21 July 2014

"Pouring Reign (The Director's Cut)", Part III: Dan Valachovic of Vee Vee

Dan Valachovic of Vee Vee, Jamaica Plain, MA
Photo courtesy of Dan Valachovic
In April 2014, I wrote a cover feature for The Improper Bostonian entitled “Pouring Reign”, in which I interviewed twelve Boston bartenders I admire. Six are veteran talents I felt had been overlooked by local media; six are newcomers promising enough to get themselves situated in some of our top bar programs. All had many more interesting things to say than I could fit in the space allowed.

How many more? My initial draft ran to 10,000 words, but the feature was allotted 2500; I begged my editors for more room, and they generously let it swell to 3500, a very long feature for the publication.

As happy as I was with the piece (and especially the gorgeous accompanying portrait photography by Adam DeTour), a lot of great material got left on the cutting-room floor. I got permission to run the unexpurgated interviews here. Here’s the third one, my unedited interview with Dan Valachovic, co-owner of Vee Vee in Jamaica Plain. I included Dan because of his intent focus on local craft beers, a real plus at an already great little indie neighborhood place that I originally reviewed back in 2011. I’m glad to be able to publish his thoughtful answers here, which had to be cut severely for publication.


MC SLIM JB: Vee Vee is a neighborhood joint leaning local, seasonal and sustainable, with a bar focus on small, local craft brewers. A lot of newcomers seem to be copying your template. Meanwhile, Bostonians have gotten geekier about beer, and their options in like-minded bars have expanded greatly. You were ahead of that curve: what changes have you seen in your customers, suppliers?

DAN VALACHOVIC: The biggest change in the customers has been in trusting what we are putting on our draught list. There are so many new breweries in the area just in the last several years, and many new options for consumers. Our regular customers have come to respect and trust my palate and style of beer that I gravitate towards, and seem happy to try whatever new offering might be available. 

MC: How has it changed your philosophy (if at all) and product mix? What does that rising tide mean for your bar program going forward?

DV: I have found myself digging deeper with specialty distributors and importers in an effort to keep things fresh and current. We are also in talks with JP's Streetcar Wine & Beer shop about collaborating with local breweries for one-off brews. Establishing personal relationships with the local brewers is very important to me and a key to staying on top of things.

Moving forward, I actually like the idea of paring back rather than adding more. We have only four draught lines and about 20 bottles on our list; it's a fun challenge to curate those lists in a way that is interesting and exciting. No fluff or filler.

MC: Beer that you wish more customers would order?

DV: I recently added a rare Belgian beer called De Dolle Arabier to the bottle list. While all of the other beers on the list contain descriptors conveying style and flavor profiles, I simply describe this as "Dan's favorite beer in the world". It's been very interesting to see regulars as well as first-timers order it and monitor their reaction. I've yet to encounter anyone that hasn't thoroughly enjoyed it (or, at least anyone willing to tell me they haven't enjoyed it!)

MC: Drink you wish customers would forget existed?

DV: Any of the mass-produced yellow lagers. On the rare occasion that someone asks for one, we point them to a can of Notch Session Pils. It's probably a little hoppier than they are expecting, but most are satisfied.

MC: What is your most prized bartending accoutrement, e.g., tool, book, glassware, etc.?

DV: I built myself a keg fridge in my cellar at home. It's very satisfying to have your favorite beer readily available on demand.

MC, aside: I am green with envy!

MC: Beer style that more customers should be trying?

DV: I really enjoy beers that are fermented with Brettanomyces yeast. When properly used, it can give a beer a tropical, funky complexity that you wouldn't otherwise see.

MC: What’s your favorite example to introduce a newbie to it?

DV: Orval is a Belgian Trappist ale that is fermented with a traditional ale yeast and then re-fermented in the bottle with a slight amount of Brett yeast. So if you try a young bottle next to one that has aged for several months, you can begin to see its effect on the flavor profile. Belgian beer bars often offer different vintages of Orval on their menus: I've been thinking of adding this option as well.

MC: What’s the best day of the week and time of day for a customer to engage you in a leisurely, educational five-minute conversation about drinks?

DV: Tuesday nights either between 5:30-7:00pm or 9:30-10:30pm.

MC: You may have seen this article on the in-house lingo of certain NYC bars. What’s one of your house’s code words/phrases for intra-staff communication in front of customers?

DV: We don't have any of our own, but after that article ran we adopted the "I need you to bar back seat six for me" as a way to retrieve the forgotten name of a regular customer.

MC: What’s your typical end-of-shift drink?

DV: Whatever Trillium beer is currently on tap. Last night was their American Blonde ale, Pocket Pigeon.

MC: What’s a great book / film / record / play / TV show you’ve consumed recently and recommend?

DV: Nothing Can Hurt Me, the Big Star documentary.

MC: Do you have a guilty-pleasure drink, the kind of thing you wouldn’t want your peers or customers to catch you drinking?

DV: Nothing beats a shandy at the beach. Last summer I bought a case of Leinenkugel’s version, but rumor has it that Narragansett and [RI frozen lemonade maker] Del’s will be teaming up this year, which sounds awesome.

MC: What’s the last astonishing restaurant meal you had (what and where) other than at your place?

DV: Last week I stopped off at Eventide Oyster Co. in Portland, Maine for a quick lunch and had a fried oyster bun and an Oxbow Farmhouse Pale Ale. The sandwich perfectly balances the airy softness of the Asian-style bun with the crunch of the fried oyster and tanginess of tartar sauce and some pickled onions. That lunch is crave-worthy and worth the trip.

MC: What are a couple of dives you favor on your own time?

DV: The Galway House on Centre Street in JP is a go-to for a post-shift beer and bar pizza. J.J. Foley’s Fireside Tavern near Forest Hills is the place to go when we feel like darts. Pleasant Cafe is a dependable old-school classic out in Rozzie.

MC: Dr. Bartender, what’s the best cure for my hangover?

DV: I keep it pretty simple: a greasy burger, plenty of water and Advil. And a nap.

MC: Most interesting current trend in beer?

DV: Beer brewers experimenting with slight variations on a style. Trillium Brewing and Mystic Brewery are two locals that I see tweaking a standard of theirs just slightly to emphasize how a different hop, grain or yeast can affect the final product.

MC? Most ridiculous / overhyped / bullshit trend:

DV: Yuengling.

MC: As a bar customer yourself, what’s one aspect of Boston’s bars that you wish more operators would do a better job of?

DV: Listing serving sizes and ABV of beers on beer menus. It's important to know, especially if you have a long night ahead.

MC: What Greater Boston bar is absolutely killing it right now? Of all their qualities, what’s the single standout attribute that makes you want to drink there?

DV: State Park. The whole place was designed around having fun and that's exactly what they've accomplished.

MC: What are the top destinations on your Bars of the World Bucket List?

DV: There's a year-old place in Austin, Texas that I've read about called Craft Pride. They have 52 lines of Texas-only craft beers and park a bacon food truck in their back patio. I look forward to spending an afternoon there some day educating myself on all things Texas beer.

MC: What’s the most ridiculous thing a Yelper has ever said about you or your place?

DV: I stay away from reading Yelp. Not much good can come from the anxiety it brings on.

MC: What bartender or bar manager, currently working or retired, is your first-ballot lock for entry into Boston’s Bartending Hall of Fame?

DV: John Gertsen. He has been a class act innovator for as long as I've been going out in Boston.

MC: Compose the question you think I should have asked, and answer it.

DV: "What are your top three most inspirational beer bars?" 1) The Other Side, Boston (RIP). I had my beer “Aha!” moment there many years ago when I ordered a Duvel with my lunch. That was the moment I realized there was a lot more to beer than I had thought. 2) Spuyten Duyvil, Brooklyn. They only have a handful of draught lines but the selection is so well thought out. It feels like a funky European cafe inside and all of the furnishings and art and knickknacks are for sale. 3) ‘t Velootje, Ghent, Belgium. I was there is the middle of the winter-- the place has no heat, just a fireplace that the owner feeds rubbish into over the course of the night. There is no beer list, he just pours you what he happens to have that day. Somehow it is just the most wonderful place to enjoy a few beers.