Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
Ian Clark [Photo: Courtesy of BRU]
A year ago, BRU Handbuilt Ales and Eats, opened to serve beer and food to growing fans. Ian Clark made his dream of owning a restaurant become reality in Boulder after several years of experience in the industry. Starting as a home brewer, Clark explored beer and developed a passion, similar to the one for cooking. He combined the two in the space on Arapahoe Avenue.
In the kitchen at BRU, he is joined by fellow chefs Jason Brown and Josh Monopoli. Together, they created the dishes that earned BRU Handbuilt Ales and Eats loyal fans, varied accolades, and the title of best Brewpub by Westword. Eater talked to Ian about his personal journey, strange licensing in Boulder, and airport codes.
How does it feel to have BRU Hanbuilt Ales and Eats turn one? I certainly feel as if I can breathe a little bit easier at this point. Opening a new restaurant is always rocky and you have to figure out what your footing is going to be and evolve with how the business comes at you. The fact is what you always predict doesn't always come true so you have to be able to change as needed. I am a really goal-oriented person so it feels great to accomplish this. I had actually set a goal for myself to open my own restaurant by the time I was 30 and I was a little upset that I didn't open one until I was 33.
You are from Maine, when did you first come to Boulder?
I came to Boulder for the first time when I was 16 on a road trip and fell in love with the town. In my early 20's I decided I missed it so I moved out to here and promptly found a job at Q's Restaurant. I worked there for six months and stayed true to my word and pattern of moving every six months and decided to up and leave. I went back to the east coast for another six month stint and then moved out to Hawaii. I tried to move their on September 11, 2001. I was literally flying out of Philadelphia at 8:30 in the morning on September 11th. I ended up getting stuck in Philadelphia for a week and then made it out to California and got stuck there for another week. I stayed in Hawaii for about eight months then moved to California.
What about Boulder made you stay versus continuing to move like you had in the past? I decided I missed Boulder. I got the feeling that it was just me that was unsettled. After being in Hawaii for about eight months I realized I didn't want to keep moving and uprooting my life left and right. Out of all of these places that I lived I really like Boulder the best. I realized I can use that as my home and then do all the traveling that I want. I moved back and went back to Q's Restaurant. I then got hired at Jax Boulder after that and was with the Big Red F team for 10 years. I helped open up Centro Latin Kitchen and ran it for eight years. Also when I moved back I had a group of friends here so it was great coming back. Then I met my wife so here I am.
How did you go from enjoying beer to becoming a brewery owner? I started home brewing a little over 10 years ago and took to it immediately. I found it was very similar to cooking. When I start wrapping my head around things I tend to jump into them and learn everything I possibly can about it. From the first brew I ever did I was kind of hooked. It was a great hobby and a great past time and it started to take over my garage and my basement. In 2009 I was actually in Mexico with my wife to enjoy some needed relaxation after having just done a graduation week in Boulder which are pretty busy at downtown restaurants. I was sitting there on the beach and I had had a few beers and I was like, "I really want to do this on my own, I want to have my own restaurant." We discussed a few things and hashed out a few details. I came home and immediately started working on the business plan. That was the hard part for me. Sitting at a desk has never been my forte. I would type up a couple pages of the business plan then wander out to the garden and do my thing outside and forget about it. It ended up taking about 10 months to a year to write the business plan.
You wanted to open a restaurant so why did you start in the garage before opening your current location? After the business plan was completed I started look for money. I spent the better part of a year looking for money for BRU. I kept hearing the same thing, "You have a ton of experience running restaurants and you have zero experience running a commercial brewery so go get some brewery experience." I started feeling a little frustrated at hearing no but remembered that I had heard about a guy named Tom Horst who had opened Crystal Springs Brewing in his garage and realized we could start it up this way. I immediately started the licensing process and found that there was a strange loophole for Boulder that worked out in my favor. In the city of Boulder you cannot operate a commercial license brewery in your garage, but in unincorporated Boulder you can. It turned out that my neighborhood is unincorporated Boulder and it is surrounded on all four sides by Boulder city. It is kind of this pocket in Boulder. It was ideal that I had inadvertently purchased a house in unincorporated Boulder. I built up the garage and started small and thought it would be fun to start showing some sales and I planned on staying in the garage for about a year.
What was it like taking your hobby and turning it into a career? I quickly learned that commercial brewing was nothing like home brewing. You have all sorts of different factors to think about. Once you get an account you have to keep the account so you can't just tell them you are out of beer. I was on a little 10 gallon system and brewing eight or nine times a week on top of being the chef at Centro Latin Kitchen. I was kind of working myself to death. To help we decided to buy a bigger system and ease up on the brewing side of it and at that point we started bottling. Things were going well. We were picking up accounts and people were starting to hear about us. My in-laws as partners supported my wife and I and they were really interested in the production brewery so they helped us take it out of the garage. We looked at restaurant spaces and warehouse spaces. Initially I didn't think the Arapahoe Avenue location was going to be the spot but the minute I walked in the door I was like this feels good. I signed a lease and took it over in February of 2013. I put in my notice at Big Red F to be done at end of February and started construction March 1 of 2013 and built the whole thing and finished that up about five minutes before we opened.
What are your beer and food styles like? As a chef I look at the beer as food and I try to bring out the flavors of those beer styles. If we say lemon zest you aren't going to be punched in the face it is going to be subtle and kind of accentuate those natural flavors. With the food we are cooking out of a wood fire pizza oven. We wanted it to be all about flavor and all about the craft. Every single thing we do is all about craft. We describe the food as urban American cuisine, because we wanted to span as many genres as we wanted. From peaches to banh mi sandwiches to various other dishes we wanted to globe trot with the food. I think we are pretty unique as a brewpub. My self and two of the other chefs, Brown and Monopoli, talk at least once a week about the menu and see what is coming up and what is looking good. We change the menu quite frequently and do our best to purchase everything locally and change with the seasons. We have staples that we have to keep in house that people come back for but we change things a lot on the menu.
We also try to keep things as local as possible. All of our spent grain that we don't use we actually give to a couple of pig farmers who raise the pigs that we use in the restaurant on our spent grain. Same thing with the mushrooms, they are all grown on our spent grain. Another guy who is a cook here is starting his own farm so he has been composting a lot of the spent grain and has been using it to feed his chickens as well. We will soon start getting eggs and chicken meat and various vegetables from him.
How did you meet the two other chefs Jason Brown and Josh Monopoli? Jason Brown was actually my sous chef at Centro Latin Kitchen. Josh Monopoli was a good friend of his from childhood who was the chef de cuisine at Black Cat. I knew that I would need really talented people to make sure that things were being executed to the level that I wanted it to be in my absences. So Jason, Josh, and I sat down and started talking about this after I had signed the lease and they were both on board. It has been great to have them. We have a trifecta of chefs. Since I bounce between the kitchen and the brewery those guys spend a lot of time in the kitchen. I still get in the kitchen at least once a week and anytime there is a special event. I just oversee what is going on and make sure things stay on vision.
Do they do any brewing? They have brewed a couple of times. It is important for me that every single employee knows the brewing process in-depth and our cooking techniques as well. Actually I have had them jump on the front of the house too before. We really look at this as everyone is on the same team and everyone helps out.
Do you try to make sure every beer pairs with a certain item on the menu? We try to think of the full picture for sure. We try to use as many brewing ingredients in food and as many food ingredients in beer. We call this the full circle. We use our spent grain and our granola in our cookies. We make all of our own beer vinegar. We use lemon grass, lemons, orange peels, papaya lime leaves, and green plantains in the beer. We have fun with it.
Are you the only brewer? I still do a majority of the brewing but I have a guy who is a line cook out here, Gabe Gallacher, who is an avid home brewer who expressed some interest about coming into the brewery. We kind of started his training in the summer of last year and he is doing a great job. He is starting to design some beers himself and really get in it. He flips between the kitchen and brewery as well.
Taking your business from a garage and just brewing to now have the large space and kitchen, how has business been? It has been fantastic. We have increased production on beer in particular. We started off running the company ourselves so there really wasn't a marketing budget so we really relied on word of mouth and grass roots marketing. It is great to see that people have really heard of us. It makes you feel good.
Do you have any memories or stories that stick out from you first year? We've been pretty lucky and we don't have any crazy stories or anything that has gone terribly wrong. The only thing I can think of is that we were literally building until minutes before the first guest came in. That was pretty stressful. Another crazy moment was when Jason Brown and I tried to build the pizza oven. We were trying to heave 400 pound pieces of refractory concrete into place.
Is there a story behind the name BRU? The original name was going to be White Star and I didn't' really like it. We actually went on a vacation with my wife's parents who were privy to all the information regarding White Star and what that was going to be. They got excited and they started talking about stuff and one of their friends had just been to Brussels Belgium and BRU is the airport code. We were sitting on the beach and my mother-in-law suggested it and I said that is great! I immediately came back and started searching it and oddly enough nobody has used it in the brewing industry which is strange to me. My wife started drawing up the logo and the trademarking process and got it through. Handbuilt is our tag line so in the garage we are handbuilt ales and in the kitchen we are handbuilt eats.
What makes you most proud about the restaurant that you have created? The greatest feeling to me is seeing everybody on the team here excited for their job. Really excelling and pushing themselves every day and accepting nothing but the best from themselves and the staff. It is really good to see them come together like that.
What is next for BRU? I'm a little superstitious so I don't like to talk about future endeavors till they are set in stone but we are certainly keeping our eye out.
BRU Handbuilt Ales and Eats will host an anniversary party on June 22nd from 1 to 8 p.m.
— By Kelsey Colt