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The Hay Merchant (1100 Westheimer) was built out of the space that used to be Montrose's iconic Chances Bar, which closed in November 2010. Its older brother down the street, classic-cocktail venue Anvil (1424 Westheimer), remains one of Houston's most gushed-over drinkeries three years after opening. The new place is equally impressive, if not more.
But where Anvil pledges allegiance to the elegance of the handcrafted cocktail, The Hay Merchant celebrates the individuality and innovation of craft beer. More than 80 types are currently available, each with its own properties and purpose.
The signs behind the bar and lists inside The Hay Merchant's paper menus can be baffling. You understand that there's some sort of order there, and you're vaguely familiar with some of the terms, but you're not completely certain how they apply to anything at all.
1100 Westheimer, 713-528-9805, www.haymerchant.com
Some drinks are described as "sociable and refreshing," others "sweet and sticky." Others still are "malty, toasty or nutty." It can be overwhelming and intimidating, like trying to cram for a final exam when you're just trying to order a drink. Or studying the periodic table of elements — does anyone know what the hell a proton does? — except way more delicious to work your way through.
"You really have to find your niche with the beers," says Valerie Howard, a 35-year-old IT director visiting for her second time. "Mine is IPAs [India Pale Ale]. I love them. They're very strong. I would say they're [beer's] equivalent to a pinot noir."
While Bobby Heugel, co-owner of Anvil and a highly respected beverage statesman, is also a partner in The Hay Merchant, the creative force behind this bar is Kevin Floyd. He's the bar's Dmitri Mendeleev, as it were.
Within the local craft-beer community, Floyd is a demigod in a baseball cap. Show up at The Hay Merchant and sit down, and he'll inevitably come wandering over to check on things. Ask for his advice on what to drink, and he'll run through a litany of checkpoints before coming up with the answer.
Do you like drinks that are X? How do you feel about drinks that are Y? Do you own a dog? When's the last time you had a good cry? Then you'll enjoy a Bockor Cuvee des Jacobins Rouge served in a vessel.
Try as you might to find some smarm in Floyd, or The Hay Merchant, and you'll come up empty. This bar is brazen enough to truly care about what it serves, the kind of sincerity that so far actually has deflected an excessively trendy crowd, despite all the talk about the bar since it opened in February.
"I would definitely have expected a younger, more hipster crowd," says accounting manager Tammie Sonnier. "It's not. And I expected the ratio of males to females to be much higher," she adds with a smile. "There have been quite a few women in here tonight."
The Hay Merchant has a lot going for it. The interior, nearly all exposed brick and weathered wood, adds an instant rustic feel. The food (chicken & waffles, burgers, exotic appetizers like pig ears) is as comforting and enjoyable as the decor.
The location is already soaked in history, and management is as enthusiastic about its craft-beer philosophy as Petrol Station (985 Wakefield) and Flying Saucer (705 Main). All of this is reflected in the hearty buzz about The Hay Merchant.
"Last time, we came around 8 p.m. on a Thursday, and we waited about 45 minutes for a table," says Howard.
But it all eventually spirals back towards the product.
Chemistry has never been more interesting.
An aside: At the above-mentioned Anvil, they use a piece of old railroad track as a footrest underneath the bar top. It's a neat little quirk, and a clear indication that the entirety of the venue's design has been as carefully planned and plotted as the drinks. The Hay Merchant features an equally entertaining quirk: When you walk in and sit down, the waiter/waitress will bring out glasses and a bottle of King Cobra Malt Liquor that's been emptied and filled with water. It's an unexpected move that may serve an indirect purpose: Reminding you that the generic brand of major beer you usually drink is as exciting and interesting as water. High-five for that. The Hay Merchant actually used to use Budweiser bottles at first, but the brewing giant asked the bar to stop doing that. For all of their Super Bowl commercial bluster, those Clydesdales appear to have zero sense of humor.