In Memoriam: Baltimore Taphouse Owner John Bates
Steve Fogleman, Baltimore Beer Baron
My friend and a pioneer of the Baltimore craft beer scene, John Bates, died this morning. He was 56. John was the owner of the Baltimore Taphouse at 600 S. Potomac Street since 2004 along with his wife, Kristen Vojik Bates. He worked for Racers’ in Parkville from 1988-2004 and helped usher in the craft beer fad(!) from its arrival to Charm City.
On Monday, he suffered a severe allergic reaction which caused him to stop breathing for several minutes. This morning, John passed peacefully in his sleep. His loss is overwhelming to Canton as he was a passionate lover of the neighborhood.
He started his craft beer career at Racers’ almost on a whim. They needed a bartender and he stepped up. After 16 years of dutifully pulling microbrews there, John found a spot for his dream. In Canton. The Alley Cat on S. Potomac was an ‘interesting place’ and he immediately set out to be a better neighbor in the rapidly changing hood.
“I think it brings in a nice crowd,” he said about his bar in a feature for Baltimore Beer Week in 2013. “The bar that was here before us was kind of a problem spot. There was a lot of in-and-out action, the neighbors hated it, loud at 2 o’clock in the morning. It kind of pushed all those people out and brought a totally different crowd.”
John was a low-key guy, about as type-B as a bar owner gets. He never championed himself as anything other than a quiet, responsible operator. But for so many residents of Canton, he was the first Canton bar owner they met as the neighborhood took on thousand of new residents from outside the area.
When I visited the bar tonight, I was shocked to see his wife Kristen there. She told me that she’d been with family all day (in addition to being at John’s side all week) when she noticed that the camera to the bar showed a massive crowd of regulars. John was the one who always checked the bar camera, not Kristen. She headed down and consoled a throng of mourners. Her strength is inspiring.
“John went to high school in Richmond, so that was home to him,” she told me. “But he moved here from North Carolina (in 1986) and his first friend was named Troy. Troy said to John, ‘Do you want to go to a bull roast with me? And John said, ‘What’s a bullroast?’ and Troy told him it was a place to eat Pit Beef and drink beer. And John said, ‘I’ll go, but only if they have Budweiser’. Which they did. “But it was so funny how much he loved Budweiser”, she laughed.
John was raised up and down the east coast, but his family settled in Richmond, Virginia when he entered high school. John moved to Baltimore in 1986 and became a customer at Racers. A little more than a year later, he started working there.
At Racers, It didn’t take long for John to turn on Big Beer.
Danny Forrester was John’s co-worker there and his best friend.
“John was a rule follower and a champion of good beer,” Forrester recalled, which is funny, because I knew him as a stickler of the rules during my time as Chairman of Baltimore’s Liquor Board. “He would walk into Racers for his shift and we had 15 beers on tap. 14 good beers and Miller Lite. If you ordered a Miller Lite, you would be waiting a long while to get that beer.”
“From the distributors to the beer business to the beer bars and even to the brewers, he was always involved. He was craft beer before we called it craft beer.”
They fixed up the old Alley Cat location real good in Canton. “When John bought the bar, I helped him clean it up and remodel it,” Forrester said. “And when I cleaned the bathroom sink trap, there was a bullet in it. A bullet!”
God Bless Old Canton AND John Bates.
“He only put in beers he wanted to drink,” said Forrester. “He would not put in anything that he wouldn’t drink.”
John’s new favorite beer became Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
“I was the first distributor to bring beer to Baltimore Taphouse (from Old Dominion in 2004)”, said Jim McGinty, a jack-of-all-trades in the beer continuum who’s ended up working for the Taphouse today.
“We met, we shook hands and started talking. It was almost twelve o’clock and I told him ‘You need to sell your first beer’. He said ‘Well, my father-in-law wants to be the first customer’ but he wanted to get grapefruit juice or something. And I swear to God, I said ‘John, you’re open for business and I’m the first guy here.’ And I held out a $5 bill and said ‘Sierra Nevada, please’ and he took it. I was like ‘you’re open for business!’
Then, the teary-eyed McGinty reflected that “John was the kind of guy who always underestimated his effect on the community. Humble. He didn’t think he mattered but he did so much for everyone.”
That is a big-time +1.
For me, he was always a calming influence. Although not a regular customer, I was lucky enough to see him several times a week when I parked in front of the bar to drop off my daughter for elementary school. John would be sweeping the sidewalk and always greeted her by name. I’d stop and gossip with him for a minute or two, truancy laws be damned. He put my type-A at ease for a second and Annabel always made it to school under the wire.
There are so many different personalities in the bar business and John’s was unique. He was probably the most relaxed pub owner in all of Baltimore. His old friend Forrester agreed.
“As more craft beer bars popped up, they would be competitive, because they wanted business, ” he told me tonight. “John was more interested in craft beers being carried in the neighborhood more than he was about competition. He was all about people who loved good beer and it getting out to the people.”
If anyone ever believed in ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ and ‘the more the merrier’, it was John. He was a beer hero to Baltimore and he was good to Canton.
Not everything is set in stone yet, but let me allude to a celebration of John’s life in the coming weeks, and they’re going to need a bigger boat, because we can’t expect even half of his friends to fit into the Taphouse. I hope to see you there and I hope you’re holding a Sierra, but if it’s some other craft beer, that definitely works too.