Monday, 18 December 2017

It's the "end of an era" in Burlington

Happy participants lined up in front of Rib Eye Jack's Ale House, prior
to their most recent Beer Fest. The Burlington landmark and craft beer
oasis recently shut down after years of existence. I don't know how many
years so I am leaving that intentionally open-ended. Many years. Many.

This is the story about a bar.

Now I know what you're thinking... There are like hundreds of thousands of bars in the world. What could you possibly have to say about another?

Well, lemme tell you. This bar was a little different than the others. Because this was my bar! The place where everybody knew my name. Oh, I've had others in the past... but not like this one.

I first walked into Rib Eye Jack's Ale House back in November 2014. Former coworker Gordo and I were summons there by another former coworker Marie as that's where they were celebrating her boy-toy Ernie's birthday. Ernie was turning, I believe, 23 while Marie was in her 40s. It was all very scandalous, a little bit "You go, girl!" and not at all true (but Fake News is big these days so...)

On my way over, Marie excitedly texted me that "There must be 200 different craft beers here!" A bit of hyperbole, yes, but when I arrived and looked at the menu, there did seem to be nearly 100 for sure.

Now before I go any further, I will give you the ending of this story. Rib Eye Jack's closed its doors in both its Burlington and Streetsville locations on December 1st.
This would be Rib Eye Jack's Beer Technician Kylie putting a
Burlington Beer Festival magnetic door sticker on my car many
years ago. I told readers that Kylie would be there one of the
three days for the Beer Fest but refused to say which so if they
wanted to meet her, it would be best to attend all three days.  She
did show up on Sunday, the muddiest day, all dressed in white.
So why am I telling this long-winded story? Because it was my favourite bar and I'll be damned if I let it go out with a whimper, rather than a big Earth-shattering *BANG!!* It deserves no less.

And to do that, we must return back to that November 2014 night and start from the beginning. Now's the time to crack a cold beer, maybe get a snack. Smoke 'em if you got 'em...

Gordo and I landed at Rib Eye Jack's at exactly the same time that night, mostly because he's a freaky stalker who follows me everywhere. (Yeah, I get that same shiver. Creepy, eh?) While we were at Marie and Ernie's table, we figured we'd wander to the bar. We only wanted beer and that would be faster than waiting for the table's server.

At the bar was a bright-eyed and friendly young lady named Kylie. Her tag said she was the "Beer Technician" and having had only been writing this for a year and change, I had to ask what that meant as there was beer terminology I was still learning (and continue to do so.) "It means I'm well-versed in the beers we serve" she smiled.

Gordo immediately spotted their Coors Light tap and said in jest, "Hey, Don, look what I can order!" I instantly shot him an Evil Death Stare so he wisely opted for a pint of Steam Whistle Pilsner, instead. But I asked Kylie about the Coors Light taps and she sighed a little. "Yeah, we get a lot of company parties in here so you have to have that one beer tap that doesn't scare them."
Now beautiful young Cara here, happily posing behind my
Duchesse De Bourgogne Flanders Red Sour, is another
story. I deliberately made sure she was working my table
when we celebrated my birthday there in 2016 for a very
specific reason. But you'll have to read the story for that.
Beside it was the Pabst Blue Ribbon tap (later Heineken) for those who want a macro with a little more oomph. When the bar opened, PBR still had some hipster cred.

But the balance of the taps? All Ontario craft beer... and good ones! For the record, my very first beer at Rib Eye Jack's was a Bellwoods' Witchshark Imperial IPA. Bottles of it and other great beers to my liking were in the fridge. But even that initial 15-minute conversation with Kylie made me realize she was also well-versed in beers that went far beyond the bar's confines. We started talking about American craft beers we had tried and enjoyed, as well as those closer to home. She was in her early-20s at that point and it was pretty clear that she knew a helluva lot more about craft beers than I did.

From that point on, all of our conversations went something like this: "How was your day?" "Good and yours?" "Great... so anyway I found this new beer..."
For Halloween 2014, Kylie dressed up
as the lady on the label of Nickel Brooks'
Naughty Neighbour American Pale Ale.
The label has since switched to another
but I always liked this first one better.
The briefest of pleasant salutations and hello's and then right into beer. From that point on, Kylie became an invaluable source to me and this little column you are reading, always pointing me in the direction of new and great craft beers. As a true hophead, she always knew the best new IPAs and Imperial IPAs that had just come out though like me, she roamed freely through other darker beer styles, as well.

Now when I met her, she may have been best-known for her job at Rib Eye Jack's but she was also studying to become a nurse. She successfully completed that within a couple of years, landing employment in her specialized field but still kept doing some shifts at the bar. Especially Thursday nights when the bar held its weekly Cask Night. That night every week, Kylie would tap a cask sent to the bar by some of the best-known names in Ontario craft beer - Nickel Brook, Muskoka, Flying Monkeys and Innocente were the usual cask leaders on Thursday nights but many others found their place in the bar on that night. And when Kylie tapped that cask, there was a large ship's bell that she would ring to let patrons know the cask festivities had begun.

Absolutely no one brought more spirit, more comradery, more enthusiasm and more fun into that place than Kylie did on her tiny shoulders and despite the pressure of an often-packed and hectic bar, I suspect no one will miss it more. On December 1st, when the owners shut the doors for good, Kylie's Facebook status was simply: "It's the end of an era."
Tiffers (who actually goes by Tiffany) plays with the
grandson of regular George, who had passed away.
The bar held his wake and because all of us loved
George, it was jammed. But no one was hit harder
by his sad death than Tiffers. Her softer side really
came out in the days leading up to his passing away.

But there were others there that made the place a blast, as well. Just before Christmas 2015, I noticed pretty young Cara scrambling to find a date for their Christmas Party. Given her sweet disposition, big smile and beautiful eyes, I was a little stunned she was having any trouble in that department. I suggested a young coworker of mine who had been in with me several times but when I said his name, she confessed she had no idea who that was.

Now by this point, I had become friends with the General Manager Steve (more on that big lug in a minute.) So a couple of times when we went out for a smoke, I would ask about Cara, who he knew quite well. At one point, he started to get a little leery of my questions - no doubt thinking I was asking for myself. Not exactly. I had a different plan in mind.

You see, when I celebrated my birthday at the bar in February 2016, I made sure of two things. 1) That Cara was working, And 2) That my Beer Store coworker Jay-Dawg was there. With all the stars in alignment, I began praising Jay's attributes to Cara that night. It started simply. "Hey, Cara, did you know my friend Jay here has his own condo?" "Hey, Cara, did you know my friend Jay here has a great job?" "Hey, Cara, did you know my friend Jay here has his own wheels?"
I got a shout-out on Instagram when my Muskoka
Beer rep, Vince Cusick, attended the 2016 Rib Eye
Jack's Beer Fest with all proceeds going to the local
Joseph Brant Hospital. Steve always rocked those!

Now by the end of the evening after I piled back beer after beer, my claims were getting a little outrageous. By the end, I drunkenly said, "Hey, Cara, did you know my friend Jay here is filthy rich?" He's not, of course, but it turned out the lure of a handsome, gainfully employed guy with his own place and truck was enough for her. The next time I was in, Cara asked me point-blank, "Donny, are you sure your friend Jay is single? He's on Tinder!" When I pointed out that yes, I knew him very well, he was absolutely single and in case she forgot, she, too, was also on Tinder, just like many single people, she seemed happy with my answer. She trusted me not to try and hook her up with a player. That was enough.

The second she inquired about his availability, I was immediately on my phone, texting to Jay who, in turn, wasted little time landing in the bar seat beside her when she was off duty. They had their first date that weekend and have been together ever since. I also won Wingman of the Year for 2016. Just doin' my job... workin' the game.

And then there was Tiffers. Crap on a cross, was this hyper-active lady ever a fire-cracker.
Here's a couple of cool dudes. That's Nickel Brook
owner John Romano on the left and Steve, former
GM of Rib Eye Jack's Ale House on the right. This
picture was taken at the Grand Opening Party for
Nickel Brook and Collective Arts when they shared
the old Lakeport brewery a couple of years back.
She was the only server there even remotely close to my age and even then there was nearly a two decade gap. That shows you how young the other servers were, as well as how ancient I am. Now Tiffers looked like a yoga instructor - this chick was buff. And she bounced around behind the bar like she was constantly spiking on adrenaline. Just a ball of kinetic energy. The older customers loved her because she had her flirtatious and coy game happening big-time. (Guys, smarten the hell up - they work for tips!) And if the boss wasn't around, well, she wasn't opposed to having the odd shot - and then another and another - of her beloved Jameson's Irish Whiskey. I suspect GM Steve knew all too well and simply looked the other way.

I was always quite fond of Tiffers as she, too, had gone through school for Journalism. Unlike me, who slogged it out for years at low-paying newspaper gigs, she wisely went in a different direction - public relations for a major hotel chain - when she was done. But I saw a sweeter, softer side to this pretty fire-ball when one of the regulars, George, suffered a serious stroke. Tiffers went to the hospital to keep him company every day, even though the stroke robbed him of his speech. Eventually he succumbed, passing away so she contacted his family to suggest his wake be held at Rib Eye Jack's, his home away from home. It was and it was packed. But I remember it all too well. Tiffers was absolutely gutted by George's passing.
CUTLINE UPDATE! That's Cara and me on the left, then
Jon, Rob (who gave me the names), Scott, then Kylie on the
right and hidden behind her is Heather when we headed
to the Streetsville Rib Eye Jack's Beer Fest a couple of years
ago. Regardless of which one, that bar was always a party!

And that brings us to GM Steve, who became a pretty good friend of mine over the years. Steve loved his trips to the United States to visit various really well-known craft breweries. Steve is a certified wine sommelier but boy, did he know his craft beer. Before I first met him, Kylie pointed him out to me and said, "If you think I know craft beer, you should talk to Steve." So I did and yeah, he really knew his shit. Steve got me my first The Alchemist Brewing's Heady Topper Imperial IPA, as well as my first Russian River Brewing's Pliny The Elder Imperial IPA - the two most sought-after beers in America. Because of his sommelier background and expertise, Steve could notice even the slightest shift in a beer's recipe from one year to the next. I certainly couldn't. And those were just two of the dozens he handed me over the years.

Steve came across at first as a bit stuffy. But once you knew him, a totally different story. He's a cool but low-key dude. You'd never make him laugh out loud (I tried and I'm damn good at it) but if you got an honest chuckle out of him, hey, man, same thing.
Whenever Beer Bro Glenn came into Burlington from
Oshawa, we made a point of going to Rib Eye Jack's.
Glenn loved the beer selection, the ambiance and like
most guys, the lovely young ladies serving the beer.

But Steve's real strength, to my eyes, was the sway he had within the Ontario Craft Beer industry. Every October, Rib Eye Jack's held their annual Craft Beer Fest with all proceeds going to the Joseph Brant (Hospital) Memorial Foundation, our local hospital in Burlington. Steve was not only able to convince various and sundry big and smaller Ontario craft brewers to attend but also to donate their staff and beer to the cause. And every year on that October day, man, was it a blast. We all paid our $35 and from noon to 4 pm drank like possessed demons and feasted like kings as Steve's kitchen staff trying their best to keep up with the ravenous hordes. It was quite frankly Jay-Dawg, his brother Jonny and my favourite day of the year.

I remember poor Cara having to work the event every year while our entourage, including her now-boyfriend, partied our brains out. I always felt badly for her... but copious amounts of beer helped me get past that quickly. Good craft beer truly is the best healer. I also remember - and I can tell this story now - Kylie attending the event and then having to work a full shift at the bar afterwards. Being as she weighs maybe 90 pounds, she may have been feeling not-so-much pain that shift. Like, none at all.
One of my favourite Nickel Brookers, Aimee, worked
the Rib Eye Jack's Beer Fest one year and jokingly
asked me, "Hey, Don, have you ever tried Headstock
IPA? I think you'd like it." Whereas now she is the
brewery's lead sales rep for the Golden Horseshoe
Area, she was the one pouring my growlers before
she landed that job. She knew I was a pretty big fan.

Now I'm not going to go into any speculation about why it closed because that's not relevant. People lost their jobs so passing along second, third and fourth-hand gossip would be pointless and insensitive. But my friends had a few theories and all fingers pointed directly at me.

"Did they shut down because you moved from Burlington to Oakville?" asked coworker Patchy. Beer Bro Glenn didn't even pose it as a question but rather as an accusation. "You bastard! You jerk! Because you moved, they went under!" Glenn really loved that place.

All restaurants-bars eventually go down because no one stays in the public's favour forever. There's always gonna be newer, hipper places opening. They'll never be as great or cool as Rib Eye Jack's but the public at large is easily hoodwinked by the latest shiny bauble. But it was and will likely always be my favourite place ever. It was quite a fun family and you never forget that. On a final note, Tiffers, with several Jameson's under her belt one night, insisted I tell her who my favourite server was. I diplomatically said I loved them all equally. She kept pressing. I kept resisting. I'm more stubborn than she is insistent. Tiffers, I can finally tell you now. Love ya to bits... but of course it was Kylie. No one knew their craft beer like Kylie. Also as you can see from the photo, she made my crappy car look good! So farewell to an old and true friend. There was no place... like this place... any place! And that won't change anytime soon. But guys and dolls, that's it, that's all and I am outta here. Until next time, I remain...