ATLANTA --- March Madness was in full swing at the Atlanta sports bar, but fans huddling around the beer tap at their table -- yes, at their table -- were asking their own maddening question.
How could this be legal?
Georgia -- a state that still bans residents from picking up a six-pack on Sundays -- is home to a new system that lets diners pull their own beer at the table.
"It turns out the law supports it. It's the same as putting a pitcher of beer at the table, and it actually increases monitoring," says Jeff Libby, the 26-year-old who patented the system.
His concept is simple. Taps boasting two beer spouts are built into tables dotting Atlanta's swanky STATS sports bar. Each is hooked into a cooler of kegs in the bar's basement through a network of tubes and pipes.
To fly with state officials, serve-yourself beer had to include some built-in deterrents.
A waitress must first check IDs before turning on the tap. When the digital ticker counting each ounce hits 180 -- or about three pitchers -- the taps shut off until a server comes by to check on the table. Bigger parties keep servers running back and forth fairly often, while it's rarer for smaller groups to hit the limit.
Each tap has two spouts offering a selection of the bar's more than a dozen beers, including Miller Lite, Guinness Stout, Newcastle and a house brew called Numbers Ale. Customers can pick which taps they get only by reserving a private party table.
To use the taps, diners simply reach into the middle of the table and pull the lever to get as much -- or as little -- beer as they'd like. Meters and valves monitor the flow and instantly display how many ounces the table has tapped.
Of course, this unique system demands a new pricing scheme. Charging customers by the ounce instead of by the drink means that if a full pint of brew costs $4, a single ounce would only cost a quarter.
Mr. Libby promotes it as a way to cut down on serving time. It also allows restaurants to charge for every drop -- even spillage or foam. And it lets some lighter or slower drinkers sip at their own pace.
"Sometimes you're with your husband and he drinks twice as fast as you -- and you can only down a quarter-beer," complained 31-year-old Jennie Olshaske, nudging in her spouse's direction. Now, she said, she can pour as little cold beer as she wants.
Mr. Libby came up with the idea for the table tender system while hanging out at a bar in South America that had personal taps.
When he returned to Georgia, the attorneys he hired to research state law found no fatal flaw that would kill the idea. Soon, he was pitching it to the state's Revenue Department as a way for restaurants to better monitor alcohol consumption.
They signed off on the plan, and he sold the first system to STATS -- a three-story bar a stone's throw from the Georgia Dome -- at a cost of $50,000 for about 30 table taps. He is now looking to expand, and has approval from North Carolina, South Carolina and California.
At a table full of twentysomething Michigan fans, there was a mix of fascination and head-shaking regret over the table taps. Why didn't they come up with the idea first?
"We were back home at Ann Arbor, and a friend came up with an idea to have a table taps. We all shot him down," groaned John DeLancey. "It's hard to believe it's legal."