Luke Bowen is standing in the restroom of the Fox & Hound at the King of Prussia Mall when the guy comes up to him. It’s only a couple minutes ago that Bowen handed him a sample of “Trick or Treat,” a chocolate pumpkin porter made by Evil Genius Beer Company. The guy’s already had a few pints tonight, but he’s not drunk. He’s excited.
“I gotta tell you, man!” the guy shouts. “That shit was crazy strong! It’s better than chocolate, better than beer, better than cigarettes!”
Bowen, even though he is in the restroom for, presumably, restroom business, doesn’t flinch. He matches the guy’s energy, instantly becoming the best friend the guy never had. “It’s crack in a bottle!”
He’s biased, of course. Bowen is one of the owners of Evil Genius; that’s why he and his partner Trevor Heyward are at the Fox & Hound tonight, moving from table to table, pouring small cups of their dark, chocolaty brew in order to cultivate precisely this kind of excitement.
Heyward and Bowen met in grad school at Villanova several years ago and, as Heyward puts it, “realized our job prospects were not as good coming out as they were going in. So starting our own business sounded like good idea.” The two shared a passion for home brewing, but knew they didn’t have the technical experience to turn that into a commercial venture—“which is why we brought in our third partner, Mark. He’s been a professional brewer, for 12 years now.”
Evil Genius beers all have distinctive names; in addition to Trick or Treat, there’s Hunchback, Naughty or Nice, Pure Evil and a host of variations on that craft-beer standard, the IPA: Evil Eye PA, Black Eye PA, Blind Eye PA. The company’s output also boasts a lower alcohol level than most craft brews.
“The trend with craft beers has been to go higher and higher as the years have progressed,” Heyward says, “to where the average beer that comes on the market is over eight percent. Which means you can only really have one or two before you’re really going to feel the effects. You want to go have dinner, have a couple of beers and drive home—you really can’t do that with an eight or nine percent beer. We decided to focus on beers that were a little lower in alcohol.”
Of course, making a beer that people can drink more of doesn’t really matter unless people drink it. That’s why, never mind all the online marketing and social media methods businesses use these days to get the word out online, Bowen and Heyward are hand-selling their beer, one customer at a time. “As much modern technology has helped spread the word,” Bowen says, “for my money, there is no better way to sell to someone than with a conversation.”
He’s got the experience to back this idea up. When Evil Genius was first getting started, Bowen would take a quarter keg in a cart full of ice to bar after bar, pumping them out cold samples. The routine, Bowen says, “was the worst. It was heavy and difficult to move, and the beer would come out all foamy.” The result, though, was clear: Bars started installing Evil Genius’ signature tap handle.
Beer, more than any other alcoholic beverage, trades on authenticity. It’s not a fancy drink, not something that requires a vineyard or years of aging or a distillery. It’s a drink for the worker. The lineage of its ingredients is less important to a beer’s identity than what sort of person brought those ingredients together. There’s a vague idea in our heads that, while wines and liquors should be made by experts, beer should be made by someone who, well, you could have a beer with.
There are marketing tricks at play here, of course. The cartoony labels and cheeky titles that adorn Evil Genius beers are certainly conceived with the end user’s experience in mind. Heyward admits that one upcoming brew is called “Mwah-Ha-Ha,” just because he relishes the image of someone standing at a bar and ordering it. But while he and Bowen hope the bright colors and theatrics of their labeling catch the drinker’s eye, they believe first and foremost in the stuff itself, in how good it is. And they are willing to pour you a glass to prove it.
That’s why hand-selling their beer at the Fox & Hound tonight—talking to people, explaining what’s in the drink they’ve just poured—is worth it for them: They’re showing who they are. The Evil Genius shtick doesn’t come off as forced, or an act, but as honest fun. After all, the act of drinking beer is has always communal. In sharing their brew, the Evil Genius guys are just doing what beer drinkers have done since the dawn of time.
“A bar like this,” Heyward says, “they love us because we come by and say hi. A lot of guys don’t do that.”
Bowen, his eye on the next table, two bottles ready to go, goes one step farther: “This is the fun part.”
Jared Axelrod’s new PW series, “Made New,” explores a broad spectrum of artisans, makers and thinkers who update old-fashioned practices to enhance 21st-century life. A West Philly resident, Jared is by turns an author, illustrator, sculptor, costume designer, podcaster and more.
Calendar: Sept. 30-Oct. 7