Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wrecking Bar brewmaster talks two-year anniversary

Posted By on Wed, Jun 12, 2013 at 7:49 AM

Wrecking Bars Bob Sandage

Two years ago, Bob and Kristine Sandage made good on their college dream of opening a brewpub. On Father's Day 2011, the Wrecking Bar took up residence in the old Victor H. Kriegshaber House, a revitalized Victorian-style mansion situated on the Southern and Eastern ends of Little Five Points and Inman Park, respectively. It's there where, underneath their upstairs events space, the Marianna, the Sandages have quickly become one of Atlanta's most exciting brewing establishments.

They've created an astonishing amount of quality beer in that time, too. Meanwhile, manager/bartender Ian Cox's cocktail program has found increasing citywide acclaim, and (relatively) new chef Terry Koval's rejuvenated menu (the Three Pigs Skillet, Wrecking Bar Burger, and Roasted Sunchoke Barley are standouts) is a major improvement.

It's the brewpub's two-year anniversary, and they're going to celebrate this weekend. Kicking off with Friday's lunch service at noon, the Wrecking Bar will more than double its usual tap output by pouring nearly 30 beers, and eventually capping off the weekend with a special version of their Denamelizer Imperial IPA ran through a Randall (an "organoleptic hop transducer module" that gives already brewed beer an added hop - or coffee, spices, etc. - oomph). They're giving away commemorative glassware to the first 100 guests, too.

We caught up with Wrecking Bar's brewmaster and co-owner to reflect on the past couple years, revisit CL's inaugural First Draft beer column, of which he was the subject, and find out what's next for his much-lauded-but-still-young brewpub.

What do you wish you could go back and tell your college selves still dreaming of one day opening a brewpub?

It may be an unexpected answer, but I'm not sure we would have changed a thing. It would be tempting to think, "Why did I need two and a half engineering degrees (four and a half between the two of us!) to start a brewpub?" I think the engineering background is what makes us different as restaurant owners, and it greatly contributes to our success. In fact, our GM, Stevenson Rosslow, for as well known as he is in Atlanta restaurant circles, actually has a Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering. This gives us an analytical, problem-solving approach to an industry that can sometimes be impulse driven. Plus, only by building up my engineering company for 15 years and selling it in 2009 did we have the capital to take on a venture like this. The joke goes: How do you make a small fortune? Take a large fortune and open a brewpub!

RateBeer currently has 122 Wrecking Bar beers listed, which works out to 1.17 new beers every week since you opened. That's kind of insane, right?

I have not kept an official count, but can say that I check RateBeer and BeerAdvocate each week. All of the beers that we have released are in the RateBeer database, though I think there are three or four duplicates or misnamed beers. Still, as you said, a pretty crazy number of beers when looking at per-week average. Wood-Aged Wednesdays and Firkin Fridays allow us to take a base beer and make up to two uniquely different creations.

Earlier this year, you became the first Georgia brewpub to take advantage of the passage of House Bill 472, and start distributing your beer at various local establishments. Since then, Max Lager's and Twain's have followed suit. Now that you're in 15-20 locations in Atlanta/Athens/Savannah, how has putting your beer out in the marketplace outside of your establishment changed things?

What we have found is that there has been a very significant uptick in regional awareness of our products that has translated into more sales internally. People have our beers at another local or regional bar, restaurant, or growler shop, and end up coming into the pub for brewery tours and/or for food and drinks. I feel that with our quality of service and food, we easily get repeat customers, and those repeats are all due to having our beer distributed.

Your weekly Wood-Aged Wednesday beers have been a consistent treat over the past couple years, and your anniversary lineup has a ton of barrel-aged stuff as well. What can you tell me about your barrel program? Does it take up a lot of space?

We consistently have about four large (53-59 gallon) barrels and a few 15-gallon barrels being used in house. Each barrel gets two or three uses, and then it's time to move on to new barrels. We haven't had much issue getting barrels, and one of my priorities when taking on the brewmaster role was efficiency in our organization in the brewery. Shelves were built that accommodate much of our empty kegs or small equipment above the barrels. Out of a 53-gallon barrel of aged beer, we typically pull one or two half-barrel kegs, and then a bunch of 1/6 barrel kegs. (It's confusing that a barrel of bourbon is 53 gallons, but a barrel of beer is 31 gallons!)

Any desire to do sours?

Not much I can say on this yet, except to be patient and you may be pleasantly surprised!

In my very first beer column for Creative Loafing, you said you wanted to "abolish the three-tier system in Georgia." You've since testified in front of the state legislature and spent two years working within the three-tier system's parameters. Do you still feel the same way?

What I said at that time was quite naive. I do feel strongly that changes need to be made, will continue to push for new legislation, and think that some exciting times lay ahead of us here in Georgia in regards to craft beer. But, I have now talked to countless other brewers and owners at medium-sized breweries and brewpubs in states with self-distribution, and the message is clear in that the wholesalers provide a critical function. There is no way that I would want to be responsible for hiring sales people to travel the state, drivers for trucks, personnel to file taxes in all Georgia counties, etc. There are states that have limited self-distribution (in addition to the wholesalers, thus having an intact three-tier system). Below a certain level of production, it just makes no sense to try to distribute on your own.

You started homebrewing in 1992, when you lived in Minnesota. What are you still learning about it these days, after more than two decades?

There is so much more to doing what I do than the mechanics of brewing. It is mindblowing how much can be done with craft beer. All the styles of hops, grains, yeasts, water chemistries, and barrels literally yield millions of combinations. Maybe even billions, which could be very overwhelming. Good brewers, like good chefs with food ingredients, can sift through all of those possibilities and design and make beers that just work well. It doesn't always happen like that, so I try to learn more every day about what does work.

Do you have a crazy moment that stands out from Wrecking Bar's first two years?

We set up a brew day with Phil Farrell in the Spring of 2012 to do a collaborative English Barleywine. On some small-batch high-gravity beers, we wheel my old 55-gallon homebrew system underneath the canopy opening in the brewery so everything is vented out properly and brew with those kettles. I hadn't realized that Phil had moved the system about one foot to give us more room, and what Phil hadn't realized is that the system was now about three feet directly under a fire protection sprinkler head. We calibrated the fire protection system nicely - the mercury switches are rated at 165 degrees Farhenheit, and just as we got the wort to 165, the sprinkler system activated. Let's just say that the water in those pipes is meant for putting out fires and not for drinking. Within seconds, black oily water completely filled the kettles, and brew day was over. But, we regrouped in Fall 2012 and brewed to completion. Thus the name Ye Olde Sprinklerhead 2.0 English Barleywine!

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