By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA
I mean, even Led Zeppelin didn’t write tunes that everyone liked. They left that to the Bee Gees. — Wayne Campbell
It’s common to hear people who have recently moved to New York talk about how much they love how many unique stores there are in the city. The eclectic nature of the city is its very lifeblood. True, just about any center of commerce should be home to a myriad of unique places to buy things, each one with some form idiosyncrasy. Whether you’re in another city, a mall or even a flea market, this is supposed to be one of the benefits of a mature capitalist economy—an individual or group of individuals can start a business to fill a niche; consumers will be happy because they will be able to purchase a commodity to which they did not previously have access, the business owners will be happy because their enterprise will allow them some degree of profit.
In the age of one-stop shopping, of box store Leviathans offering cheap goods at low, low prices, such precision consumerism seems like a breath of fresh air. A problem that arises with such niches, however, especially in places like New York, is that one establishment can fill a niche too well. It becomes incredibly successful, so successful in fact that dozens of places almost identical to it spring up. The niche becomes a fad, thereby robbing the original establishment of its individuality. This is what is currently going on with all of the cocktail bars that are opening around the city. In the last month and a half alone, three of them have opened in the ten blocks between my apartment and the F train. While each of these places most certainly has their own set of cocktails, their own aesthetic, their own set of people who will eventually become regulars, the trend becomes a homogenizing force, one that will sooner or later be rejected by the throngs of potential patrons who will want to once again drink in a place that has some degree of uniqueness or, perhaps in the other direction, a place that is just a bar.
However, there are some bars that have proven to be so eccentric that no one has bothered to mimic them. They are successful, but not too successful. They are well known and highly regarded, but such esteem has not translated into that most famous form of flattery. One such place, the East Village’s Burp Castle (41 East 7th Street), has never had to deal with any pretenders, so far as I know. While it may cater exclusively to beer snobs, which is not particularly unique in this golden age of microbrews, I have never seen their selection duplicated anywhere. They’re not cheap, either, though this is to be expected when one fills a niche with Belgian ales and lambics. Furthermore, the aesthetics of Burp Castle are so antithetical to the typical bar that just about anyone hoping to further quench the thirst of this insatiable city would never attempt to copy what the owners of Burp Castle have done.
Burp Castle, New York
Though Burp Castle no longer has the sign out front that states that patrons must be over the age of 25 (or 26, I’ve forgotten) to enter, there is a certain delicacy of demeanor that one must exhibit while at the bar. It is, for all intents and purposes, a nerd bar. If you are loud, you will be shushed. If you go at the right time, the sound system may be quietly playing music that was been penned by Léonin over eight hundred years ago. These are not mere eccentricities, but rather a means of celebrating the people who brew so many of the beers offered at Burp Castle: Trappist monks. In fact, the bar looks as though it is attached to a monastery, and the shushing, the music, the beer selection and the dark wood throughout the bar should clue patrons into the homage that is being paid. If these rather subtle elements fail to do so, then the sign which reads “NO TALKING ALLOWED — WHISPERING ONLY — by order of the BREWIST MONKS”, the giant murals depicting drunken monks on the open ocean or in a large hall raising a toast, or the bartender being dressed in a friar’s robe (this only happened on my first visit to the bar several years ago) should do the trick. Of course, it doesn’t always, and this is the reason why people write angry reviews on Yelp—though it should be said that some people just really like writing angry reviews on Yelp because they share a similar pathology with some members of the Tea Party, people who have come to exist in a perpetual state of indignation, who will complain about the shrubs outside of New York County’s Supreme Court due to the tax dollars that went into such spartan landscaping, who dream of an America with an eighteenth century regulatory system superimposed over a twenty-first century economy, who equate the Welfare State with Stalinism and Fascism interchangeably, as they fail to comprehend any distinction between the two.
This is really why I love Burp Castle: it is not for everyone. Consequently, it’s not only unique; it also brings in a unique set of individuals. It operates how it wants to operate; if you don’t like it, feel free to go to any of the other bars in the neighborhood, some that will allow you to dance; some that will allow you to talk at a reasonable volume as the bartender rambles on about MC5 and the Fugs to a group of old hipsters who used to hang out with Lou Reed; some that will require you yell above a commercial rap song with a hook sung by Rihanna, to drink from a standard selection of beer, to bask in the neon lights of beer advertisements as the hours race past midnight like cabbies taking hammered twenty-somethings over the Brooklyn Bridge, toward the mauve dawn and the neighborhoods with buildings the colors of ochre or nectarines. Given the amount of establishments and the amount of wealth in this city, that most sacred of Friedmanite virtues (freedom of choice) exists here, at Burp Castle, whereas in less populous or wealthy places, such freedom is negated by one of the inherent contradictions of capitalism (competition can lead to monopolization or homogenization, and, consequently, a lack of competition or a genuine freedom of choice).
Burp Castle fills a niche that does not exist in many neighborhoods, one that could not exist in some cities. And though the price of the beers may make the bar somewhat exclusive, few people go to Burp Castle to seriously tie one on; they are there to have a good lambic or Belgian ale and to gripe about their hectic day working for the Gray Lady or to extol the works of David Foster Wallace to a fellow grad student. They come to sip on some of the best beers in the world, to take in the surroundings that at times can feel like the tenebrous study of some reclusive academic, to make up a small but necessary part of the city’s edifice. It’s places like Burp Castle that not only fascinate tourists and recent arrivals to the city, but that draw them to New York in the first place.