On a sweltering Monday evening, I met up with Sam Poley at Geer Street Garden to share a pint and some conversation. His first words to me were, "Can we sit outside? I've been cooped up inside all day."
We grabbed a couple of pints of Mother Earth Brewing's Endless River kölsch and saddled up to a picnic table. Top-fermented and straw in color, Kölsch is a beer style with a storied German lineage. With a grainy, malt character and a clean, crisp finish, it is perfect for a hot summer afternoon.
And, as it turned out, perfect for Poley, who by day is the director of public relations and communications for the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau. You don't have to speak long with him before you realize he is a boisterously passionate man. And he is not a fan of overly hoppy beers. "For my taste, hops are overused," said the former chef (Starlu, November '04–December '07) and veteran of the food industry. Poley understands the need for balance. "Hops are great for an accent," he said. But too much hops, much like too much garlic in an entrée, can be a palate wrecker.
Hophead zealots permeate the craft beer world. Poley's biggest challenge himself is to not sound like a zealot when he talks about the city of Durham. "I really, really love this town," said Poley, with all the enthusiasm of a kid talking about Christmas. He moved to the city 21 years ago with no job and no plan. In 1994, he got a gig making salads at Parizade; food became his life for the next 15 years.
With the food service industry there is no barrier to entry. "If you show up, work hard, keep your mouth closed and your ears open, there is opportunity for you." He saw that opportunity, kept his mouth closed and ears open and rode it out for more than a decade. Fortunately for Poley, food wasn't all he knew. He had a communications degree from Applachian State University.
Poley was an early adaptor to social media, embracing the Twitter platform during the launch of OnlyBurger, which he co-owned with Tom Ferguson of Durham Catering/Rise Biscuits & Donuts from September 2008 through July 2009. "I think social media is critical, especially if your are in retail and want to get people to engage, discuss and share."
He explained that social media is a great way for a business to see what it is doing right—and wrong. It's like market research. "Only in real time and every one gets to see the answers," said Poley, with arched eyebrows and a sly smile.
Starlu might still be in business had social media been around, he said, because portals like Facebook might have motivated people to come to the restaurant "such that we would have made it over the hurdles and tough times," explained Poley.
But things happen for a reason, and at 40 with a soon-to-be 3-year-old, he left the food service industry. He still has the utmost respect and highest regard for those in the business. "At 44, I could not hang on the line," he said. "Physically, it's hard work."
As for craft beer, he likes brewers with a culinary mind behind their beers. Is there any beer he'd love to try? "One of everything Evil Twin Brewing makes," said Poley with a laugh. "How's that for an answer?"
Evil Twin Brewing is a Danish company run by gypsy brewer Jeppe Jarnit-Bjergsø. He creates recipes then has the beer contract-brewed at another brewery; hence the gypsy terminology: Evil Twin has no home, no brewery. Its beers include The Cowboy (smoked pilsner); Honey I'm Home (honey saison); Aviary One-Ten (barrel-aged Belgian blonde); and Poley's favorite, Lil B (imperial porter).
As for what he likes about Durham brewers, he relates a story about Fullsteam, which discarded a batch of subpar beer rather than serve it to customers.
"There's a degree of integrity between the business and the consumer when it comes to local craft beer."