Bars and restaurants serve pretty specific needs and expectations, as do breweries.
But since they neither are a bar nor a restaurant, brewpubs are a different animal altogether, and they very well may be the future of craft beer. They certainly are its past.
Community brewing has been a central part of life on the Delmarva Peninsula pretty much since Johan Classon Risingh, the last governor of New Sweden, sent for a wife who could brew beer. With the exception of the better part of the 20th century, people easily could get beer pretty much from the place it was made.
Tavern owners were community leaders and their places served as town centers, particularly in rural Delmarva, where they served as courthouses in the absence of city centers in early colonial times.
The appeal of today's brewpub is not altogether different, although it's pretty rare that civil suits are adjudicated there. Increasingly, they are places where you come together with friends, have a meal and a pint or two and spend the evening out in a more communal space than, say, the mall or the movie theater.
Everyone at the place is there because of the nature of the brewpub. It’s a proper restaurant with tables and seating, but also a full brewery with games and a suggested public space. It morphs easily between the two by attitude alone, which is what makes a brewpub so appealing. That also accounts for the proliferation of food truck/production brewery partnerships.
In retrospect, it seems pretty obvious. Since Colonial times, people have gotten together at their local taverns to grab a beer and hang around in the courtyard playing games (the predecessor to bowling was the cornhole of the 18th century).
That went away for awhile because that attitude isn’t a centerpiece of restaurants or of bars — it is something uniquely tavern-esque. When breweries and brewpubs revived the notion of making beer for their neighbors, turning them into community centers naturally had to follow. What comes next hopefully will be just as transformative, both for food and neighborhoods.
Going forward, both because of the rise of craft beer as well as for simple reasons of economy, I think the brewpub is going to make a massive comeback. The next few years will see an increase of brewpubs that don’t necessarily distribute very widely but behave as they did in the past, supplying beer to their patrons and maybe having growlers and bottles to go.
In fact, it already is pretty common for restaurants to have a beer brewed exclusively for them by a local brewery. These partnerships give restaurants the opportunity to have a "house beer" that is designed to appeal to a wider audience while still having the novelty of being local and craft.
Pale ales are popular approaches to house beers although porters and stouts aren't far behind. Made-on-premise beers likely will be the next phase of the craft beer revolution.
There are already a lot of brewpubs that kind of follow this model. Places like Iron Hill and Stewart's in northern Delaware and obviously Dogfish Head and the Brick Works in Smyrna make beer and serve it (often exclusively) in their brewpubs.
It’s a great option for beer drinkers and, more importantly, for people who are interested in becoming craft beer drinkers. Brewpubs often strike a balance between people who are visiting for the beer and those who are visiting for the food.
The result tends to be a mix of exclusive beers that challenge the palate and others that explicitly don’t. The fact that they have both, and often add wine and spirits into the mix, as did their Colonial predecessors, takes whatever trepidation is left to be had out of the craft beer experience.
Another reason brewpubs should be a bigger part of the future has to do with access. Tanks, equipment and professional brewers are so much easier to come by than they were even five years ago. Restaurants increasingly are looking at the cost of adding a brewing apparatus (even a small one) to their operations. And, of course, there is a cool factor that comes along with it.
Even, or maybe especially, among people who travel specifically to visit breweries, there is an affection for beer made and served on the premises that just doesn’t fade.
Watching the rise of the brewpub as a kind of community center is a source of hope. After a century that included a banishment to the malls and the suburbs, it is nice to pull into a parking lot and see families playing games, drinking, hanging out for dinner and re-imagining what a town center can look like.