There is much to discover at new craft beer bar Hay Merchant, whether it's a new sour ale or another nod to Houston's past embedded in the west wall.
Indeed, if it were possible, it seems that almost as much attention was paid to details of the renovated building's design — formerly a famed lesbian bar and a popular late-night coffee shop called Charlie's — as was to partner Kevin Floyd's extensive, carefully curated beer program.
Start the front door. It, and almost everything else in the bar, save the flat screen TVs and the ceiling fans, was custom-made (and even the fans were custom-installed). With the benefit of various master craftsmen onsite during construction, many of the bar's furnishings, including the drip tray — made from Underbelly's leftover I-beams — and the table bases were tooled right on the lot.
Most compelling to me, however, is the collection of aging kegs in one corner that Floyd calls "The Library." "This is where the depth of Hay Merchant's menu is going to come," he says.
Each time I've been back (I won't say how many), I've discovered another nod to Houston hidden discreetly in the bar. There are the old Coffeyville pavers that line several walls, many recovered from the site of the new Dynamo Stadium from Houston's cobblestone-paved past life. There is the Colt .45 tap handle — one of many unusual markers, some sentimental and some just found lying around.
And the builders strove to maintain some of the building at 1100 Westheimer's history, too. As the decades were peeled back during construction, Floyd was part of a concerted effort to maintain the building's story — from the soot that remains around the original, exposed ceiling in the dart room from an '07 fire to the old bathroom tiles exposed adjacent to the boards. Every former window and doorway that needed to be functionally closed was filled in with some distinct material, whether Spanish tile or old palette wood, to distinguish it from the new walls.
"I believe in honesty in architecture," says Floyd of his decision to scour the city for half a dozen identically worn palettes, which he acknowledges was a pain in the ass.
Although the look is worn and industrial, aesthetics here take precedent over efficiency. The custom-installed fans, which run on a pulley system, are set up that way purely for looks. And the solid slate bar top is unsealed deliberately so that it will wear with time, which also necessitates that the staff apply Johnson Paste Wax weekly to maintain it.
The Beer Board
Although it may seem like no expense was spared, there is one focal point of the bar that didn't make the budget. The chalkboard beer list, which takes constant updating as Floyd switches out the 80-odd taps, was envisioned originally as an old-fashioned split-flat board like the ones found displaying train schedules in old European stations. Unfortunately, only two companies in the world still make the analog boards, and they're located in Japan and Italy.
Citing a move toward the digital model, they quoted the board Floyd envisioned at $150,000. He politely declined.
Attached to the "mercantile, interactive feel," he settled on the chalkboard slat model, which had an indirect consumer benefit: Whole numbers just look better in chalk, so the beer prices were rounded up or down accordingly for aesthetic appeal. Shrugs Floyd: "I guess we'll find out at the end of the month which worked."
Part of Floyd's long-term vision includes buying bottled beers to age and eventually offer on a reserve list.
Floyd's devotion to the details extends to his cooler. The walk-in was actually the first piece of Hay Merchant to be designed, and it got the benefit of the budget. Floyd has affixed individual regulators on each of his 84 lines — at $75 a pop. "I'm talking about differences of one to two PSI," he says. "I might never touch one, but I like to have flexibility."
The walk-in was built to fit in place, with double-insulated walls and two rooms — the lager side, which is kept between 34 and 38 degrees, and the ale room, which is kept at right about 46. Inside this control room of sorts are 75 draft lines, five cask engines and five miscellanneous taps for water, sanitizer and, eventually, house-made soda. Proudly, Floyd tosses out a few more figures: 3,700 feet of vinyl hose and 4,000 zip ties.
Proud because Floyd conceived, designed and built the system himself in two and a half weeks.
Most compelling to me, however, is the collection of kegs in one corner that Floyd calls "The Library." Here are beers he's aging — some for at least five to seven years — to be served at a later date. "This is where the depth of Hay Merchant's menu is going to come," Floyd says.
Also part of that long-term vision are bottled beers to age and eventually offer on a reserve list. Some hints of what's to come? Saint Arnold Divine Reserve 10 and North Coast's Old Rasputin XIV Anniversary barrel-aged edition, to name a hard-to-find few.
Despite the good-natured ribbing of Anheuser-Busch with those since-replaced water bottles, Floyd says a Bud Light (or, god forbid, Platinum) drinker is actually precisely the type of customer he'd welcome at Hay Merchant.
"There are two types of craft beer bars," Floyd says, "Poseurs wearing the clothes of a craft beer bar and bars that are only for the enthusiast."
The latter he characterizes as the sort of place where ordering a Bud Light might get you, at best, a solid mocking and, at worst, tossed out of the establishment. Neither of those types of places are going to accomplish what Hay Merchant is out to do, though, which is to grow the craft beer market.
The growler program at Hay Merchant is part of that effort. "I'm a big believer in bringing craft beer home," Floyd says. "You're not going to win over the liquor or wine enthusiasts; the market grows from transitioning people away from macro beer."
Which is why Hay Merchant's beer menu is divided into navigable genres and its staff is handy with a recommendation. There are no stupid questions, and there's no such thing as bad taste. It's working, too — Floyd says that one of the most surprising things about the bar's first week has been watching the product list: "We're blowing through some of the cool stuff," he says. Patrons killed a 15-gallon keg of Lawnmower, but they also drank 20 gallons of Bockor's Cuvee Des Jacobins Rouge.
And the bar tore through 120 gallons of cask brew between Wednesday's opening and Monday morning. Hay Merchant owned 20 firkins in addition to Anvil's nine, and just bought 20 more. The cask list might shorten for a bit while the bar catches up, but that's not such a bad problem to have.