With the successful opening up of their superhero/geek culture themed bar this winter, we caught up with Kate Hoke from Heroic Aleworks, to see how it went and what are their plans for future craft beer releases, more comics and how they intend to get stuck into the local comic book scene.
Olly MacNamee: Last time we caught up, Kate, you were just about to open up. How did that go?
Kate Hoke: Opening weekend was successful beyond our expectations! We had a bit of scare when we woke up that Saturday morning to find that an inch of snow had fallen, and the weather didn’t look to improve any time soon. There hadn’t even been snow in the forecast!! And the thing to understand is that people in this region start freaking out about driving as soon as there’s as much as a snow flurry in the air. Our phones were exploding with messages from friends letting us know they might not be able to make it out. So we were nervous. Extremely nervous and wondering what gods we’d offended to have this kind of luck after working so hard to get everything just perfect for opening day. Nevertheless, we had about 15 people queued up even before the taps started flowing at noon, and the place was packed until we shut down at midnight. Friends of ours were podcasting live from the event and local media was on hand doing interviews. Groups of people were pulling tables together and playing board games and the free classic video games were in constant use. Not a thing went wrong all day. Best of all, everyone loved the beer and couldn’t say enough about the comic book concept and decor. People actually got what we’re doing and loved it!
OM: As a themed bar, which are you attracting? Are you attracting comic book guys and gals, or a more diverse crowd?
KH: We get a diverse crowd, but I feel that the theme has helped us to target our marketing efforts and has generated a lot of buzz. One of the most successful initiatives has been our beer trading cards. When we serve flights of beer, instead of just numbering the tasters or referring guests to menu descriptions, we include cards for each beer that have the character, name, and style on the front and the back includes a description of the beer along with the vital stats such as ABV and IBUs and also lists the character’s super powers. Just in the six weeks we’ve been open, we have first time guests constantly who bring a card and tell us, “My friend gave me this card and said I HAVE to try this beer!”
The comic book theme also makes us a natural fit to partner with local comic book conventions and collaborate with local comic book artists to cross promote. We’ll have a booth at each of our local cons this summer where we’ll be selling our merchandise and comic books. We’ll also be brewing exclusive beer for NOVACON, a brand new three-day event in Northern Virginia, happening July 27-29 this summer.
So I’d say we have a dedicated group of fans specifically because of the theme, and we offer a lot to engage that subset of our guests. But even the folks who aren’t necessarily into the nerd/pop culture vibe appreciate the bright, welcoming environment. And, frankly, the beer stands on its own, even without the extra bells and whistles.
OM: What comments have you got on your range of ales?
KH: The beer is the foundation of this business so we’ve been thrilled at the positive reviews we’ve received thus far. One of the questions we get frequently is, “which one do people like best?” But what makes that question hard to answer, and also speaks to the quality of our flagship lineup, is that each beer has its own devotees. The Mind Trappe Belgian Dubbel and Max Nix English Porter may enjoy a slight edge over the others, particularly among other brewers, but all have been popular. The Solasta Kolsch stands out as the beer that surprises people who don’t think they like craft beer. And more than a few people have remarked that they love the Doctor Enigma IPA even though they don’t normally like IPA’s. The key is the balance that goes into crafting all of our recipes, so you can taste the whole beer instead of getting punched in the face with the hops in the IPA, for example.
One of the most meaningful compliments that we consistently receive on the beers is how mature and complex they are, given that we’re a new brewery. People have noted that, in their experience, it can sometimes take a while for a new brewery to get things dialed in, but our beers are on par with an established outfit. That’s part of what took us a little longer than we would have liked to open – making sure we got the beer right – and that approach seems to be paying off.
For our first six weeks we offered only our five flagship beers. Our first special release, the Mistress of War Double IPA, was on February 17 and she was a huge hit. Now we’re off to the races with a new release almost every week through May. Of note, the upcoming lineup includes a killer Russian Imperial Stout, a Scottish Wee Heavy, a Pear Saison, and a Maibock that is one of the personal favorite recipes of our head brewer, Leon Harris. And each and every one of those beers will have its own unique character and art design.
OM: And what about comments on the decor of your bar?
KH: Our bathroom doors (the Doors of Durin from Lord of the Rings and the TARDIS) have been photographed and posted on social media an almost uncomfortable number of times! We’ve even had requests from men to go into the women’s room – when it’s unoccupied of course – simply because they need to enter the Mines of Moria. The comic book collage bar has also been a big favorite. Our guests comment consistently that they love the originality of it all and appreciate how authentically it reflects who we are. We love hearing that because our goal has always been not just to do something different, but to bring our personality into how we do it. And not only is it a reflection of us, but people feel at home because our taproom reflects something about them, whether it’s a sense of nostalgia for the comics, TV shows, or movies they grew up with or an excitement about sharing the latest nerd culture rumors. We have heated debates at the bar about whether James T. Kirk or Jean-Luc Picard is the best-ever captain of the Enterprise. Consensus has it that Jason Mamoa will kill it as Aquaman. What will happen next season on Game of Thrones, and will George R.R. Martin ever finish the books? Just like at a comic book convention, there’s a baseline understanding that if you’re hanging out at Heroic, you likely have a strong opinion on those, or similar, subjects!
In addition, it’s been especially fulfilling to engage with local artists who are excited about our concept and want to help us fill the taproom with original art. We’ve already received so many art donations from our friends and customers and have plans to start allocating exhibit and consignment space. The goal is to become a vital part of our creative community. The comic theme isn’t just a branding strategy; it’s an essential part of our company’s ethic.
Finally, we’re pleased to report that, thus far, everyone is respecting the “Do Not Touch” signs, and there have been no statue or action figure casualties yet.
OM: And what next for Heroic Aleworks? What of the characters you all created in conjunction with Halo and 2000AD artist, Ian Richardson? How will their stories play out?
KH: Well I’ve already hinted at a lot of what’s coming – lots of new beers, appearances at cons, more partnerships, etc. What we’ve done so far with the Heroic brand is the tip of the iceberg. We promoted the fact that we’re in the process of creating our own original comic book universe and that’s precisely where we’re headed. The characters created with Ian form the core of our universe; our “Avengers” or “Justice League” by analogy. So far, we’ve web published the first issue of our comic, which tells the backstory of Solasta, the character for our Kolsch. The next several issues will include back stories, but will also advance an overall story arc, which we have planned out for the next 12-18 months. The special release beers we have planned will figure in those stories in varying degrees, but the focus will always be on our flagship five. We’ve deliberately left our team of heroes without a name and plan to run a naming contest for our fans in conjunction with our V.I.P. Club roll out. The basic idea is that people will submit suggestions for the team name, and the winner will receive one year free membership in the club.
Check out more on Heroic Ales on their official website here and see what’s going on. And, if you live in Woodbridge, Virginia, pop on by.
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