The long-anticipated Hay Merchant opens today on Westheimer, and I was lucky enough to get a sneak peak during their soft-opening period. Local media has already provided a pretty good insight into the launch, and the owners have begged forbearance (unnecessarily, I might add) as the staff gets their footing, so I won’t dwell long on the subject except to say that it is everything one hoped it could be. I picture Kevin Floyd on stage, speaking to an auditorium full of craft beer lovers, like Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite, “Vote for me, and all of your wildest dreams will come true.”
The space is well-appointed, and everything from the reclaimed brick to the eclectic tap handles exhibit thoughtfulness. Particularly clever are the bottles of water upon which I will refrain from expanding further as their fate is uncertain and I do not wish to hasten their demise. My water seldom wanted for a refill, as staff are tasked with keeping the clientele well hydrated – which on some level shows the Hay Merchant’s kinship with Anvil. Just as the price, both pecuniary and temporal, of craftsmanship at the latter deters the yobs looking for Jägerbombs, so too does the emphasis on temperance and quality over quantity at the former reassure patrons that they needn’t fear the presence of dudebros exclaiming, “Whoa! This barleywine is TWICE as strong as the Bud Light Platinum I spilled on my Ed Hardy shirt last night!”
As my friend and I explored the beer offerings, we also sampled a few light bites. The crispy, sweet and spicy pig’s ears are exceptional, like porcine kettle corn you can’t put down, the spiciness encouraging convivial drinking. We were disappointed at first to hear that the oxtail was gone, but a short while later it had miraculously reappeared. An egg was cold-poached so the yolk would remain runny, breaded and deep-fried, then set atop a pile of tender pulled oxtail and soft mushrooms, all on a lard biscuit bed. As if the dish needed any added richness from the runny yolk. [Insert tired Anthony Bourdain Lipitor joke here.]
As we journeyed our way through IPAs, Stouts, and Sours, we also ordered the chargrilled short ribs, marinated in lime, garlic, and fish sauce to give them that savory Vietnamese je ne sais quoi. These are pub snacks as God intended. The chicken wings will of course lure me back, as will the “JH” dog, which seems to have my name on it.
Needless to say, the beer list is impressive, with around 70 taps, 5 or 6 casks, and 3 nitro systems. The casks weren’t on last night, so those fearing the Das Wunderkind sour from Jester King will be gone need not worry. A few others may be quick to go too though, like the Saint Arnold DR11 or the Southern Star Bourbon Barrel-Aged Buried Hatchet, neither of which I could resist ordering. They’re also laudably particular about their drinking vessels at the Hay Merchant, which not only highlights the best attributes of each beer style, it also keeps the pricing relatively uniform – in the $5 to $7 range – so a 20 oz. Pilsner glass of Hefeweizen costs about the same as a 13 oz. Tulip of Belgian IPA or an 8 oz. Snifter of Sour.
Especially compelling is the Mud Turtle program, which will encourage craft beer aficionados and novices alike to try new beers and ascend the ranks until ultimately challenging Kevin Floyd himself and rescuing the princess. According to Bobby Heugel, the program probably won’t start until next week, when they’ve made sure all the kinks are worked out. As a newly opened restaurant and bar though, there were no kinks to be found. The staff was extremely knowledgeable and attentive, and everything seemed to run smoothly. The Hay Merchant officially opens at 3:00 this afternoon at 1100 Westheimer, and the real test begins at this brewtopia as half the Houston metroplex tries to squeeze through its doors.