James Rabus has turned Port Washington’s Sir James Pub into the home of the largest selection of beer in Wisconsin
It’s not a place where everybody knows your name. Not right off the bat anyway.
But Jason Rabus knows your favorite kind of beer, and at Sir James Pub in Port Washington there’s plenty from which to choose.
Four years into owning the bar, Rabus has built the largest selection of beer in the state, 854 different kinds as of last week.
The menu consists of a binder nearly an inch thick.
“Here’s the beer list. I’m your tour guide,” Rabus said.
Rabus never aspired to own the bar. The California native whose family moved to Port when he was 6 started working in restaurants at 12 as a dishwasher. By 13, he was a cook, a job he held for six years.
He started working part time at the bar at 18. His mother Susie worked as a manager for bar owner Herb James, who became Rabus’ adopted grandfather.
“I kinda fell into the job. I didn’t know anything about beer,” Rabus said.
After two stints ended by layoffs at Kohler Co. and running his own roofing and carpentry business, Rabus changed his career course.
James was ready to close the establishment. By then, Rabus had become the “go-to guy” behind the bar and decided he would purchase the business.
“After all my years of blood, sweat and tears, I should buy it,” Rabus said.
“It was really scary. There’s no playbook.”
But there was Rabus, who updated the building and business and kept researching beer. He reads, tastes and attends beer fests and trade shows to find new products.
Rabus will travel to find flavor. A few weeks ago, he went to New Glarus just for a couple of bottles of beer. He has driven to Minnesota and Indiana for a handful of bottles.
He has to stay on top of new releases. The last Central Waters Brewery event in Amherst sold out in four minutes.
“It’s crazy. Some beers will only last a few minutes,” Rabus said.
But new beers are what he wants. When he bought Sir James, the bar offered 450 to 500 different selections. Through a slow and gradual process, Rabus nearly doubled it. Today, he juggles 19 distributors to maintain variety.
Rabus knows his customers well, but by their beer preferences before their names. He told the story of one customer who came back after moving away from the area two years before.
“Hey, I’m sorry I forgot your name. Want your Gray’s Oatmeal Stout?” Rabus said.
“Jay’s ability to know what people like to drink is legendary. We call him the beer whisperer,” public relations manager and Rabus’ girlfriend Lindzy Willborn said.
Besides knowing beer, Rabus developed another skill. Fourteen years of therapy helped his stuttering, but being forced to talk to people cured it completely.
“Now I’ll talk to anybody. I almost treat everybody like my little brother or sister,” he said.
New customers will be asked what kind of flavors they like, and Rabus will find a beer to fit the bill.
Some ask for mass-produced domestic beers. Rabus serves those too, after which he will talk to the customers about their preferences. The most important thing, he said, is to make sure they have a drink first.
Rabus said he likes watching people break into beer — “the lights go on in their head.”
Rabus’ own favorite beer depends on the season.
“I’m one of the weird ones. I love big stouts in summer,” he said.
His palate has been developed by trying thousands of beers. Rabus said he has tasted 8,000, and Sir James has carried 16,000 different beers since he started.
“We average 10 to 15 new beers a week,” Rabus said.
He has plenty breweries from which to choose. Rabus said there are 4,800 across the country, more than the pre-prohibition era. During prohibition, breweries bottomed out at 72, he said.
“There are so many great breweries popping up right now,” Rabus said.
He serves beer from the Fermantorium, the recently opened brewery in the Town of Cedarburg, and Adam Drager, who plans to open Inventors Brewpub in Port next year, has been in contact.
The beer landscape is changing constantly, Rabus said. In the 1980s and ’90s, everybody tried making pilsners. Now, ciders are trendy, but a variety of beers are popular.
“It’s nice to see everybody experimenting,” he said.
Rabus said he appreciates the camaraderie of the beer community. People will bring in beer to share from California or after standing in line six hours for a couple of bottles.
Rabus said he tried brewing his own beer with his friends, but he doesn’t have time.
He said making a crisp, clean pilsner is difficult, especially trying to make each batch taste the same. It’s easier to make an India pale ale since the hops cover bad flavors. And defects can lead to some good drinking.
“Sometimes mistakes are the best beers ever,” Rabus said.
Rabus has 18 taps, two of which have nitrogen lines and the rest carbon dioxide. Willborn said nitrogen makes for smaller bubbles that bring out deeper flavors like those of Guinness. That popular Irish stout is the only beer that has remained on tap the past five years.
Taps, Willborn said, can last from three hours to three months. Rabus usually orders a quarter or one-sixth of a barrel.
Rabus said he likes to age beer. The best beer he ever had, he said, was a 19-year-old barley wine beer he found downstairs. Barley wine beers can age for 40 years, he said.
Come 2018, Rabus said he will be cracking open a present he received a while ago, a beer that will have aged 25 years by the time he tastes it.
Bottles of beer and growlers are available to go before midnight each day. Rabus said he’d rather have someone buy a bottle and take it home than drink and drive.
When people drink beer it should be out of a glass, Rabus said. Each glass is shaped for a purpose and each beer has its own glass in which it’s supposed to be served.
For example, glasses with a larger surface area concentrate the smell of the beer, he said.
Word has traveled about the small pub through word of mouth and on websites. Two weeks ago, Louisiana State University fans were told about Sir James by someone at the baggage claim of Mitchell International Airport.
Other customers include charter fishermen from Iowa and five ladies from southern Illinois who come up once a month to shop, have dinner and spend the night at the pub.
“A lot of people drive quite a ways for beer they can’t get elsewhere,” Willborn said.
Rabus said he is continuing his education, studying for his Cicerone Certification, a nationally recognized beer education program. He is prepping for an online test to become a certified beer server, something he’d like his employees to complete as well.
After that, he would like to study in Chicago to reach level two.
Rabus said he continues to add beers and enjoy his passion.
“It’s definitely a lot of work but it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “I would love to not work another day in the factory,” he said.
Image Information: Jason Rabus has increased Sir James Pub’s beer inventory to 854 different selections. He prides himself on remembering what people like to drink and has helped educate his girlfriend, the Port Washington bar’s public relations manager, Lindzy Willborn. Photo by Sam Arendt