Marty Koger will be the first to admit that he doesn’t have a background in high-quality beer.
“I can’t say that I grew up with porters or IPAs,” he laughed. “My palate was developed on Michelob Light and things like that.”
That changed last April, when Koger added Tip Top Taps to the list of businesses he owns.
“After being a part of this, I have much, much more appreciation for all styles of beer,” he explained. “It’s really a lot of fun knowing that when I go to a restaurant and see different styles of beer on the menu I can buy those with some understanding of what I’m going to be getting.”
Located in one of Koger’s former convenience stores on busy Washington Road in Columbia County, Tip Top Taps sells 20 different draft beers and ciders in containers ranging in size from 32 ounces (howler) and 64 ounces (growler) to one gallon. Once customers have made their purchases and the chilled containers are filled, the top is sealed (to comply with open container laws) so customers can take them home to enjoy.
In fact, one of the first things Koger wants to clarify about Tip Top Taps is that it is not a bar even though it may look like a pub on the outside.
“It’s really not even a hangout. This is not a bar, but a lot of people are regulars. The main attraction is finding out what we’ve brought in new for them because it’s an indulgence,” he explained. “We’re providing you with a piece of entertainment that you’re not going to get much anywhere else. And you take it home with you and enjoy it with your wife or your husband or your friends or whatever. These are really for sharing and so it’s a social thing.”
Tip Top Taps is not a bar, and it very nearly wasn’t even a growler store. Two years ago, when Koger wasn’t looking for something to do with the site after closing down the convenience store, his IT guy told him he should get into the vapor business.
“At first I was very much reluctant,” Koger said. “I was not familiar with that business at all. It was a new business, a new industry and a new concept, something that I knew was going to be a challenge for me as a non-smoker.”
Koger, however, said he likes to keep an open mind about new business ideas so, after talking to his IT guy, he started doing his own research.
“I came to the conclusion that vapor is the future of nicotine consumption and, as opposed to smoking, it is so much better as a delivery method for nicotine than cigarettes,” he said. “So I almost felt like it was my purpose to bring to Columbia County a store that would be neutral territory. Not a head shop, but neutral territory, a former convenience store, someplace that everybody already considers themselves welcome at.”
When he told his wife about his plans, however, she wasn’t convinced. So he asked her to come up with ideas for the space. She, in turn, consulted their daughters who live in Atlanta, who said he should open a growler shop.
Now it was Koger’s turn to be doubtful. He had seen the rise and fall of a downtown that sold growlers, but that was his only experience. To keep an open mind, though, he and his wife went to visit their daughters and, during the trip, also visited many growler shops.
“I took pictures and asked questions and made as much of that trip as I possibly could to give me a foundation of knowledge that I could start using to get creative,” he said. “I really liked what I saw in Atlanta, but then I talked with people in the industry, distributors in particular, and they said they didn’t know if a growler shop by itself would be a good business.”
So that’s when Koger decided to combine the ideas. Bel Air (Beautiful Air) Vapors now sits inside Tip Top Taps and offers devices and juices to those who like to vape, as well as those looking to stop smoking cigarettes.
“This doesn’t cause cancer and it is so benign,” he explained. “the steam, the vapor that is created is the exact same thing that people with asthma squirt from inhalers. It’s so misunderstood.”
Those still skeptical should know that the juices that go in the devices are handcrafted locally for Koger, the nicotine added to the juices is already diluted and that all juice is kept in a refrigerator.
“Now, what I don’t do is encourage people to come in here and smoke up the place because people who don’t know it don’t know whether they want to be involved in it,” he said. “So I do my best to discourage overvaping and steaming up the place even though it is just fog.”
“The men that I’ve hired to run the store are also home brewers themselves and have a passion for craft beer,” he said. “They know it, they know what it is, how it’s made, what goes into it, they can describe it and they can educate.”
And education is a lot of the job at Tip Top Taps, especially when someone walks in for the first time.
“It’s amazing to me that every single day, and I mean every day, 50 percent of my customers that come inside this store have never been in before, have been driving by for almost a year now, have not known what in the world we sold,” he said. “I guess their curiosity finally gets the best of them and they come in to ask what we do. And we tell them and teach them what we do.”
It’s a lot of work on the front end, but it results in a lot of repeat business and a lot of loyal customers. Tip Top Taps may not be a hangout, but a lot of thought went into everything in the store — the height of the bar, the footrests, the number of taps — to make sure customers are comfortable when they are there.
Koger also uses the DigitalPour system. Four monitors above the taps display information about the beer in the five taps under each monitor. The information includes the name of the beer, the name of the brewery, the style of beer, where it’s brewed, the ABV (alcohol by volume), the IBU (international bitterness unit), the color of the beer and the prices.
The same information can be found on the store’s website.
The DigitalPour system also shows customers how much is left in the keg.
“You see this one here?” Koger says, pointing to one beer’s information that shows a keg with less than five percent left. “Somebody soon is going to get a free growler of beer because, when it blows, we give it to you free. It’s called growler roulette. Some people will come in and play growler roulette and they will buy the ones that are almost out, hoping to hit. Sometimes when they hit, they hit two or three times and the other people in here are rooting for it. It’s a lot of fun. It’s almost like being in Vegas.”
Also fun is getting to taste and talk about the beers. Tip Top Taps may not be a bar, but customers can definitely try before they buy. Once they find one (or more) they like, their first purchase simply requires a one-time $5 deposit (or $8 if purchased by the gallon) for the container. After that, customers simply bring their old container in and exchange it for a new one.
Beer may be fun but, to the guys at Tip Top Taps, it’s also serious business. Koger said his barkeeps, especially employee Will Smith, research beer constantly and he allows all of them to order.
“I allow all my barkeeps to order beer but, in particular, Will does most of the ordering,” he said. “He has so much experience and so much understanding. He knows it’s called Tip Top Taps for a reason, so we end up with a heck of a lot of top-end beers.”
They do, in fact, have Unibroue’s La Fin du Monde, one of the top rated beers in the world, currently on tap. They also have Ace Pineapple Cider, which Koger describes as “summertime in a glass,” always on tap, though all of the other taps rotate between seasonal offerings and whatever the staff thinks looks good.
“I wanted people to be able to come in here and find something new on the wall every time they came in,” he said. “Our beers are not going to be your run of the mill beers. These are all going to be rated by Beer Advocate, highly, or by ratebeer.com and they’re all going to be top shelf.”
Koger understand that, for some, his shop may be a little intimidating, but he says one visit is all it takes to get over that feeling.
“People really do want to try it but they’re a little intimidated. A lot of people don’t know what a stout or a porter or an IPA is, but we have a little saying here: fear no beer,” he said. “We want people to open their minds, expand their palates, learn how beer should be appreciated just like fine food or fine art. Wine has had this down for years and now it’s the beer industry’s turn to share knowledge and taste with a whole population that has been not brainwashed but mouthwashed with beer. With lite beer. “
Koger says he simply provides a fun “school” in which to learn a little bit about brews from around the world.
“I love this little place, I really do,” Koger said. “And when it’s got a crowd in here, it’s the friendliest place in Evans, Georgia. People come in here happy and they leave happier.”
Tip Top Taps
4317 Washington Road, Evans
Monday-Thursday, noon-8 p.m.; Friday, noon-9 p.m.; Saturday, noon-10 p.m.; and Sunday, 12:30-8 p.m.