Kraig Torres is on a mission to expand the taste buds of the average beer drinker beyond the horizons of Clydesdales and blue mountains.
The owner (and chief hophead) of Barleygarden Kitchen and Craft Bar in Avalon says he has a penchant for old-school Belgian and German beer, which he feels has fallen along the wayside with the trend toward “extreme” flavors.
“I really wanted to showcase these styles in a setting reminiscent of a Munich beer hall,” Torres said, describing the venue’s two-story building with an intimate rooftop bar in the newest section of Avalon.
Downstairs, 61 beers are on tap, about a third of them hailing from the local brewing community.
“I wanted to give Avalon a taste of what we do well at our other locations...constantly rotating fun, new and unique beers with a heavy dose of local choices,” he noted. “We really are looking for new releases...many of which are not available for tasting before we get the keg.”
Upstairs on the rooftop bar, an additional 20+ beers await the customer, with an emphasis on selections Torres considers among the top tier of small-batch, hand-crafted beers.
“For the roof, we rotate only on occasion, so I am looking for European beers that represent the best in class of a specific beer style,” he explained. “So hefeweizens like Weihenstephan and Quads like Gouden Carolus are easy choices. If you want to find the best of Germany, England, Belgium, this will be your Barleygarden experience.”
Barleygarden is a part of the Hop City family, with locations in downtown Atlanta and Midtown, and Birmingham, Ala.
“We’ve been around nearly nine years and we have a great team of beer and wine geeks that keep it ticking,” said Torres, a beer tasting professional with over 8,000 beer ratings.
Opening in Avalon presented a unique opportunity for Torres. This was the first new construction for a Hop City brand, and the first suburban setting (compared to the “urban-reclaimed” vibe of the other sites). But the suburbs were calling...so Torres answered.
“For years I’ve been asked to open a place in the northern suburbs but never really found a spot that made sense. Avalon is that spot,” he noted. “Plus, as a rule of thumb, I always like being neighbors with Ford Fry (El Felix). That guy seems to know what he’s doing!”
As the team explored the possibilities of a Hop City location in Avalon, they ran into one roadblock.
“It turns out the City of Alpharetta frowns on bars...they are simply not allowed,” Kraig laughed.
The workaround was to partner with Kevin Ouzts from Spotted Trotter, who got busy planning a menu that complimented the beer – the key to Hop City’s identity. The name was also changed to Barleygarden to reflect the new concept.
“We really wanted house-made, fresh, but easy-to-understand foods,” Torres said. “Things that fit in your hand...or in a bowl. And most importantly, I wanted foods that pair great with beer!”
The challenge was developing a relatively permanent menu that could pair with a constantly changing beer selection. Torres said he’s accomplished that, with an expansive menu that offers something for everyone, from the hearty eater to the green crowd.
“Our best-seller is the Butcher’s Bun – a high-end cheesesteak, but the ribeye is thick-sliced, not shredded. It’s served on locally-baked bread and smothered in house-fried onions and cheese. Now picture that with rich, Whopper-malty weizenbock like Aventinus!” said Torres.
Other popular items include the Big New York (pastrami, gruyere, beer pickled cabbage), the Hen House (marinated chicken breast, goat cheese, bacon), a variety of salads, and “the best hot dog you’ll ever eat,” as promised on the menu. A limited kid’s menu is also available.
But seriously, great food aside, all eyes are on the beers. While navigating the extensive selection may be daunting, Torres said the staff is there to help.
“With 85 draft choices it can get a little overwhelming,” he acknowledges. “But we have always been committed to a welcoming atmosphere for guests at any point in their beer journey. We cater to guests with lots of beer knowledge [and those] just getting to know the choices.”
The staff goes through a “reasonable” amount of training on beers, but Torres would rather focus on customer service than encyclopedic knowledge.
“Frankly – we are more interested in finding team members that understand we aren’t in the beer business – we are in the ‘making folks happy’ business,” he said.
And if making folks happy on a Saturday afternoon involves SEC football, then Torres may have to make a change to the website that says “no big screens.”
“I may have to walk that [statement] back a bit,” he said, laughing. “I love a great football game as much as the next guy but I’ve always enjoyed the English pub experience [with emphasis on conversation]."
But in the context of the customer is always right, Torres said they are making an exception to the “no TV” rule at Barleygarden.
“Here at Avalon, our guests have made it clear that, for the majority of them, the magnetic pull between sports and beer is too much to overcome,” Torres admitted.
He says the last 10 years have been an adventure, with a new location opening every two years. Looking to the future, he hopes to continue that path, whether it’s with the tried and true, or something entirely new.
“My wife Eileen and I love Atlanta, and my rule of thumb has been to only open where I can make it there and back in the same day. Luckily, with all of metro Atlanta’s growth, that door is wide open,” Torres said.