Real Ale Gone Wild and Firkins Everywhere: A Talk with Stewart Martin of Hay Merchant

The name seems almost inescapable this year: Hay Merchant. The eight-month-old bar, seated on the curve of Westheimer just West of Montrose, has been described as everything from a new trend in bars to Houston's Mecca for beer to snobbish and inaccessible. It's strange that a place specializing in something as egalitarian as beer would be so wildly polarizing, but you really do have to visit Hay Merchant to see what it's really all about.

I had the luck to stop into Hay Merchant the very same day that Underbelly, which shares its space and kitchen with Hay Merchant, was serving a beer dinner in collaboration with Blanco, Texas brewers Real Ale. This gave me unfettered access to some rare and unique beers from one of the very best brewers in Texas.

On bartender Stewart's recommendation, I started with the Scots Gone Wild. A Sour Ale, Scots is Real Ale's Wee Heavy Ale fermented with wild yeast strains. With drink in hand, we got to business.

You've been at the bar since it opened; where were you working before?

I was at Branch Water Tavern before this for about a year, and I was in Hawaii before that for about eight years.

Hawaii has got to be expensive to live in, right?

Well, you get paid a little more and you don't need money to have fun there. You can go pick up a sixpack of beer and some hookah and go sit on the beach.

For the uninitiated, what do you guys have to offer the first-time visitor?

The way craft beer is moving, it can be intimidating for the average person coming in from their neighborhood bar, but we have one of the widest selections in town. People that don't even drink beer can come in and we can find something for them.

Compare working the bar here versus a traditional bartending gig.

It's easier in that I'm just back here pulling tap handles, but there is a lot more talking about product. A cocktail list, a lot of times, people can tell by looking at it, it's got this, this and this in it. Beer, there is no way to tell until you drink it.

The bar has five cask engines. You guys must go through a lot of firkins (specialized kegs that are not artificially carbonated).

We just got in a ton of new firkins. We had the new ones "embroidered" with our name. They were painted with "Hay Merchant" on them for a while, but the brewers sometimes use an acid bath to clean them and the paint comes right off. The original cask from Anvil is around here somewhere.

When you are going out, have any bars you frequent?

If I'm just going out by my house, El Gran Malo or Big Star. If I want to go and sit down and have a drink, I like Liberty Station or Anvil.

Eight months in, what's the craziest thing that's happened in the bar so far?

It's Montrose. We have typical Montrose stuff. Had to call an ambulance for a guy out back passed out in his wheelchair just totally wasted. But Sean catching the guy in the bathroom washing his balls in the sink was definitely tops.

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