The State of Washington has--well, had as of last January, more by now--some 219 places licensed to brew beer, according to the Beer Commission's current state beer guide, and slightly over half of them make and serve food on the premises. Many of those, let's say 130 places, serve basic pub fare, the classic pizza, nachos, wings, burgers sort of menu. Some try to push the restaurant envelope a bit further and offer a dining experience of some quality. I propose to look at the synergies between brewing beer and serving up good food in four brewing/restaurant combinations. Two have been around a few years--Chuckanut Brewery and Kitchen in Bellingham and the Steamplant Grill/Coeur d'Alene Brewing in Spokane. The other two were just born last year--Bellevue Brewing Co. in Bellevue and Menace Brewing in Ferndale with The Local in Bellingham.
Chuckanut opened its doors in 2008, "in the depths of the great recession," recalls co-owner Mari Kemper. "We needed the restaurant trade to keep the brewery afloat in the early days, and vice versa." She explains that their location was far enough from the downtown that the restaurant needed a curiosity factor like their own beer to bring in customers. And Will Kemper's lagers and German ales began to catch on in other locations, but it took a few medals from the Great American Beer Festival and other competitions to really get traction. The restaurant is divided into a pub area, with full view of the brewery across the driveway, and a dining section in the back.
Steamplant in downtown Spokane was just what its name suggests for over 70 years, a big brick building boiling water for steam to pipe into other buildings in the city. Closed in 1986 and vacant for over a decade, it reeopened in 1999 with a small brewery and a restaurant on two levels: a pub downstairs with sports-on tv screens and a casual atmosphere, and a white-tablecloth dining room upstairs called Stacks. As the Coeur d'Alene in the brewery name suggests, a fair amount of the beer was formerly produced over the state line in nearby Idaho, but as of late all the brewing is done here in a ten-barrel system.
Bellevue Brewing starting selling beer at the end of 2012 and brought the restaurant on line in 2013, in the same newish one-story building a few blocks from the glass towers of downtown Bellevue. John Robertson, founder and co-owner, is glad they were able to get the restaurant going early: "any brewer who isn't also serving food is leaving thousands--hundreds of thousands of dollars on the table. Food is the hardest part of a combined business like this, but also the most rewarding." Robertson mentions the higher alcohol content of most craft beers as another reason for good food in the brewpub: eating slows the bloodstream's absorption of alcohol.
Menace Brewing is a very small two-barrel operation in a business park in Ferndale, about five miles south of the Canadian border. They opened a restaurant called The Local in downtown Bellingham shortly after kegging the first batch of beer. The name is apt for the location, on Railroad Avenue, five blocks of businesses all locally owned save for one Starbucks. The restaurant license is for on-premise consumption only; no growler fills. With ten miles separating the brewery from the restaurant, "we have to keep everyone discussing the different functions, goals, projects of the business," says Tom Raden, Operations Mananger for Menace.
Each of these firms has a lot more people working the restaurant side than are in the back making the beer. In Chuckanut the ratio is 22/3, in the Menace/Local operation it's 15/1, and at Bellevue the ratio is 28/2. This is way beyond Mel and Rhoda slinging the hash; it means a big payroll, managing shifts and hours, ordering from a wide variety of vendors, keeping a consistent level of food and service. For someone who just wants to brew beer, adding food has to be a choice made after taking a deep breath--and then finding a partner who thrives on solving restaurant-type problems. More than half our brewers took that deep breath and made that choice and we are glad they did.
Menus: all four restaurants emphasize local sources and items in season. Steamplant and the Local create separate dinner menus where the fare transcends the pub concept. Steamplant's Chipotle Pork Chop, Roasted Salmon, and Black and Bleu Sirloin and the Local's Carbonade and grilled lemongrass shrimp are good examples. At Chuckanut and Bellevue, the same menu works all day, covering lunch and dinner. Chuckanut used to do separate dinner menus, but found it redundant, says Mari Kemper. "some people would order dnner-type items for lunch, and pizza sells better at night." The selection is predominantly pub, but several choices--the Brewmaster's Meatloaf, Seafood Scallop Pasta, Catch of the Week--certainly suggest an evening meal. On Bellevue's menu, the hot sandwiches are clearly the lead. I can vouch for the Zeppelin, a bratwurst braised in their Scotch Ale. Everything is fresh and gourmet quality--Bellevue boasts that their kitchen has no microwave and no deep fat fryer--but the choices are not yet in the evening meal range.
Suggested pairings: Menus at Chuckanut, Steamplant, and Bellevue generally avoid suggesting a particular beer with any given entree, although when a house beer has been used in a recipe, that will be stated. "We let the servers suggest pairings if the customer asks," says Bellevue's Robertson. "All our servers have to pass the Certified Beer Server test (the first rung in the cicerone program) and they can make better suggestions after talking with the diner a bit." At the Local, suggested pairings on the dinner menu are cast in broad and general terms: the lemongrass shrimp "pairs with amber and red ales," the lamb sausage goes with "malty winter ales," Chris Guard, front house manager at the Local, says some customers, those who choose the food first, like to see the suggestions. "We don't sell food here or just beer here, we sell an experience."
Beer names: talk about pairings brings up the topic of naming the beers. At Chuckanut, Bellevue, and the Local, cute names are seldom used, but each house makes exceptions. Chuckanut has a Yellow Card golden ale to boost the local soccer club, Bellevue has a 425 pale ale (the east side area code), and Menace has a SMASH (single malt and single hop) ale. But generally, the style is the name. Chuckanut Pilsner. Bellevue Oatmeal Stout, Menace Red. Steamplant does do some cute names (e.g., Double Stack Stout, Big Brick Brown); with their unusual building, who could fault them? Robertson, at Bellevue, says naming by style rather than naming for some extrinsic thing "helps the consumer focus on the taste instead of trying to memorize some title."
Support for off-site beer sales: This was the heart of my inquiry: how can an affiliated restaurant stimulate sales of the beer in other outlets, draft accounts in taverns or bottle sales in groceries? There are other business models, where the small brewery makes enough beer for the restaurant and not much more. The chain craft breweries, like McMenamins, Rock Bottom, the RAM, all operate on this model, where growth means opening more locations rather than outside sales. Two of the four I surveyed here have a brisk trade in outside sales and the other two aspire to.
Chuckanut has well over a hundred draft accounts, the majority down in King and Pierce Counties, and Bellevue already counts eighty retailers where they have either kegs in the tap rotation or bottles for off-sale. Steamplant and Menace have, to date, been brewing just for the restaurant, but more of necessity than by choice. Steampant's manager, Tim Denniston, says their beer has been "primarily for on-site consumption as we are a smaller, 10-barrel brewery. However, lately, we are feeling better about our production ability....looking to establish and maintain about 12 off-site accounts." They hope to grow by selling more beer in those other locations, and to fill the restaurant spaces before and after the peak hours. We've all had the experience of eating at a popular spot at six p.m. because it's impossible to get a table at eight.
If a 10-barrel system is small in Spokane, a 2-barrel system is tiny in Whatcom County. Menace's Chris Guard says they had taps at a couple of accounts a while back, but "it takes all the beer the brewery can make to keep three of our Menace beers on tap here at the Local." When production can be ramped up, they will hope to see some off-site accounts going again. "Having a restaurant to introduce our beers to tavern owners is a good low-cost way for them to check us out," Guard continued, "although there's a merchandising aspect to getting those accounts as well. Tap handles, for instance, we don't have our own tap handles yet."
Special dinners: Chuckanut does four or five of these in Bellingham per year and about as many down in the metro area. "Usually we pick the beers first and then let the chef, Joel, get creative in pairing dishes with them," Mari Kemper says. Menace just did its first dinner at the local, "quite backwards," says Chris Guard. The chef maid the menu first and then we had to figure out what beers paired best with it."