By Tom Lopez
Most passersby probably wouldn’t expect an unassuming gas station and mini market in the Soquel/Aptos area to stock a plethora of specialty beers that would make even the most seasoned beer aficionado stop and do a double take.
That is, unless those passersby have paid a visit to AJ’s Market on the corner of Soquel Drive and Park Avenue, just off Highway 1.
Fill up your tank, grab a burger or a chicken shwarma wrap from the full-service deli and oh, what’s that in the refrigerator case? A Cantillon Rose? A Logsdon Peche & Brette?
Move over Bud Lite and Molson Ice. This isn’t the place for you.
This is a gas station where the stock consists of small batch beers and one offs from Paso Robles, San Marcos, Norway, Belgium and parts unknown.
So what’s the story behind the selection? It’s more like who – and that who is Doug Maher, the store’s official beer buyer.
“I am always floored when customers say good things about the selection,” says Maher. ”One of the best reactions that I had was from a business partner of Gabe Fletcher at Anchorage Brewing. Anchorage is one of my favorite breweries that I can get in this area. I am sure this guy has had some awesome beers before, but all he could talk about was my selection, and how happy he was to see these beers in my store. I am always floored when customers say good things about the selection.”
Maher, who also is an avid homebrewer and part-time employee at Sante Adarius Rustic Ales in Capitola, has been picking out the beer stock at AJ’s for more than two and a half years. He got his start through his mother, who was a bookkeeper for the store.
At the time, the store’s eponymous owner didn’t know much about alcoholic beverages and was looking for someone to lend some expertise. Maher, who was already interested in the craft beer industry but was still a novice, began to get “pretty obsessive” about it. From then on, he says, “my life opened up about beer.”
The selection of sour ales, double Indian Pale Ales and other brews not easy to find in this area have managed to hook quite a few local beer nerds, including this reporter, who first met Maher while perusing the aisles during a fuel stop.
“A lot of people react positively to the whole store when they are first time visitors,” Maher says. ” The reaction seems to be that most people are shocked that a gas station has the products we do. I don’t get to see a lot of the reactions that people have because I work in an office or in the cooler most of the time, but when I do, a lot of people are shocked.”
Since its inception, the store’s selection has been expanded to include brews from such places as The Bruery, Alesmith, Anchorage Brewing, Lost Abbey, Logsdon, Mikkeller, Jolly Pumpkin, Shipyard, Prairie Artisinal and of course, local breweries such as Sante Adarius Rustic Ales.
For Maher, it’s all about trying to get the best beers out there for his customers.
“Beer is fun whether you are the weekend warrior, or you put your life into it like I do,” he says. “Point is, right now for me happiness lies in the quest to find the perfect beer, this journey changes quite frequently, experiences change things for me all the time. To say anything else would be premature.”
Open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.