The full range of restaurants that can successfully brew their own beers continues to unfold.
by Kathy Blake
Grenville Byford, ceo of the John Harvard’s Brew House chain, has reason to smile. He points out though that brewpubs are really restaurants and that brewing your own beer is no guarantee of success.
On the face of it, opening a brewpub, a restaurant that makes its own beer, wouldn’t seem to be such a hot idea. Take all the risks of opening a restaurant–in a world where so many new restaurants fail–and add to it the costs and risks of a whole other industry: invest $150,000 to $250,000 in brewing equipment, dedicate 300 square feet or more, space that would otherwise contain revenue-producing tables, to that equipment, hire a brewer and, usually, an assistant brewer, two full-time, skilled people who, according to the most recent survey done by the Institute of Brewing Studies, get salaries of anywhere from $10,000 to $56,000 a year.
But brewpubs, or as their operators increasingly like to call them, brewery-restaurants, are definitely hot. The latest figures from the Institute of Brewing Studies, show that there are now 799 brewpubs in the United States. And their failure rate is only 1 in 8, much lower than that of the restaurant industry in general. In 1996, only 20 brewpubs failed nationwide. That same year, over 200 new ones opened.
Meanwhile, the concept of a beer-producing restaurant continues to evolve. There are now brewpubs in airports, at ski resorts and in sports stadiums. There are a number of fast-growing brewery-restaurant chains, such as Hops! and Rock Bottom. Most importantly, brewery-restaurants now come in all shapes and sizes, from casual places where the focus is on the beer and the food definitely deserves the term “pub grub,” to white tablecloth restaurants that routinely earn a full complement of stars from local reviewers.
As more brewery-restaurants open, and some cities, such as Denver and Atlanta, are already home to several, the competition between them heats up. Perhaps even more importantly, as brewery-restaurants become more common, it becomes more difficult for these operations to “wow” people.
“Over the last five years, brewery-restaurants have been very, very hot and that has led to a quite erroneous idea,” says Grenville Byford, ceo of The Brew House, Inc., the Boston-based company behind the John Harvard’s Brew House chain, “the idea that all you have to do is have a brewery [in your restaurant], that it’s a license to print money. But fundamentally, we are in the restaurant business. The days when simply brewing your own beer meant you’d be a success are gone.”
Many in the brewery-restaurant industry believe that a shake-out may have already begun. “I think you will see, coming up shortly, the failure rate [for brewpubs] come up,” says Byford.
And that is not necessarily a bad thing, some point out. “In the last two or three years, the craft brewing industry as a whole grew very quickly and many people tried to get in on the action. A lot were in it to make a quick buck,” says Rosemarie Certo, director of marketing for Dock Street Brewing, a well-known brewing company that runs its own brewery-restaurant in Philadelphia. “The end result was overcrowding. [A shake-out,] in one sense, is good. It does force the weaker operations out of business, separates the wheat from the chaff.”
This developing “survival of the fittest” atmosphere has caused brewpubs to evolve into brewery-restaurants. Increasingly, the best beer-producing restaurants offer fine food, an intriguing atmosphere, excellent service and an array of beverages beyond beer.
“With the first brewpubs, back in the late ’80s, the food was an apology. Now, some of the best food I’ve had I’ve had in brewpubs,” says Jim Parker, director of the American Homebrewers Association, a sister organization to the Institute of Brewing Studies. “It is no longer acceptable for a brewpub to simply have really good beer and a cheap burger. Now, it is more likely to be a high-concept restaurant.”
It was a natural progression. After all, the very first brewpubs opened with the intent of introducing consumers to the best of beer: the full flavors of traditional styles served in the freshest possible state. It was just a short leap to showing those customers that beer, like wine, had a place at the table of fine dining.
“Our whole mission is to elevate the image of beer and beer cuisine,” says Jeffrey Ware, owner of Dock Street Brewing Company, “to put beer alongside good wines and spirits.”
Dock Street, which is also a craft brewery, opened its restaurant in 1990. From the start, it was a fine-dining restaurant rather than a brewpub. Recently, Ware hired Olivier De Saint Martin, a highly regarded French chef, to run the restaurant. “Within the last year, we’ve worked on the menu and the concept,” explains Ware, “to make the restaurant a brasserie. The literal translation of brasserie is brewery; it was where a whole cuisine sprang up around beer.”
Indeed, reviewers routinely hail Dock Street as one of the best French restaurants in Philadelphia. For example, a review in Philadelphia City Paper called it not only “one of the best French restaurants in town” but also “one of the most authentically French in atmosphere.”
The restaurant serves traditionally beer-friendly dishes such as choucroute (smoked pork and sausages over sauerkraut, $15.95), cassoulet (a white-bean stew with garlic sausage and duck confit, $15.50) and its Seafood Beer Fest (a selection of fish and shellfish steamed in beer and served with asparagus, $16.25).
At E&O Trading Company, a new brewery-restaurant in San Francisco, the focus is definitely on the food. “I wanted to develop an interesting and meaningful restaurant that happens to make its own beer,” explains Christopher Hemmeter, president. Indeed, at E&O, the brewery is not on display but is located in the basement. “If customers go to the bathrooms or the pay phones, they can see it through a large glass wall,” says Hemmeter. “It’s kind of a fun surprise.”
E&O’s menu is Southeast Asian and was developed by the restaurant’s head chef, Gary Woo, formerly of Square One, in consultation with Joyce Goldstein, formerly the chef/owner of that restaurant. There is a focus on small plates and satays, such as a scallop satay, served with a pineapple-citrus sauce ($7.00), a small plate of Indonesian corn fritters, served with a chili-soy sauce ($5.75), another of crispy fried squid, served with a tamarind dipping sauce ($6.25), and one of soy-ginger grilled quail ($8.00). The restaurant features a fresh shellfish bar as well as a display kitchen equipped with a wood-burning oven and grill. “The menu really comes first,” says Hemmeter.
At the ThirstyBear Brewing Company, also in San Francisco, the food is Spanish, specifically tapas. The restaurant offers over 20 of these small plates, from Salpic