Read an Excerpt
Love on Tap
Brewing Love Series
By Meg Benjamin, Tera Cuskaden
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Meg Benjamin
All rights reserved.
The brewery floor was cool and dark. Largely because it was also empty. Well, almost empty. It still held the fermenting tanks and the copper mash tun, along with the other equipment. But none of it was in use.
But it will be again. I swear it will be.
Bec leaned against the wooden rack at the far end of the room where a single barrel rested in solitary splendor. Well-deserved solitary splendor. She stared up at the dark shape. She almost hated to part with it. It was proof they'd existed, proof they were good, proof she was what she said she was.
Proof she could bounce back from just about anything.
On the other hand, if she was going to dig Antero Brewing out of its current hole, her magical Zoria was the key.
Of course, that assumed she could transform this single barrel into several other things. Money for one. A lot of money. Enough money to take care of all the lingering resentments and unpaid bills. Enough money to make everything right again. And money that would produce the holy trinity of beer. So she could start again.
Bec wasn't sure how good the brewery's magic supply was currently, but she was sure of one thing.
She was going to do it — one way or another. She was going to bring Antero Brewing back to life. And she was going to make up for all the betrayals she'd endured courtesy of one lying lover. Rot in hell, Colin, rot in hell.
She might not have a magic wand, but she had a magic barrel. And in a lot of ways, that was much, much better.
"Holy crap, it's like sucking a goddess's tit!"
Wyatt Montgomery managed not to choke as the words drifted his way, but it took a lot of effort. Craft beer fans were frequently a little overenthusiastic, and the people downing brews in his party room were beer bloggers, which meant they were at the top end of the craft beer enthusiasm scale. Still, the guy currently draining the last drops from his taster seemed over the top even for this crowd.
"Glad you like it." Wyatt kept his host smile firmly in place. Craft beer — from the small, innovative, artisan breweries that flourished throughout Colorado — was his specialty, even when the fans were a little scary.
He moved down the bar before the blogger could engage him in a more detailed discussion of the amber ale he'd been served. He wasn't sure how soused the guy was, but he wasn't up to dealing with that level of enthusiasm right now. Not with the troubling profit numbers he'd been scanning lately.
The party room was a little more old-style than the main bar area — more dark wood and leather. He'd wanted the feel of a classic pub, even if his customers were strictly millennial. Right now the bloggers were happily leaning against the ornate bar Wyatt had pulled from a defunct tavern on Colfax. In a few more minutes, they might even start a dart game or try the skittles board he had set up at the side of the room.
Even though Quaff was a gastropub, he tried to keep the beer hysteria understated. Not always possible in Denver.
The monthly beer dinners had turned out to be one of the most popular features he'd come up with so far. Given that Colorado had almost as many breweries as mountains, it was usually easy enough to find a brewer who was looking for a little extra promo. And the fact that Wyatt's chef was top tier made it that much easier to attract both customers and brewmasters. Good food went a long way toward making good beer taste even better than it did on its own.
So far as he could tell, everybody seemed to be smiling, happy, and faintly buzzed. They were all looking forward to the next course and the next beer.
Except for a couple of tables at the side. A few of the customers sitting over there looked unimpressed. One of the guys pushed his taster of wheat beer away and picked up his water.
Oops. Not good.
Wyatt frowned, moving carefully across the room until he was close enough to hear the conversation at the table without being too obvious about it.
"... last week at the Red Wolf. I mean, this is good, but that saison they had was better. A lot better. In my humble opinion." The speaker pushed his wheat beer a little farther away from his plate.
Wyatt gritted his teeth. The Red Wolf was his chief competition. The owner was an out-of-state rich kid who'd opened the place a couple of months earlier. He'd heard they'd started their own beer dinners, but he hadn't paid much attention. Beer dinners weren't exactly unknown in the Denver area, and the ones he ran at Quaff were some of the best.
He was sure of that. Or anyway, he had been up until a couple of weeks ago when he started seeing troubling stats about their profits.
Across the room, tonight's brewmaster had begun to talk about the beer, which cut back on the conversation. Wyatt moved back to the end of the room again, where he could watch the diners. The salad was a winner — pears and candied walnuts with butter lettuce and heirloom tomatoes and a mild vinaigrette that should pair well with the beer.
He wouldn't serve saison with this. The wheat was a better choice all around. He folded his arms across his chest, trying to ignore the slight tension in his shoulders. Just because a couple of people liked the Red Wolf didn't mean he was losing customers to his closest competitor. Even if Quaff's profits had been off for the last couple of months. They'd bounce back.
With any luck.
The dinner wrapped up an hour or so later, and Wyatt told himself it had been a success. As far as he could tell, the bloggers seemed happy. Several had stopped to talk to the brewmaster, while a couple had stopped to talk to Wyatt. He had no cause for concern.
Even so, he kept checking the table in the corner to see if they'd finished their beers. Not all of them had. He could see a few half-full glasses sitting on the table. Hell.
Once the busboys had begun clearing, Wyatt wandered out into the main bar. The combination of glass and brushed metal gave the place an upscale, modern look, but the foosball table and pinball machines in the corner provided a certain retro vibe. The room was busy, as usual, although he saw a few empty tables here and there.
He shook his head, trying to push away the vague feeling of uneasiness. He was accustomed to seeing empty glasses at the end of a dinner. Seeing those unfinished beers made him itchy. Combined with the bad numbers for the past few weeks, they could mean that Quaff was beginning to cool down. And cooling down in the red-hot craft brewing business wasn't good. It wasn't good at all.
He leaned against the bar, waiting for his head bartender, Denny, to work his way down to the end. "Hey."
Denny nodded. "Hey. How'd the dinner go?"
"Fine, so far as I could tell." Wyatt leaned forward a little farther so that they could keep their conversation private. "What do you hear about the Red Wolf?"
Denny frowned. "What do you mean? It's new. It's drawing the kind of crowds you get when you first open. I don't know much beyond that."
"Have people been talking about it?"
"Around here? Maybe one or two. They had some big dinner last week. Some of our regulars went, I guess."
A big dinner where they served saison. "Who was the brewer?"
"Piebald. From Boulder."
Wyatt grimaced. Piebald was one of the better-known craft brewers in the area. He'd been trying to get them to do a dinner at Quaff for a few months, but they hadn't seemed interested. "Do you know how the Red Wolf managed to land them?"
"No telling. But if it comes from Red Wolf, there's most likely money involved. That guy Threadgood has deep pockets, and he hasn't been too shy about throwing cash around."
The combination of muttering customers, a first-class brewer whose business Wyatt had wanted for himself and lost to the Red Wolf, and a small mountain of money being shoveled into a competing gastropub was enough to make him feel antsy. Very antsy.
All the signs were there. Quaff was headed for trouble — maybe serious trouble — unless he could come up with a way to turn things around.
For the rest of the week, Wyatt was actually too busy to think about what he could do to bring customers, new and old, to Quaff. He had their regular burger night on Friday and a party to watch the finals of a soccer tournament on Sunday. The soccer crowd wasn't as big as the football crowds they had in the fall, but there were enough of them to put a serious dent in their supply of British bitter.
But when he took himself out of promoter mode, he had to admit the Red Wolf was cutting into his business. If they didn't stop the leakage soon, they'd start sinking. Clearly he needed something that would bring customers back, something that would be so amazing, so spectacular, that people would remember just why they liked Quaff in the first place.
His parties were okay, but they weren't the draw he needed. Too bad he had no idea what that draw could be.
Denny wasn't much help. "I don't know, man. We get a lot of people still. And the Red Wolf is about as friendly as Denver International. Crowds won't stay there long."
Wyatt wished he could believe that, but he knew better. "People are fickle. Even craft beer drinkers. Their favorite restaurant one week is old news the next week. The new place gets all the buzz. They've already tried us, and they're not coming back."
Denny frowned. "Craft beer drinkers, though. They aren't looking for buzz. They're looking for beer. Whoever has the best stuff pulls them in. And we've got good stuff."
Wyatt wanted to sigh. "We've got good stuff, but we're not the only ones who do. We could use some new stock, something to get people interested again. Have you heard anything about new brewers?" Denny blew out a breath. "There's a new one opening up in Arvada — Cartwheels, I think they're calling it. They moved down from the hills so they could get into the restaurant scene around here."
Wyatt nodded. "Yeah, I've talked to them. They're going to bring some stuff around for us to taste. But chances are they'll be in other places, too." Like the Red Wolf. He didn't think Quaff could get exclusive rights to anybody's beer, although it might be worth a try sometime. Exclusives always brought in the real craft drinkers, assuming it was an exclusive on something good. "You know anybody else we could go after? Maybe somebody who hasn't shown up here in town yet?"
Denny shook his head. "Not off the top of my head, but let me think about it. Hell, the whole state is lousy with breweries these days. Might as well just head off to some town at the back of beyond and see who's brewing. You might find a hidden gem someplace."
"That's not such a bad idea. Get out of town and see what I can find." Wyatt gave him a rueful smile. "Maybe I'll stick a pin into a map of the state."
"Good idea." Denny turned back to the crowd at the bar.
For a moment, Wyatt wondered if sticking a pin into a map of Colorado might actually work, but then he dismissed the idea. Granted, the state had a lot of craft brewing, but he needed something more than chance to make things work.
"How about some Zoria?"
Wyatt turned toward the voice. He hadn't realized anyone was sitting close enough to hear what he'd said to Denny, and he wasn't crazy about the idea. The last thing they needed was gossip about their problems.
The man who'd spoken sat hunched over the bar. He seemed older than the usual run of Quaff customers — maybe in his fifties. His denim shirt and worn khakis made him look a little like a professor at one of the nearby colleges.
Wyatt gave him a professional smile. "What was that?" The man shrugged. "I hear you're looking for some kind of special beer to get you back on the radar, although why you'd want to be on the radar for some of these little beer snob shits is beyond me." He paused to take a sip of his beer.
"I can't afford to be too choosy about who my customers are." Wyatt's smile became fixed. He didn't have to defend his clientele. "Beer snobs are okay with me, as long as they don't bad mouth my place."
"They shouldn't. You got a good place here." The man stuck out his hand. "Carl Dudley. I write for the Post, among others."
Wyatt took a breath. Dudley was one of the most respected beer writers in the city — and the rest of the country, as far as that went. He'd given Quaff a good review when they'd first opened. "Wyatt Montgomery. A pleasure, Mr. Dudley."
"Carl," he corrected. "Anyway, if you want to bring people in the doors, you should try to buy the last barrel of Zoria."
Wyatt shook his head. "I don't know it."
"I'm not surprised. It's almost more legend than beer." Dudley leaned an elbow on the bar, his expression faintly dreamy. "A barrel-aged imperial stout, brewed by someone with the magic touch. The greatest beer of the past decade." His smile dimmed slightly, becoming dry. "Ask any of the dozen or so people in town who tasted it. And the several dozen people who wish they'd tasted it and make up stories now about what it was like so that other people will believe that they did."
Wyatt frowned. "Who was the brewer?"
"Antero Brewing. Out of Antero." Dudley took another swallow of his beer.
"Haven't heard of them." And he thought he knew most of the major brewers in the state.
"That's because they don't exist anymore. The guy who owned the company shut it down after they produced the Zoria. Another one of those Trustafarians who try brewing or cheese making or sauerkraut or some other damn craft thing and then take off when they get bored."
"So they're not making this Zoria anymore? That might make it hard to serve it."
Dudley gave him a cagey look. "They're not making it anymore, right. But for months I've been hearing rumors about one last barrel of Zoria that never got opened. If you could get your hands on that, it would make for a hell of a beer dinner."
Wyatt's pulse sped up slightly. He could already see the possibilities for promo. A legendary imperial stout. Rumored to be the greatest in the past decade. Available only at Quaff for a single evening. He'd be beating off the customers with a stick. "It would at that. Who's supposed to have this barrel, and where's it kept?"
"Good question." Dudley raised his glass in Wyatt's direction. "At this point, I don't know. Nobody I've talked to has mentioned where they heard about it or provided any details. All they say is that they heard something. Like I said, it's more legend than beer."
Wyatt managed a taut grin, but his jaw ached from the strain. "So nobody knows where it is or how to get it? Sort of limits possibilities for bringing the barrel back to Quaff. Unless it's all some kind of joke."
Dudley put his beer down again. "No joke, Montgomery. I tasted Zoria a year or so ago. They were serving it at the Black Mountain Tavern up at Antero. If I was to go looking for it, that's where I'd start. They had some once, and they might know who has it now. You could also check with whoever took over the old brewery. Maybe they've got the barrel stashed away in the basement. Maybe they don't know what they bought. Maybe they'd be willing to part with it for some ready cash. After all, they've got a brewery to get up and running again. Good for you, bad for them."
"Right." Wyatt nodded while his brain raced through scenarios. New owners, trying to clear out the remains of the previous occupants, maybe willing to part with old barrels of brew if they didn't know what they had.
More legend than beer. Maybe the new owners wouldn't have heard the legend.
Stranger things had happened. Quaff was due for a lucky break, given all the bad luck lately. "You tasted this Zoria. Was it as good as people say it was?"
Dudley's eyes took on a faraway gleam. He gave Wyatt a faint smile. "Was it that good? No. It was better. One of the best stouts I've ever tasted, and I've tasted a hell of a lot of stouts in my time. A lot of the beers they serve around here are more hype than taste. Zoria lived up to the hype."
Wyatt nodded slowly. A legendary beer, whispered about from beer nut to beer nut. He could serve up a beer dinner for the ages, and the Red Wolf couldn't come close to anything like it. People would be signing up weeks in advance. And talking about it for weeks afterward. And mentioning Quaff when they did.
It looked like he had a trip to Antero in his future. He nodded at Dudley. "Thanks for the tip. I'll look into it."
Dudley gave him another of those dry smiles. "Happy hunting."
Yes, indeed. A-hunting we will go.
Excerpted from Love on Tap by Meg Benjamin, Tera Cuskaden. Copyright © 2017 Meg Benjamin. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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