It wasn't originally in the plan that Houston's Alex Negranza would be a bartender. As a music and psychology major, he started studying in a cafe near his college campus, pulling all-nighters as most students do. One night, while studying, Negranza noticed that the cafe's owner left just before it was flooded with a rush of customers.
"I'd been drinking there for a couple of months, and I just stood up and asked the girl behind the counter if she needed help," he says. "I started bussing tables, running things to the dishwasher. The owner comes back a few minutes later - she forgot her purse or something - and says, ‘Hi Alex! You're behind the bar working! Do you want to work here?' I started helping out once in a while." In the beginning, his role was largely focused on booking local musicians he knew from school to play the cafe.
Quickly, though, his focus shifted toward the beverage world. In 2007, a few months into working at the cafe, he was hired away by an up-and-coming coffee shop. Even though that shop has since closed, it was there that Negranza became immersed in the world of specialty coffee, soon taking trips to San Francisco to meet with roasters, learn the bean-to-cup process, and practice crafting latte art.
Negranza booked a one-way ticket to Seattle, where he studied coffee and worked as a barista
When the coffee shop shuttered soon thereafter, Negranza got $300 in severance pay and bought a one-way ticket to Seattle, the coffee capital of the US. He got hired doing odd jobs at a boutique hostel near Seattle's waterfront while he studied coffee and worked as a barista. At some point along the way, Negranza "sort of took over" the hostel, managing 60 guests hailing from all over the world each night.
Negranza began traveling to every coffee conference and regional barista competition that he could afford to attend. "There wasn't any money from my employer to support traveling to train, so I would take time off to go learn more at conferences," he says. He quickly began to rise among the ranks of baristas across the country, both competing at and judging the US Barista Championship multiple years in a row.
"I started working with coffee clients, training their baristas. After a while, I picked up a client that was driving me insane." After a particularly infuriating day at work, Negranza stood at an actual crossroads. "I used to take a bus from my job back into Seattle, and when I got off at the stop, I could walk four blocks and go home," he says. "Or, I could take a right and I'd be at my favorite bar. What started as three to four nights a week quickly turned into five nights a week, then six, then seven."
He quickly noticed the parallels between barista culture and the world of bartending. "Baristas and bartenders are so similar, but almost polar opposites. One works days, the other's on at night," he says. "One gets you ready for the day, the other helps you settle down. The jobs are similar, but the cultures are so different." Even though he was, at the time, planning to open his own coffee shop, the general manager of his neighborhood bar offered him a job. "I took a bit of a sabbatical," he says. "And immersed myself in the world of cocktails."
It was actually a pretty logical move. "If I was truly going to be a barista, in the true Italian sense of the word, then I had to learn how to mix an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan. My sabbatical from the coffee shop started about six years ago, and I never left."
"This is just cocktails we're talking about — you can't take yourself so seriously."
He first developed his own identity as a bartender while working at Seattle cocktail bar Liberty. Unbeknownst to Negranza, the bar was known for hiring young, up-and-coming bartenders that they could train from the ground up. "It wasn't pretty, it wasn't shiny, we didn't have gadgets or the most highly trained bartenders," he says. "The owners taught us from this point of humility. Once, they told me that there were two rules behind the bar: don't be a dick, and have fun. This is just cocktails we're talking about, you can't take yourself so seriously."
Considering that Washington state has more distilleries than just about any other state, there really wasn't a better place for him to learn. "Seattle has this huge farm-to-table, grain-to-glass culture," he says. "People are constantly trying to learn more, constantly trying new things. It's such a community out there."
His first brush with the Houston bar scene was - of course - ultimately tied to coffee. In 2011, he visited Houston to judge the US Barista Championship. He met up with his friend, David Buehrer, a Houston coffee shop owner who took him to visit the city's best restaurants and bars. "I was meeting all these chefs and bartenders who were also working as baristas," he says. "There was tons of crossover. I was so fascinated by how well versed and cultured everyone was out here. It blew me away, really."
But he wasn't expecting to work what he describes as the hardest shift of his career. "I was thinking that I would be a barback, wash dishes, and study how this bar flows," he says. "When I show up, Bobby welcomes me and shows me my station. Slowly I figure out that I'm going to be bartending. I only had one drink I had to make, and the recipe was easy. I had no clue what I was getting myself into."
It turned into an eight-hour bartending shift. "We'd chosen to do an egg drink, which takes longer to make. It requires more shaking, it's more physically intense on your body," says Negranza. "We used a style of ice that was heavier and denser, the tools were heavier. All that combined, then shoving 400 drunk baristas into a bar and making them drink? I had another event the next day, and I could barely move my hands they were so sore and destroyed."
Negranza returned to Seattle after working that grueling shift at Anvil, but stayed in touch with Huegel. A few months later he found himself at a similar crossroads. "We were Facebook friends, and every time I saw that Anvil was hiring, someone would say that I should pack my bags and come on to Houston," he says. "Sure enough, my roommate had just gotten engaged to his fiancé, our lease was up, and I was looking for a new job. I thought if I had to change all of these things, maybe I should be looking for a new city?"
He packed two suitcases full of necessities, put everything else he owned into a storage unit, and bought a one-way ticket to Texas. "I was kind of terrified. I'd only been to Texas once, and I didn't think I'd be there more than six or nine months," he says. Once he arrived, he took his first bar shift at Anvil the very next day, not quite knowing what he was getting himself into.
The in-house training program at the bar is notoriously grueling, involving reading assignments, written tests, and a final blind taste testing of 50 spirits. Typically it takes bartenders a year to 16 months to complete the training program, but Negranza "graduated" in just over eight months, the shortest time the bar has seen as of yet, all while mixing more than 1,000 cocktails per week during his regular shifts.
He began to develop a respect for Houston's continually impressive cocktail scene. It's not uncommon for drinkers to order complicated cocktails like a Zombie or Waltzing Matilda even on a busy Friday night. "It's not just Anvil," he says. "All these other bars across the city have helped people become interested in these obscure cocktails. Tea punches and Sazeracs are just commonplace now, and people are constantly looking for something new and even more obscure."
Which is why Negranza is now happy to call Houston his adopted home, both as a bartender and a newly christened Houstonian. "If you had said that I would one day call Houston home, I would've laughed at you. But I love it, I really do. It becomes part of your personality, part of who you are. I'm still getting used to wearing shorts on Christmas Eve. I don't understand this, but it's been an adventure, that's for sure."
Amy McCarthy is Eater's editor for Dallas and Houston.
Alex Negranza is the bartender at Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston. Images by Sam Landrum.
Editors: Dana Hatic and Sonia Chopra
Copy editor: Dawn Mobley
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