Before he even turned 21, Alex Negranza was behind the bar. At 18, he moved to Seattle and immersed himself in the city’s coffee scene, starting out as a barista before eventually becoming a fixture at national coffee competitions and working at such esteemed coffeehouses as Milstead and Co. in Seattle. Then, opportunity brought him to Houston.
Or, more accurately, to Anvil Bar and Refuge. In the popular Montrose watering hole, Negranza found both a home and a place to grow. On the heels of his 2016 Eater Young Guns nomination, we spoke with Negranza about the big move to H-Town, what it’s like to complete Anvil’s ridiculously grueling training program, and what he’s learned about Houston drinkers.
Eater Houston: You're relatively new to Houston – what made you decide to leave Seattle and head south?
Alex Negranza: Opportunity. There are two people I would move across the country for and [Anvil owner] Bobby Heugel is one of them. I've known Bobby for a few years through the community, and have been following Anvil's growth since just after they opened. I've always enjoyed the concept of the 100 List and always thought the training program that accompanied it would be just as amazing.
After being a bar manager, beverage director and events producer in Seattle, it became hard to find a venue where I could study under someone again. Challenging my limits is very important to me. Being able to push the boundaries of what I'm capable of is a way to learn more about who I am.
When it sounded like it would be a good fit for Bobby, Anvil and me, the choice was a no brainer. I bought my one-way ticket to Houston six days after I decided I would move. I landed in Houston, went straight to Anvil for a cocktail and went home to sleep. I would start the next day at 11 a.m.
EHOU: Anvil has a notoriously brutal training process. What was it like?
AN: It's the hardest thing I've done. It's also the most amazing thing I've ever done. I came to the training program from a unique position, as someone who had already been working in high-end craft cocktail bars for a number of years. The most exciting part was being able to be a student, to study a broad spectrum of spirits and their histories.
Every stage of the program has its own focus, with every week having its own written tests, assigned reading, blind taste tests, speed tests, cocktail presentations and menu development. You take written tests on every cocktail, every spirit’s history and background, distillation history and broad knowledge. The grand finale is a Blind 50 spirits test, where you must correctly identify 47 out of 50 spirits based on various sensory skills that you've spent learning during your entire training.
After that, it's graduation. You make every cocktail on the 100 List one time for $1. We call it, your "100 Day." The community, your regulars, your friends, fellow bartenders, and people you've never met come out to the bar to celebrate your graduation, and it all ends with a toast with the entire bar after you finish your last cocktail. We like to think that it should take 12 weeks to finish our 12 stage training program, but in all honesty it should take around 12 to 16 months. I completed mine in just over 8 months, the shortest completion time our current iteration of our training manual has seen.
The hardest part of training has to be the hours and volume we do at Anvil. Every bar has those select employees that can/will come in on their off days, they volunteer for projects and find ways to push the bar further. We all put in far more hours than are required of us and we always accept whatever challenges Bobby or our management team presents us with.
When you're not used to working those hours on top of making well over 1000 cocktails a week, it can be a bit overwhelming. But at the end of the day, you remember the whole bar staff loves this place as much as you do, and everyone supports each other. It's hard to find where you fit in a bar, but when you do and you cozy up to it, it's a pretty awesome feeling.
EHOU: How do you think your cocktail philosophy or aesthetic has evolved since coming to Houston?
AN: About a year ago, a gentleman came into the bar and sat in front of me. I greeted him as normal with "Welcome! How's your night going?" He responded "double rye on the rocks." This is a normal interaction in a bar. A guest is greeted, they ignore you and whatever information or welcoming you've given them, and then ask for the very menus you just tried offering them or ignore you altogether.
I said "Uh. Absolutely. Do you have a rye preference?" and he would always respond "Double Rye. On the rocks."
The man is sitting directly in front of me. The bar is 6-deep and he's a bit out of place. I serve him, let him be and after about 30 minutes of him staring at his glass, I ask him how his night's been.
"Horrible. I just got a phone call that my closest cousin was killed by a drunk driver in New Orleans. I pulled over to stop and calm my nerves to stop myself from driving to New Orleans to find the son of a bitch that did it."
Nothing can prepare you for this. "My condolences to you from all of us here for your loss," I said. I let him remember his cousin for the rest of his night. Listened for the brief moments he shared with me once. When he asked for the check, I quietly comp'd his tab, and poured a small shot of whiskey for each of us and then presented the check. "What was your cousin's name," I asked. "Randall. But he went by Randy." So we took the shot and I said "Cheers to Randy, my friend."
I focus on remembering the "refuge" in Anvil Bar & Refuge. Whether it be the sometimes neurotic Texas weather or the ups and downs of life, people use bars and bartenders as a refuge. We've had one patron stuck in the bar with no one else there during historic flooding of Houston a while back. We made chili and the whole staff sat down at the bar and watched the city flood with this person until we could make sure they got home safe.It's just drinks, but sometimes those drinks paired with the right bartender can really impact someone's life. I think that it's really easy to forget that as a bartender caught up in craft cocktails or the resurgence of classics. You don't need a bowtie or vest, or even the most profound understanding of spirits- you just have to be a good bartender.
EHOU: How would you characterize the Houston drinker?
AN: Thirsty. We have a pretty diverse group of consumers of every size, shape, and color. At any time, any day of the week you can look around and find a rainbow of guests. I remember when I first moved to Houston and we started working on our Autumn menu.
I talked a bit about seasonality; spices in the Fall, bitter and smoky in the Winter, fresh and crisp in the Spring, and light and bright in the Summer.... and then I realized that the Winter holidays would be full of me wearing shorts and t-shirts, and that it's always daiquiri and margarita weather.
The Texas heat and humidity naturally drives people to want crisp, thirst quenching cocktails. We love sharing the culture of mezcal, romanticize about island hopping for our rums, and relax poolside with our gin and tonics. At night you can find us sipping bourbon, and smoking some cigars with our scotch before calling it a night. All in all, the rumors are true – everything is bigger in Texas, including our thirst.