The Topic: The Death of Brewpubs
By Ken Carman
Years ago I wrote a column with the topic, â€œWhat Kills a Brewpub?â€ The example used was a brewpub in Covington, Kentucky where the brewer, who became a friend years later, had been the brewmaster. Letâ€™s just say the conclusion was not the usual. During a time when brewpubs (90s) were the new “hot” item to open, I usually found brewpubs kacked because; trying to capitalize on the new trend, they came in and built a giant facility with more bells as whistles than one can imagine… then location, location got the best of them.
The example I use a lot was Main Street Brewing in Worcester, MA, where they came into downtown, put in at least a 3 level brewery with a huge brew operation behind a giant horseshoe bar, second floor a concert hall for older rock groups needing a full stage like Chicago, the Association, 3rd floor a lot of regulation pools tables. There may have been a fourth level, but I don’t remember what was up there. Problem is they went into downtown Worcester, pretty much one of the deeper economic pits in mid-Mass at the time.
Instead, in Tim’s case, the guilty party was â€œmanagement, management.â€ OK, â€œhorrid, horrid, horrid management.â€
A lot has changed since those days. The model pioneered on the west coast by Fritz Maytag morphed into at least as many brewpubs as breweries, and now seems to be boiling down like wort on a burner into as little as one barrel operations and more local. The brewpub model seems to be in trouble. I think there may be a few, mostly chains, left for quite a while, but many of them may die too.
To be honest the restaurant-brewery model is problematic. They are two businesses that are quite different, have different customer-bases. Increasingly over the years the brewpub model relied on those who want to dip their toes into craft brew world, but would walk away with their palates under educated.
I doubt that model can be viable for long. Increasingly more and more customers head straight to the deep end of the pool to jump off the highest, most interesting, diving board. And they donâ€™t want to just dive, they might try jumping, doing flips in midair or even a belly flop or two. They long to strap on scuba gear and stay down for a long time. They dream of a wave pool, or to hit the beach with a boogie board during dangerous conditions, ride all the water park rides; hoping to find one featuring rides no one had ever thought of before.
For years brewpubs relied on reliable, consistent, brews that taste the same every time. They made sure most brews wouldnâ€™t offend the Bud/Miller crowd. This is becoming a crowd that may go to a brewpub once in a while, but generally go elsewhere. They are growing fewer and fewer. Orâ€¦ they simply just donâ€™t join the party.
I worked in restaurants during high school and college. I have seen so many brewpubs fail, one whose model was a German beer hall combined with fine food. They refused to serve nacho-type fare, offered over priced tiny, dainty, pizzas, served costly itsy bitsy portion. Beer is also a “I’ve got the munchies” product.Their model was more drinking lots of beer and fine dining. I was surprised they lasted as long as they did. If youâ€™re going to offer minuscule portions donâ€™t charge me as much, or more than, what other brewpubs do. They did have unique brews, so we did visit them frequently. Giving up on them coming to their senses, we often left after a pint from the firkin and ate elsewhere. Now with one remaining out of many they made made necessary changes. Enough? We shall see.
Anyone remember Hops? Extract-like brewing. Once they were almost as much a part of the land as herds of buffalo, now almost more extinct. According to their site they may still have a location or so in Virginia.
Iâ€™m sorry. I just insulted buffalo. My deepest regrets.
There have been so many brewpubs here… then gone. Generally if the food is bad, the beer good, they donâ€™t survive, the opposite works better. But in the long run usually thereâ€™s some compromise one way or the other, and they tend to lose brewers who get fed up with the compromises. As a once quite viable business model grows less so, community nano breweries vacuum up customers.
Adding a brewery into a full menu restaurant is like adding another partner. As problematic as that may be, treating it like it can be managed the same way as a restaurant, by the same person, is asking for hell. And brewers tend to be an independent breed. Walking into a brewery and “directing” brewers like one might direct waiters, waitresses, cooks, dishwashers on a busy night is problematic. But doing it right, in the busy, fast paced, restaurant environment is like asking managers to stick their heels into a fermentation tank holding lager so they’re cooler, then pump themselves back up to make sure the cook, the staff waiters are keeping up with what’s going on on â€œthe floor.â€ The quick decisions that sometimes have to be made when a new employee may be out of their element may be a big mistake in the brewery. Fermentation takes time and even for the best brewers everything doesn’t always go as planned.
Perhaps being bipolar might help?
Running just a restaurant is tough enough. It probably has one of the biggest failure rates of any industry, kind of like brewing was for a while. Now, since the brewpub model is mostly going away, I think far more small community breweries will come up to the Vulcan standard: live long and mostly prosper. Kind of like the corner pubs in the U.K..
Joining a brewery with a restaurant sometimes reminds me of what a critic said about the joining of Studebaker and Packard, â€œItâ€™s like two blind people trying to help each other across the street.â€
This is why I think the model may fade, and to be honest weâ€™ll be better for it. That doesnâ€™t mean there will be no brewpubs, it just means there will be few.
The new model offers a chance for people other than brewers to start their own businesses: food trucks. They park outside, but can move and serve other community needs. No longer do you have the staffing problems, the food handling situation, the extra cooler space: all that is handled by another businessman or woman.
Anyone running a brewpub needs to consider all this. How do you make your brewpub so special, so needed, so unique, that it will be among the few that survive? Meanwhile, at the same time, how do you appeal to the beer crowd whose focus is beer, not food, and who care far less for consistency in classic, less than unique, styles. That alone is moving forward at the fast pace of adventurers eager to go where they haven’t been before.
I would say if you have great beer, but food that appeals far less, consider shifting models. The same is true the other way around, but may be more of a situation that can be salvaged. The best approach would be fun, exemplary, unique approaches to both, while reaching out to the community to make yourself indispensable in other ways. Both McGuires, for example, in Pensacola and Destin, Florida, have a wild and crazy Irish theme, outrageously unique food with great proportions and good beer. If thereâ€™s an event in town McGuires is involved, even sponsors it. Their bagpipers appear at celebrations all year long.
Pensacola or Destin without McGuires would be like Daytona without a racetrack, Nashville without music, NYC with no Statue of Liberty. Thatâ€™s how important you may need to be to the community.
They have only lagged behind, somewhat, in unique brews, but usually have brewer’s specials that can be fun. The restaurant model is so strong I suspect this will continue to work, though the brewery may become increasingly less of a viable part of the business model. Homebrewer friendly events and a few more experimental brews could make it more viable as this nano brewery trend grabs more of the market.
A far as the new model goes, I must admit some of the food truck food is really good, same with the beer. Some, well, not so hot. But I think that will work itself out in time. Most businesses using a brewery model will be more like the community micros, fewer brewpubs.
Well, at least until the next innovation arrives. Iâ€™ve seen mobile breweries going restaurant to restaurant rather than food trucks, beer deliveries and beer bikes where people ride through city streets and drink from a keg. I imagine there will be even more innovations.
Iâ€™m curious. Arenâ€™t you?
Brew Biz: Werts and All, is a column dedicated to reviewing, discussing and commenting on all things beer including, but not limited to: marketing, homebrewing and homebrew/beer related events, how society perceives all things beer. Also: reviews of beer related businesses, opinions about trends in the beer business, and all the various beer related organizations. Essentially, all things “beer.”