When newcomers walk into the Olde Bryan Inn, the first thing they do is look up at the ceiling.
“Wow! What’s that? People are amazed,” says general manager Jason Lynch.
A gleaming army of pewter beer mugs, about 250 of them, hang in neat rows above the bar. And that’s just a fraction of the troops.
Nearly 500 more are stored upstairs in the popular Saratoga Springs restaurant.
Each tankard belongs to a member of the Olde Bryan Inn’s Mug Club, an exclusive group of tipplers who often socialize over stouts, lagers and ales.
In recent years, since the craft beer movement got hopping, mug clubs have been showing up across the land.
In Saratoga Springs, The Saratoga City Tavern and The Local Pub and Teahouse have mug clubs. Wolff’s Biergarten, with pubs in Schenectady, Troy, Albany and Syracuse, has them too.
But at the Olde Bryan, the Mug Club isn’t a trend, it’s a tradition that dates back to 1979.
In the 1970s, Dave Powers was driving on Maple Avenue and saw a for-sale sign in front of the Federal-style, two-story stone home. The house was built in the early 1800s on a site where a crude log cabin was built in 1773.
Powers, a self-described “history nut,” and his business partner, Joe Wilkinson, paid $75,000 for the building, which was a former inn in the horse-and-buggy days, and after extensive remodeling, turned it into a tavern. In 1981, Steve Sullivan joined the partnership and today Powers and Sullivan remain as co-owners.
“We bought a lot of stuff from the old Skidmore campus,” Powers recalls, including some old faculty mailboxes, which they hung on a wall near the bar.
‘Just caught on’
The Mug Club was born was someone suggested selling the 72 boxes as spaces where regular beer drinkers could store their own private glasses.
“We were open one month, and they were full. It just caught on,” says Powers.
Nearly 40 years later, those boxes are still coveted by Mug Club members.
“That’s the holy grail,” he says.
The current members may drink from their mug for a lifetime, as mugs are only removed when someone dies.
“We don’t kick anyone out. We have people who come in and don’t drink beer anymore. They drink water or lemonade,” Lynch says.
Each 16-ounce stein is decorated with an Old Bryan logo and engraved with the member’s name or nickname.
“There are no duplicates,” says Lynch.
If your name is a common one, a number may be tacked on, as in “Walsh 442,” for example.
When a member comes into the bar, his or her mug is located with a computer printout that indicates its position on the ceiling racks or in upstairs storage. Lynch also puts slips of paper into the mugs that ask for information updates.
“These are the frequent users,” he says, pointing to the lineup a few inches above his head.
Mug Club members are “predominantly male, with a decent amount of females,” he says.
“The majority of members are over 50, and the frequent users are under 50, in their 30s and 40s.”
Right now, there’s a waiting list to join, with Lynch promising to add more spaces.
On a recent afternoon, George MacFarlane of Queensbury, a 20-year Mug Club member, sat at a table with his wife, Sylvia.
Sipping an IPA from his special mug, he turned it around to show off his nickname, “The Highlander.”
“I’m a Scotsman,” he explained.
Then MacFarlane proudly pulled a Mug Club membership card from his wallet.
“We’ve been coming here for close to 30 years. We love this place. We’ve met a lot of people.”
Reach Gazette reporter Karen Bjornland at 395-3197, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @bjorngazette.