By Gus Jarvis | 5/11/16
Sometimes, when you are in search something truly great, you get smacked in the face with something even greater.
It was late January. Torie and I, looking for an escape from the Montrose winter doldrums, decided on a trip to Austin, Texas. Besides a weekend of sun on our pale faces, we were in search of a few things Austin is known for – live music, beer, boots, and, of course, barbecue. In our minds, these were the quintessential elements of a perfect weekend in Texas.
Torie had already hopped a flight to Austin earlier that Friday morning and before I’d even left our house in Montrose, she was sipping beers on a patio enjoying the Austin sunshine. Flying standby, with no seats available for a while, I found myself eddied out at Houston International Airport for a few hours waiting for a vacant seat on any flight to Austin.
This mode of travel can be good and bad. Good…no, great…in that travel anywhere is inexpensive if you have the patience. But it can also be expensive, especially if you have a strong thirst for beer and other refreshments that are poured at overpriced airport lounges. On this four-hour layover in Houston, where I spent most of the time getting buzzed up at a faux taco shack in the C Concourse, my thirst cost me.
While the tacos at this so-called “stand” looked uninviting, the selection of beer taps beckoned – mostly easy-to-obtain domestics plus a few Mexican imports. I weaseled my big shoulders between patrons, claimed a stool amidst the tightly packed bar full of business travelers, and ordered an IPA brewed by Samuel Adams. Everyone at the bar was eager to get their buzz on.
A quick note on my beer consuming palate: I was born and raised a Budweiser drinker. I love its drinkability and the beechwood aging. Ten years ago, never would I stray away from my red, white and blue bottle unless I absolutely had to. After a few years living in Portland, Ore. where IPA’s rule the hipster roost, my palate has changed. Now, I like to start things off with a crunchy IPA or two or three and then set in on a few of my beloved Buds. I love the astringent taste of a good IPA as well as its heightened alcohol content.
So naturally, at this bustling airport bar calling itself a taco shack, I ordered an IPA to get things going on the right foot. In the middle of my third IPA, the guy next to me, who looked disturbingly like Paul Ryan, succeeded in getting my attention.
“You’re drinking that IPA right? That’s the Rebel, made by Sam Adams?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s pretty good. Not too hoppy.”
He ordered one as he loosened his tie and draped his blazer over his carry-on bag. By the number of ripped valet bag ties on the top of his bag, it was easy to decipher that this guy spends a hell of a lot of time in airports. And, no doubt, at airport bars.
He took the vacant barstool next to me and sucked back more than a quarter of the beer.
“You’re right. That’s good. An IPA that’s dangerously drinkable.”
“Cheers to that,” I said, then finished mine and ordered another. The beer buzz was grabbing a gear in my head.
“The thing is,” he said, “is I can’t keep up with the beer these days. Every time I take a moment to look at the beers available, there’s something new. It wasn’t long ago when I’d be seated at this very bar and there would be four taps available. Bud, Bud Light, Coors Light, and MGD. That’s it.”
He paused to take another long drink, almost finishing his pint. Fella was thirsty.
“Now, you take a look at the taps and there are 10 of them. IPAs. Rye IPAs. Scottish Ale. Blueberry infused wheat beer. Quadruple hopped then dry hopped IPA. Sour beers…Shit, I can’t keep up.”
I nodded my head in agreement, although it wasn’t something I’d pondered recently.
“Not that I’m complaining,” he said. “I like them all. I’ll drink anything. I just can’t keep up. Everywhere you go these days there’s a new brewery popping up and a new beer to try. But I do love it though.”
He was right. You can’t travel to any city or any town without trying the local brews. Breweries are increasingly becoming the tastes that define a particular town or region. I was pondering that fact, when he shifted into a serious demeanor and asked me a question.
“Do you think the more frustrating our political system gets, the better the beer becomes? You ever wondered that?”
At first, I thought this was going to be another “blame Obama” conversation that often goes nowhere but, as it turns out, it was a question he regularly entertained. It was almost philosophical for a barstool conversation.
“If that correlation is somehow true,” he said, “what do we make of it? Is it simply that we need to drown ourselves in beer to forget about the dunces in Washington? Do we need to constantly brew new beers to distract us from the realities around us? Is brewery mania just a distraction or, could it be…” he paused, and raised his eyebrows, “that our constant growing love and desire to brew bigger and better beers really is the beginning of a revolution?”
I tried to keep up with his thought process the best I could and wondered if this guy had already put a few back at a bar over on B Concourse. Perhaps, I thought, people simply like brewing beer…Simple as that. I nodded in agreement, although I wasn’t sure how deep of a question it really was. But my new friend was sure it led somewhere.
“I don’t know the answer but I like to think about it a lot,” he said. “It also gives me comfort. If our government continues down this terrible path, the beer is going to get really fucking good and I’m OK with that. At least we have the beer. But, who knows, maybe Washington will pull its head out of its ass at some point and be productive, the quality of beer may diminish. I’m OK with that too. I’m willing to sacrifice good beer for a government we can all look up to.”
At that point, the correlation made entertaining sense, at least, and I found myself ordering a beer and pondering it. And then I stopped and looked at the beer philosopher and asked, “What if Donald Trump is elected the next president of the United States?”
He nearly blew his IPA out his nose in laughter.
“I look forward to tasting that beer if it happens,” he said. “Cheers to that.”
THE GREATEST LITTLE CONVENIENCE STORE IN TEXAS
It was not much after 10 a.m. and the surprisingly intense winter sun was beating down on the back of my neck. Beads of sweat gathered on my forehead. Not that it was all that hot in Austin on a January morning; the sweat was a product of last night’s beer trying to make its escape from my soggy brain.
As we stood in line that morning, with the smell of barbecue smoke wafting in our faces, the feel of my head reminded me of the night before. Foggy recollections of an expensive bar tab. It had been an eventful conversation, if pointlessly thought-provoking, at the airport. The barstool philosopher and I talked Trump briefly before I paid somewhere in ballpark of $75 for the beer I’d just consumed. Finally, with two seats available, I hopped on the 25-minute flight to Austin.
After deplaning at about 10 p.m. and a quick Uber, I met up with Torie at the house of our two friends, Polly and Jeff, who were hosting us for the weekend of fun. All buzzed up, I wondered what they had in store for us on a Friday night in Austin. Live music? Country dancing? Bar hop until 2 a.m.?
“Because we have a few things planned for tomorrow night, we thought we’d take it easy here at the house,” Jeff said, showing me around the place. “We’ll get the campfire going out back and…”
“Shit. I almost forgot to show you the most important thing,” he said.
Swiftly into the kitchen we went, where he had a small Styrofoam cooler packed chock full of heady, locally brewed beers in cans.
“That’s not all,” he said, opening his refrigerator and sliding out a gigantic drawer in the middle. It too was full of colorful cans, including a variety from Zilker Brewing Co., located just down the road.
“We’ve got some work to do,” Jeff said with a grin. And work we did well into the night and early morning hours.
Talking story and staring at the campfire under the big Texas sky, we killed the foam cooler of beers and damn near knocked the entire refrigerator drawer clean as well. As it turns out (not surprisingly), Austin too has a booming brewery scene and the beers, especially Zilkner’s Marco IPA, were to die for. The next morning, as we stood in line for Texas barbecue, I could barely remember all the varieties we’d tasted the night before.
So far, in my brief 36 years of being, I’ve tasted very good St. Louis barbecue. I’ve savored North Carolina pulled pork on several occasions. I’ve been up to my elbows in Alabama barbecue. I had not, however, tasted real Texas barbecue, especially the brisket that’s so popular in Austin.
And despite the hangover and a case of the sweats, I was excited to be in line for some smoked happiness. Apparently, there are a number of barbecue landmarks in Austin. Some of which require lining up in the hours before the sun rises to get a brisket fix before it runs out. Polly and Jeff suggested La Barbecue. We would have to wait in line but we wouldn’t have to get there before sunrise. Located within a gated food-park with other vendors selling food, La Barbecue is comprised of a few food trucks and a smokehouse. Seating and eating is outdoors on long picnic benches settled in the middle of the food truck park.
Like I said, we’d gotten there not much after 10 a.m. and already there were at least 50 people ahead of us in line. Opening at 11, it was going to be a while…a while with somewhat of a substantial hangover.
Luckily we’d brought the final four beers from Jeff’s fridge drawer. Unfortunately, the one beer each wasn’t enough. The line was long and the sun was hot.
“Is there a place close by where I can get more beer?” I asked.
“I think that gas station place on the corner over there should have some.” Polly pointed down East Cesar Chavez. One block away was a convenience store that didn’t look all too inviting.
“I’ll be back,” I said. “Anything in particular you all want to drink?”
“Surprise us,” Jeff said.
By the looks of this convenience store from a distance, I thought, they are going to be surprised with the four King Cobra 40s I bring back in paper bags.
Waiting to cross the street and staring at this store in the face, I began to wonder if this place would even sell me beer. As I walked through the gas pumps, what was a blurry image of this gas station became clearer, and yet more confusing. And as I approached it even closer, a shining red image of the Virgin Mary herself appeared above a decrepit pay phone near the left edge of the building.
No kidding. On the wall before me was a brightly sun-lit, broken-mirror mural of the Madonna.
“What kind of convenience store is this?” I asked myself.
Then, peering around the corner of the building, I was struck by the vision of another broken-mirror mural, this time in tropical-ocean blue, in the image of Gandhi. The building was a standing paradox. Ugly. Beautiful.
The kicker, here, was that it was even more beautiful inside. My judgment of this establishment from the barbecue line was way, way off. This was the convenience store dreams are made of.
The store was packed tightly with tall shelves, most of which were loaded with bottled beer, while a drink cooler that would normally be full of single Cokes, bottles of water, teas and juices contained a spectrum of six-pack microbrew cans from around the country.
I stopped there and began to figure out what six-pack would do for our barbecue extravaganza. An IPA from New Mexico? A porter from California? A refreshing blonde ale brewed locally in Austin?
Just when I thought my head was going to explode in beer nirvana the owner of the shop – young, dark skinned and neatly dressed in a polo shirt – stepped over and asked if I saw anything I liked.
“This is one hell of a selection,” I said. “I have no idea which way to go.”
“That’s what I thought,” he said. “If you go to the back case, there are empty six-pack sleeves and singles. You can build your own sixer.”
He returned to the counter.
In the build-your-own six-pack case, the variety was much the same so I took two IPAs, a seasonal lager, an amber ale, and two summer wheat brews. From bombers, to 12-pack bottles, to six packs, this ordinary convenience store had one of the best beer selections I’d seen – everything from the very expensive Belgian bottles to the 40-oz. bottles you would expect at a convenience store.
As if that wasn’t enough, up near the counter, there was a serve-yourself kombucha stand that looked much like a serve-yourself beer tap. Three flavors of fermented goodness for those times you need a break from beer.
Of course, this store had everything else one would need at a quickie mart as well: cigarettes, Goody’s Headache Powder, Slim Jims, tortilla chips, bean dip, condoms and gossip magazines.
I’m not sure one could be emotionally moved by a convenience store or not, but I’m pretty sure I fell in love immediately. The store was beer-forward, with everything else you need in life on the outskirts. The East 1st Grocery is the real deal. I wish I had one back home in Montrose.
“This is a great store. I can’t believe all the beer you have,” I told its owner as I paid for my six-pack. “One of the best beer stores I’ve ever seen. I had no idea what I was walking into.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d heard such a review from a fellow like myself but it was easy to see that he was proud of what he provided.
“Thanks,” he said. “I love beer and, for the most part, the people who love beer. Just livin’ the dream.”
Passing the Virgin Mary and Gandhi on my out with a cold six-pack of beer and Texas barbecue not far away, I thought once again of the barstool philosopher I’d met the night before. “Maybe he was right. Perhaps the revolution was on? This convenience store guy was proof of that, I think, and it made me smile.
And you know what else made me smile? Reaching the end of that rainbow back in the food truck corral and getting ahold of some of that famous barbecue.
The four of us had bought too much. Several pounds of mouth-melting brisket, covered in smoky char, spare ribs and beef ribs. Of course, all of this came with a pile of barbecue accouterments including coleslaw, pickled jalapenos and a pile of sliced, grease-soaking white bread.
For me, the highlight of our messy caveman style picnic was the brisket. Tender, moist, and smoky. Spiritual barbecue. The brisket, I knew, was going to be ethereal. The surprise, however, was the beef ribs. Nearly as big as a forearm, the fat, meat and layer of bark provided an altogether different barbecue experience. So much meat on one rib and it was so very rich.
In my large, 260-pound frame, I can no doubt pack away some food if I’m feeling it – especially when I’m hungover. As I had envisioned it, this barbecue fantasy I was living out was going to be one of those times where I had no limits. I was going to throw self respect out the door and eat until I could eat no more. I was hoping to put three to four pounds of food away all by myself.
So if there was any sort of disappointment with this real Texas barbecue, it was from the point that I simply couldn’t eat as much as I wanted to. The brisket and the rib’s richness were so intense that it’s a type of food where your belly tells you to quit early. I’d say I ate a third of what I could normally eat. It was too good and too rich to overdo. I was disappointed in myself. I wanted more and just couldn’t do it.
While we picked away at the leftovers in front of us, all feeling overwhelmingly full, I asked Polly and Jeff if they’ve ever been into the convenience store that impressed me so much before the meal.
“No,” Jeff said. “Why? Is it that terrible?”
“Actually, quite the opposite,” I said. “It could be the greatest convenience store I’ve ever been to in my life. I mean, they have a beer selection that is out of this world. That make-your-own six-pack I brought back was pretty sweet, right? This place had everything good going for it.”
“And on top of all that,” I continued. “It has kombucha on tap, three flavors of it to be exact, and you are blessed with not only the Virgin Mary on the way in but Gandhi as well.”
“Well, we need beer for this afternoon,” Jeff said. “We probably should see what you are talking about.”
Smiling in seeing my return to the store, this time with friends, the proprietor asked if he could build my six-pack this time.
“There are a few things you should try,” he said, grabbing an empty sleeve and going to work on his selections. “This one was brewed just last week – a Hefeweizen from Austin’s Live Oak Brewing. And how about this wheat?”
“Go for it,” I said. He obviously knew what he was talking about and I came close to hugging him when he handed me his selection of beers.
In short, Torie, Polly and Jeff’s surprise at the awesomeness of the East 1st Grocery was much like mine. We left with a bunch of great beer, a kombucha for digestive purposes and a bottle of Austin-made habanero hot sauce. What else could you need from a convenience store?
“Man, we just don’t have convenience stores like that back in Colorado,” I said in the car on our drive home. “You just can’t get beer like that at any corner store. Stupid 3.2 beer laws.”
“You guys still have 3.2 beer?” Polly asked. “Wait, Colorado allows the sale of marijuana but you still have 3.2 beer in stores? That’s hilarious.”
“Yeah, the only beer you’ll find inside the corner quickie mart is 3.2 Coors Light, Bud, Natural Light and Busch. You may be lucky enough to find a six-pack of 3.2 Corona if you go to the right place.”
I explained to Polly and Jeff that if you want a good selection of craft brews in Colorado, you have to go to an actual liquor store. We have plenty of them, most of which have great beer selections. What you can’t do, as I explained, is stagger down to the nearest corner store for real beer. Basically, the way Colorado’s laws work, grocery stores and convenience stores are only allowed to sell 3.2 beer.
“That sucks,” Jeff said. “I can’t believe that hasn’t been changed.”
I then explained that it’s been on the ballot before and will probably be on the ballot again soon but that changing the law so that chain grocery and convenience stores can sell full strength has its drawbacks too – mainly that you’re voting to put your beer cash into the pocket of a supermarket corporation like Kroger or Safeway rather than the pockets of the local liquor store owners.
“In Colorado, you damn the man if you vote to get rid of the 3.2 beer rule,” I said. “All of the 3.2 ballot measures are usually brought forward by the big grocery store chains and their lobbyists. We are kind of stuck with 3.2 right now.”
“But what if you wanted to open just one corner store with full strength beer and also have the food and other things corners stores have, like that place we just went to?”
“Colorado laws are stupid,” I said. “The way I understand it, is if you did that, you would legally be a liquor store and nothing other than beer, wine and liquor can be sold.”
“Weird,” Jeff said.
Throughout the rest of our weekend stay in Austin, I continued to enjoy the fruits of the region’s craft breweries as well some late-night debauchery that included dancing, live music and Armodelo’s at a place called La Perla Bar. (Dive bar with a Mexican jukebox, pool tables and ice-cold cans of Modelo with its rims filled with salt, lime juice and a dash of Tabasco. A must if you find yourself near La Perla on a cool Austin night.)
It was no surprise to Torie and me that Austin was so fun. We knew what we were getting into and both of us hope to return as soon as possible. Following our return to Montrose and in our travels after that, I simply couldn’t keep one piece of Austin off my mind and that was the East 1st Grocery – a simple convenience store that had me seriously contemplating my surroundings in Colorado.
BOTTLE SHOP ENVY
It wasn’t long afterwards – this time sipping a freshly poured IPA in a bottle shop in North Carolina – that I began pondering Colorado’s retail and consumption of craft brews again. The craft-brewing scene in the Tar Heel State is a beautiful thing.
Of course, there are tons of new and local breweries doing wonderful things with their many brews. What had caught my eye, recently, was the abundance of bottle shops. (We may have weed shops in Colorado but the concept of bottle shops is a foreign thing.)
Forcing ourselves to get some exercise and fresh air on a gloomy overcast day, my parents and I built a strong thirst for a few beers while hiking around the Falls Lake Dam and the Neuse River, where I wished I had brought my fly rod.
As with most visits with my parents, a day of activity would usually end with a stop at either a brewery or some grungy local dive bar with a good Budweiser special. Not far from the hike, my mom remembered, was an interesting beer place she and Dad had stumbled upon a few weeks back. They couldn’t remember the name but could remember how to get to the nearby strip mall where it was located.
“I think you are going to like this place,” my dad said as we pulled into the strip mall parking lot and then finally in front of a store called The Hop Yard. “They’ve got a lot of different beer.”
Inside the long, rectangular store stood three long wire metal shelves creating aisles of various bottled beer. Numerous brightly lit refrigerators full of craft brews lined the far left wall. The place was full of retail craft-beer enjoyment from breweries around the country and the world. At the end of one of these aisles stood a large chalkboard with 18 different beers listed with their individual brewery origin and their alcohol content.
Those listed beers, to my surprise, were also the list of beers that were on tap behind the bar located in the back of the store.
Sitting at the bar, which held as many seats as it had beer taps, this bottle shop concept hit me smack in the face.
“So you can come in after work, ponder life with a couple of beers – great beers – and then grab a six-pack, 12-pack or a bomber to have when you get home? This is brilliant,” I said. “I can’t believe this hasn’t taken off yet in Colorado. There should be one of these on every street corner.”
“I’m going to open one when I get home,” I continued, probably three beers deep at that point and feeling talkative.
“You should,” my mom said. “These places are everywhere here.”
“Everywhere? Why haven’t we been going to these places? I said.
“I guess we thought you knew about them,” my mom said. “You seem to know everything.”
I rolled my eyes.
Well, as it turns out, my mom was right. Throughout the next week of my stay in and around the Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill area, it was as if the blinders had been taken off and there were, in fact, bottle shops everywhere. Beer establishments that sold beer both for consumption at the establishment and retail for take away. The 18 beers on tap at The Hop Yard that day reflected a good mix of mainly North Carolina craft brews that also pulled from further south and from points up north on the Eastern Seaboard.
From that point on in North Carolina, I was on the lookout for bottle shops. I wanted more. And I wanted to see how they were all operated. The wheels were still turning in my head in opening my own someday.
And then we walked into the one. Closer to North Carolina State University, the North Street Beer Station is it. It would be my place of residence if I lived nearby. From the looks of it, with its one-door entrance and its sliding garage door to the left, it was at, one point, an old garage or workshop. On this clear and cool evening, the door was open letting in plenty of fresh air. The lighting was right. The antiquated brickwork of the building’s walls brought some nostalgia.
I remember only one wall of retail beers for sale and, perhaps, six or seven craft brews on tap to drink. North Street Beer Station may not have the extensive beer selection other bottle shops have but it made up for it with the brews they had selected and, more importantly, with its atmosphere.
Men and women of all walks of life including the well-dressed business people and the grungy local stoners – all of them were having a great time in the North Street Beer Station. For us, we enjoyed three or four beers and a game of Cards Against Humanity. Where else can you enjoy Cards Against Humanity and feel good about yourself? The North Street Beer Station, that’s where.
All buzzed up, once again, I began to think of my airport conversation with the philosopher back in Houston. Around the country, good beer being brewed by the people, for the people, is a way of life – a revolution of its own. I also thought again of his correlation. The beer in North Carolina was exceptionally good, and it didn’t speak well of that state’s politics – an axiom that is unfortunately ringing truer by the day.
THE POINT OF BEER PROGRESS IN COLORADO
Back home in Montrose, I’d already studied up on why there isn’t a booming bottle shop business in the state. Just like the aforementioned great convenience store idea, they are outlawed by our antiquated state liquor laws.
Believe me, I planned on opening a bottle shop right smack dab in the middle of Main Street Montrose. But Colorado laws say no. Here it’s stated:
Regulation 47-008. Fermented Malt Beverages – Limitations of License.
- No person licensed for on-premises consumption only, pursuant to section 12-46-107(1)(b), C.R.S., shall sell fermented malt beverages in sealed containers, or permit the removal from the licensed premises of any fermented malt beverages in either sealed or unsealed containers.
- No person licensed for off-premises consumption only, pursuant to section 12-46-107(1)(a), C.R.S., shall sell, by the drink, any open container of fermented malt beverage, or permit the consumption of any fermented malt beverages within the licensed premises.
It was late in the afternoon, just the other day, as I sat in front of the TV mindlessly watching some sporting event. Maybe it was hockey. A commercial came on that urged Colorado to change its liquor laws so that full strength beer could be purchased in grocery stores. The ad, which was obviously paid for by corporate grocery store chains, showed a flanneled and bearded hipster-looking guy who simply wants convenience when he goes shopping at the supermarket. “Why should he be denied the convenience of buying good, full strength beer in Colorado’s grocery stores? It’s time for a change. It’s time for convenience,” the advertisement said, “by supporting an upcoming ballot initiative that would change Colorado’s liquor laws.”
“Why can’t we have a one-stop shop for food and beer?” the bearded man asked. “I think its time for a change.”
I couldn’t agree more and yet I couldn’t disagree more at the same time.
Yes. Colorado’s liquor laws need to change but no, they don’t need to change in order to favor the big grocery store chains so that their boards of directors can line their pockets with the fruit of good brewers’ labor. Convenience isn’t the answer. Bottle shops and individually owned corner stores are the answer.
Colorado liquor laws need a few simple changes. One would enable retail liquor stores to allow consumption of beer on premises – and bottle shops to be born.
The other simple change would be to allow liquor stores to sell retail food and items you would find at convenience stores. Colorado, with its strong craft-brew atmosphere, would finally be able to keep up with the rest of the country in what is an ongoing beer revolution. Happiness and individual beer selling is the focus.
There may or may not be a ballot initiative coming in November to amend Colorado’s liquor laws. I do guarantee that the big grocery store chains and their lobbyists will get one on the ballot in the future. Forget convenience while shopping for your Campbell’s soup and forget grocery store chains. They aren’t the point of beer progress here.
What we want are locally built and operated bottle shops and unique convenience stores that are able to give us Coloradoans what we need: great beer on tap, great beer by the case, and, perhaps, a bag of chicharrones to go with it.
When I set out to find great barbecue in Texas months ago, I found something even greater, which came in the form of a convenience store. A convenience store that made me think differently about the realities here in Colorado and the possibilities – which are realities in other places around the country – that could be here in Colorado.
Donald Trump is a reality we must all confront. It’s time to improve our beer economy here in Colorado before its too late.
“Revolutions are not born of chance but of necessity.”
– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables