Once you get north of the Beltway, headed up to Spring, The Woodlands, or Conroe, it gets a little tougher to be a craft beer fan.
Sure, there's Cottonwood and Petrol Station outside the Loop—but those are so close to Loop 610 as to be inside the Loop itself. There's a really good craft beer selection at the Spring Market H-E-B on FM 2920, and a handful of restaurants in The Woodlands pride themselves on offering local craft selections: Fielding's Wood Grill, for instance, and GenuWine (though it's technically a wine bar) both carry hard-to-find microbrews like Cycler's out of Montgomery. And of course, there's Southern Star Brewing in Conroe, but the brewery only gives tours on Saturday afternoons.
Until recently, there wasn't a dedicated craft beer bar anywhere in this neck of the woods. Nor was there even a place to get your growlers filled. Enter Hop Scholar Ale House, only a few weeks old yet already drawing fans to its well-equipped space on Rayford Rd., just east of I-45 North. Anyone who's had a pint or two at the bustling bar may be surprised to learn that not only did gregarious owner Todd Hayden have no service industry experience prior to opening Hop Scholar, he's in possession of some very specific experience of another kind entirely.
Dr. Todd Hayden, DVM was, in fact, a veterinarian. A kitty vet, to be exact, who put himself through vet school on the GI Bill after serving in the United States Marine Corps. Hayden has always been a craft beer fan, though, and knew that he'd open a bar of his own one day—something to serve his local community, where it was difficult for craft connoisseurs like himself to track down a pint of Stone Supremely Self Righteous or get a growler fill of Lone Pint Yellow Rose.
A few years ago, Hayden began outlining his business plan. He found the ideal location in a brand-new strip center, rented it, and got to work. Hayden, his father, and a few friends built out Hop Scholar from scratch in an otherwise empty space, installing two walk-ins with 24 draft lines, a long L-shaped bar, a cooler stocked with bombers, cans, and bottles, and plenty of picnic tables to seat the crowds that will surely seek the bar out as word spreads of its selection and prices: nothing on the menu the day I visited was over $8, and most pints were in the $5 to $6 range.
In that cooler sat a hefty amount of Bud Light, and I couldn't help but ask Hayden if he'd sold any. "I've only sold one," he said with a vague smile. "It was to a Budweiser rep." The sales rep, Hayden continued, sat at the bar slowly shaking his head and tutting, "Craft beer is just a trend..." Hop Scholar's paucity of adjunct lager sales would seem to suggest otherwise, and Hayden is counting on craft beer being far more than a fad, as he's already envisioning a future expansion for his young bar.
"I'm planning on putting in 10 more draft lines," Hayden said, as he showed off the kegs still waiting to be tapped in one of his walk-ins: some Six Point out of New York, some Deschutes from Oregon. He's holding on to bottles too, like a stash of Samael's Ale from Avery that will be far better aged a few years than fresh.
Other future plans could potentially include a kitchen. For now, however, there is a simple assortment of basic bar snacks—chips, nuts, candy bars—behind the bar, and Hayden encourages patrons to bring their own food in from restaurants in the strip center itself (Fish Place next door is said to have good Cajun food, while Double Dave's pizza is just across the parking lot). It makes for an inviting, appealing, neighborly vibe—something Hayden encourages with his mere presence, a welcoming and friendly spirit who'll chat about beer all day long. Or cats, his other love.
A patron at the bar last week had recently adopted one of a litter of kittens abandoned at Petrol Station. Though all of the kittens had originally been named Pliny by Petrol Station owner Ben Fullelove, the adopter told us his son had renamed the kitten Hoppy—equally appropriate. "Bring the cat in this weekend," said Hayden, who—it turns out—is still a practicing vet with clinic privileges. "I'll fix it for you."