Bodacious Beer Bar Owners is a terribly named weekly feature—and also a slightly misleading one; biweekly-ish is more likely—spotlighting the bodacious owners of Long Island's best spots (bars, restaurants, stores, etc.) for beer.
The format is simple: Each bodacious owner will bodaciously tackle the same four topics in relation to their spot(s), so we can better understand their bodaciousness.
"ON STARTING OUT"
I have a lot of people ask me how I got into owning Hoptron Brewtique and I wish I had a better story, but I really got into it because I loved craft beer. In my previous life, I owned a title insurance company in Patchogue with my old business partner. We built a great company, we worked very well together and ran a good ship, but I knew it ultimately wasn’t for me. At the same time, my beer hobby—drinking, not brewing—was turning into an expensive obsession. Breweries like Blue Point and Ithaca were so great and just made me want to explore the culture more; and the more I did, the more I loved it. Long story short, I realized it didn’t matter how successful I was in one aspect, I was unsuccessful in another: doing what I loved, what I cared about. That needed to change.
I would've never been able to make the decision to open Hoptron in 2012 without my current partner, Su, who was the one who made me realize that this was an actual, possible, essential decision. Without support I would have just stayed where I was, which wasn’t bad on the outside but wasn’t my "calling." This makes all of it seem like an easy switch, though, and it wasn’t. Other than working a few years as a cook in some local bars, I had no experience working, owning, or managing a bar. Su didn't, either. I didn’t know inventory or cash management; I didn’t know how to handle distributors, drunk customers, salesmen; I didn’t know when to order beer or how much.
We've made it work so far by being humble and trying to learn every day, and also because I think we offer something really unique. Even though you can drink draft beer here, we've never considered ourselves a true bar. When we first opened we had a section in the front of the store selling homebrewing supplies, and we still sell bottles and cans and fill growlers to go. These types of retail-bar hybrids exist in New York City and upstate—one of my favorites is Bierkraft in Brooklyn—but we were the first and still the only place on Long Island to do it. That gives us an advantage, as some people want the bar vibe without the dark room, the five stools, and the neon signs. We've since sold the homebrew part of the place, but we’ve kept the same store feel. It's airy, always well-lit, we have tons of communal tables where new people can meet, and with cool "techie" things like the digital menus that show how much is left in each keg to the more homely things like board games, we always keep a fun, inviting atmosphere.
"CHOOSING YOUR BEER MENU"
Sometimes I'll serve a beer that I love but it doesn't sell and other times I’m indifferent about a beer and the sales are great. It’s not only about what I like necessarily! There is no system, per se, about how I choose what I put on. First, the bar side has 16 taps. That’s it. And only American craft beer. You want Bud, no dice. Cantillon? Again, no. So with a limited draft lineup I constantly rotate and keep things interesting; a keg empties, we immediately put on something different. This drives some people crazy but it’s pretty much the reason for most people coming.
While things rotate, we try to have half of the taps featuring breweries from Long Island. We also strive to have the best selection from New York City's bustling scene so we drive into Brooklyn and Queens every few weeks to pick up the beer ourselves. We've been able to grow relationships with amazing breweries in NYC like Other Half, Folksbier, Transmitter, and soon Threes Brewing because we come early, we come often, we treat and present their beer the right way, and because we don't ask them to drive all the way out to Patchogue! I don't mind driving to get them, it's worth it. We were using our Prius but we sort of broke her, so now we use a bigger truck to pick up bigger hauls, sometimes as much as 10 kegs, each time.
We always try to have certain styles on taps like an IPA, porter, and pale ale, along with a Helles or cream ale. Then I can fill the rest with more wonky things: saisons, wild ales, doppelbocks, sours. Always remember, too, that we’ve got roughly 75 cans and bottles if you’re not digging anything on draft that you can drink in-house for a small fee.
"PRICING YOUR BEER”
Craft beer essentially has the worst margins in the business and since that’s all we’ve got, admittedly it’s a bit rough. Looking at what I should be setting prices at and then looking at what I have to set prices at to compete, they don’t usually match up. But craft beer shouldn’t be elitist, we want everyone to enjoy it. So you take lower margins to stay competitive, to keep the lights on, and to not outprice the people. We have every Long Island and most New York beers at $6, other American breweries at $7, and anything above 8 percent ABV—with a smaller pour by two ounces—at $8. These are relatively arbitrary deliniations: Long Island beers are certainly not cheaper but I want local to have a price advantage, and usually anything above 8 percent is in the double or imperial range, so it costs the brewery more to make and in turn, us a bit more to buy.
"OPERATING ON LONG ISLAND"
I worked in real estate in my former life, so I understand about the costs associated with living on Long Island; everything is more expensive and the expenses all are super rough on our wallet. And when you're situated in a village, you’ve got village codes, then town codes, county codes, state codes, fed codes, etc. And most agencies don’t seem to talk to each other. That being said, I can’t really see Hoptron being anywhere else than Long Island. Also, I’m so lucky to be in the area that I am. I often say that Patchogue is the oasis that is the desert of craft beer on Long Island. It's not that there aren’t amazing bars around, there are, but there’s few next to each other, few you can get to without driving a great distance like here.
Opening in Patchogue was really an internal part of why we're successful. This town is the birthplace of Blue Point, Brickhouse is just down the road and has been here since 1997, and there isn’t really any bar on the strip that doesn’t have at least some great craft beer, so there’s a lot of existing understanding about the culture here. We were able to "tap" into that and run with it. Sure there's an inherent difficulty when you have so many great nightlife spots, maybe ones pouring the same beer we are at the same time, but there’s some great comradery we all have, and each space is really so different in terms of vibes and philosophy, it all ends up working out.
Photo: Josh Hendrickson