Ambiance: Bare bones bar with a great beer selection, a good crowd, and a fun game to play
As far as I can tell, there are only two drawbacks to the Root Bar Number One. First, there is the sand. The sand that forms the floor of the bar’s “rootball” court (for a description of rootball, read on) is at first a sheer joy, causing one to recall memories of beaches and the sort of games played on the shore. Just as it does at the beach, however, the sand has a way of clinging tenaciously to whatever it touches, getting into clothes and that sort of thing. Thus, when I got out of bed the morning after my recent visit and walked barefoot to the kitchen for a king-size glass of water, I discovered that I had brought a million little pieces of the Root Bar home with me. The kitchen floor beneath my feet felt quite similar to the way the inside of my mouth felt, which brings me to the Root Bar’s other drawback – hangovers.
The hangovers, it seems, are inevitable. The reason for this is quite simple: For a beer lover, the Root Bar is paradise. The selection is incredible, and overindulgence is almost unavoidable. However, the benefits far outweigh the cost of all the fun; I am more than willing to pay the price of post-Root Bar discombobulation and sandy floor.
The owner of the Root Bar, who goes by his “show name” (he’s also a musician), Max Chain, is the inventor of rootball – an immensely fun outdoor game of glorious simplicity. On top of that, he’s an avowed beer connoisseur. His deep love for beer is, in part, what drove him to open the bar in the first place, and his handpicked selection of brews makes him a proud man indeed. “I do have the finest beer in the world here,” he told me out on the rootball court, our toes in the sand. “It’s all bottle-conditioned, unpasteurized, unfiltered beer from Europe. It’s not unnaturally carbonated, and it’s amazing.”
When I mentioned to Chain that I prefer pilsners in the summer, especially when running about in the sand, he informed me quite matter-of-factly that he’s stocked his coolers with what he’s dubbed the “best pilsner on Earth” – the Mahr’s Brau Pilsner from Bamberger, Germany. “It’s so clean, it’s like a car wash for your tongue,” Chain said. “They’ve been making it the same way for thousands of years.”
I sampled quite a number of other brews aside from that crisp, dry pilsner, as my achy skull could attest to the day after. There was a deliciously hoppy, delicately bitter IPA from the Ridgeway Brewery in England. I also tried Mahr’s Brau Weisse, a brew that was named “the best wheat beer of Europe” in the Strasbourg beer competition in 1999, and the same brewery’s bock, a slightly sweet and malty brew. Chain carries a selection of Achel beers, the product of one of only six operating Trappist breweries in the world – all of them located in Belgium. Sometime during the course of the evening, I also sampled a delicious German black lager, the Kulmbacher Monschof Schwarzbier, which I vaguely recall as my favorite. Chain absolutely swears by his Black and Tan concoction – he probably wouldn’t have let me leave without tasting it – made from Entire Butt English Porter and Coniston Bluebird Bitter. Frankly, I don’t remember that one very clearly, as it was my last “sample” of the evening before my drinking buddy carted me home, but I know I liked it.
Even through the thickest of beer goggles, the building that contains the Root Bar, from most angles, isn’t exactly a looker. It sits in a squat manner right off of the highway on Tunnel Road in Oteen, and looks like a pretty divey spot. Chain does not make any pains to refute this. “It looks like the Stab-N-Go from the outside,” he admits.
Chain built three courts for his patented (twice patented, actually) rootball game out back. It was a brave endeavor – some might even say foolhardy – to base a bar on an unknown game, stock it with a whole lot of unfamiliar imported beer (though, of course, there are more familiar varieties available), and place it in an area that isn’t exactly a tourist destination. The Root Bar, however, has prevailed, showing that Ashevilleans are more than happy to support such kooky endeavors.
It’s not surprising that rootball has caught on so quickly. It’s pretty damn fun, and so simple that even the hopelessly besotted can play (I have a sneaking suspicion that inebriation helps). Equipment for the game includes two metal stakes placed 32 feet apart, a plastic ring called the “root” and a stubbly, lightweight rubber ball. The concept is relatively straightforward: First, the root is thrown toward the competitor’s stake for the possibility of gaining one to three points, and then the ball is tossed or rolled underhand toward the root for up to nine additional points by contacting either the root, the stake or a combination of both. It can be played as a team sport with four people, with each duo taking turns manipulating the root or the ball. (Yes, off-color jokes seem par for the course, at least after sobriety has been vanquished and until everyone wearies of them.)
There are fun little rules. A “Saturn” happens when the ball comes to rest in the center of the root, and gives the player two points. Players who manage to maneuver the root over the stake, and then roll the ball into the center of the root, win instantly. I wouldn’t exactly call myself a veteran, but I’ve yet to see this done.
The true veteran of the game, Chain, can be seen frequenting the courts with beer in hand, giving pointers and letting players in on some of his key tactics. One such maneuver includes tossing the surprisingly aerodynamic root like a Frisbee. “It’s called the Stealth Bomber because it can’t be detected by radar,” he said, an impish grin peeking out from under a tattered straw hat, as he prepared to pitch what would be a ringer, with the root landing around the stake.
At one point, Chain’s Labrador mix, Lou, settled down on his belly with a rubber alligator, pretty much right in the thick of things. “He usually lays at center court,” Chain noted. The ball rolled lightly over his paws on one turn, and Lou looked decidedly unfazed. I remember wondering if we should get him to move, lest he become the accidental target of the much heavier root. “Never move the Lucky Dog,” Chain sagely advised.
“What happens if you hit the dog?” I asked. “Do you have to leave?”
“Well, you’ll feel bad,” Chain said. Though bouncing the ball off of any item – living or otherwise – is legal. Theoretically, you could bounce the ball off your buddy to score if you wanted to, or the fence if it helps. There’s even a name for a move in which bouncing the ball off of the roof comes into play.
Chain has tried that move a few times, and once almost made it, but, in a knee-jerk reaction, his opponent grabbed it out of the air. “I was gonna get a ‘back-door game winner,’ [but] he caught it,” he recalled with the wistfulness of a fisherman telling his favorite one-that-got-away story. “It was right on target. I was livid, but I stayed cool.” I have a hunch that having an arsenal of delicious beer might tend to inspire that sort of reaction in a man.