I have visited so many brewpubs over the years that I lost count long ago. I often find these small establishments uneven in quality, but I never doubt the owner’s passion for bold, flavorful beer.
So I figured I would once again put my theory to the test when I recently visited the Big Bottom Brewery in Dillsburg, which opened in June. It’s located in the rear of the building that houses Al’s Pizza & Subs, just off route 15 on the north end of town.
Moments after I walked in, owner Bob Szajnuk greeted me. After downing the first of his eight beers on tap, a very interesting saison with a pronounced cucumber taste, I assumed I was talking to a fellow beer lover. Then he stunned me by telling me that he doesn’t drink beer.
“I just never got a taste for it,” he explained later. “So, I never pursued it.”
Szajnuk has owned Al’s Pizza & Subs for about a decade, and, for years, he kept about 40 beers on tap. But he recently decided to take a bold step in a new direction by selling his own beer, taking advantage of the exploding market for locally brewed beverages.
The process of going from an idea to a reality took about a year.
Szajnuk first contacted Brad Moyer of Fermented Artistry, a firm that provides consulting services for breweries, wineries and coffee shops. Moyer explained how to set up a brewery and what kinds of costs Szajnuk could expect. But then Szajnuk was faced with the critical decision: how to find a skilled brewmaster.
“I never brewed beer in my life,” he said.
Moyer and Szajnuk ultimately interviewed five local home-brewers for the job.
“They would talk about beer, and I would talk about business,” Szajnuk said. “We wanted someone who understood that it was a business.”
Szajnuk realized it was vital for his success to find the best fit.
“Brewing is very creative, but we wanted them to understand that we’re not brewing for their buddies in the basement,” he said. “We needed to brew for large numbers of people.”
The best fit turned out to be Brad Stump, who had been brewing his own beer for about seven years. And Stump brought aboard his friend Brian Keeney, a fellow member of a local home-brewer’s club known as Sons of Alchemy.
Together, Szajnuk, Stump and Keeney decided to always keep eight of their own beers on tap, including their flagship IPA (the B3 IPA, for Bob, Brad and Brian), but to constantly rotate in new beers to keep things interesting. At the time of this writing, they had brewed 16 to 18 beers.
“We haven’t had a bad report on any of them,” Szajnuk said.
He said he never worked as hard as he did on opening night, when the brewery and restaurant were jam-packed with people eager to check out the product. Everyone got a free flight of four beers.
The plan is to brew mostly lighter beers for the summer and darker, roastier stouts and porters for the winter. Most of their beers will hover around 5 percent in alcohol content so people can sample more than one during a visit. Many will be one-offs, but as Keeney said, “If something goes over well, we’ll make it again.”
I tried 5-ounce samples of all eight beers available during my visit. These included two IPAs, two saisons, a pale ale, a cream ale and two gose beers. I enjoyed every one, and I felt all eight were solid representatives of their styles. This is in stark contrast to many newly opened brewpubs, which usually struggle to deliver consistent quality across their entire line.
Keeney and Stump often experiment at home, trying out a recipe to see if they think it will have broad appeal before brewing it for Big Bottom. But they continue brewing for themselves and friends because it allows them to express their creativity without having to concern themselves with commercial pressure. For his part, Keeney frequently brews sour beers for his own pleasure, knowing they probably will not go over well with most Big Bottom customers.
“We’re living in a golden age of beer. There are more choices than any time in history,” said Keeny. “What we’re doing is what you’re going to see in future restaurants with their own brewery, where they brew beers only for that location. You won’t see a lot of regional breweries like Troegs. It will be smaller operations opening up.”
For Szajnuk, the key to brewing success is patience. His wife, an accountant, worried that they had money sitting in their equipment, fermenting beer for months. She wondered when they would start covering their costs.
But, as Szajnuk explained, “You can’t rush it. You got to wait it out. Patience is the big word.”
And Szajnuk said opening a brewery is not just about attracting more customers to his restaurants. The experience has been professionally rewarding.
“I know more about beer than I ever thought I’d know, given that I don’t drink,” he said.
Big Bottom Brewery is located at 6 Tristan Dr., Dillsburg. To learn more, visit their Facebook page.