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Available in a Historic Building Near You: Local Beer!  

12-09-2015 17:35

What do a former post office in Connecticut, school in Oregon, and church in Pennsylvania have in common? They are all historic buildings currently reused as brewpubs. From my general observations in traveling to nearly 500 American brewpubs and microbreweries, at least 60 percent of brewpub and microbrewery operations nationwide involve the adaptive use of an existing building. This number is closer to 75 percent for those located in the Midwest and Northeast. The rapid expansion of these businesses has had a major impact on improving commercial downtowns, and is a plus for historic preservation.

A Fast-Growing Industry

In 1872 there were 4,131 breweries in America, a record never since surpassed (Wells, 81). Most Americans lived within ten miles of a brewery, a statistic that is close to becoming a reality yet again.

By 1983 brewpubs were illegal in America, largely due to legislators protecting the interests of national breweries, wholesalers, and distributors. Many forward-thinking small business owners worked to change these laws over the next decade, and ultimately most state governments understood the economic benefits of allowing craft brewing establishments. Nearly 200 new breweries opened between May 1993 and October 1994, and the volume of craft beer produced in the United States doubled between 1990 and 1994 (Ogle, 320).

It is estimated that the current number of breweries in the United States in 2010 is now more than 1,600—the most there have been for at least the past 130 years. According to the United States Brewers Association, 98 percent of these are small, independent craft breweries. When these smaller craft breweries serve food and enter into the restaurant business, they are known as brewpubs.

As defined by the United States Brewers Association, a craft brewer has an annual production of less than 2 million barrels of beer. Furthermore, the brewer brews to enhance rather than lighten flavor, is innovative in beer styles, and is not controlled by the financial interests of larger breweries. This definition puts craft brewers among those small businesses that are the backbone of the American economy, and it describes a business that typically employs a substantial and steady number of individuals from the local community. Microbreweries and brewpubs are the primary segments of craft brewing, with contract brewers and regional breweries also making up a portion of this market.

A recent article reported: “The craft beer industry continues to be the fastest-growing segment in the entire U.S. alcohol beverage industry, despite a dismal economic climate. The evidence is that the craft brewing industry saw a 10.1 percent increase in dollar sales from 2007 to 2008, and a 5 percent growth in the first half of 2009.” (Barnes) The craft beer industry is succeeding, despite being in direct competition with some of the world’s largest corporations.

Adaptive Use

Brewpubs, microbreweries with tasting rooms, and other craft brewers overwhelmingly locate their operations in distinctive older buildings. One reason is because brewpubs and microbreweries require lots of space, and that makes them perfectly suited to certain types of older buildings. McMenamins in Portland, Ore., Wynkoop in Denver, Triple Rock in Berkeley, Cal., and Goose Island in Chicago were just a few of the more forward-thinking, preservation-minded companies that saw a clear business model for success in the mid to late 1980s in adaptively using historic buildings for brewpubs—and that is still repeated today.

A seven-barrel brewery system is the basic standard for most brewpubs, and requires between 1,000 to 1,500 square feet. Given an average of 100 seats, 2,500 square feet is a bare minimum for most craft breweries that are also brewpubs—preferably double this amount is needed. Such operations typically can be accommodated in downtown brick commercial buildings or distinctive resource types such as former depots, hotels, or industrial manufacturing buildings.

In a brewpub, the fermentation tanks are often showcased behind a glass window at the front of the restaurant or on a second floor. Interior requirements often mean removal of walls to allow for open spaces, especially for brewpubs with a restaurant seating component. Exteriors typically have intact facades, some with fairly significant architectural details and ornamental features.

Many properties are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and others are within listed districts. Rehabilitation of these resources may not always follow the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation of Historic Buildings, but they do make use of larger, commonly brick, buildings that are otherwise underutilized or abandoned.

For example, in 2009 there were approximately 70 brewpubs or microbreweries operating in the state of Wisconsin. Of these, roughly 20 percent were located in buildings listed in the National Register of Historic Places, primarily in downtown locations within historic districts. These include the Angry Minnow in Hayward in the former office of the North Wisconsin Lumber Company, the Potosi brewpub in the former Potosi Brewery, the Silver Creek Brewpub in the Cedarburg Mill, and Titletown Brewing in the former Chicago and Northwestern Railroad Passenger Depot. Some 60 percent were in buildings that were more than 50 years old but not National Register listed, such as the Viking Brewery, which is located in a former Ford automobile showroom in the rural Wisconsin town of Dallas, and Sand Creek Brewing, which re-uses a former brewery building in Black River Falls. Former uses of this particular building ranged from raising turkeys to producing land mines.

If the brewpub also has a successful microbrewery component, much more space is needed for a bottling operation, and increasingly these operations are found at a separate location. The explosive growth of Dogfish Head Brewery of Delaware is one example of this. Five years ago it maintained its original brewpub along the main street of Rehoboth Beach and relocated bottling operations to a former tomato canning factory in historic Milton.

The growing interest in “green” and “sustainable” brewery operations has dramatically increased in recent years, and many microbreweries highlight the “green” aspects of their reuse of an existing building. Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee, located in a former power plant, received a Travel Green Tourism certification in 2007, and other states have similar award programs that have honored local brewpubs and microbreweries for their green practices including reuse of an existing building.

Catalysts for Revitalization

For the historic commercial main streets throughout America, brewpubs can generate substantial interest in a once-vacant downtown. This can then lead to further redevelopment of neighboring properties, and success often comes quickly in these areas of larger cities.

The Lower Downtown Historic District was formed by an act of the Denver City Council in 1988, the same year Wynkoop Brewing opened in a historic building in this district, leading to explosive economic growth in this area of the city. Other partnerships with local investors to open brewpubs in historic buildings spread to a dozen additional locations throughout the county, led by Wynkoop Brewing’s John Hickenlooper (now the governor of Colorado). The National Trust for Historic Preservation presented this effort with a Preservation Honor Award in 1997.

The Bricktown Brewery in Oklahoma City opened in 1992, and is an example of an operation that took a successful investment chance in a part of a community largely abandoned but ripe for redevelopment. In 1996 Court Avenue Brewing in Des Moines became a catalyst for the additional revitalization in the now main entertainment district of this city. The B.O.B. (Big Old Building) was a century-old 70,000-square-foot grocery warehouse that stood vacant for decades in downtown Grand Rapids, until its conversion in the 1990s into a brewery that is now major nightlife center.

The Main Street program in West Bend, Wisc., actively sought a brewpub for its downtown. Having done a recent market analysis locally and using market research conducted by Wisconsin Main Street in 2005, it was able to convince a couple looking to open a sports bar downtown that a microbrewery would be a better investment. Located in a downtown building that was previously slated for demolition, the Riverside Brewery had to increase its staff significantly shortly after opening due to demand and continued interest.

Brewpubs as Community Centers

Brewpubs can be considered as “third places,” a community space that is neither work nor home, providing a preferred experience sought by the “creative class.” It is not surprising that cities and towns that attract this “creative class” also have a large microbrewery concentration. Unlike coffee shops, brewpubs attract both local and those patrons who will go out of their way to find these establishments. Customers value the atmosphere of the brewpub as much as the opportunity to try a different type of beer.

It is important to note, too, that the flexibility and independent nature of local brewing operations enable them to take an active role in community life, through philanthropy, volunteerism, and sponsorship of events.

For those brewpubs that are open for lunch and dinner, the hours between 2 and 5 p.m. can typically be low in traffic. One solution has been the use of “mug clubs.” Local patrons pay an amount each year to be a mug club member and receive their own personalized drinking vessel stored at the brewpub. They then typically receive reduced prices for beer, larger amounts, and other special incentives during this time period. During these hours, the bar area might be filled with a mix of retirees, self-employed people, and those with nontraditional work hours, as well as those just traveling through town. Perhaps the greatest evidence of this business success is that most mug clubs currently have a waiting list, and limit membership to those who live within the community.

The McMenamins chain of brewpubs based in the Pacific Northwest make an effort to offer community activities along with food and drink. To expand their appeal beyond meal times, McMenamins brewpubs host live concerts, trivia games, and community meetings in the evenings.

The Walldorff Brewpub & Bistro in Hastings, Mich., is a good example of a brewpub that functions as a community anchor in a smaller town. A three-story brick commercial building, built in 1868 on the most prominent corner in the downtown, it has served nearly two dozen uses and gone through numerous renovations until becoming a brewpub in 2006 (earning a local award for the renovation). The owners have turned the third floor into a ballroom that can seat up to 200 people, which is used regularly for private and public events.

Many other craft beer successes apply this mixed-use concept. For example, the National Historic Landmark depot in Cheyenne, Wyo., houses a museum and city and private offices as well as a brewpub. In smaller communities, Shipwrecked in Egg Harbor, Wis., and Red Jacket Brewing in Calumet, Mich., are just two examples of brewpubs with overnight lodging options available in their upper floors. Another example is Fitger’s in Duluth, Minn., which includes an inn, retail shops, and multiple restaurants along with a brewpub within an 1885 renovated historic brewery complex.

A Sense of Place

Remember when the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught on fire? They have a beer for that: the Burning River Pale Ale by Great Lakes Brewing Company. Who founded the town of Weed, Calif.? Abner Weed of course, highlighted in the Abner Weed Amber Ale by Mt. Shasta Brewing Company. Fan of dark beers? How about the Quapaw Quarter Porter from Vino’s, named after this historic district in Little Rock, Ark.

It is rare to find a local brewer who does not capitalize on local history, geographic locations, and even specific historic buildings. Writing on the history of beer in America, author Amy Mittelman notes: “The new generation of brewers emphasizes its connection to place and community even more than taste. They stake a claim to authenticity via their roots in a specific locale.” Brewpubs tap into that unique sense of place, even one that those from outside the community may not find appealing. There certainly is a pride of place with Rust Belt Brewing, located in the former B&O Station in Youngstown, Ohio.

Most brewpubs also capitalize upon and highlight their location in historic downtowns. Just one example is the Downtown Grill & Brewery in Knoxville, Tenn., which is housed in a former furniture store. This site isn’t far from a good beer bar known as the Preservation Pub in another historic building.

Several breweries have even created specialty beers for specific preservation projects. Terrapin Beer Company’s effort to support the historic Georgia Theatre in Athens after it was damaged in a fire is one recent example. In 2010 the company released four specific specialty beers with a portion of the proceeds donated to the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation’s fund to rebuild the Georgia Theatre. To make things even more interesting, there is one Golden Ticket hidden among each of the Georgia Theatre Sessions brews. This means that four lucky winners will receive a lifetime pass to the restored theater. A beer in support of preservation efforts at Fort McHenry in Baltimore is another past effort.

Heritage Tourism

Alcohol tourism (or “alcotourism”) is not new to many regions of the country that already have substantial vineyards and wine operations—or the famous whiskey and bourbon trails in Tennessee and Kentucky. Beer tourism, however, is a relatively newer phenomenon; the states of New Hampshire, Delaware, Oregon, and others have created travel programs and trails based solely on alcohol, especially beer.

Numerous Main Street programs now offer beer festivals and similar promotional partnerships to showcase their downtown areas. These events are always sold out, with a majority of attendees typically coming from outside the community. Many state beer festivals are also held annually at historic sites, Alabama’s at the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Birmingham and New Jersey’s aboard the Battleship New Jersey in Camden are just two examples.

The total economic impact of the beer industry on Oregon’s economy was last calculated to be $2.33 billion; this includes those traveling to and through the state strictly for the purpose of seeking craft beer experiences (Oregon Brewers Guild). To the joy of the beer traveler, many beer-related locations are within a few historic city blocks of each other as well. Portland, Maine; Portland, Ore.; Asheville, N.C.; Burlington, Vt.; and Boulder, Colo. are some locations seen as a “beer mecca.” It is not surprising that local tourism efforts now aggressively market these specialty brews. It is also interesting to note that these cities are all Dozen Distinctive Destinations recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Some Hurdles

While the majority of states have rid themselves of restrictive legislation that limited the profitability and even existence of brewpubs and microbreweries in the past two decades, “dry” counties still exist in many parts of the country.

Of course, the federal government has a long history of taxation on alcohol. And in these economically challenging times, some local governments may also see new or increased taxes on alcohol as a revenue source. As just one example, in Atlanta, Ga., the city council passed higher license fees for bars, clubs, restaurants, brewpubs, and anybody else who serves alcohol. Those that spoke out against the measure specifically noted the role brewpubs play in providing a unique experience and sense of place that benefit the city.

Yet such a growing industry will not be deterred by these restrictive measures. Success in craft brewing and historic preservation go together hand in hand—just make sure that hand is holding a mug of locally brewed beer.

Adaptive Use Examples Abound!
Here is just a small sampling of notable brewpubs across the country housed in historic buildings.

Willimantic Brewing Company in Willimantic, Conn., occupies the 1909 granite and limestone post office building downtown. The pub area was formerly the customer lobby, the private dining room was the postmaster’s office, and the brewery is located in the former post office work room.

The Church Brew Works is in the former St. John the Baptist Church in Pittsburgh. The brew house is located on the altar. To those making beer pilgrimages here, it truly is a religious experience. Extensive interior fixtures were maintained, including wooden church pews for seating.

The Haverhill Brewing Company is in a former shoe manufacturing building in the heart of the downtown district of Haverhill, Mass., which was once dominated by this industry. The Blue Heron brewpub in downtown Marshfield, Wis., is an adaptive use of a former ice cream factory; the building is an important reminder on the dairy heritage of the community.

The Fox River Brewing Company chain, also in Wisconsin, includes a location on the Fox River in the former Vulcan Hydroelectric Power Plant.

The Granary in Farmington, Maine; Fire Station 1 in Silver Spring, Md.; and the Brewpub at America’s Historic Roundhouse in Aurora, Ill., are among many examples of brewpubs whose names showcase the building they adaptively use.


Works Cited

Barnes, Bob. Celebrator Beer News. “Craft Beer Takes Center Stage,” Dec. 2009/Jan. 2010.
Leeds, David. Destination Drinking: Toward a research agenda on alcotourism. “Drugs: Education, Prevention & Policy”: Informa Healthcare, June 2008.
Mittelman, Amy. Brewing Battles—A History of American Beer. New York: Algora Publishing, 2008.
National Main Street Center. Revitalizing Main Street: A Practitioner’s Guide to Comprehensive Commercial District Revitalization, 2009.
Ogle, Maureen. Ambitious Brew. Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2006.
Wells, Ken. Travels With Barley. New York: A Wall Street Journal Book Published By Free Press, 2004.



Publication Date: Winter 2011

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Author(s):Trent Margrif
Volume:25
Issue:2

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