Friday, May 8, 2009

Your Neighbor Likes Beer

If you ask Jeff where home is, he’ll probably tell you “Home for me will always be Victoria/Vancouver Island, British Columbia.” He wasn’t born there and doesn’t live there now, but he spent enough formative years there and says the way of life pretty much shaped who he is today. After graduating from University, Jeff was hired into the oil & gas industry and began a career that has resulted in multiple jobs in multiple cities all across North America- from the Arctic Ocean to South Texas and pretty much every possible point in between. However his heart has remained in Victoria- “a city rich in culture, heritage and beauty.” When I think Canada, I think coooold. Being born and raised in the Northeast myself, I was glad to escape the cold. Jeff doesn’t agree with my blanket opinion of our neighbor to the north. In Victoria, he says, the climate is quite mild because the island is surrounded by warmer Pacific currents and geographically it has a “rainshadow effect” due to the nearby mountains. That provides the area with much more sunshine annually than what is typically expected when we think about Canadian/Pacific Northwest winters. Victoria is also a city built around walkable neighborhoods with charming pubs that locals would come by and hang out in.

In 2001 Jeff made his last big move- to Houston from the French Quarter of New Orleans. Generally, the French Quarter probably couldn't be any more opposite from Victoria, but Jeff says they still shared many similar qualities that he appreciated: an abundance of local artisans, musicians, nice eateries, liberal attitudes, plus character and charm “Bourbon St not included.”

When work as a Geophysicist transferred Jeff to Houston, the first aspect of the city he really got a taste of was the traffic. Like many, he decided life would be easier living close to work, which at that time meant Westchase. He bought a home and lived there for several years. During those years, he explored the city when he could and figured out that Houston proper was much better than where he was and decided he needed to be one of those 'Inner Loopers'. He found Westchase “Boring. No culture. No good restaurants. It took me a while, but much of what I enjoyed about Victoria [could actually] be found in certain pockets, primarily inside the Loop.” In 2006 Jeff made the move, buying a home in Woodland Heights. He bought the home “admittedly not knowing much about the neighborhood, but it was in my price range and gave me access to the areas I had at that time learned to enjoy- Midtown, Montrose, Museum Dist, Rice.”

During his time in Westchase, Jeff would honestly say he “hated Houston.” Hated the concrete, the traffic; that he didn’t feel he could bike anywhere, or go walk in a park. He was dismayed by needing a car for every chore. Does he hate Houston now? No. You know why? The Heights. Moving to The Heights changed how he sees the whole city. Although Houston will never be the home Victoria was, the Heights as a neighborhood has given him “so much more” than he imagined. Prior to living here, Jeff had been to the Heights for Lights in the Heights or Berryhill happy hour, and he admits you don’t get the real feel of the community unless you live here.

One of Jeff’s first objectives was to really get to know The Heights. He donned rollerblades and trolled every street from Heights Blvd to I-45, 11th to I-10. He was amazed to see beautiful homes, art galleries, restaurants, fun shops and, importantly, lots of other people on foot or bikes. Eventually he ended the trek at Beer Island, where he skated up to the bar, got a pint and sat on the patio to people watch. He was hooked. The Heights was somewhere he could embrace and even call “home.” As time went on, other area events surfaced: White Linen Night, neighborhood picnics, 4th of July fireworks seen from the bayou, Home Tours, First Saturday. The greenery and trees, community minded people, architecture, patio cafes, art galleries, antique stores, festivals in an actually walkable neighborhood, “in some way all bring a little bit of hometown Victoria back” to him.

With his new found love and appreciation for Houston- at least our little corner of it- Jeff decided he wanted to contribute, offer something to the neighborhood. What better than a beer club?!? He says it started off as a joke, and “still pretty much is a joke.” Basically, Jeff and some friends are participants in the Montrose Beer and Gun Club cookoff at one of my old Montrose haunts, the West Alabama Ice House. After some beers, he would often wonder if the Heights had something similar to offer. Jeff checked to see if existed as a web site and it didn't. (As an aside, Jeff says “I'm Canadian so guns were never a part of my life, and although I find the idea of a fictitious Beer and Gun club hilarious, I thought I'd just go with the solo beer theme.”) He bought the rights to the webpage and sat on it for a bit, not really knowing what he’d do next. Eventually he came up with “some kind of web theme.” Little by little, aspects of the club came together.

Jeff (right) and his partner in crime, Al (center), making the most of Lights In The Heights

The website has taken shape over the past 6 months. Jeff has a Facebook page as a link between the fairly static Club webpage and the need to email members and other fans. The original list started off as a few dozen friends, but there are now over 100 members on Facebook. Their ultimate goal is to have a full page dedicated to beer topics in the Heights, but this is a side project for Jeff and it only goes as fast as he does. The Beer Club has friends that microbrew, (yay LonePint!) who donated 3 mini kegs to the crawfish boil. They’ve got an official band, Super Pancho Combo. Jeff even put together t-shirts. Sounds like a full-fledged organization to me! Jeff and a friend were sitting on a patio laughing about this whole concept of the Heights Beer Club and having an afternoon of those 'wouldn't it be cool if....' moments. This all goes back to that moment with his buddy, Al. The Club continues to have events, most of which involve the immediate circle of friends, but anyone who is on the Facebook page gets invited. Upcoming events include the Art Car Parade, a May Happy Hour, White Linen Night, and they’re discussing the idea of having a disc golf tournament.

The Club's mascot, The Baron, supporting their official band, Super Pancho Combo.

One of Jeff’s university roommates was a fan of frogs and had a stuffed frog they would travel with and photograph in different locations. That was the inspiration for “the Baron”, the club’s mascot. Jeff searched eBay for a stuffed frog and actually found one that looked drunk. He and a friend came up with the name “Baron Augustus de Rothschild the Fourth.” Sounds like royalty, right? Not so fast. The acronym is actually BARF, but “he doesn't like to be called that.” Jeff’s buddy Al, who he’s known almost since moving to the States, wrote up a history of the Baron for the site. Jeff was fortunate to meet President Obama in Hawaii during Christmas last year and, while recording the event on his camera, spontaneously shoved the frog into the video. It’s hilarious and posted on the Club’s website. Since then, the frog has taken on a life of his own and is on a quest to meet as many famous people as possible.

The Baron engaging in his fave pasttime.

The Baron watching President Obama (red cap) play golf.

Since this group came about in part from Jeff’s desire to create something in The Heights, I asked how the neighborhood has supported the endeavor? He said “Well, so far you're the first.” The group is still new and only minimal effort has been made at this point to get the word out. Jeff figures word of mouth will be enough, plus he wears the t-shirt around. I am betting The Heights Life will help, too. Jeff is quick to remind me that started off as a joke, but conceptually he really likes the idea of a local beer club and would love to promote it to a much larger gathering of folks. Only time will tell whether it remains just a local group of friends, or whether it’s embraced on a larger scale by the neighborhood and even local business community. Either way, Jeff thinks it’s definitely a fun way to fill spare time and a good excuse make new friends.

Oh, and lest you think Jeff is all drunk frogs and such, here he is with his lovely wife, Joanna. She is another good thing that happened to him since moving to Houston. When Jeff originally bought in the Heights, Joanna was less than impressed because her experiences of the area were primarily what you could see from I-45. Once she moved here, she really 'got it' and now loves the area as much as he does. Joanna is an interesting person in her own right- an acclaimed musician who recently finished her doctorate at UH in organ. Joanna works at Moody Methodist in Galveston and also freelances harp and piano. Have a beer and check out her website as well.

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