While the staff of Avenue Pub is hard at work wrapping up the last day of American Craft Beer Week today (May 21), they can be forgiven if their hearts are already in Belgium. As part of our continuing series called “Field Trip,” owner Polly Watts pulls the mother of all Field Trips by taking nine of her staffers to Belgium starting next Friday (May 27) for eight days to sample of the best beers in the world to put more context into the beer they serve on St. Charles Avenue. (Some notable pitstops: Cantillon, Van Eecke, Brasserie au Baron, Brasserie Blaugies, Oud Beersel, Drie Fonteinen, and Sunner (in Cologne, Germany). Watts, whom I met and covered while managing the bar guide at my previous stop — in which she was honored for having the best beer selection as well as the best bourbon selection — is one of the most fascinating figures in New Orleans’ bar scene. She seems equally passionate not only about the bar she inherited after Hurricane Katrina, but also about what she stocks there and especially who she staffs there.
“Open 24/7 except when we are in Belgium”
That’s only a slight exaggeration. The pub closes for 36 hours after Mardi Gras for the ‘Great Clean Up,” and we have been known to close for hurricanes when the chief of police calls us out in his evacuation press conference.
But as a general rule we are always here with a pint of good craft beer. Like many big cities, New Orleans is a 24-hour place. Our customer base changes to restaurant and bar employees in the wee hours of the morning and then later to night-shift workers from EMS and local hospitals around 6 to 7 a.m. For a lot of these folks, there aren’t any other options at 6 a.m. for good craft beer, so the Avenue Pub closing for any amount of time means these folks don’t have a place to go with a beer selection like ours.
The upshot is that we take the idea of closing pretty seriously, and announcing that the Pub would be closed during our staff trip to Belgium felt pretty weird. My late dad, the founder of the Pub, would be rolling his eyes right now if he knew. He’d probably be cursing while drinking his Bud Light and calling us hipsters.
Smelling the Professional Roses
Blessed as we are by the success at the Pub, the workload would get to anyone after a while. A few years ago, we caught ourselves spending all our time with the gritty details of bar management and missing the reason we got into the craft-beer business to begin with. Human-resource difficulties and no-show employees aren’t any more fun in a craft-beer bar than they are in any other business. What we do have in the craft-beer world is fabulous professional friends and amazing opportunities to travel. When the grind got to us, we made the conscious decision to start smelling those professional roses. In the past 12 months, the Pub has sent various staff to beers festivals in both the U.S. and Quebec, hosted brewers from around the world, and we have no plans to slow down.
Landmines & chickens
We decided a year ago that we needed to get serious about getting the staff to Belgium. My trips to Belgium had been extraordinary and, as much as I could relate the experience to my staff, there is really no way to truly understand the culture until you visit yourself. Drinking in the cafes, seeing the tiny spaces that produce the extraordinary beer we get at the pub, and meeting the passionate people behind the beer changes the way you taste the beer. Even back in the United States, I’ve tasted a beer and been transported back to a sidewalk table Moeder Lambic with memories of Jean Hummler trying to give me a keg of Tilquin lambic to take home, or watching Jean make Vickie Robinson pour a beer from his draft system.
The memories we created in Belgium always involved beer, but they were rarely about beer. The brewers we met talked as much about their families, the history of their regions and politics as they did about beer. In fact, geeky American-style beer discussions can be dangerous territory with a Belgian and filled with landmines when speaking to a Belgian brewer. Just like religion, converts to craft beer can be very enthusiastic and opinionated. The peeps in Belgium have been living beer for generations. There is a right way and a wrong way to brew/market/drink beers … and don’t imagine that all Belgian brewers agree on what is right and what is wrong. Introduce enthusiastic (but not professional brewers) American opinions and you will be quickly dismissed.
Safest course is let them tell you about their passion and then talk about something else! Four years after we met brewers and bar owners on our first beer trip they still bring up Vickie’s chicken stories. While I don’t expect anyone on my team to have the fabulous chicken stories that Vickie does what I hope is that my staff forms the friendship bonds beyond beer bonds. At the end of the day the friendships are what we remember.