The Benefits of Brewing Your Own Beer
At the California brewpub Abigaile, brewmaster Paul Papantonio is enjoying the creativity and flexibility of working in a restaurant setting. Those high margins don’t hurt, either.
Before Jed Sanford painted the walls black and handed out spray cans to designers, the space that is now Abigaile was a steakhouse named Union Cattle Co. Locals knew the restaurant for its mechanical bull, proximity to the ocean, and impressive wine list. The fact the concept brewed its own beer, although sporadically, was more of an afterthought than a true selling point. The copper-clad setup, inherited from the previous establishment, Ein Stein’s Brewery, never really fit into the fabric of Sanford’s restaurant, or the demographics of the region for that matter. The beachfront city of Hermosa Beach, California, isn’t going to be confused with San Diego or Portland, Oregon, by West Coast craft beer aficionados anytime soon. Patrons are far more likely to pick up a macro selection and go sit in the sand than order an imperial stout better suited for a cold night by the fire.
But as Sanford graduated into his 30s and began to alter his priorities, he searched for a way to let the restaurant mature as well. Abigaile was born out of that refinement—a culinary-focused restaurant with a fresh, inventive menu that lured in a different kind of crowd. Right away, he knew it was imperative to revive the relic brewery. Abigaile is the only restaurant in Hermosa Beach with an on-site brewery and Sanford planned to embrace the distinction.
“We got the brewery running and brought in some really good food and just started doing it,” he recalls. “That was one of the big decisions when I changed concepts. If we’re going to keep this, I want to make it first class.”
Sanford hired former Stone brewer Brian Brewer, who spent months gutting and revamping the system. There are four 15 BBL brite beer tanks, one 30 BBL tank, a 30 BBL fermenter, and a 15 BBL direct-fire system with two 15 BBL fermenters—all located behind the bar in the heart of the restaurant, which is now led by renowned executive chef Tin Vuong.
Last September, 30-year-old Paul Papantonio stepped into the role after Brewer headed a few miles down the road to open Hopsaint Brewing. Papantonio brought along an impressive résumé, with stops at craft beer havens Oskar Blues, Shipyard, Fort Collins Brewery, and Saint Archer.
Papantonio read the job description (beachfront setting included) and made the leap. He had a lone, brief stint in a brewpub and wasn’t sure what to expect. Truthfully, the boom of the craft sector, which grew 13 percent in 2015, according to the Brewers Association, has completely redrawn the landscape for restaurants. Brewpubs alone, as noted by the same source, rose 12.2 percent from 1,470 to 1,650 locations from 2014 to 2015. This movement is especially rapid at full-service models, where curated beer lists are becoming as crucial as wine cellars. Brewing in-house elevates menus for both food and beverage. It can trigger major savings and even bigger gains. That’s something Papantonio noticed early on. “Two tanks of beer pay for my year’s salary. The markup on selling the beer here is a large profit margin,” he says. What that means is simple: Papantonio has unbridled rein to shop, imagine, and craft beer as he sees fit.
It’s a nice change, he says, from working in a large-scale brewery known for its staple creations. Manning the brewery at a restaurant allows Papantonio to experiment with flavors, rotate recipes, and set his own hours. Abigaile opens at 5 p.m. during the week (11 a.m. on Saturday and Sundays for brunch). “What I really like is that they said, ‘If you’re brewing, just try to do it before we open.’ … If I was to brew or do anything too serious, I would either be running through the restaurant constantly or just all up in the bartender’s way.”
It also helps being surrounded by co-workers with refined palates. On occasion, Papantonio will talk to the chefs about trending flavors when they’re in season, and try to incorporate those into his batches. One example is when a chef offered him a taste of a dish made with guava, which inspired a guava blond ale. For the most part, however, he’s just tried to present options as interesting and ingredient-forward as the menu, while keeping an eye on possible pairings. “The best part for me right now is that I don’t have a boss busting my [chops] about doing something a little different from what he wanted,” he says. “It’s just about getting the right recipes and brewing a lot of different things all the time instead of brewing the same four or five beers every day.”
Papantonio began brewing when he was a senior at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. His father bought him a Mr. Beer home brew kit for Christmas, and Papantonio set out trying to re-create the iconic Bass Pale Ale. “I guess my palate was way different at the time but I thought it was decent. I definitely remember it being hazy,” he says. After Papantonio graduated with a music degree in jazz studies, he “had nothing to do, no job,” so he continued to brew at home and started attending meetings at the local home-brew club in upstate New York.
“At the time I was pretty poor, and it was cheaper than going out and buying 50 beers,” he says. Papantonio had some successes, and definitely some failures, like the time he brewed a sour that tasted like “biscuit-y nail polish.”
The Maine-based brewery Shipyard—the largest in the state—was his first interview and job. Even though he had limited experience, Papantonio was able to land a position at the large-scale operation thanks to his moldable skills.
“It’s honestly not super difficult to be a brewer,” he explains. “It actually benefits them sometimes to hire someone with less experience because they just pay them less.”
He started as shift brewer and worked his way into roles doing everything “except for packaging.” Papantonio moved to a brewpub in New Jersey, then Fort Collins Brewery in Colorado, Saint Archer in San Diego, and most recently, the Colorado-headquartered giant Oskar Blues. He left the latter position due to the overwhelming output of the brand, which just recently opened its largest of three outposts in Austin, Texas. The company also has a facility in Brevard, North Carolina.
“Their main goal was just cranking out beers, which I think is great, but I’m more about the quality and making sure every beer is the exact way I want it,” he says. Working in a restaurant setting encourages just that. Not to mention, the pace is a tad different.
“It’s just way slower,” he says. “I’m not brewing and packaging every day or anything like that. I’m doing a lot of other things. What’s nice is I get to focus a lot on the recipes because we don’t have any [beers on tap full time], at least not yet. So I spend a lot of time on doing that, which is kind of fun.”
Papantonio has paid a lot of attention to the market, and to the fact he’s serving his beer in a restaurant. In true California fashion, the first offering tapped was a double IPA called Punchbowl, an eclectic blend of unique hops (including Pacific and Wakatu hops from New Zealand) that poured at 8 percent ABV. Typically, he tries to keep the beers to lower ABVs and make sure “they’re drinkable,” to cater to the beach crowd and take into account the reality that most guests need to drive home after dinner. “I think when I put things on tap, they have to be beers people can drink. Not necessarily beach beers, but if I add a 14 percent stout, it’s going to be on tap for three years,” he says.
Having the flexibility of working in a restaurant has also paved the way for his R&D program. Like a similar aspect on Abigaile’s food menu, Papantonio will experiment with flavors in response to customer trends. He’s thrown coconut flavors into porters and plans to try chocolate and vanilla together in the near future.
This again is made possible by the generous margins afforded by a restaurant’s beverage program. A typical operator will aim at a gross profit margin around 80 percent when it comes to pouring beer from a tap. Bottled beer margins are going to be slightly lower. Remove the distributor from the equation, and Papantonio says he has his pick of ingredients when brainstorming recipes. While most brewpubs won’t tell you what they spend for their base, it’s understood the majority of costs will come up-front. Sanford says the remodel of Abigaile from Union Cattle Co. cost between “$150,000 and $170,000.”
Average brewery systems will run well beyond that number (depending on the tank capacity and the expected output), especially in today’s market, but Abigaile had the luxury of already having brewery bones in place. A 30 BBL fermenter alone will run about $15,000 without installation. A new 30-barrel system can cost upward of $1 million, and many brewers set $400,000 as a low-ball figure for starting a small operation. “As far as I know, I have no spending limit. But I know [profit margin] is all they talk about on any other side of the restaurant.”
The house-made beers at Abigaile often pour at $6 a pint, while the "Drop It Like It’s Hops" IPA, on tap in early July, was $7. Even though it’s still relatively fresh in Hermosa Beach, Papantonio says he’s well aware of the craft beer oversaturation from his time in suds-crazy states like Colorado. That extends to the restaurant arena.
In response, he decided to emphasize a style many small breweries and restaurants avoid: lagers. The reason for this is that a well-made lager will take longer and is more difficult to brew than an ale. The German word “lagern,” which means “to store,” refers to the lagering process where the beer typically ferments over longer periods of time. A brewer will need to weigh that margin of lost time, especially given how popular ales tend to be and how fast they sell. “Generally, I’ll do three weeks for an ale and four or five weeks for a lager. So it’s not that much longer,” he says. It also takes more water, but Papantonio believes differentiating Abigaile from the incoming craft rush is worth it.
“Not a lot of breweries are making lagers and even less are making very good lagers. I’d like to be a brewery that’s making some real solid ones, and for people to know that about us,” he says. The Vienna Lager-Batch No. 1 (ABV of 5.7 percent) was on tap this summer. He used toasted buckwheat to spice up the recipe, highlighted by a nice malt aroma and clean caramel flavors melded with dry-roasted peanut and toasted bread from the buckwheat.
In the future, Papantonio is hoping Abigaile can set up distribution to the rest of the group’s restaurants. BlackHouse Hospitality operates California concepts Steak and Whisky, Little Sister, Día de Campo, and Wildcraft. “We’re definitely looking at that because I would love to see these beers at all our restaurants,” Papantonio says, noting that the company would probably need to contract some of the actual brewing if that happens. “We would have plenty of options and I think it would be awesome to get people drinking some great beer.”
FIVE OTHER RESTAURANTS BREWING THEIR OWN BEER
Titletown Brewing Company
GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN | USA Today named the legendary restaurant its No. 1 Brewpub in America as decided by popular vote this year. Opened in 1996 in the old Chicago & North Western railroad depot, the restaurant, located in Green Bay Packers territory, has a Hoppy Campers Club as well as a 400 Club that allows guests to drink its revered beers—like the Great American Beer Festival Gold-winning Boathouse Pilsner—out of a half-liter mug.
The Schlafly Tap Room
ST. LOUIS | Missouri’s first new brewpub since Prohibition opened its doors in 1991. European pub fare complements signature beers in a restored turn-of-the-century brick and timber building. Upward of 70 styles will be brewed each year. The restaurant will also suggest pairings. Fish and Fries with Pilsner, Fried Bologna and Ham Toastie with Kölsch, Schnitzel with Hefeweizen, and Mussels with Fries and Pale Ale are some of the favorites.
Taps Fish House and Brewery
CALIFORNIA | Taps Fish House calls itself a “full-scale fish and chop house complemented by an award-winning brewery” as opposed to a beer-focused restaurant. There are locations in Brea, Corona, and Irvine. The brewery was founded in 1999 and its beers reflect the classic brewing traditions of Europe as well as the creativity of the American Craft Beer scene. The brewery has won more than 70 medals, produces over 46,000 gallons a year, and distributes to other restaurants.
MEMPHIS | Tennessee state laws prevented restaurants from brewing and selling beer until 1992. Right after the law changed, Boscos became the state’s first brewpub on Dec. 26 of that year. The restaurant brews more than 60 styles each year, including the GABF Silver Medal–winning Boscos Famous Flaming Stone. Gayot.com named the institution, housed in the former Bombay Bicyle Club, one of America’s Top 10 Brewpubs in 2016. The restaurant also incorporates its beer into pizza crust.
The Brewer’s Art
BALTIMORE | The awards are plentiful for the upscale restaurant located in a former townhouse. In 2009, Esquire named The Brewer’s Art its No. 1 bar in America. Gayot called it a Top 10 Brewpub and Draft Magazine named it one of the Top 100 Beer Bars in America in 2015. Fine-dining options such as Braised Rabbit Leg and Roasted Pork Belly can be ordered next to some of the city’s most sought after brews, like the Abbey-style dubbel, Resurrection.