It seems like forever ago that I posted about an upcoming beer bar from the folks at Anvil to be dubbed Hay Merchant. It was going to be everything a beer nerd wanted in a craft beer bar and it was going to be open in the October/November time frame. Well negotiating the city's maze of regulations to get a new bar open took longer than they anticipated, but last week, the day finally came and Kevin Floyd's has Hay Merchant opened its doors. Did it live up to its hype? In a word yes, I've had the opportunity to visit Hay Merchant three times in the past week and I can say that it is the real deal. When you walk into the rather spacious bar your eyes are drawn to the far wall, covered in taps, and chalkboard panels with the day's beer listings (they've been changing incredibly fast this first week). It boggles the mind to see so much great beer in one place, but first you have to decide if you want to sit up at the bar, or one of the large booths in the center of the room, or one of the scattered tables. If you sit anywhere but the bar the first thing the waiter will do is hand you a menu and a bottle of water. Now this isn't any bottle of water, the water comes in a 40 oz bottle of macro swill (was originally Bud Light, but folks from a local distributor asked them to stop using those, but they did give them bottles of Cobra to use). Once you take a look at the well put together one sheet, two-sided menu your mouth starts to water seeing the list of food prepared by Chef Antoine Ware (formerly of Catalan). Flip it over and check out the beers. I love the way the beer list is organized: Sociable and Refreshing, Hop-a-licious, Sweet and Sticky, and on and on it goes, around the page, with the center holding the list of 5 beers on cask.
Before I talk about the beer, I must say a few words about the outstanding food. The food is one of the things that really sets Hay Merchant apart from other beer bars in the city. Yes the food here is "bar food" but its more than that. One of the highlights and honestly one of the best bar snacks I've ever had is the Sweet and Spicy Crispy Pig Ears. This things are otherworldly in their exquisiteness. Maybe in respect to the old English bar food of pickled pig's feet's, Hay Merchant offers this interpretation, but oh, what an interpretation. And just like its predecessor it makes you thirsty. I've had quite a few items on the menu and nothing I've had is bad. This isn't a light menu mind you, but its also not over the top. The serving portions are reasonable and well priced, but if your going to get one thing on the menu, get the gumbo. I've been making gumbo for 15 some odd years and I'm jealous as hell at what Chef Ware has done. I must learn how he does it. Other highlights to me include the Blood Sausage Queso Fundido and the sweet peppery hot chicken wings.
OK, this is a beer blog so let's talk about the beer. Here's what you need to know, there are 80ish taps on the wall, 3 nitro taps and 5 casks. Hay Merchant's cooler has two temperature zones, one for Ales and casks the other for lagers. Therefore allowing each beer to be served at optimal temperature. Each tap line has its own pressure and gas regulator, again allowing the beer to be served the best way it can, exactly like it is in the keg. Additionally, each line is thoroughly cleaned between each keg, which again allows the customer to get the best beer possible. It is these attention to details that puts Hay Merchant above many beer bars around the country. Speaking of attention to detail there is another example of this located at the bottom of the beer menu. There in a box the customer will find each of the serving vessels that Hay Merchant uses: snifter, pilsner, American Pint, tulip, Imperial Pint, 1/2 pint, as well as how many ounces each of these vessels holds. Why is this important? Well each beer on the menu lists its abv, vessel and price, which allows you the customer to really see what kind of bang for the buck you are getting with each beer. This way you can compare a $5 Karbach Weisse Versa served in a Pilsner glass, to a Victory Golden monkey that weighs in at 9.5% and is served in a tulip. I really really love the transparency and insight this gives the customer. My overall thoughts regarding the beer list is one of wonder, its an incredibly well thought out list. Yes of course there are some big time heavy hitters here, and some truly unique beers, but there are also many sessionable beers available, and it is this balance that makes the list special.
Speaking of how special this list is, I want to focus on a specific part of the beer list that Hay Merchant has, specifically Kevin's Cask Selections. While it is pretty common in Houston to walk into a good craft beer bar and see something on cask it is almost unheard of to see 2 or 3 on cask, let alone 5. In fact, it is this one thing that puts Hay Merchant in a whole other category. See there are maybe a handful of bars in the country that consistently have 5 or more beers on cask. Why is this? Well cask ale is much more fickle than your typical keg beer. Unlike keg beer, gas is not introduced in the pouring of cask beer, instead it is hand pumped from the cask into your glass. Cask conditioned beer is not filtered or pasteurized which is why it is essential to let a cask rest before tapping it and pouring it. If you tapped a cask as soon as it arrived in the bar, it would be cloudy, hazy, and maybe if it had been dry hopped (or any thing else) you would get bits of hops in the beer which could cause off flavors. There is a whole art to cellarmanship and entire books written on the subject. Needless to say, its more than just opening a tap. Besides the cask itself and any appropriate tubing for the beer to be pulled through, you need a good beer engine, or hand pump (again Hay Merchant has five). The beer engine is a piston style pump that pulls beer up from a cellar (or the cold storage behind the bar) and into your glass. Notice I've not talked about gas. In typical draft beer, CO2 gas is used to propel the beer from the keg into your glass. In Cask ale the beer engine is used. However this does not mean that cask ale is flat. If you get a flat cask beer, SEND IT BACK! Yes it is less carbonated, but not flat (sorry I can't stress that enough). This lower carbonation makes cask beer more subtle and allows flavors to develop differently than in normal keg beer. Many folks prefer cask ales, and in fact in England cask ale is called "Real Ale". Now while I won't go so far to say that draft beer is not real beer and all beer must be served on cask, there is a special quality to cask beer that can't be denied. It is all these things that make it amazing to see 5 casks on line at Hay Merchant, and more than that, folks are drinking them. Cask ale isn't for everyone, and many are turned off by the less than expected carbonation which is why I thought Kevin and his team was crazy for having that many on at one time. But I've been proven wrong so far. In the fist few days Hay Merchant was open they went through 150 gallons of cask ale, which is simply an amazing number. Now many of these are special casks, like Saint Arnold Brown Ale on Chardonnay with cherries, or (512) Cream Stout with Coffee beans, so there is little wonder that they are moving fast. As much as I love those types of beers, I yearn to see something more traditional, like Real Ale's ESB or Rye Pale Ale, or Live Oak Liberation on cask. Something a little more sessionable. I'm hoping that Kevin keeps one cask line for those type of beers and the other 4 for the special ones that he's been tapping. That would make me truly happy.
Its to early to call Hay Merchant the greatest beer bar in the country, but I have no doubt that if they continue doing what they are doing, they will get there. What Hay Merchant does is help make Houston a Craft Beer City. Yes there are other great beer bars in this town like the Flying Saucers, or Petrol, and they all have their place, and they all have helped make Houston a great place to get great beer. What Hay Merchant has done differently is in combining amazing food, with an amazing beer list, cask program, growler program and employee education. These are the things that great craft beer bars are about and I can't wait to see Hay Merchant continue to grow into what it will be, something that all beer lovers should rejoice in.