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In 2016, when developers kicked out residents of a sprawling Boulder apartment complex in order to construct a new one, they nearly closed down one of the city’s best brewpubs, too. Bru Handbuilt Ales & Eats survived the hard hats, but not COVID-19.
On July 31, the brewery served its last pint and laid off its 18 employees, many of whom had been with the brewery since the day it opened. Ian Clark, Bru’s founder, brewer, and chef, is emotional when talking about his crew, which he refers to as family. “We are so lucky we were supported by Boulder,” Clark says. “We made it longer than most restaurants in the country.”
Since its opening in 2012, Bru flourished in a tiny strip mall on Arapahoe Avenue, serving inventive beers and a brick-oven-centered menu. But business cratered after those residents of the adjacent apartment complex, many of them Bru regulars, lost their homes in 2016 and loud, dusty construction clouded the restaurant’s sunny vibe.
When workers finally stopped swinging hammers in late 2019, residents moved into the new apartments and Bru’s business quickly started increasing. “We thought, We made it, we got through the construction that nearly destroyed us,” Clark says. “We took a deep breath. We could get back to building the business, rather than damage control.”
Then came stay-at-home orders in March, followed by myriad other COVID-19 ripple effects—in particular, Clark’s fear that opening for takeout and indoor dining could infect his staff and guests with the virus. Clark kept Bru closed for a few weeks, then decided to tip toe into the world of takeout growlers and pizzas. “We decided that takeaway was an approach that could keep everybody safe,” he says. “It was amazing. People came out in droves. It shows you how ingrained these places are in the community, in ways you don’t understand until you go away.”
But the novelty of take out eventually wore off, and traffic slowed. Clark and his team began thinking about the fall and what restaurants might look like as people begin dining indoors again—or not. A grim outlook, coupled with the building’s lease coming up for renewal, led Clark to pull the plug on his beloved brewpub.
Clark’s path to Boulder began in the 1990s, when the Maine native, then in high school, drove to Colorado with friends to ride at one of the city’s skate parks. Later, after culinary school in Vermont, Clark wandered the country, working in restaurants before returning to the Front Range. He cooked at Q’s at the Hotel Boulderado (now Spruce Fish & Farm), then joined the Big Red F Restaurant Group, which at the time owned Cafe Rumba (now Centro Mexican Kitchen), Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar, and the West End Tavern.
And just as Colorado craft brewing was beginning to blossom, Clark caught the beer bug. At first Bru was a side hustle; Clark brewed beer in his garage for the West End. In 2012, his passion turned into a career when he opened the brick-and-mortar Bru.
From the beginning, the brewery’s tagline was “Handbuilt Ales & Eats,” a reflection of the work Clark put into Bru. Instead of hiring people to turn the building into a convivial space, Clark built the benches and tables, crafted the pub’s immense brick oven, and poured the concrete countertops himself.
Clark’s approach to beer and pub fare was also novel for the times. He used brewing components like hops and barley to enhance the sauces and condiments for Bru’s sandwiches, pizzas, and other dishes. And his beers were flavored with creative adjuncts including saffron, coriander, lemongrass, almonds, and black pepper. Bru was a neighborhood brewpub for food lovers—not a place to just polish off wings and fries while enjoying the tap list.
Bru’s core business relied on brewpub sales, so apart from a few one-offs, Clark never considered packaging his beer in bottles and cans. The brewery was too small for such a production, and distribution would mean holding fewer taps for guests. Clark says adding revenue from liquor store and restaurant accounts may have helped the business survive, but a brewery divided between on-site revenue and distribution wasn’t something he wanted.
Now that Bru is closed, Clark plans to embark on a road trip with his family to unwind—and likely do some soul searching about his next move. The 40-year-old hospitality veteran hopes for a future in restaurants, although he fears as many as half of them will close by the time the pandemic recedes.
The challenges Clark has faced in trying to sell Bru’s restaurant equipment drives that bleak prediction home. “You always look at your stuff—your expensive kitchen equipment—as your safety net,” he says. “You can at least resell it. But the market is flooded now. I’m not getting calls back from companies I have worked with for 20 years. They are inundated.”