Q&A: Beer Chef Ian Clark

June 9 2014, 10:30 AM

Two year years ago, Ian Clark, former executive chef at Centro Latin Kitchen in Boulder, opened a nanobrewery in a somewhat curious location: his garage. The spot, however, proved to be a suitable space to launch BRU Handbuilt Ales, which has been growing ever since. In fact, a year ago Clark moved BRU out of his garage and into a space on Arapahoe Avenue on the east side of Boulder, and, in the process, expanded the concept to include a restaurant. He named the place BRU Handbuilt Ales & Eats. Now that another year has passed, Clark is throwing a party on Sunday, June 22, to celebrate two years of BRU and a year of running his restaurant. We recently caught up with Clark to talk about his love of craft beer, the keys to running a successful brewery, and what's next.

5280: What made you want to start a brewery in your garage two years ago?

IC: I actually set out to open BRU Handbuilt Ales & Eats in 2010. I had spent a year looking for money but kept hearing the same answer: "You have plenty of experience running a restaurant but no experience running a brewery." So, in 2011, feeling a bit frustrated by hearing "no" I decided to change my course. I had heard about Tom Horst opening Crystal Springs Brewing Company in his garage so I wrote him and asked a few questions. I saw it as a way to start. I bootstrapped the company and kept my day job as a chef. It was really a lot of work. I had a goal of staying in the garage for one year, then looking for investors again. That's when my in-laws, who were already partners, stepped in and said they believed in the vision. It was a dream come true—especially keeping it a family-owned company.

5280: How did your interest in craft beer begin? Do you remember the first craft beer you fell in love with?

IC: My buddies and I in high school thought we were beer snobs. (I mean, we knew we were going to be, because obviously there is no drinking at that age....) I remember drinking Allagash white and Newcastle brown ale. I loved them both, even back then. I must have been 16 or 17. From there, it was downhill, I couldn't bring myself to drink watery light lagers. I didn't like the taste. And here I am, 18 years later still enjoying the flavor of craft beer. 

5280: A year into the restaurant, how do spend your time there? Mostly brewing? Cooking? Do you prefer one over the other?

IC: I love them both equally. I have been a chef most of my life so I always feel most at home in a kitchen. I spend more of my time brewing these days because that is where I am most needed. I get in the kitchen about one day a week and for all our beer dinners and special events. There are two very talented chefs in there, Jason Brown and Josh Monopoli, and they execute most of the food. We have kind of a trifecta of chefs going on. Every dish, menu change, and tweak the three of us sit down and talk. It's a pretty cool process—three very different view points on food, which is cool. Every dish has been thought out and discussed in depth. When it launches there is a very clear vision on what it is going to be. 

5280: What are the keys to running a successful brewery or brew pub?

IC: I don't think there is any one key element or formula. Every business is different and has its own set of challenges. I would offer a bit of advice, though: Be a jack-of-all trades, it helps out big time. One day you might be building an oven, the next butchering, the next fixing a leaking brewery pump, the next pouring beers or waiting tables. Be flexible. 

5280: Do you think it has become easier or more difficult to open a brewery these days with the beer scene booming as it is along the Front Range?

IC: Certainly more difficult. We have, in my opinion, the best beer on the planet here in Colorado. Especially with the diversity of styles and executions of them. Your beer needs to stand out, you are serving it to some of the most educated beer people around. Just because you are small doesn't mean you have a great product. And it is only going to get harder. The breweries on the Front Range (and all of Colorado) are continuing to innovate with their beer. It's a great time to live here if you are a beer geek.

5280: Has the brewery scene in Denver and Boulder hit a saturation point yet? Or do you think there's still room for new breweries?

IC: We certainly have a lot of breweries, but I would say that there is always more room for people making a great product. 

5280: What is your process for coming up with a new recipe for a BRU ale?

IC: I think like a chef, which means we do a lot of adjunct brewing. I always like to base it off of what is coming into season. We have our year-round brews, but I mess around with a lot of other styles as well. We keep it fun and enjoy experimenting. 

5280: What's next for BRU?

IC: I am a little superstitious, so I don't like to talk about things that aren't set in stone. But, that being said, be on the look out for more Ales & Eats in the future.

Image courtesy of BRU Handbuilt Ales & Eats