The craft beer movement has always been one part quality, one part creativity and one part rebellion against corporate business practices that place an emphasis on efficiency, operating systems and conformity. In the early days of craft beer this, David vs. Goliath philosophy came to life most vibrantly in the form of brewpubs.
Brewpub chain would appear to be an oxymoron.
Places such as McNeil’s Brewery in Brattleboro, VT, and the Lucky Labrador in Portland, OR, dialed up the counter-culture feel as they built reputations for mastering the brewing arts. Brewpubs wore “different” as a badge of honor. Even with the quirkiness, there was a sameness about the brewpub experience for much of the 1980s and early 1990s. The beer was great, the décor pretty much all the same and the food and service were usually a hit-or-miss proposition. Certainly there were a few exceptions to this rule of thumb, but any objective observer at the time would tell you that the emphasis was solidly on the brew in brewpub.
Most beer fans were willing to forgive the shortcomings of brewpub kitchens. After all, these were the early days of the birth of American craft beer revolution and most people were focused on discovering new brewers and beer flavors. Brewpubs offered fresh craft beer, serving up styles that the average restaurant bar manager at the time did not even know existed. You learned to eat defensively. Burgers and chicken wings were usually a safe bet unless you were in a place such as Empire Brewing in Syracuse, NY, or Wynkoop Brewing in Denver that cultivated well-earned reputations for food.
Beer and Food
The beer business is a dog-eat-dog environment. Getting started, with equipment expenses, government regulations, recipe development and staff training is a complicated dance. Bottling lines are massive investments and obtaining shelf space at retail stores is extremely difficult. Going toe-to-toe against large breweries with national advertising budgets to slug it out for tap handles at bars and restaurants is equally challenging.
The genesis of the brewpub as a cornerstone of the craft beer movement is directly linked to these beer industry facts of life. Competition and costs dictated that many startup brewers needed to create their own retail distribution. As laws changed allowing brewpubs, some states required that food also be sold. That created a potential revenue stream for the brewery, but brought with it another set of headaches. The restaurant business is not for the faint of heart.