Tap and Handle
“If you build it, they will come,” Jeff Willis told me after I asked him what the goad was for Fort Collins’ newest craft beer house, Tap and Handle. We sat across from one another on one of his handmade picnic tables in the back beer garden that opened just a few days before. Willis is quiet at first, more modest than anything, but once he begins to open up about his bar and the complexity of the beers that fill it, he becomes excitedly confident – almost giddy. The surrounding aroma of hops and piney earth is as intoxicating as any one of the seventy-four beers Willis has on tap behind the finished wooden bar, a bar that was a 150 year-old Colorado barn before it became the sturdy top for some of the best beers in the world to condescend.
Willis is no stranger to the restaurant and bar industry; he’s been entrenched in it for the past twenty-two years, and not just in Colorado either – although he was born here. He spent much of his younger life in Texas, starting out in pizza. At eighteen Willis began traveling around the US in either a capacity of starting up or managing various franchises like Outback Steakhouse and Carrabba’s in places like Sugarland, Texas and Skokie, Illinois. But it was a seven year stint at The Ginger Man in Austin, under the tutelage of a guy named “Steve”, surrounded by seventy-five tap beers, where Willis was schooled on small and craft beer, the ins-and-outs of craft brewing and pairing, and what Willis refers to as the vital necessity of community. It was his particular experience in this meta-paradigmatic foray within true beer culture that culminated in the inception of Willis’s own beer Valhalla.
Willis has been working on getting the Tap and Handle up and running since 2003. When I asked him why so long he responded immediately and with candor; first and foremost, he had to learn everything he could about small craft beers, breweries, and the distribution – and then, of course, there was that small task of getting the money together.
Willis told me that there are bars and there are beer bars. Tap and Handle is most definitely the latter. Having just recently moved to Fort Collins myself, I had heard the term “craft house beer” and in an attempt to fit in with this envy-inducing culture I asked Jeff if that’s what Tap and Handle was. He did not say it was or wasn’t but he sat for a second before nodding yes and saying, “I would call this a neighborhood American beer bar.” Jeff gets his beer through both various distributors (somewhere between ten and fifteen) as well as from the numerous local breweries themselves. The seventy-four beers on tap come from an array of locations, some traveling from just around the corner like Equinox Brewery’s Total Eclipse and as far as Belgium’s Delirium Tremens. The taps are rotating for the most part; some stay on longer, but others are virally showcased, staying on no longer than five months. But the verdict of selection ultimately comes down to the jury of patrons. If a drinker (or drinkers) feels strongly about a particular brew, Jeff has no issue with keeping it on, or bringing it back.
Once we got past the nuts and bolts of the start up, Jeff opened up about his philosophy; both of beer and business. I was a little dazed by his seemingly complete disinterest in sales or overall profit; he never once talked about making money. One has to assume that making money is relatively important – without it Willis could not keep his beer baby going – but he genuinely seemed to mean it. Willis spoke more of comradery and the importance of the Fort Collins beer community than anything else. “I don’t want this place to be the only place people want to drink,” he told me in the garden during an unseasonably warm first week of March. “You don’t?” I asked. He took no time to reiterate. “These craft beer houses are like museums.” He went on, “These local breweries are like museums, and this beer is artwork that the brewers have painted or sculpted. I think comparing Avery’s Mephistopheles to New Belgium’s Lips of Faith is like comparing Rembrandt’s Nightwatch with Monet’s Haystacks: you can prefer one over the other, but you cannot fairly compare them.”
I’ve interviewed enough artists and writers to pick up on arrogance veiled in confidence and blatant false modesty of which I detected none; again, he genuinely seems to mean it. Tap and Handle has not even been open two months, and Willis gets visibly delighted when he says he can’t wait to see what beers the neighborhood collectively likes the most. “It’s about the neighborhood; it’s about the people who live around here,” Willis pauses and looks around the back of the building, “I built it for them.”
Tap and Handle calls the old Fort Collins bus depot of the 1950’s its home. When you walk in take notice of the old hat hanging on the wall, a hat that belonged to one of the original bus drivers of the depot. The beer bar appears much smaller than it is when you walk through the door, but if you explore just a bit you will find a huge bay window towards the end of the bar with a large table; downstairs there is a pinball stand with bistro tables and foosball; upstairs, a lounge with ironically silly lamps, a space that reminded me of the backroom at my grandfather’s old VFW in Winfield, Illinois. And there is something else that fills the space: the staff. Willis is usually working behind the bar (or walking around it) with one or two other bartenders – often including his lovely fiancé, Shara, and the most excellent Chris – and there are always one or two servers working the tables. I asked him how important it was for the staff to know as much about the beer as he did. The answer is very.
Willis says he hires based on personality. He wants the environment to be friendly and welcoming – which it is. Most of the folks he hires know virtually nothing about the ranges of beer when they start, although that does not remain the case for long. The bartenders participate in classes and seminars, and each one of them has toured and tasted every local brewery: the aforementioned Equinox, the New Belgium brewery of Fat Tire success, Odell’s, Funkwerks, and Fort Collins Brewery; an extensive crash course in beer that culminates in brew quizzes and blind tastings. Willis calls it a staff to customer base and encourages the learn-as-you-go mentality; he and the rest of the staff will instruct you which direction to go depending on your tastes, encouraging patrons to try something new each time, discouraging the same order back to back. They have yet to steer me wrong.
Although not broadcasted as much as the beer, Tap and Handle does serve food. Willis describes the menu as evolving. What started out as just fries and a couple other fried items has already grown up. They serve items like thin and crispy pork wontons, sweet potato fries, lager infused queso, daily soups, and ale glazed kabobs. The majority of the food is cooked with the beer they serve (a few days before I sampled a perfectly cooked bratwurst cooked in stout with a biting mustard lager aioli), and Jeff promises we will see even more innovative beer inspired sustenance.
Before we wrapped up I asked Jeff out of all the beers on tap, what was his favorite. He told me that he didn’t have one, “If I had a favorite beer I wouldn’t have opened this place.” I think the beer community of Fort Collins will be glad he built it.
Tap and Handle
307 S. College Avenue
Community Live Music Tuesday Nights @ 7
Happiness grows like weeds on the side of the road in this place.