A group of friends, strangers and acquaintances gather around the bar. After work, in lieu of work. They talk about their families, their jobs, their struggles and their small victories.
Mostly, discussion centers on the beer, or the wine. The music, if any plays, is light, barely audible. There’s no TV. No distractions.
What they drink is up to them. No judgment. It’s just important they talk about it.
Defining or labeling Barrel Chest in Roanoke, Virginia, is akin to choosing between an IPA and a stout, an ESB or a Gose. Too many variables. It all depends on the day, on your mood. It takes a minute to decide.
Craft breweries and growler stations have become ubiquitous — in Virginia, North Carolina and throughout the U.S. — but what’s generally absent among them is the chance to sample a variety of beer and wine from disparate producers, beyond the limits of a tiny, plastic cup.
Barrel Chest offers customers the opportunity to linger, to taste and to talk.
The shop is in a nondescript strip mall, a mattress store and a quick-care seemingly pushing the beer and wine store to the far end of the parking lot.
In the eyes of the state ABC, Barrel Chest is a fast-food restaurant, which means it must serve at least $2,000-worth of meals — main and side dishes — each month, says owner Martin Keck, who easily satisfies the quirky rule.
Beer, wine, mead and cider, are stacked neat and high on dozens of shelves, forming a pleasant labyrinth to the tasting bar, where visitors can choose among four-, eight- and 16-ounce pours.
“We get a lot of people walk in the door wide-eyed, looking at all the shelves, taken aback,” Keck says.
Typically, the tap menu, which changes often, holds some 20 choices each of beer and wine.
“I just wanted to create a place that I would want to go,” Keck says. “People are here to try the beer, to talk about the beer. People will sit in here and play cards and have actual conversations. They don’t have to yell at each other to be heard.”
On this day, selections include an Amazon-inspired ale brewed with Brazilian amburana wood, Stillwater O Trabalho; a Troegs Nugget Nectar IPA, which tastes of pine and mango; and a spicy and fruity 2013 Torii Mor Pinot Noir.
“We have a spreadsheet — it’s kind of nerdy — just to keep styles balanced. When we started out we were trying to do a lot of esoteric stuff, which is great, but now we try to balance it out, keeping so many hoppy kegs in stock, so many stouts in stock, and so on. But mostly we just pour what we like.”
Barrel Chest holds special events, too, such as a “Summer White Wine Flight Weekend” starting Friday, April 22, and a Belgian Witbier Showdown, held earlier in April.
The small pours give people the chance to try multiple offerings without drinking too much.
“I can come in and try four or five different beers, and I don’t have to go: ‘How am I getting home?’” says customer Tristain Wingfield, who sorts packages for a big delivery company.
“I’ve created a comfortable space for people to expand their horizons, with no judgment,” Keck says. “All of our staff here know their stuff, but they don’t talk down to anybody; they try to be as helpful as they can.”
Barrel Chest’s business model hasn’t gone unnoticed. A large chain grocery store, which sits kitty-corner to the strip mall, has opened a similar tasting bar.
So be it, Keck says.
“It’s not hurting us any.”
A Barrel Chest brewery, it seems, is the next logical step. It’s coming, Keck says, hopefully by year’s end.
“It’s quite the process … but’s all in the works. Fingers crossed.”
Read more from John Trump at halfwaysouth.com