It’s easy to envy Pat Fondiller, the beermeister of Park Slope institution The Gate. He gets paid to have conversations like this one on a recent late weeknight in the bar’s back corner. He was talking with Gate founder and owner Bobby Gagnon. The topic was which beer the bar would not carry. One TV over the bar played the Yankees game. Another, muted, played Chuck Norris’ original The Delta Force.
Mr. Gagnon: “We won’t carry Heineken because it’s crap.”
Mr. Fondiller: “It’s crap in the truest sense.”
Mr. Gagnon: “I give Budweiser all the credit in the world. They have the most consistent beer operations on earth. If you open up a bottle of Budweiser, you’ll always find it the same. Heineken, it won’t be the same. … What it is, it’s skunked.”
Mr. Fondiller: “It’s the skunky flavor of it.”
Mr. Gagnon: “In beer language, if you put something in a green bottle—it ruins it.”
Mr. Fondiller: “It’s affected by the light, by the photons and it reflects the flavor of the beer; and it makes it skunky. The thing about Heineken, in my opinion, that sucks—they’ll even take that beer that they keg, which wouldn’t have had that effect, because it’s never been exposed to sunlight, and they purposefully skunk it so it has the consistency of flavor.”
So, no to Heineken. Yes to just about everything else.
Mr. Fondiller, 44, was working at an Italian restaurant in the Paramount Hotel in midtown in November 1999, when Mr. Gagnon called him in response to his dropped-off resume. Would he like a job? “This was more my scene,” Mr. Fondiller said matter-of-factly.
No doubt: He is an imposing figure, in a black T-shirt with the sleeves shorn off; a long salt-and-pepper King Leopold II beard; snarls of tattoos; and a deliberate and fast gait, even in the bar’s more crowded moments. One wonders if beer had not come into his life—or he into it—he wouldn’t have been drafted, perhaps forcibly, into the Hell’s Angels.
He lived in California after all. “I was in San Francisco; I had been working in bars since I was 17.” This began in his native Central Jersey, and continued in his 20s out West. “I worked in a bar in San Francisco—it wasn’t necessarily a beer bar, although we had six or seven beers running. I lived next to one of the original craft beer bars—the Toronado—in San Francisco. They had 40 taps and lines of craft beers. … I was in that place every day for, like, 10 years.”
AS IT WAS, HE moved back East and settled in the spring of 1997 on Fifth Avenue in Park Slope, when Park Slope was not so … Park Slope. “You wouldn’t walk up and down the street.” Mr. Fondiller lived above what’s now Bageltique. It wasn’t Bageltique then.
Mr. Gagnon, one of New York City’s true beer pioneers (Mr. Fondiller referred to him in a later email as “the master and I am the student”), opened The Gate in what was a risky move in a dodgy location; The Gate’s location had been an upholstery store, but, before that, was inhabited by bars going back to the 19th century. Mr. Gagnon’s risk reaped dividends. His bar rode not only the gentrification crest of north-central Brooklyn but that of the craft-beer revolution nationally; to have been digging smoked porters and East India Pale Ales and doppelbock in the mid-1990s was to have mastered a secret handshake.