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July 30, 2014

Hauses of the holy

How Tyler Trotter and Lori Beck amassed the beer trifecta — Louisville Beer Store, Holy Grale and Gralehaus

Lori Beck and Tyler Trotter are the power couple behind the Louisville Beer Store, the Holy Grale bar and restaurant, and the new Gralehaus cafe. Bringing a taste of Europe to Louisvillians — who can be fiercely loyal to Kentucky bourbon and Southern culinary traditions — is, in a word, gutsy. And they’ve taken some heat for it. When they opened the Louisville Beer Store in 2009, reviews were peppered with words like “pretentious” and “hipster.” Their growing pains have most recently included a two-year legal battle with a distributor, which Beck and Trotter are slogging through to keep their doors open. (Since they are still under scrutiny, that story will unfold later this year).

Their desire to sell beer culture to a new audience has kept them motivated, but what Beck and Trotter are bringing to Louisville is not new. Great beer has been appreciated in Germany and Belgium since the dawn of fermentation, but that distinctly Euro-style presentation of fine beer along with thoughtful, beer-inspired food is trending in Louisville. Now, between their three businesses, Beck and Trotter employ 38 people who come from strong beer backgrounds and share the couple’s passion.

Louisvillians are recognizing it, too. Soothed by a crisp, cool German pils, or a cone full of perfectly thick Dutch-style frites, the criticism has quieted. As people get used to the way things work at Holy Grale, they come back. Beck and Trotter want everyone to feel welcome — experienced beer drinker or not. You can’t get a Budweiser at any of their businesses, but they hope you might find a beer you like even more. In a world where there is so much good beer to drink, why not let 38 of Louisville’s most passionate beer lovers pick one out just for you? (Seriously, it would make their day.)

Honing their hops
Everyone who knows the couple says the same thing: “Those two are so different.” The yin and yang of Beck and Trotter is apparent as they walk into the bar room of Holy Grale. The petite Beck leads, smartly dressed and swift-footed, making eye contact with her staff as if to say: “I’m here if you need me.” Tall and reedy, Trotter shuffles in behind her, needing a haircut, smiling. Since 2009, the two have collaborated on and successfully executed their three businesses, and now they’re looking toward the future.

Trotter’s love of beer started early. Beginning in 2000, he often went over to Rich O’s Public House in New Albany (now known as the New Albanian Brewing Company, or NABC). “It was always a treat to eat their upside-down pizza and try a new beer,” he says. Rich O’s was the place for “beer snobs” before that was even a thing, and an apt place for any budding connoisseur to whet his whistle. Their website touted the slogan “Light beer? Not here!”

Trotter’s horizons were expanded during frequent tours in Europe as the sound engineer for the band California Guitar Trio. His life before his beer businesses revolved around music — playing in bands, booking shows and running sound for other bands in Louisville. When he joined the CGT’s crew, he was bound for an international education, provided by the band’s lineup: Paul Richards from Salt Lake City, Bert Lams from Belgium and Hideyo Moriya from Japan. “Add a dude from Kentucky, and you’re ready for some pretty interesting experiences,” he says. Trotter and the band shared a love for beer, and whenever stopping at a local brewery or pub was an option on tour, they never passed it up.

Like many a novice beer enthusiast, at first Trotter limited his experimentation to hoppy beers like India Pale Ales. “Bert always tried to get me to open my mind to some of the Belgian ales. I usually stayed away from them due to the stereotype that they are all ‘too sweet.’” After a show in Seattle, a fan gave Lams several Belgian beers, and he invited the crew to his room to share them. “That was the first time I ever had Liefmans Goudenband, which changed my mind forever about Belgian beers,” says Trotter. “From that day on, I only wanted to try beers I’d never had before.”

In 2007, after a European tour, Trotter took his first trip to Belgium with Richards. They stayed with one of Lams’ childhood friends in the town of Affligem, rented a car for five days and took day trips all over the country to visit breweries and bars. “That trip became my inspiration for wanting to open a beer store in Louisville.”

Beck’s interest in beer began in 2003 while working at Cumberland Brews. Her mind was blown when Brews’ owner Mark Allgeier took her and Lucy Brown (now Holy Grale’s bar manager) to the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. “It was over for me from that point on,” she says. “I was hooked.” Like Trotter, Beck cites Rich O’s as an influence. “Rich O’s was a pioneer in imported craft beer, and at the time, it was consistently rated one of the best beer bars in the world.” As much as she learned from her tenure at Cumberland Brews and her pilgrimages to Rich O’s, Beck never could have guessed the kind of beer education she had looming in her future — the kind that comes from plunging headlong into the industry.

One fine day
One day in 2006, Beck waited on Trotter and California Guitar Trio member Richards at Cumberland Brews. Trotter “quickly became a big fan of hers,” he says. Their relationship blossomed like a hop flower, and before long, the two set up a home in the Highlands. When Trotter returned between CGT tours, he told Beck about the beer stores he had been to in Belgium and Amsterdam and on the West Coast. He described places such as the Pizza Port Bottle Shop in Carlsbad, Calif., and ‘t Arendsnest and In de Wildeman in Amsterdam. He charmed her with stories of beer tasting rooms and how bottles in these shops line the shelves, showcased like fine wines. He described the precise ritual of beer service in Belgium, where one is served a local brew in a glass just the right shape for that beer, with the name of the brewer printed on the glass, and a coaster to match. The bartenders proudly turn the glass of perfectly poured lager until the logo on the glass and the drinker are face to face. One can imagine that in a place like this, you’re having the brewer’s intended drinking experience. He told her about his dream to bring something like this to Louisville. She thought he was crazy. Beck had never seen anything like this and wasn’t sure people would go for it.

Business does not come naturally to Trotter. When he readily proclaims his least favorite part of achieving his dream was “the work,” you might guess correctly that he wasn’t spending much time fretting over necessary details. Enter Beck, who came to visit the Louisville Beer Store on East Market Street after work to see how things were progressing. Trotter was more focused on beer than on needed equipment, like a cash register.

“I felt the need to help, and I wanted to see it work,” Beck says. She found herself at the store all the time, and when Trotter asked her for full-time help, she quit her job as the exhibition program director at Louisville Glassworks. Trotter, for his part, created the store the way he had imagined it. He installed eight beer taps at a standing-room-only bar to be rotated constantly with whatever beers he was most excited about. The walls were lined with shelves up to the ceiling, packed with bottles from all over the world to be taken home or enjoyed at the bar. Beck and Trotter settled into their roles as business partners and embarked on the tumult and triumph of the next few years.

99 bottles of beer … in storage
With the Louisville Beer Store up and running, Beck and Trotter got worn to the bone by the drudgery of running a small business. Beck fretted over the numbers and still didn’t feel confident. “I was doing the best that I could. The accounting for the Beer Store was done on a scratch pad.” She didn’t think they would ever be able to afford to hire an employee.

But with their unique setup and access to beers found nowhere else in the state, word of mouth traveled and they gained loyal followers. One of them was unrelenting, coming in regularly and saying he loved the business and would work for free. Beck and Trotter couldn’t refuse. They hired Daniel Van Dyke, now their most senior employee, who is currently riding across the country on a bicycle touring breweries. (Check out his blog at brewvoyage.com). When he started working at the Beer Store in 2010, it was such a relief to the two overworked partners that they immediately booked a flight to Holland for the Borefts Bier Festival in Bodegraven. The festival was hosted at windmill-turned-brewery Brouwerij de Molen, which that year had won the No. 10 spot on RateBeer.com’s Best Brewers in the World list. This would be a gathering of who’s who in the brewing world. This was Mecca.

Beck and Trotter cite their trip to Holland and Belgium in 2010 as the inspiration for Holy Grale. They were in Europe for two weeks, tooling around for more beer inspiration. At the festival, they had no expectations other than to take a vacation, drink great beer and be in the midst of the culture they both loved. Due to the small scale of the second annual Borefts, Trotter and Beck had access to their beer heroes. They met Menno Olivier, the festival host and the man behind De Molen, Urbain Coutteau of De Struise, Dany Prignon of Fantôme, Jean-Pierre van Roy of Cantillon, Marc Limet of Kerkom, Mikkel Borg Bjergsø of Mikkeller, Nino Bacelle of De Ranke, Brian Ewing of 12% Imports — and these are just the names Trotter could think of on the spot.

They felt kismet had brought them together with these brewers and producers, that it was the right time and place for them to meet. Beck felt like “kind of a weirdo” for being a fan surrounded by beer royalty. When Trotter recognized a brewer in the crowd, Beck would walk right up and say, “Hi, I really love your beer. We sell it in Kentucky.” Usually, the reaction was, “Kentucky? Where the heck is that?” But if they didn’t know about the Kentucky Derby or Muhammad Ali, they did know Kentucky bourbon. The couple learned for future trips that the best gift to bring is good bourbon. And since that first festival, they have made a trip annually, usually with a member of their staff, to visit brewers and bars. A lot of these brewers have become influential on a mainstream level, and a lot of them have come to visit Beck and Trotter in Louisville to see what it’s all about over here.

Before that 2010 trip, Beck was having doubts about the Louisville Beer Store. She told Trotter, “This is a great hobby, but I don’t think it’s something we can do forever.” Meanwhile, Trotter was collecting kegs and looking at commercial real estate. He spotted the turn-of-the-century brick Unitarian meeting place at 1034 Bardstown Road in the Highlands while sitting at a restaurant across the street. At the time, the defunct church was housing a hot dog joint with odd hours, and Trotter wondered, “Why aren’t they open right now? That place could be something cool.”

By the time the building came up for rent in 2010, Trotter was sitting on close to 90 kegs of beer. Kegs have a longer shelf life than bottles — most of what he bought had around three years to be tapped — but the eight taps at the Beer Store were not going to be sufficient. High off the excitement of Holland and Belgium and brimming with ideas, Beck and Trotter returned to Louisville invigorated and ready to think big. Beck still wasn’t sure it was all really happening. She refers to the planning stage for Holy Grale as “all jokes.” They drove past the “For Rent” sign on the church, and Trotter joked, “Should we call?” Beck said, “Yeah. I guess we should.” So they called. Rent was within their range. The landlord knew who they were and was willing to give them a chance. They moved in and started moving the hot dog stuff out. “I never was joking,” Trotter says.

There they were, in a bar with a kitchen and no intention of ever serving food. Neither of them had any culinary background. Growing up, most of the home-cooked meals Trotter’s parents made were traditional German fare. They both agreed the food should be inspired by beer and the Dutch tradition. Thick fries in a cone — that was the thing they really wanted to get right, the perfect complement to a good beer. The rest of the menu Beck made up “from the gut and at whim.” Peanut butter and jelly with poblano pepper; street foods like elotes, tacos and hot dogs; waffle sundaes. Reflecting on it, Beck says, “It was fine. It was fun, but when I look back at the first menu, I can’t help but laugh.” When they hired Chef Josh Lehman, “things became respectable,” she says.

Lehman’s résumé included a classic French background from the kitchen of Le Relais and work at the NABC Bank Street Brewhouse. But his love of beer is what made him the perfect fit for Holy Grale. “He loves beer as much as we do,” Beck says. “He came in here with the goal to make this place known for good food, and he has done that.” The menu, turned out by Lehman and sous chef Paul Skulas, is inspired by Belgian, Dutch, French and German comfort foods. On that menu is a burger that, by many accounts, should be topping more lists, and the frites are still a best-seller.

“The moves we have made have been out of necessity or opportunity,” says Beck. Sitting on 90 kegs of beer necessitated the move to a beer bar. Through earnest love of good beer and the desire to share it, Beck and Trotter made Holy Grale a success. “Our hands are really in this place, and you can feel that,” Beck says. “There is nothing artificial about it.”

Three’s company
That could have been enough for Beck and Trotter — the Louisville Beer Store and Holy Grale were humming along. And then, the couple’s landlord bought the beautiful brick house behind Holy Grale and offered it to them, with the panic-inducing stipulation that if they didn’t accept the building, they would lose their beer garden. They had no idea what to do with the space, but they took it. Losing the beer garden was not an option. Beck and Trotter were plunged into planning Gralehaus in late 2013.

The only thing they could agree on at first was that there would be beer — and guestrooms. They saw guestrooms attached to breweries in Germany and thought it would be practical when flying in brewers for conventions. When not occupied by traveling brewers or Trotter’s musician friends, the rooms would be available to the public. This concept lent itself to a business complementary to Holy Grale, but it would be something different, serving a different time of the day.

Now Beck and Trotter started thinking about coffee and breakfast food. “We’re still figuring out how to run that place,” says Beck. The guestrooms aren’t open yet, but Gralehaus has taken on a distinctly European cafe vibe. Gralehaus is a reflection of the combination bar/cafes Beck loved in Italy, and she can wax poetic about them. “There are cafes where you can get charcuterie, cheese and bread to-go,” she says. “Or you can belly up to the bar, get a shot of espresso, some blood orange juice and a beer. Or sit down and have a sandwich, have a glass of wine, they’ll bring you an amuse-bouche plate. They were all these things in one, and it serves a neighborhood.”

If you’ve been to Gralehaus, that should all sound familiar. Chef Andy Myers’ food is from the heart; he interprets the twangs of his employers’ heartstrings and serves them forth as delicately folded crepes, smoked trout hash and porchetta, a succulent Italian slow-roasted pork, the likes of which you haven’t eaten since the last time you were in Italy.

Breakfast means coffee, but Beck and Trotter had little background in the stuff. Searching for local roasters led to frustrations. The first few they found were affiliated with religious establishments and wanted Beck and Trotter to sign restrictive exclusivity contracts. Neither of these constricts vibed with what they wanted to do. They were relieved to find Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee while at a Three Floyds beer event. A world-class brewer in Munster, Ind., Three Floyds was unveiling its Dark Lord imperial stout, a beer brewed with Intelligentsia. There were people from Intelligentsia in attendance, and Beck and Trotter liked that they were interested in merging the coffee and beer worlds. These were their kind of coffee people. Also, Intelligentsia was willing to forgo any exclusivity contract, so Beck and Trotter are still able to incorporate any local roasters they like, as they have done recently with the cold brew from Argo Sons Coffee.

The rest of the Gralehaus drink menu is in the hands of Leslee Macpherson, who worked with Beck at Cumberland Brews. She transitioned as lead beertender at Holy Grale and became Gralehaus’ general manager. As Beck puts it, “Our beverage program is not only ahead of its time for Louisville, but it’s also innovative on a larger scale. What Leslee is coming up with is internationally relevant.”

Macpherson has a passion for sodas, kombuchas and shrubs. If you are unfamiliar, a shrub is a vinegar-based soft drink that dates back to 17th-century England and was carried over into colonial America. Macpherson loves all things fermented. What Beck looks for in a staff member is excitement about what she’s doing. If she is excited, then every person who walks in the door will be excited.

Because of their success, Trotter and Beck have been able to give their management team more responsibility, which has given them more free time. “I’m in a position now where I’m trying to figure out what to do with my free time,” Beck says. “By free time, I mean I’m not working 100 hours a week.” She wants to take up sailing. Trotter has found respite from the business in an old friend — music. His latest project, Watter, a supergroup with members of Louisville’s legendary Slint and Grails, released their debut LP, This World, in May. Watter is currently planning an East Coast tour, with a stop at the New Vintage scheduled for Oct. 8.

Regarding her budding beer empire, Beck says, “We’ve come a really long way as a team. I have an amazing staff at every location. Without them, each of our businesses would just be a place to work. With them, it is so much more than that. It’s a living, breathing thing we all love and want to see grow ... It’s our family.” 

Trotter is also an accomplished musician

By tkdcoach
You missed a chance to mention Trotter's very notable discography in passing, seems relevant to me, even if only as a tangent. See: http://www.discogs.com/artist/1062869-Tyler-Trotter