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Vine Street Pub's Caroline Duffy Dishes on Stout Month

Welcome to Lifers, a feature in which Eater interviews the men and women who have worked in the restaurant and bar industry for the better part of their lives. Here, they share their stories.

Jessie Levine

Walk into West City Park neighborhood's beloved Vine Street Pub & Brewery on any given night and you will see familiar, smiling faces behind the bar. In an industry where the jaded cynical type is not uncommon, the staff here stands out as noticeably happy. They appear to love what they do, swept up in the heady/cozy vibe of the pub, drinking beer brewed twenty feet away, and chatting it up with regulars at the bar. During the month of February, this spot brings something unique with a cultish tint: Stout Month.

The Mountain Sun Pubs, founded on Pearl Street in Boulder in 1993, have proliferated this concept and given Denver and Boulder residents a reason to venture out and play with dark beers during this typically frozen, dreary and overall slow month in the restaurant industry.

In anticipation of the dark and rich beer month ahead, Eater sat down with the Vine Street Pub's general manager of seven years, Caroline Duffy. She dished on what makes Vine Street a popular neighborhood pub and Stout Month incomprehensibly awesome.

How would you describe Stout Month to somebody who was entirely unfamiliar with the experience? We take the shortest month, typically the coldest also, and turn it into the biggest month of the year here. Throughout the month, obviously, we feature these crazy, delicious, dark beers which really allow for additions of ingredients and mutations of flavor. You can’t do that with other styles of beers necessarily - IPA month would not have nearly as many beers that taste characteristically different. With stouts you have the opportunity to add ingredients like Cocoa Pebbles, peanut butter, oatmeal, mint, coffee, or a million other different additives, as well as particular processes like barrel-aging or infusing smoked flavors. It’s just plain fun. Plus, Stout Month really breaks up the monotony of the winter and the slower time in the restaurant year. As soon as it starts getting colder and darker, like as early as October, I start get inquiries about Stout Month. That’s awesome.

Stout Month really breaks up the monotony of the winter and the slower time in the restaurant year.

What do you personally love about Stout Month? Stout Month is a great example of why I love the restaurant industry - it is so busy and everyday is totally different. Every day is a different challenge - it’s not going to be an easy shift, but it’s  going to be a fun shift. The staff is going to be pumped up, there will be some amazing new beers on, and there will be people who have never been in for Stout Month before and we really get the chance to wow them. The month has taken on an aura of a quintessential Denver thing. Like the Stock Show or the Denver Flea - it’s an essential in the Denver area. It's evolved into a Denver/Boulder attraction and taken on it’s own personality. And stouts are also my favorite type of beer, so I love this month for that reason as well.

Like the Stock Show or the Denver Flea - it's an essential attraction in the Denver area.

Are there any stouts in particular from years past and/or new ones that you're excited to see on tap this month? I’m a robust, coffee stout type girl. The coffee imperial "Addition" (used to be called "Addiction" until that was disallowed) is my favorite. I love the crowd pleasers too, like the Thin Mint Stout brewed with mint leaves and cocoa nibs is just too fun. 48 Smooth Chai Stout is awesome - there is so much going on, in a good way. The spices it's brewed with make it an excellent beer to pair with different dishes. New to the lineup this year, I’m really excited about the "Planet Lovetron" - which is an imperial, raspberry, chocolatey, barrel aged beast we’re releasing on Valentine’s Day.

Those are some of the Mountain Sun stouts, but the pub will feature stouts brewed by other breweries as well, correct? Yes. John Fiorelli, the head brewer here, decided about two years ago to source stouts for the month from Colorado breweries exclusively, whereas they used to be sourced from all over the country and even the world to sit on our tap wall during February. But there’s just too much great beer in Colorado now. We want other Colorado-based breweries to feel a sense of personal ownership with Stout Month too. It’s cross advertising. It’s great to feel the connection and camaraderie amongst breweries we feature throughout the month, it’s a shout-out to the awesome stouts we have in this state in general and why we think everyone should drink them in the month of February.

We want other Colorado-based breweries to feel a sense of personal ownership with Stout Month too. It's cross advertising.

What makes managing Vine Street Pub, specifically during this hectic month, a unique and enjoyable experience for you? In my first glimpse of this company I could tell the people behind the restaurants cared more about the staff’s personalities and individual contributions than maybe how many years they’d been waiting tables. That communal yet personal, supportive aspect initially drew me in and it’s what continues to keep me here.

It’s about the people, period. The food and beer of course, but the people drive this business first and foremost. Our staff is really empowered here, they have ownership and initiative that isn’t generally present in restaurant jobs. This is a cash only establishment with no computers or POS systems, so they can make changes to tabs as they see fit and we respect and encourage that. They’re immediately empowered to make a situation right with a customer.

We also let people come and go here. we have staff that leaves to go travel the world for a year then comes back to make a ton of money during Stout Month and that also enriches the whole texture of this thing. We want people to go experience things and then come back and share what they know, share their new attitude, and be reinvigorated. And maybe pick up shifts for a staff member who's exhausted from the level of business this month. Everybody wins.

The tip pool system is also something we’ve always done and we also aim to cross-train as many employees between front and back of house as possible. It's impossible not to feel like one big family within that system. There’s always something to learn or somebody to befriend when a restaurant is set up like this one is. It’s unique and unusual and it works.

There's always something to learn or somebody to befriend when a restaurant is set up like this one is. It's unique and unusual and it works.

So we've covered a lot of the positive aspects of this gig, what are some of the more trying parts of managing this huge and busy restaurant during its busiest month of the year? Again, it’s a different and new challenge every day. Sometimes it’s a gorgeous day in February and we have to scramble to prepare for patio seating. It gets so crazy busy, but we don’t want to take our energy away from the guests so we solve problems quickly and efficiently. After all these years, I’ve learned. I know to go to Sam’s Club to stock up on pens and sharpies, to print out a ton of beer sampler key sheets, extra crayons for kids. Keeping the staff healthy, together, and coming into work is always going to be a trial. But like with everything else, we use our creative abilities and high level of preparedness to figure it out. We’re always ready for the unexpected.

How does Vine Street's kitchen come into play in Stout Month?

There is such a wide range of stouts we serve this month - hoppy, roasty, smoky, coffee, minty, sweet - we can pair almost any kind of food with one of the stouts we have on tap. And we love to do it. They’re so versatile for the palette. Personally, I think burgers and stouts pair really well. Like a well-cooked burger with goat cheese and a solid stout? That’s perfect.

Any final tips/insights for Stout Month 2016? Don't puke black.

Vine Street Pub & Brewery

1700 Vine Street, , CO 80206 (303) 388-2337 Visit Website