By Tasman Richardson

If you want a great watering hole you don’t need to walk far from Piss Alley to find it. I’m not being crude, that’s the nick name for an area in Tokyo crammed tight with skewer stands, shot bars, and a single, crowded public toilet. That was 10 years ago and even then, these tiny micro bars were so old they were virtually heritage sites. Shot bars have extremely limited seating, often no more than a bar top and a bench that fits eight. The dimly lit nooks are skillful examples of differentiation through decoration, a fusion of burlesque, retro junk sale, and pirate treasure.

Flash forward to Toronto 2013 and the relentless gentrification of Dundas West in the wake of the Ossington boom. A new generation of young revellers are taking on multiple roles of patron, vendor, and decorator. These new watering holes look anything but new. Rustic and rusty are the order of the day, with salvaged wood and tin ceiling tiles being prominent design features.  None of this shabby chic is a result of neglect. On the contrary, it’s as carefully curated as mix tape for a high school sweetheart. The Dive bar as you knew it has been upgraded.  For boomers, it’s as confusing as playing a game of hipster or homeless. Given the sophisticated tastes, disposable income, and highly educated nature of Millennials, why do they pass up shiny new interiors in favour of sipping a bevy in an antique shop? Is it nostalgia for a simpler time? An ideal hinted at in old postcards, tin cans, and matchboxes? Or is it a deeper need to reconnect with some kind of cultural credibility? In his book “Bobos In Paradise, The New Upper Class and How They Got There”, David Brooks describes the cross pollination between bohemian counter culture of the 60s and the bourgeois social climbing of the 80s, (get it, Bobo?). Normally I’d insert a pithy quote from the book here but it turns out there’s an amazing article by on by Rodger Cambria that sums up the attraction to the new dive bars perfectly:

How, then, do Bourgeois Bohemians demonstrate to themselves that while climbing the social ladder they have not become all the things they hold in contempt? How do they convince the world they haven’t completely sold out their ideals? They reconnect with the bohemian half of their Bobo selves. They call on the free spirits of Bukowksi and Burroughs for inspiration. They admonish the culture of newness, surrounding themselves with rootsy artifacts (see the roughly hewn Tibetan rug woven from obscure mountain grasses), distressed furniture and vintage clothing. ‘We prize old things whose virtues have been rendered timeless by their obsolescence,’ says Brooks, adding, ‘In our efforts to climb upwards, we have left something important behind.’ Something they can certainly find in a dive.

Let’s repeat a bit of that “We prize old things whose virtues have been rendered timeless by their obsolescence”.  This philosophy goes beyond the furniture. It includes the drinks themselves. Knowing this, it’s no surprise that there’s been a steady rise in crafted beer made in small batches by enthusiasts who love what they do. Of course, you’re probably saying “if craftsmanship is so important then why are cheap trashy beers like Pabst Blue Ribbon doing so well?”. That’s the flip side of all this… irony. Yes, hipsters and irony are virtually inseparable. To quote a slightly less refined news source (

All these beer-snob hipsters ironically drinking this “cheap” beer has ironically driven up demand to where it is no longer cheap, costing nearly twice as much as it did 5 years ago.

So, where does that leave breweries? Two extremes: Produce a high quality, crafted, small batch brew, formulated by bearded die-hards instead of people in lab coats. Or, repackage your oldest, cheapest, mass market, tough man, working class beer, the way it looked on the first day you sold it. The older and cheaper the better but most importantly, it must be unchanged and therefore timeless. So if you don’t have an old fashioned salt of the earth legacy beer, or a rare batch of brew carefully crafted for selective niche tastes, you’re out of luck. With beer, as with most things, lukewarm doesn’t appeal to anyone.

Additional links:
Photo: The Communist’s Daughter (early pioneer of shabby chic)

New York Times book review: Bobos In Paradise

Cracked: Pabst Blue Ribbon