Houston Hot Spot Anvil Originated with the Written Word
As patrons sidle up to the bar at Anvil, Houston’s first classic cocktail bar, the story of their evening begins with the simple phrase, “Welcome to Anvil.” But the story behind Anvil dates back three years and originates with a few well-thought-out words in an endless online world that ultimately evolved into the creation of a bar.
“I got online one day, bored,” Anvil’s co-owner Bobby Heugel admits of his bar’s atypical online roots in 2006. “I didn’t have any Web training, so I just used a pre-made template on Blogger.com.” From there, Heugel created Drink Dogma as a way to learn more about the craft of cocktails. “Getting online and talking to others who were doing similar things in terms of cocktails was a way to communicate for me. I was [bartending while] getting my Master’s at Illinois State University, which is in Normal, Ill., and I didn’t work in one of these huge cities like New York or San Francisco. The Internet was a great source at that time, and it still is today.”
That year, Heugel moved back to his native Houston and started working with childhood friend Kevin Floyd at Monica Pope’s restaurant, Beaver’s. During this time, Heugel also met chef Dax McAnear, who helped him expand his concoctions — and his blogging.
“Dax is a great chef and he taught me how to layer flavors. He also showed me classic cooking techniques like making gastriques and infusions, and I began to apply them to the flavor combinations I used to create my cocktails,” Heugel recounts. “Between that and my ongoing research in classic cocktail techniques, I basically developed my own grad course in classic cocktail preparation. The blog developed a local following in Houston, which helped it grow,” Heugel says. “Then I went to Tales [of the Cocktail] and met the whole cocktail blogging community.” (See sidebar.)
Heugel and Floyd, who contributed to Drink Dogma, had tossed around the idea of creating a bar while working at Beaver’s. Although Heugel had no prior business experience, after bartending his way through undergrad and graduate school for international communications, he realized “that what I was doing to pay for school should really be my career.”
And in 2007, with friends Justin Burrow, Morgan Weber and Steve Flippo, they began taking steps toward opening a bar. The blog, originally devoted to Heugel’s thoughts on cocktail creations, industry events and the overall cocktail revolution, now enabled the men to harness advertising power for the future bar project.
“The blog allowed us to have almost constant contact with people in the city,” Heugel explains. “We regularly communicated that we were doing this project via updates about the progress of the bar being built. It got a lot of attention right off the bat, and in all honesty, I didn’t know Drink Dogma was going to have the level of impact that it did.”
They began to garner feedback, soliciting advice from experts far and wide and even getting financial assistance: After reading the blog, a few people went to Beaver’s for a drink to meet Heugel. The meeting morphed into friendships, and ended up with the curious folks investing in Anvil.
The blog helped create a buzz around Anvil long before it even opened its doors in March 2009. For the soft opening, Heugel and his team left paper over the windows and only invited about 20 people. More than 100 showed up.
Behind the Blog-Born Bar
The name Anvil stems from a visceral feeling among Heugel and his cohorts that a cocktail bar should always focus on creating the cocktails — building a drink from the bottom of the glass upward.
“Anvil sounded like a great way to talk about how the drinks are made — from scratch,” Heugel says.
Mirroring the back bar, tools and techniques you’d expect to find in cities like New York or San Francisco, Anvil boasts the works, from house-made bitters to fresh-squeezed juices to a Kold-Draft ice machine. But its décor has a vibe all its own. The 2,100-square-foot space features 25 seats at the bar as well as tables and couches to seat 40.
“We want to create something with attention to the past. My favorite part is that this venue is something we created together. We ripped out the drywall the day we signed the lease, and with the exception of sawing the bar top and some plumbing and electrical, we built the space ourselves,” Heugel explains. “We are not an interior design space with cocktails. Anvil’s design is symbolic for us. We took old shelving from a piano store Kevin and I worked at when we were 13, all the glass is from thrift stores, the tables are made from wood flooring and the bathroom doors are old walk-in cooler doors we found in a butcher shop in Texas.”
Lately, Drink Dogma’s posts haven’t been quite as frequent, as Heugel’s attention has been on making the bar launch and run smoothly, but since hiring and training four new bartenders, he’s now hoping to get back to writing. His passion for swapping cocktail knowledge online hasn’t changed, but some elements of the blog have.
“What’s interesting now is that when it was just Drink Dogma, it was more formal. Now it’s a mixture of cocktail-
related things that are interesting and some of ‘Hey, this is what we are doing at the bar.’”
When the group launched a beer program recently at Anvil, for example, a post was listed and Heugel discussed what he loved about his new draft system. This posting actually drew in new customers — beer fanatics who didn’t realize Anvil’s beer program was nearly as interesting as its cocktails — and spurred discussion on the blog among beer lovers. While recognizing the power of the blog to market the bar, Heugel is wary of retaining his readership and not selling out.
“The blog is for information and it is a PR tool, so I try to balance the two. I maintain that it not be too advertorial. I want to keep those readers who aren’t in Houston. I was able to open this bar because I started a blog three years ago,” Heugel admits. “If I hadn’t started Drink Dogma and it hadn’t set so many things into motion, I’m not sure I would have been able to open the bar at all.” NCB
The Cocktail Blogging Community
For those not immersed in the online cocktail blog world, it’s been growing and organizing exponentially since 2005. One of the most respected cocktail blogs is Cocktail Chronicles, the creation of Seattle-based writer Paul Clarke. Cocktail Chronicles was the first blog Anvil’s Bobby Heugel recalls seeing and one he has read since first logging on to the online cocktail community.
“Around 2007, it started expanding in earnest, and we [bloggers] started working together in many ways and meeting each other in person,” Clarke explains. “While we’ve counted members of the beverage media and professional cocktail community as readers from the very beginning, I think late 2006 and into 2007 was when we really started attracting readers in force, especially those who work in the industry.”
Web-based gatherings like Mixology Monday and Mixoloseum sprung up as a way to link bloggers together into a group forum, and the Cocktail & Spirits Online Writers Group (CSOWG) formed after Tales of the Cocktail in 2008.
Clarke estimates that between cocktail fanatics and people working in the industry as journalists and bartenders, there are about 100 blogs devoted to cocktails right now.
“I’m increasingly seeing bartenders utilize blogs to help advance their interests and careers. Bobby [Heugel] has taken it to the ultimate step of opening his own place, but bartenders such as Jamie Boudreau and Jeffrey Morgenthaler have used their blogs as online showcases to demonstrate their skills, and I think that’s helped both of them with their careers,” Clarke says.
The passion of the bloggers for their craft is often in evident in their posts. “Before I wrote anything on my blog, whether it was a spirit, method or the history of a cocktail, I read and researched everything about the topic,” Heugel explains. To him, and others like him, blogging has always been an effort to push the cocktail revolution forward.
Next up: Anvil’s co-owners Heugel and Kevin Floyd and have collaborated on a list of “100 Classic Cocktails to Drink Before You Die,” which will make its appearance in the bar as well as on Drink Dogma in the near future.