But now a new generation of beer halls dedicated to something beyond the cash register is bubbling up around the nation and the world, with proceeds going not into an owner's wallet but to charity, and bending elbows may never be the same. Call it drinking for a cause.
"More people will want to support your business than if you're just doing it to pay for your second home," said Ryan Saari, a minister and a board member of the Oregon Public House, which is preparing to open as soon as next month in a residential neighborhood in Portland, pledged by its charter to donating all profits to charity.
The place already has a slogan outside on the century-old red brick facade, "Have a pint, change the world," and a painting on the back wall of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of giving.
The beer-for-charity movement, like the microbrew phenomenon that preceded it, is different depending on where you look. In Houston, for example, where a group of giving-minded bar owners opened a place called the Okra Charity Saloon last month, patrons get a vote with every drink as to which charity should receive the next month's profits. A project in Melbourne, Australia, plans to put geography into the equation - sale of a beer from Africa, for example, will be linked to microloans or charities in the country of the beer's origin.
Other projects are in some stage of development, in cities from Hyderabad, India, to San Francisco.
People who track philanthropic trends said the number of upstarts going full tilt toward a charity-driven business model, especially in the viciously competitive food and beverage industry, remained small. But in the post-recession landscape, they say, a ferment of experimentation is clearly in the air, as many private charities continue to struggle for funds.
Giving by individual Americans, while up from the nadir reached in 2009 during the recession, was still lower in 2011 than in 2000, according to the most recent figures from Giving USA.
"It's a clever idea and certainly a noble ambition," said Patrick Rooney, the associate dean at Indiana University's School of Philanthropy, referring to the charity pub concept.
His advice for drinkers? Ask questions like an accountant, about a place's overhead and expenses, and who actually receives the money. "Frankly, there are some charities I would support and some I would not," he said.
Saari at the Oregon Public House agreed that success or failure would hinge on the transparency of the economics. If customers suspect, even for a moment, that what smells like good works is really just a clever business model to attract customers, the effort is doomed, he said.
"In our cynical society, people will immediately say, 'OK, how much is the president making?"' he said.
So the pub's books will be open for the checking, he said, and customers will be able to choose from a menu on the wall exactly where they want their contribution to go as part of the order itself. About a dollar on a locally brewed draft costing $4.50 to $5 a pint is profit, as it turns out.
The Public House's charter prohibits any member of the board, including Saari, from drawing a salary, he said, though it will have a paid staff for the bar and kitchen of perhaps seven or eight. Through grants from the city and private donations - about 30 people have given between $1,500 to $2,500, support levels that come with a free beer a day, or a week, for life, and their own mug - the bar will also open with no loans or capital to pay back, Saari said.
In Washington, D.C., supporters of Cause, which calls itself a "philanthropub," in the trendy U Street Corridor, said their business model is based on research that says young people give less to charity than their elders - busy with careers and maybe burdened by college debt - but are still willing to chip in under the right circumstances.
"Everything is competing for their attention, and this is another way for people to combine charitable giving with something they're doing anyway," said Raj Ratwani, a psychologist and a founder of Cause, which opened last fall, describing the young professional the bar is aiming for. "They're going to find time to go out and drink no matter how busy they are."
In Portland, which prides itself on its variety of local brews and a culture of social consciousness, the Oregon Public House - which Saari believes was a speakeasy in Prohibition days based on the latched peepholes on some of the upstairs doors - is expected to be the first local bar departing from the traditional commercial form, but not the last.
Another group here is considering opening a worker-run, collectively managed brew pub for "people who resist patriarchy and oppression on all levels, unrepresented and unwaged workers," and "people who face and are against police brutality," Stephanie Phillips, one of the organizers, said in an email.
The city's economic development arm, the Portland Development Commission, which also works with traditional companies like Nike, has backed the Oregon Public House with more than $50,000 in grants, about a quarter of the startup costs. Stephen Green, a business analyst with the commission and an adviser to the bar, said he fantasizes about a national chain of public houses based on the Oregon model that raises money for local charities.
Saari said his next step, once the bar is open, is an in-house brewery. Eventually, he hopes to see bottled Oregon Public House beers in local stores, with each type of beer dedicated to a specific cause, so that someone buying a six-pack of say, Oregon Public House "Education Ale," a tentative name and product, would know the proceeds were going to an education charity supported by the pub.
But as so many failed entrepreneurs can attest, operating a small food and drink business has never been an easy road to riches - or now, donations. "The failure rate is about as high as any business you could start," said Daniel Borochoff, the president of Charitywatch, a nonprofit charity watchdog and information service in Chicago.