Photo by Amy TheligPart fraternity, part bakery, part miniature brewery, Brewbakers is as much a bonding experience as an eating establishment, a gustatory amusement park in the midst of chain-heavy Huntington Beach. The homey environs and always-bustling atmosphere are nice and all, but the true appeal of Brewbakers is its offer to make an Anheuser (or Busch) out of you. It's what foodies call a BOP—a brew-on-premises restaurant, an idea that originated in Canada during the 1990s as a way to concoct high-quality beer without paying hefty taxes. This idea spread to the United States but never really caught on stateside—Americans are apparently lazy and like their hooch mass-produced.
Brewbakers owner Dennis Midden estimates roughly five other Southern California BOPs have folded in the six years of his pride's existence. Midden nevertheless sloshes on, drawing the curious and cirrhosis-afflicted alike with some of the most enjoyable county suds. Sure, other local microbreweries hawk beers that are more renowned, more elegant, even better-tasting. But there's a certain Weberian charm in sweating and working alongside your fellow aspiring brewer as rough-and-tumble country music blares and a bell clangs every hour or so to announce the birth of a new beer batch. And when you finally collapse onto a stool and begin sipping and sharing everyone's creation, you finally agree with the Irish adage that the best fruits in life are truly those you sow with your pals while plastered.
Brewbakers' beer-making process is chaotic, hectic and worth every dank minute of it. Self-proclaimed brewmasters first provide you with taste tests to determine which draft suits your taste buds best—lager? Pilsner? Ale? Upon deciding, you then apprentice under said brewmaster for the next two hours. Like an ornery Dickensian shop steward, they'll prod you through the art of measuring and grinding grains; adding extracts, hops and yeast; and teabagging the boiling mixture (not as fraternity-prankish as you might think) to produce your own kegger. It's impossible not to jostle, bump and chat with other novice brewers, but that's the joy: you'll be amazed to discover how often spilling beer and grains on others here leads to friendship rather than fisticuffs.
After you finish, you leave: most brews take at least two weeks (and sometimes two months) to ferment, necessitating a separate bottling appointment. But when you return, you'll likely reunite with your beer barons of two weeks ago to hoist a pint and egg on the newbies. Joining you in revelry are your former teachers, who now saunter through the room sampling everyone's alcoholic alchemy right along with you.
During one recent visit, a particular favorite was the Revere's Boston Lager. Brewbakers' recipe comparison likens it to Sam Adams, but that's short-selling Revere's Boston, as it's actually impressive: a hoppy, gold-colored, refreshing lager with a clear taste that's not at all watery. Just as moving was the Red Hawk Ale, which possessed hints of honey within its properly malty consistency. Shifting to the stouts, I chugged a Shore Line Dry and an Oatmeal Wheat. The Shore Line featured a roasted flavor with a bit of creaminess. The Oatmeal Wheat, meanwhile, was malty without any lingering heaviness or sourness. Actual oatmeal is used in the production of the Oatmeal Wheat, so booze hounds can now replace their Guinness breakfast with this gullet-filling meal-drink.
While the beer is the main attraction, Midden maintains that baking is his first love, and a walk through Brewbakers confirms it. Shelves of fresh challah bread, sauerkraut rye and French-bread rolls greet grubbers upon their entrance into the bustling place. Racks of pretzels, cookies and cinnamon rolls sit on the end of the bar. After their brewing is complete, most visitors gravitate toward those pretzels, chewy loops with a perfect crustiness and enough salt to enhance the taste but not cover it. Midden uses the same flavorful pretzel dough in his pizzas and hamburger buns, and he wraps it around the three kinds of bratwurst available on the menu.
He admits that most of his menu, aside from bread, was an afterthought—but that's a bloody lie. Pizzas here are topped with artichoke hearts and pepperoni and washed down best with a glass of Saws-All ale or Midden's Stream Lager; the sandwiches are filling as well. But even if Midden was telling the truth, who cares? You're at Brewbakers to brew—the baking can wait, as a soaker for the many nights of hangovers to come.
BREWBAKERS, 7242 HEIL AVE., HUNTINGTON BEACH, (714) 596-5506; www.brewbakers1.com. OPEN MON.-SAT., 11 A.M.-8 P.M.; SUN., NOON-6 P.M. BEER ONLY (DUH). DINNER FOR TWO, $10-$20, FOOD ONLY. BEERMAKING PROCESS COSTS AROUND $30, BUT YOU'RE REWARDED WITH A DOZEN 20-OZ. BOTTLES FROM HEAVEN. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED.