First Draft with Hop City's Kraig Torres
Talking shop with the owner of Hop City Craft Beer & Wine
As Kraig Torres gets ready to open his third Hop City Craft Beer & Wine location at Krog Street Market later this year, the success feels bittersweet. "I am a bit of a control freak, so I want to make sure I am not stretching myself too thin," he tells Creative Loafing. "I really enjoy the customer interaction. I love to help customers discover their beer palates. On one hand, more Hop Citys means more chances to help folks find their new favorite beer. On the other, it means more distance between my daily activity and what I really want to be doing on an hour-by-hour basis."
Torres opened the original Hop City on Atlanta's Westside in 2009, a second in Birmingham in late 2012, and hopes the Krog Street location will debut in 2014's third quarter. His plan is to continue growing at a rate of one store every year or two, with his eyes on a second Alabama location as well as stores in Tennessee, Florida, and North Carolina. CL managed to get the restless entrepreneur — he owned an auto body shop, worked for Safeco Insurance, and as a financial advisor — to sit still long enough to pick his brain about his first beer, how he stays competitive, and why Georgia breweries should be able to sell their beer directly to customers.
Describe your first beer.
I was the kid in high school that had to have Moosehead instead of Genny Cream. I grew up in New Jersey and there was this beer and soda store that only sold cases — and carded no one. I actually got pinched at the local mall with five cases of Moosehead in my trunk senior year of high school. Thankfully, that arrest has long been expunged. I joined the U.S. Coast Guard right out of high school and was stationed in New England. There, I discovered Pete's Wicked Ale, Sam Smith, and Newcastle. I quickly realized that there was an entire universe of beer out there. Soon, I started journaling my beers, and my obsession was born.
How'd you end up running beer stores?
After selling Collision Works Auto Body Experts, which he founded in 2003, I developed the business plan for Hop City, but was not sure I was ready to go down the entrepreneurial path again. As a beer fanatic, I was frustrated shopping at the liquor stores around town with good selections but no organization or service. It was clear that beer was not important to them — just something to stuff into a customer's bag. I found myself on the wrong end of a layoff, so I dusted off the business plan and made it a reality.
What's it been like watching the craft beer scene bloom?
I moved to Georgia in 1994 and, frankly, the beer scene was a little disappointing. We had a 6 percent ABV max back then, and Dogwood was about the best beer I could get my hands on. When I opened Hop City in 2009, we had roughly 1,100 beers on our shelves. Today, we have over 1,900 choices year round. We are particularly excited about some of our local arrivals. Orpheus, Three Taverns, Omaha, and BlueTarp are all former homebrewing customers. They're like my kids, growing up and making good for themselves!
With so many growler shops opening all over Georgia, how do you stay competitive?
Just because you have a couple thousand dollars does not mean you should open a mediocre growler store in a strip mall. Think, people! Hop City is a beer destination with 20 team members dedicated to the arts of beer, wine, and homebrewing. As the first store in the ATL to sell growlers, we are thinking ahead to what beer drinkers in 2015 and 2016 really want. I'll be at the Craft Beer Conference this year, as always, recruiting brands for Georgia and finding new ways to deliver the best beer to my customers at the best prices around.
What do you hope for the future of Georgia beer?
The ability to pour pints at my bar to go along with my 60 taps for growlers. If Alabama allows it, shouldn't Georgia? Better choices at Atlanta's ridiculous lineup of festivals and music events. Sure, SweetWater is a favorite, and some of the best folks in the biz, but what about out-of-state craft beers? We should be able to do better.
Let Georgia brewers sell their own beer! I know our distribution network thinks I shouldn't want this, but look at North Carolina. Brewers can sell beer at the brewery and retailers still do very well!