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Brewer’s launches, grows in a down economy

Taking a sip of the foamy dark beer, Chris Dibble pulls the pint away from his lips and looks at the glass full of oatmeal stout. Then he lets out an audible, satisfied sigh. Sitting on a barstool at Brewer’s Handcrafted Beer and Pizza, his day just got better.

"My favorite is the Moon Dance stout with nitrogen infusion, which gives it a creamy head with small carbonation bubbles," Clay County resident Dibble said. "The nitrogen makes your mouth feel different."

Two years ago, Dibble was driving down Blanding Boulevard when he saw the Brewer’s sign and decided to stop in. Like many others, he has been a loyal customer since, visiting at least once per week.

The restaurant and brewpub at 14B Blanding Boulevard, just south of the Duval County line, is the brainchild of Mike Wilson who co-owns the establishment with Troy Maas. When he first opened three years ago, Wilson wasn’t brewing his own line of beer. He knew that was going to cost as much as a $200,000 to $300,000 investment. He said he wanted to get the revenue stream going first, so he started with good quality pizza. That’s where Maas came in.

"Troy loved running the pizza business, so we started selling the pizza and everyone else’s beer," Wilson said. "Then we started brewing."

He and his team have expanded the space three times, to approximately 5,000 square feet to accommodate the brewery and seating for 100 people. Within the next year, Wilson hopes to open another location in Clay County.

In early 2011, Keegan Malone – who was recently made a partner – joined the team and Brewer’s began brewing inhouse. Using input from customers, as well as his own ideas, Malone created the recipes for Pinglehead to create the signature "big beer" flavors. Because of the success of the food and beer, Brewer’s sales have moved only in one direction—up.

"If you look at our growth chart, there is only an increase in sales," Wilson said, moving his right hand in an upward manner as he discusses his business "…which is counter-intuitive to the economy."

Brewer’s business plan parallels microbrewery growth nationwide. According to the national trade group, the Brewer’s Association, craft beer enthusiasts spent $8.7 billion on hand-crafted beer in 2011, up from $7.6 billion in 2010. Craft beer sales have had an increase of 12 percent in the first six months of 2012.

While most craft breweries target 20and 30-something professionals and beer connoisseurs, the crowd at Brewers is more diverse, perhaps a parallel to the diversity of Clay County.

"You’ll see 70-year-old couples in here," Wilson said. "A dad will come in with two small kids and refill his growlers. We recently hosted a group of teachers."

Service members can often be seen at Brewer’s enjoying the rich taste of Pinglehead after a long day at work or after a long deployment.

"Lots of times, guys will get back from a tour overseas, where they’ve tasted heavier ales and they want something better. They want something other than Bud[weiser]," Wilson said.

Brewer’s carries around 51 bottled beers in addition to the 30 beers on tap, including 13 of its own signature Pinglehead brand beers. Four of Pinglehead’s beers are distributed around Northeast Florida and can be found in restaurants and bars from Fernandina Beach to St. Augustine.

"They have a great beer rotation, not only theirs, but other craft brews," Dibble said. "It changes every week. Usually when I come in, I try a new one and go back to their Pinglehead brand."

For the fall, Brewers serves a popular seasonal ale called Punk, which has a creamy vanilla taste at first sip, but finishes with a pumpkin flavor when it hits the back of the palate.

"Last year, we slightly modified the pumpkin ale," Wilson said. "I think we’ve found the best possible recipe. It’s a winner."

Robin Bennett, an aviation airframer, and has been a loyal customer since the second day Brewer’s opened. His favorite is the Mind Drive Imperial Porter with its slightly hoppy, chocolate taste.

For many of the regulars, enjoying a pint at Brewer’s Pizza is about the experience of the restaurant. Patrons can try different flavors while eating homemade pizza and catching up with friends. But the conversation can often surround home brews and what different concoctions brew enthusiasts are working on that week.

"I tell everybody about Brewer’s," Bennett said. "Everybody’s friendly and gets along and what’s not to love about the beer?"

"Everyone that tastes the beer is shocked because it’s made in Clay County," Wilson said.

STAFF PHOTO BY SARAH WAKEFIELD

ORANGE PARK--Mike Wilson, co-owner of Brewer’s Pizza, shows off some of the kegs in the brewery section of the restaurant and microbrewery located at 14B Blanding Blvd., just south of the Duval County line. He has expanded three times in three years.

15 Nov. 2012

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