Remembering The 1990s Golden Era of Cheesy Chain Brewpubs

March 29, 2017

By Aaron Goldfarb, March 29, 2017

I’m sitting at Heartland Brewery in the bottom of the Empire State Building. It’s roomy, with two floors, high ceilings, a long curved bar, and SportsCenter-playing TVs galore. It feels more like a Ruby Tuesday in a suburban shopping mall than a restaurant on one of the busiest streets in Manhattan.

Around me tourists nosh on burgers and “Grande Tex Mex” nachos while flipping through guidebooks and planning their afternoons. I sip on a Farmer Jon’s Oatmeal Stout. It’s 1PM on a Thursday and we’re nearing the end of New York City Beer Week; the night before I attended the NYC Brewer's Choice in Brooklyn, a festival celebrating the best breweries in the city. Heartland Brewery was not in attendance. Completely ignored by beer geeks today, Heartland is a stark reminder of the chain brewpubs that were red hot in America in the 1990s.

“I wasn’t really looking specifically to open a brewpub,” former investment banker Jon Bloostein told Gothamist in 2005. “I was looking for a business that capitalized on people’s addictions, or to be politically correct, people’s behavioral patterns. I looked at tobacco, candy/sugar, gambling, topless bars, and alcohol.” He ultimately decided on alcohol, a savvy move as, in 1995, New York barely had any breweries. (Brooklyn Brewery was still contract-brewing upstate; Chelsea Brewery wouldn’t open ’til the next year.)

I remember when I first moved here in 2000. I aspired to drink “good beer,” but there weren’t many good options. If New York City counts 31 breweries today – many nationally-renowned like Other Half and Evil Twin – back then we really only had Brooklyn and Heartland, which at one time had six locations. Walking into a Heartland Brewery to see a beer menu completely consisting of flavorful beer was a godsend in an era when most bars only had “crap on tap.”

Today, though, the city has radically changed, and Heartland is down to just three locations; it doesn’t brew at any of these “brewpubs,” and the beers it serves are hardly the de rigeur styles (hazy IPAs, fruited sours, adjunct-laden stouts) people today crave. Instead, the styles they offer seem more reminiscent of a previous era. An oatmeal stout. A honey porter. An apricot ale. A hefeweizen adorned with a lemon wedge. It’s enough to wonder if brewpub chains even still have a place in America like they did just two decades ago.

Heartland BreweryHeartland was once one of the only places to get craft beer in New York City.

The ’90s. Grunge music, gangster rap, and a chain brewpub in every shopping center. Every big city seemed to have at least one of the major chains, whether it was Rock Bottom, BJ’s, Gordon Biersch, John Harvard’s, Iron Hill, or something else. True, almost none of these places exactly made good beer as we define it in 2017, but they all made what would have been considered “good” and certainly “adventurous” for the time – microbrews of varying styles at least attempting to be flavorful.

In many cases, these chain brewpubs were the only places in town to get microbrewed beer, even if it was occasionally ersatz. They were also great family places, spots to grab a casual bite for the kids while dad blew through a flight of oddball brews. And, for many folks, myself included, it was our first foray into non-macro beer.

President Carter’s 1978 signing of H.R. 1337 made homebrewing legal and opened the floodgates for new breweries. By 1982 you had the first American brewpub, Grant’s Brewery Pub (aka Yakima Brewing and Malting Company), opened in a former opera house. Believe it or not, the Scottish-Canadian expat Bert Grant’s idea to serve beer in the very same place he had brewed it was a revelation in this country, and a combination ripe for the burgeoning microbrewing industry.

“It’s much easier for the public to interact with the existence of a brewery if people can come to the brewery and buy the product,” Redhook Ale Brewery’s chief executive Paul Shipman told the Seattle Post Intelligencer in 2006 upon Grant’s closing (Grant himself had died in 2001). There was the novelty of seeing the beer being made, usually in sight of the bar, back in an era when few people could have even told you what exactly hops were.

Most importantly, though, it was a much more marketable way for a fledgling brewery to make money, as guests (and, thus, potential drinkers) could be first lured to the establishment by the idea of food. It was surely easier to sell a hamburger to someone in the early 1990s than it was to sell them an oatmeal stout. Soon many folks wanted in on this kind of business plan.

My parents were mostly teetotalers and certainly didn’t frequent bars, but the relaxed, booth-heavy environment of Rock Bottom must have fooled them.”

A year after Yakima, California’s first brewpub would open in the romantically-named town of Hopland. Then came Buffalo Bill’s Brewpub in Hayward, California. A year after that, in 1984, came the east coast’s first brewpub, Manhattan Brewing Company, where Garrett Oliver was an early brewer. Of course, once a singular success occurs, capitalism dictates that “scaling up” is the next step. This had already happened in the U.K., where Bruce David had opened dozens of Firkin chain brewpubs starting in 1979.

America’s foray into brewpub chains began in the late-1980s, when brothers Mike and Brian McMenamin opened the Hillsdale Brewery and Public House in Portland. By 2010 they counted 60 establishments as part of the McMenamin chain, 25 of them brewing on site throughout Oregon and Washington. A common aesthetic linked the chain, as Dick Cantwell notes in The Oxford Companion to Beer:

“In large part McMenamin’s uses a common aesthetic to decorate their pubs, a sort of hippie-ish, cross-eyed Victorianism employing details such as psychedelic flocked wallpaper, overstuffed furniture, and ornately trippy paintjobs, the latter even extending to the brewery tanks. (sic)”

Chains that would follow in McMenamin’s path would hew more closely to the suburban chain restaurant aesthetic (“...all the goofy shit on the walls and the mozzarella sticks”) that came to define ’90-era brewpubs, even today. There was Gordon Biersch which opened in the summer of 1988 in the Palo Alto area, focusing mainly on German lagers. By 1995 it was a $20 million empire and today it has 32 locations in 18 states – all mainly brewing the same beers they’ve always brewed, a “golden export” lager, a hefeweizen, a schwarzbier. In San Diego Karl Strauss started a year later – it now has eleven locations and is the 45th biggest brewery in America.

The massive chains really started to arrive with Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery in 1991 and especially BJ’s Brewhouse in 1996.

I remember stopping in at the Kansas City location of the family-friendly Rock Bottom during a road trip. My parents were mostly teetotalers and certainly didn’t frequent bars, but the relaxed, booth-heavy environment of Rock Bottom must have fooled them. I even convinced them to buy me a branded t-shirt and wore it proudly to junior high, thinking perhaps the cooler kids would infer I was now a beer drinker (I don’t believe it worked). Today, Rock Bottom has 37 locations, some in airport terminals, many with their own in-house brewer, and a website that offers some pretty full disclosures.

BJ's BrewhouseThere's an award-winning sour in one of these tap lists.

“I always told my partner (Bill Cunningham), ‘We're businessmen first, and restaurateurs second,” BJ’s co-founder Mike “Buck” Phillips told radio host Mark Haney last year, not even mentioning the brewing aspect of his brewpub chain. “We wanted a business without accounts receivable or inventory.”

BJ’s had started as an Orange County-area Chicago-style pizza chain. Phillip’s other partner, eventual CEO Paul Motenko, wisely read the hop leaves and shifted the focus to beer in the ’90s. Today BJ’s is the largest brewpub chain in America, publically traded, and with a stunning 170 locations, many in shopping centers near big box stores and other chain restaurants like Macaroni Grill.

Only six of the locations actually brew beer, however. And, while the flagship beers at each location remain ’90s-esque – blonde ales, nut browns – they seem to have adapted with the times. Last year BJ’s won a gold at the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in the highly-competitive Fruited Wood- and Barrel-Aged Sour Beer category.

“We opened in 1996, and at that time there still was not a lot of craft beer in the market,” Kevin Finn, one of Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant’s co-founders, tells me. They opened their first location in Newark and today have 12 locations in Jersey and Philly suburbs like West Chester, Ardmore, and Chestnut Hill. “There were a lot of people coming into the market (in the 1990s) and honestly a lot of not-so-good beer out there. I knew that one brewery/restaurant would never support us in the long term. What I think we did right was come up with a business plan that included multiple restaurants in the future, so we planned ahead for success.”

Like Rock Bottom, each Iron Hill location has a head brewer and their own brewing equipment. And, while they are asked to brew the brand’s signature beers like Pig Iron Porter and White Iron Wit, they also have the flexibility to come up with their own recipes. The strategy has clearly worked as, remarkably, Iron Hill has a record-setting winning streak of 20 consecutive years at the GABF. After years of mainly targeting more surburban locations, they plan to open their next location in Center City Philadelphia in 2018.

 “We don’t necessarily consider ourselves a chain,” Finn explains, seemingly mad I even used that loaded word. “We believe great brands survive and flourish no matter what. Two of my favorite companies are Starbucks and Trader Joe’s. Both are large companies with great brands, and people love them regardless of their size.”

Many folks don’t ever want to trek to some “hip” nano-brewery crammed into a small warehouse under a highway in Brooklyn.”

By 2010, Gordon Biersch and Rock Bottom had become “too capital-constrained” and New York-based Centerbridge Capital Partners acquired them both. They were merged into a single entity called CraftWorks Restaurants and Breweries Inc, though the branding for each brewpub remained unchanged. They actually seem to again be flourishing, “regardless of their size.”

If it sounds like I’ve been needling these brewpub chains, what I’ve neglected to mention is that, on this chilly Thursday, Heartland Brewery is absolutely packed. Maybe brewpub chains do still have a place in 2017’s brewing scene.

Sometimes you get so deep in the beer geek world you forget that others are still just starting on their craft beer journeys. And many folks don’t ever want to trek to some “hip” nano-brewery crammed into a small warehouse under a highway in Brooklyn – they want a nice meal, a nice atmosphere, and, hell yeah, a flight of flavorful-enough beers will work too.

Meanwhile, twenty blocks downtown from the Empire State Building, in Union Square sits a Korean gastropub, which was where Heartland’s first location opened in 1995. That Heartland location closed on New Year’s Eve 2014, but it had already stopped brewing beer there by 2002, taking its production to a larger, brewing-only space in Brooklyn. For its final 12 years at that Union Square location, the brewing equipment in the bi-level space mainly served as museum pieces, giving you the “feel” that beer was still brewed there.

You have to almost wonder if Heartland realizes they are not for the cutting edge drinker anymore, as they now offer guest beers from places like the Kings County Brewers Collective, a much cooler, modern brewery that makes dry-hopped lagers and blackberry pomegranate sours. As for me, I quite enjoyed my oatmeal stout (and the Heartland fish ‘n’ chips); and, it was good to visit an old friend for the first time in a decade or so.

My favorite brewery at the moment is also a brewpub: Threes Brewing in Gowanus, Brooklyn (where the October launch party was held no less). It’s completely different in aesthetics from the chain brewpubs that dominated the 1990s, with sleek, minimalist design, dim lighting, not a single TV, and a food menu comprised mostly of artisanal, wood-fired meat plates courtesy of a whole-animal butcher shop in Williamsburg. Still, even Threes sells branded t-shirts and baby onesies, burgers and fries, and if you visit on a weekend you’ll see plenty of families with little ones running around.

As I write this, a special “pop-up” second location of Threes has just opened across the borough in Greenpoint. It’s been a big hit so far. Maybe soon they will have twenty locations, a public offering, an acquisition by a Manhattan-based private equity firm, and a huge location in a shopping mall next to a Best Buy.

But I kinda doubt it.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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