In April, a month after state-mandated restrictions first closed bars and restaurants due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Josh Cohen stood in the darkened barroom of Moe’s Tavern in Lee, Massachusetts. He realized that, if he were ever going to reopen his popular craft bar, he would need to put in some serious work to fix the place up.
The bar occupies an 1870s building in the Berkshires that has been just barely refurbished over the years. Cohen remembers touring the space in early 2007, seeing the old bar top and saying, “I can work with this.” He signed a lease and, one year later, bought the building.
“I would always say that if I made it to five years, I’d do this [to improve the building], or at 10 years I’d do that,” Cohen says.
When the pandemic shuttered businesses this spring, Cohen had owned Moe’s for 13 years. He decided to keep the bar closed throughout 2020 while he renovated the space.
“From the sewer lines to the roof and everything in-between, it is all new. It was really being held together by sweat and tears.”
“Whatever the world looks like, and whatever the governor says we can do, we’ll at least be a little more prepared.”—Josh Cohen, Moe’s Tavern
He expects the bar to reopen with brand-new everything by April 2021. “Covid gave me a window that the bar needed. If I only closed for a few weeks to do improvements I wouldn’t have been able to do everything. This sets us up for years to come.”
Changes will include fresh layout that will increase indoor capacity from 49 to 72.
“Whatever the world looks like, and whatever the governor says we can do, we’ll at least be a little more prepared,” Cohen says.
In the months Moe’s has been closed, regulars like Sean LeBlanc say they miss the connection to their community.
“It’s not just a bar, but it has also taken on its own personality and so much of that personality comes from Josh,” LeBlanc says. He’s spent a few recent evenings having beers in Cohen’s garage with other locals.
During the last century, when Lee was a thriving mill town, the space now called Moe’s Tavern was affectionately known as “the old men’s club,” and was a place where people the community went to celebrate, mourn and everything in between.
Since October 2007 when it opened, Moe’s Tavern has been named after the famous bar in The Simpsons. While its cartoon counterpart is known for serving frosty mugs of Duff, Duff Light, and Duff Dry, the Massachusetts’s version is dedicated to craft beer.
Early on in Cohen’s tenure, he wrote “No Coors Light” on a chalkboard above the bar. Years later, when he launched Moe’s website in 2011, he made the phrase its URL.
His curation of craft beer from throughout New England has garnered the bar accolades like top beer bar in Massachusetts, as voted by the Brewers Association, and made it a popular destination for tourists and craft brewers.
“When you visit, you really get the sense that he is welcoming you into his home,” says Matthew P. Steinberg the head brewer and co-founder of Exhibit ‘A’ Brewing Co. in Framingham, Massachusetts. “Josh is very particular and to be on tap in his bar means that he cares about you and thinks your liquid is great. It’s a badge of honor to have him put our beer on and shout about it like he does.”
Cohen believes that he will probably reduce the number of taps from 17 to 12 when Moe’s reopens, allowing him to focus on a tighter draught beer list that reflects the current craft landscape. There will still be dedicated line for Dogfish Head Brewery, and Cohen says the ceremonial first pint will likely be its 60 Minute IPA. Cohen has been friends with Dogfish cofounder Sam Calagione since high school.
He also hopes to keep the patina of the former place. A comfortable space that evolves over time, with wood-paneled walls, concrete floors and a tin ceiling offset by good music, quality taps and stellar staff.
It will be Moe’s Tavern, “just updated and with less of a worry that the toilet will fall through the old floor,” Cohen says.
Wine Enthusiast is spotlighting the bars, bottle shops and individuals affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and what they’re doing to weather the crisis. Find more at Business of Bars.