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Hops, Hops, Hops

January, 2002

By Bobby Bush

The Hops Restaurant*Bar*Brewery chain is the nation’s biggest brewer in terms of brewing facilities. A subsidiary of Avado Brands (NASDAQ: AVDO), the Georgia-headquartered conglomerate also owns 110 Don Pablo’s Mexican Kitchens and 14 Canyon Cafe Southwestern restaurants. They previously had significant ownership in Applebees and McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurants.

Named one of 1997 “Hot Concepts” by Nation’s Restaurant News, according to the Avado website (www.avado.com) Hops Restaurant*Bar*Brewery “offers a unique and customer-compelling combination: made-from-scratch, favorite American foods and an on-site microbrewery.” Based in Florida, Hops was founded in 1989 and currently operates 74 brewpubs in 16 states: Florida (32), Georgia (5), Kentucky (1), Tennessee (3), North Carolina (4), South Carolina (4), Rhode Island (2), Virginia (3), Colorado (7), Connecticut (3), Minnesota (2), Maryland (1), Ohio (4), Mississippi (1), Missouri (1) and Louisiana (1).

In my brewpub travels, I’ve probably visited 20 or more Hops. And they’re all practically identical to my most recent Hops visitation in Spartanburg, South Carolina, which opened in 1998. From the front door, with faux carved wood framing glass, to the beer ingredients imbedded in epoxy bar-tops, there’s no denying that this is a carbon copy chain brewpub. The glassed-in brewhouse centers the restaurant, splitting bar/smoking area from the non-smoking dining room. A bulky island bar is staffed by young but exuberant people, obviously well trained and anxious to serve. Chris was his name this time.

Hops is a family restaurant with reasonably priced, appetizing food running from sandwiches to pizza to sirloin. And Hops beers? Well, they’re not my favorite. In fact, they often aren’t very good. Mediocre is the best description, though occasionally I’m surprised by an astonishingly good Hops beer, that occurrence is rare, far below average for brewpubs in general.

Hops has reduced brewing to cookbook status. Jonathan Scruggs, former bartender at the Spartanburg Hops, had just taken over as brewer. His inexperience showed in the four beers on tap, all corporate recipes including the seasonal Hoptoberfest. Clearwater Light was thin, pale and light in the flavor department. Lightning Bold Gold, a “classic American Lager,” was also lacking in flavor, while Hammerhead Red (called Thoroughbred Red in some states) was a medium bodied amber ale of little distinction. Usually the “Brewmaster Special” selection, a.k.a. a seasonal beer, is Alligator Ale, a pale ale with some hint of roasted malt in the flavor profile. However on this visit, ale-like Hoptoberfest offered thin mouthfeel, tingling sour finish chased by only slight maltiness. All in all, not a very good beer and certainly not up to traditional Oktoberfest stature. None of these beers were nasty. A;; were drinkable, though bland, missing any notion of creativity or craftsmanship.

When geography permits, Hops brewers usually pull double shifts, brewing at two or more Hops locations. They have no dark beer (i.e. porter or stout) in the line-up. Several Hops have added a fifth tap featuring Guinness Stout to compensate for the omission. Also I’ve noticed lately, or maybe it was just the locale, that Hops no longer pours beer into heavy mugs covered with a quarter-inch of ice. While still chilled, the icebergs have thankfully disappeared.

So, why does Hops brew? Why not just offer a nice selection of micro and imports in bottles and save the capital investment required for the fancy brewhouse? These and other related questions were posed to one of Hops corporate brewers a couple of years ago. Hops’ approach to beer, I learned, is mostly economics. Realizing that Hops is not, and never will be, a beer destination, they brew for profits. Utilizing their combined purchasing power, centralized buying insures low prices on everything from hops to brew kettle. Beer offerings are limited to keep ingredient s.k.u.s to a minimum. Concentrating on food and service, Hops is a restaurant that happens to make beer. The overall effect is an enjoyable meal.

For more info on Hops, see www.hopsonline.com.

This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.

© Bobby Bush

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