If you've had a beer in a downtown Durham bar in the last five years, chances are Ben Fletcher served it to you.
The 35-year-old Fletcher, a native of Des Moines, Iowa, started working at bars when he was 21. He moved to Durham 10 years ago, and began tending bar at The Federal on Main Street five years ago. A couple of years later, he helped open Surf Club on Rigsbee Ave. Now Fletcher stands behind the bar at Criterion (347 W. Main St., Durham), where he is a partner with Rhys Botica.
Criterion is housed in the space where Whiskey was for five years until closing last August. It is being billed as a craft beer bar and features 16 drafts, plus a selection of bottled beer. The bar is still young—having opened in September—but a key to its early success is Fletcher's passion for beer.
But beer isn't his only passion.
One thing I've always noticed when Fletcher tends bar is the music he plays.
"The best bar music is something that appeals to everyone," he says. "But not too radio-friendly."
Several months ago I walked into Surf Club to grab a beer and as usual Fletcher was behind the bar. A customer was razzing him for playing The Smiths. Fletcher succinctly replied to the dude, "Every guy secretly listens to The Smiths." End of discussion.
Like most bartenders, Fletcher is well-versed in the art of conversation, and music is always a popular topic whenever we chat. We both have a fondness for doom rock and anything with Scott "Wino" Weinrich (St. Vitus, The Obsessed, Spirit Caravan). But Fletcher considers several factors when choosing music for the bar.
"Weekends," he says, "We play a lot of hip hop." He turns and points to the dreary, overcast skies outside at the time. "On a cold, rainy day like this," he says, then pauses before completing the thought, "This is Tom Waits weather."
Moving from music to beer, Fletcher spoke of how his first taste of craft beer was, "like so many others," Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
"There wasn't much in the way of craft beer in Iowa," he says. "Boulevard Brewing's Unfiltered Wheat was popular." It wasn't until Fletcher moved to North Carolina that he discovered the craft beer scene.
"We are spoiled in the Triangle," he said. "Go to Fayetteville. Or go to the Coast ..." he says. His voice trails off and he shrugs, indicating the lack of selection and variety outside our area.
Of course, the Triangle's influence is spreading. And with Asheville's craft beer legacy and Charlotte on the rise, North Carolina is a market in demand for brewers. Fletcher often browses the shelves at local bottle shops, and now he has more than 100 bottles at home.
Fletcher opines that the days of hop bombs are numbered. "Sour is the new IPA," he says. "A lot more people are into seeking out crazy beers these days."
He ends our conversation with this admonition for craft beer drinkers: "You gotta take the leap!" To which I can only add, pick a good soundtrack when you do.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Beats and beers"