studio apartment on Gervais Street above Ristorante Divino, about three blocks from the Saucer. It was an easy walk, and I made it many, many… many times.
I joined the UFO club, which is a quest to drink 200 different beers, and so my own personal quest began. I was forced to try new things every time I went, and I have never looked back. I am craft brewer’s best advocate and worst customer. I preach the wonders of craft beer to everyone I meet, yet I have no brand loyalty. I always want to try something new.
I have a lot of fond memories at the Saucer, so I began to think about whether I would consider the Saucer in Columbia to be my favorite beer joint. I don’t have a scientific formula to calculate it, but I figured it would be a fun exercise to determine how I would rate beer spots.
So what factors do I take into consideration in rating beer spots? I came up with a list of the top six. Here is the list, in order of importance to me:
- The beer
- The “Cheers” factor
- Special events and other entertainment
- Beer club
Let’s see how I score the Flying Saucer in each category.
The Flying Saucer features over 200 beers, including 80+ on tap. It’s as extensive a beer selection as I’ve ever seen in a bar. Now, some detractors may point out that of those 200+ beers, some are from the Big Three, Anheuser-Busch, Miller and Coors.
While I do consider this to be unfortunate, I also want the Flying Saucer to stay in business. I look at myself as a beer geek, not a beer snob. If Coors is what someone wants, then let them have it. I figure that this provides me with some great evangelical opportunities. If I see a friend or someone I care about drinking a Coors Light, I take it as a teaching moment and will offer to recommend their next beer for them. If they don’t like it, I’ll drink it. It’s amazing how often a money back guarantee works.
Despite the presence of Budweiser, I can still get my North Coast Old Rasputin, Avery Maharaja and Saison Dupont. I’m happy.
The Cheers Factor
“Where everybody knows your name.” There are few better feelings for us mere mortals than to walk into a bar or restaurant and the bartender or waitress asks, “Hey, Brian, what’ll ya have?” It’s as close to celebrity as most of us will ever get.
This is attributable to two things, you have to show up very often, and the staff has to be engaging. Very few people will remember the name of someone they met briefly once or twice. At the same time, even for regulars, the staff at some point needs to ask the customer’s name. What I find interesting is that as often as staff will introduce themselves (“Hi, I’m Brian, I’ll be your server today.”), they almost never ask for your name. It takes a while to develop enough rapport with the wait staff before they really care what your name is.
From the summer of 2003 to around the winter of 2005, I had a run where I knew almost every waitress, most of the bartenders and the managers. It was awesome. I felt like a Z-list celebrity, but a celebrity none-the-less.
The waitresses were good. They made an attempt to talk to you beyond just taking your order. They even took a page from Hooters and would sit down with you for a minute or two. There were several that we got to know well enough that Nicole and I invited them to our wedding.
Oh, and did I mention they were hot? There is nothing better than hot, engaging waitresses. Wait, put the hot, engaging waitresses in tight t-shirts, short plaid skirts and knee-high socks, that’s the best.
The other remarkable thing was the lack of turnover for the first couple years of the Saucer. You can’t develop a relationship with people at a bar without continuity. After the winter of 2005, more and more of our favorites were moving on. The dynamic began to change. To be fair, I also wasn’t going out as much as I used to.
Since I moved away from Columbia about two years ago, I only make it to the Saucer every few months. I only recognize a couple people there, now. The waitresses are nice, and I’ve never gotten a rude one, but they make little attempt to be extra engaging.
And to be honest, on the whole, the waitresses aren’t as hot as they used to be back in ’04. Ah, the glory days.
Grade: 2003-2004: A+ / 2005-present: B-
Atmosphere is an abstract concept that is tough for me to articulate. To me, it all comes down to whether I feel comfortable in the place, and does it inspire me to stay and throw down some pints. There are a lot of things to consider: lighting, music, smell, spacing, noise level, seating, and decor.
Lighting should be somewhat dim, but bright enough to read the menu. The specific genre of music isn’t that important, but it just should not be obnoxious or too loud. Just loud enough that you catch a tune in between conversations long enough to bob your head and feel the groove.
Spacing is interesting to me. I don’t like places are so tight that it’s tough to move, yet I also like smaller, more intimate places. There is something that makes you feel slightly cooler when you are in a place that is full enough that it is a slight struggle to move around. But not too much struggle, that’s annoying. It’s a delicate balance.
Seating should be comfortable, and it’s nice to have a few options such as tables, booths, couches and an outdoor deck or porch. It so happens that the Saucer has all these available. It’s one of my favorite characteristics about the place. To me, there is nothing better than sitting outside when the weather is nice, drinking beer with friends.
Decor should be appropriate to whatever theme the bar is trying to realize. I enjoy a place that has a lot of little nuances that you slowly discover over time. The Saucer has all kinds of stuff like this, from the plates covering the walls and ceiling, to the sarcophaguses, to the insanely detailed chalk drawing of Yoda.
The Saucer is primarily an open space, but the decor is really cool and they keep the lighting and music at appropriate levels. I also really like the couches and outdoor porch. I’ve always felt comfortable hanging out there for hours.
At times during peak bar times, it might get packed. Then it’s a pain to move around and to find a seat, but as I mentioned about them carrying Coors, I also want the place to stay in business, so I can live with that.
Normally, when evaluating a restaurant, I would have food up near the top. However, when I’m concerned with a beer joint, the food is not my top priority. To me, the beer selection, service and atmosphere are what will keep me coming back to drink the beer.
However, beer makes a wonderful pairing with food and great beer ideally should be accompanied by great food. We often think of wine going with a fine meal, but I think that the variety of flavor, aroma and mouth feel that you can find in beer makes for a lot more interesting combinations and experiences with your meal.
The food at the Flying Saucer in my opinion is the weak link in the chain. They focus on pub-quality food, such as pizza, burgers, sandwiches and wraps. The food is ok, but not great. The pizza is probably the most disappointing. I’ve had much better, namely at the Mellow Mushroom down the street, which has my favorite pizza ever.
The best things on the menu are the gigantic soft pretzels and the brats. You can’t go wrong with either of those along with a pint of beer. They even went one step further with the Saucer Bratzel, which is a pretzel toasted with swiss cheese and sliced beer brats. It’s wonderful, but may put you in a coma. Use sparingly.
Let’s just say, I never go to the Saucer specifically with the intention to eat. I go there to drink good beer, and I’ll order food when I’m hungry.
Special Events and Other Entertainment
What do you mean, you go to a bar and want to do something other than drink?
Yes, it is nice to have some activities or games available to fall back on when the conversation may be drying up, or you just want to do something different. This is particularly important among males, who more often than not would rather do something active than talk. As women often lament, we’re not the greatest communicators.
To give us something to do, there are the traditional bar games such as pool and darts. These days, there are a lot of other options that have become very poplar. Video games such as Golden Tee and Silver Strike are found all over the place. (AC’s on King Street in Charleston has one of the original Capcom Bowling arcade games, and it’s still just a quarter per play. Best bar video game ever. Unbelievable retro fun.)
Other popular games that require you to actually use your body include shuffleboard, cornhole and red neck golf (also known as ladder golf). The basic concepts for a successful bar game is that you need to be able to play with one hand so as to hold a beer (except pool), and it can’t require a tremendous amount of coordination to be good, as you’ll likely be playing after a couple beers.
In addition to games, any good bar should have some sort of special events. It could be something like a good happy hour special, a nightly theme or beer tastings or dinners.
The Saucer has Golden Tee and darts. Not a tremendous variety, but it’s enough in a pinch. They do a great job with specials. Every day they have a “fire sale” special selection for $2.50/pint. On Mondays almost all pints are $2.50, Tuesdays are trivia night, and Wednesdays are brewery day, where you get a pint glass when you buy a beer from the featured brewery. The Saucer also has periodic beer dinners, tastings and launch parties when new beers come into the state.
The Saucer does an excellent job of promotion through specials and events. It always feels like there is a good reason to go there.
Everyone wants to belong to something bigger than themselves. For beer drinkers, being part of a beer club is one way to “drink for a cause.” It makes us feel slightly better about the money we’re spending and the calories we’re drinking. It also forces us out of our comfort zone. If your goal is to drink 200 different beers, you can’t just order your trusty favorite every time.
The other key aspect to a beer club is the rewards. Do they reward you along the way, and what is the prize at the end? Are the rewards useful, or some token gesture that you could do without?
The Flying Saucer’s final reward for finishing their 200 beers is quite nice. You receive a $100 bar tab to use for your Ring Of Honor induction party. They could step up on the other rewards, however. At 50 you get a free pint, at 100 you get a 22 oz. beer, and at 150 you get a hat.
The cost to sign-up is $18 and you get a t-shirt and a magnetic card you can swipe to view what you have not had and print out slips that you give to your waitress so they can credit your account with the beer you drank.
Overall, it’s a good system and makes it very easy to keep track of what you have and have not had. I credit the Saucer’s UFO club with creating my obsession with beer. Whether or not that is a good thing is up to interpretation.
Over the years, the Flying Saucer has held up as my favorite beer place. While not perfect, it has nearly every element of what I look for in a beer joint. The bottom line is that I can get a great beer, I always have a good time and there isn’t much lacking. If they improved the menu with more interesting and complex dishes, it would be untouchable.
Nicole and I loved the Saucer so much back in the day that we had our wedding reception there. We had a blast, and I know our guests did, too, because I still hear stories about that party nearly five years later.
To sum up, here are the grades I gave the Saucer:
- The beer: A
- Cheers factor: A+/B-
- Atmosphere: B+
- Food: C
- Special events and other entertainment: A
- Beer club: A-
So what’s your favorite beer joint?