King of Beers
There’s always something fun on tap in Devin Hicks’ homegrown hangout.
Transforming an aging mom-and-pop grocery into one of Arlington’s most popular watering holes requires a fair amount of retail and restaurant experience, right? Not if you’re Devin Hicks. A self-described “military brat” who graduated from high school in Seoul, South Korea, Hicks earned an anthropology degree from the University of Florida and worked as a stockbroker before moving to Arlington in 2007 to help his parents with the little store they had bought two years previously. Today, Hicks is manager and owner of Westover Beer Garden & Haus, the market-turned-beer-mecca on North Washington Boulevard with a bohemian feel and an astounding 1,000 types brewof brews on its shelves.
The store’s evolution hasn’t been without growing pains. After adding the beer garden to its patio in 2009, the business faced noise complaints from the neighbors and zoning problems with the County Board. This precipitated a lengthy fight, which culminated in board approval for live outdoor music after the market added a restaurant and new bathrooms.
Still, the permitting process left Hicks feeling “beaten and battered” and badly in need of a cold one.
I met him at the bagging end of a cash register. He grabbed a beer and we chatted in the garden on a crisp April night.
What is the history of this place?
The store has probably been here since the late ’40s. My parents bought it in 2005 and I came aboard in March 2007 to help them. I don’t think they knew what they had gotten themselves into. With the Safeways and the Giants, you don’t see mom-and-pop grocery stores very often anymore. There’s a reason.
How many beers were on the shelves when you got here?
Oh, God. There was nothing. Maybe 50.
What sparked the idea for the beer garden?
I’ve always been a great fan of beer. When I got here I noticed that beer culture was happening. You already had the mainstay breweries like Brooklyn and Dogfish Head, and people were curious.
So was this a case of “if you build it, they will come”?
We opened the beer garden in late summer 2009, but they say the beer garden was really born during Snowmageddon in 2010. This place was packed. Patrons helped shovel us out and all the fire pits were going. People were relaxing with their neighbors. We had the strongest beers on tap—brews like Dogfish Head Olde School—because no one had to work the next day…or for several days. It was like another world. It was a blast.
So the beer garden is a year-round operation?
Yeah. We have like six fire pits that we use throughout the winter. I split all the wood. And what’s really cool is the outdoor lights are solar powered.
Is the beer garden modeled after other places you’ve been?
My dad’s sister lives in St. Paul [in Minnesota] and they have White Bear Lake, a community kind of like this with a small little downtown. During one visit, they had outdoor music and everyone was happy. It was a beautiful summer day and there wasn’t a good beer selection, but that didn’t really matter. It made me think that I could really help out this neighborhood, kind of revitalize it. Also, I’m coming from Florida where every place has an outdoor patio and most of the year you can sit outside.
Has the attitude changed around here?
I think people realize they don’t have to worry about being in a pretentious atmosphere. That’s the main compliment we get. It’s friendly and open to all walks of life.
How do you find bands?
In the beginning, I would spark up a conversation with people buying a beer and they would say they had a band. There are so many local musicians. Malarky. The Walkaways. The Front Porch Rockers—great, great classic rock. Our chef, Jay, has been in a band [Jumpin’ Jupiter] since the ’80s. We have live music nights the first Friday and second Saturday of every month. Breweries come out and offer beer tastings. We call it a Tap Takeover.
What’s on tap in terms of future business plans?
We hope to add an on-site brewery.
Where would that go?
It’ll be a pretty big portion of the grocery area. We’ll take out aisles four and five and cut back on some of the products we carry, such as canned goods, cereal and coffee. I see [the store] evolving into something else. That’s the direction it’s meant to go. A lot of people home-brew around here and the idea is that they can come here and have an outlet for home brewing.
Do you have a name in mind?
Sehkraft Brewing. It means “vision” in German.
Your kitchen sometimes offers a taste of the exotic to pair with great beers.
That’s the butcher shop. They always have a wild burger on the menu, so they’ve done yak, kangaroo, elk, bison, you name it. We buy from a lot of local and regional farms.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever served?
I think they did rattlesnake one time.
How was that?
I didn’t try it. Supposedly it was really good, though.
A challenge: If you get only one beer, what do you order?
Depends on the day. That’s the fun of it. We have 10 taps inside, six taps outside. We never keep the same thing for very long. Of course, there are some favorites that show up more frequently. We’re always going to have hoppy beer. But it’s always nice to see people excited about drinking a good beer as opposed to not such a great beer. We only get a certain number of beers in each week, so why not have it be something that’s local, handcrafted and meant to make you happy?
What do you have in your fridge right now?
Southern Tier 2XIPA from New York.
If I were to talk to you in five or 10 years, what do you hope would be different about this place besides the on-site brewery?
Rooftop patio area. Solar panels. I’m not saying it will happen anytime soon, but it’s in the pipeline.
Can I ask how old you are now?
Right. No, really. How old are you?
We’ll leave it at that.
What’s the best night of the year to be here?
Bell’s Hopslam night. That is our favorite night each spring.
It’s a double IPA, 10 percent [alcohol] but they brew it with Michigan honey, so it kind of conceals the bitterness and makes it more drinkable. But it still has enough hop power to appease every craft drinker. The buzz is fantastic. It comes out once a year. That’s what makes it special.
And it’s hard to get?
Very hard to get.
And the amount you get is based on how much Bell’s you sell?
Exactly. And more people are selling Bell’s, so it’s never enough.
How fast did you guys go through it this year?
An hour and 30 minutes. Something like that. And it was on a weeknight.
What’s the most common question you get here?
Where’s the bathroom?
Mike Gruss is a writer in Northern Virginia and a former features columnist for The Virginian-Pilot newspaper. He has tried more than 50 beers but less than 1,000.