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Brewsters welcome addition to Petaluma food, beer scene


As Sonoma County’s newest outdoor dining venue, Brewsters Beer Garden has exploded into Petaluma’s consciousness as more than simply a pleasant place to eat. Exactly as planned, Brewsters has quickly become the go-to destination for those looking to relax, visit with friends and family, and enjoy a great selection of local beer, wine, and cocktails, alongside a top-notch menu of southern-inspired, but locally driven cuisine.

Beer gardens first appeared in Munich, the capital of the German state of Bavaria, in the 1800’s. Due to frequent fires during the brewing process, German law had limited brewing to just the cooler months. To keep their stock of beer cool throughout the summer months, breweries took to digging underground beer cellars, and planting densely canopied chestnut trees over the cellars in order to aid with temperature control. Naturally, these cool areas on the brewers’ grounds became a popular spot for summer visitors to sample the brewery’s wares, and thus the beer garden was born.

However, unlike your average restaurant patio, a beer garden is more communal in nature, and is meant for lounging, relaxing, and visiting with your neighbors. Tables are usually shared, families are encouraged, and entertainment typically includes music and games. The entire experience of a true beer garden can be summed up best by the German word Gemütlichkeit, which Wikipedia describes as “a space or state of warmth, friendliness, and good cheer. Other qualities include coziness, peace of mind, belonging, well-being, and social acceptance.”

Upon first arriving at Brewsters it is clear that co-owners Mike Goebel and Chris Beerman know their Gemütlichkeit. From the moment they started planning and designing Brewsters, their focus was on creating a space that would last the test of time, while paying due respect to the spirit of Petaluma, which is all about family, friends, good food and drink, and community involvement.

As always, I try to reach out to non-natives when they venture into Petaluma, partially out of curiosity, and partially in an attempt to help them acclimate and assimilate into our truly unique town.

An initial encouraging indicator were the signs that lined Brewsters’ street-side fence, even before they broke ground. Brewsters was eliciting local help in designing and building their space, turning to the well-respected firms of MAD Architects, Steven J Lafranchi & Assoc (engineering) and Diego Quality Construction.

Furthermore, I found out that Goebel is married to a Diego, making him a de facto local. I also met with co-owner/chef Beerman at his popular San Francisco restaurant late last year and learned that he is no ordinary chef, and he was not planning to be part of any ordinary restaurant project. He strives for perfection, while keeping his menu comfy and approachable. I sampled several of his dishes, from fried chicken to ramen noodles and all were flavorful and filling. And his inclusion of an excellent port on his wine menu certainly put a twinkle in my eye.

Chris Beerman started working in restaurants as an early teen in his home state of North Carolina. His grandfather owned fried chicken restaurants, which clearly had its influence on Beerman as his is some of the best fried chicken I have tasted. Eventually, Beerman attended Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he studied culinary arts. As a skater, surfer and snowboarder, Beerman was drawn towards the West after school, where he spent six years honing his cooking skills in Boulder, and Breckenridge, Colorado, before moving with a large group of friends to San Francisco. He worked at several restaurants, most notably Boulevard from 2006 to 2010, before branching out on his own, first with a neighborhood inspired bento box pop-up, followed by his wildly successful Citizen’s Band restaurant.

Mike Goebel grew up in Centralia, Washington, a town with a similar downtown center to Petaluma’s. He worked as a bartender while attended San Francisco State University on a soccer scholarship. After graduating, he opened several popular neighborhood bars throughout San Francisco, including Bloodhound, the Double Dutch, Churchill, the Ambassador, and Mamacita. Once he started a family, Goebel was drawn to the North Bay in order to be closer to family.

Goebel’s Bloodhound bar was across the street from Beerman’s Citizen’s Band restaurant, which is how the partners first met and became close friends. They often discussed doing a project together but it was not until Goebel’s family purchased the Mahoney Building (where Buffalo Billiards is) and neighboring parking lot that the creative juices really started to flow and Goebel approached Beerman with the idea of Brewsters Beer Garden.

The name “Brewsters” actually has nothing to do with their incredible selection of beer, or chef/co-owner Chris Beerman’s last name, and is itself another sign that Beerman and Goebel are no fly-by-night operators. They took the time to research the property, and found out that their space sits in an area of downtown that was historically designated as “Brewsters Edition” on the city’s old plat maps.

The first unusual, yet endearing thing one notices upon arriving at Brewsters is that the main entrance is on Water Street, not Petaluma Boulevard. Furthermore, the space is oriented towards the river. Originally, Goebel envisioned the beer garden would face the historic stone wall that abuts Petaluma Boulevard, which dates back to George McNear’s Oriental Flour & Feed Mill and Lyman Byce’s Petaluma Incubator Company. Byce’s invention helped catapult Petaluma into the international spotlight as the “Egg Capital of the World,” and is a huge part of what made Petaluma what it is today. But upon reflection, Goebel decided that it would be more appropriate for the beer garden to face the river, and the massive grain silo which is a vivid reminder that Petaluma is still an agrarian community.

For those who grew up in Petaluma, using Water Street is counter-intuitive. However, it works well, and definitely makes Brewsters an original, hopefully starting a trend of more restaurants and businesses facing the river. Also, parking is much more abundant along the river, as well as in an expanded parking lot Brewsters built just up the river, as opposed to the always challenging Petaluma Boulevard parking situation.

Once inside, guests will notice how massive and solid Brewsters is, yet completely inviting. The building itself is constructed of metal I-beams and the tables and benches are massive wood sculptures unto themselves, harvested by Petaluma’s Heritage Salvage from old Army barracks in Oakland. “Although new and modern, we want people to know that we are here to last,” says Goebel. The outdoor seating area is split up into many different sections, with a Bocce ball court, a kids play area, a music stage, and a satellite bar for future tap-takeovers.

Another classy touch are the Forge de Laguiole knives provided with plates of steak and the like. An historic French knife maker, Forge de Laguiole knives are distinct in shape, and for the bumble bee charm that sits at the junction of the blade and the handle. These knives are not only beautiful but functional, and show that Beerman and Goebel are serious about their craft and want to give diners the best experience possible.

John Ton of Petaluma Sign Company did a masterful job of giving the brick wall at the street level a more-than-realistic aged looked, which adds loads of character to what would otherwise be a rather boring red brick wall. Ton also created the Bocce Ball scoreboard, as well as most of the other signs throughout Brewsters, and will continue to create vintage looking art around the space, including a large mural/wall sign on the wall behind the stage, as well as on the side of Buffalo Billiards building.

Another piece of artwork, and a positive indication that Brewsters seems to know how to fit in to Petaluma, is the incredible metal and wood tree sculpture that engulfs the top of the staircase where the back entrance meets Petaluma Boulevard. This piece of artwork fits the space well, complimenting the wooded Penry Park across the street, and was created by Glen Ellen’s Bryan Tedrick, famed for his Burning Man sculptures.

Since opening, I have learned that Brewsters relies on a who’s who of local vendors, further solidifying their philosophy that to be truly local, you have to spread the wealth locally whenever possible. Brewsters uses Ace and Rags to Stitches for their apparel, Lace House Linens for linens, and Fishman Supply for all other non-food related essentials.

“Petaluma is at an epicenter of great food,” says Beerman, whose menu sources from such local greats as Stemple Creek Ranch, Marin Sun Farms, Green Star, Feed Sonoma, and Live Oak Farms. “We listen, we care, and we want to cultivate menus that cater to more than one type of clientele,” continues Beerman, in reference to the fact that Brewsters recognizes how diverse Petaluma’s populace is. “Our menu is BBQ inspired, but produce drive. We are inspired by fire and smoke, and although we will always have the staples, we will change the menu with the season and with the weather.” Currently, Beerman is working on a project to contract farm a dozen acres at Live Oak Farms so he can make sure he has the vast quantity of fresh veggies that his kitchen requires.

FOOD & DRINK

I like to visit a restaurant multiple times before passing judgement, but I must admit that I was predisposed to like Brewsters before they even opened, having already met with both Goebel and Beerman, having tasted Beerman’s food, and being well aware of what the pair had planned.

Both have been great at keeping in touch with me throughout their construction, both because they wanted to keep Argus-Courier readers informed of their plans and progress, but also for insight into where they might improve and what the diners of Petaluma might be looking for. To say I am impressed with this level of commitment to serving Petaluma would be an understatement.

We were invited to one of several soft opening nights, prior to Brewsters opening to the public. We sampled a limited food and drink menu, but everything was free, and the atmosphere was festive, to say the least. I could already tell from the excited crowd that Brewsters was going to be a huge hit.

Our second visit, just days after the Grand Opening, confirmed my intuition. We arriving fifteen minutes before opening, in order to grab a table for the dozen plus Petaluma Supper Club members that would be joining us, and there was already a crowd waiting, many with kids in tow. I knew the kitchen would get slammed so I warned everyone to order quickly. Those that listened received their food quickly, while the rest had to wait quite a while for the first rush to pass. But every plate that arrived was top-notch, which says a lot for a kitchen that it turning out hundreds of meals per hour.

As a certified Kansas City Barbeque Society (KCBS) judge, I have been schooled on what to look for when judging beef brisket, and have had opportunities to taste some of the best competition BBQ in the world. Regular readers will also recall that I even spent six weeks last summer driving around the country sampling BBQ in two dozen states, always in search of my Holy Grail, the perfect beef brisket. To say that I am critical is an understatement.

I had heard from several readers that they had tried Beerman’s brisket and ribs and that they were some of the best they had ever had. Because I had tasted Beerman’s food before, I knew Brewsters would be great, but was still surprised with just how solid the menu is. Beerman is dedicated to his craft, and along with everything else we tried, his brisket and ribs are top notch. “We went through several types and weights of paper before finding the perfect fit,” says Beerman, in reference to the paper he uses to wrap his brisket while it rests after coming out of the smoker.

As far as I am concerned, Brewsters’ is the mama jama of brisket. It is of the color, texture, and tensile strength that KCBS taught me to look for, and the flavor is simply divine. More impressive, it was exactly the same all three times I have ordered it, which says volumes about Beerman’s quality control.

Over our next several visits, we saw a marked improvement in service, which was understandably overwhelmed when Brewsters first opened. Food delivery is now so fast that I often think the server may have the wrong table.

We have sampled a good portion of the menu, and are pleased to see new items every time we visit. Gone are the days when a menu went unchanged for years on end. Sure, there is a lot to be said for go-to favorites, but with a chef as good as Beerman, I want to try anything new that he has to offer, while always knowing there are certain regular menu items that will always be there as a back-up.

We have tried most of the menu and have yet to run into an appetizer, entrée, side, or dessert we did not crave the very next day. Obviously, the Brisket ($16 for ½ pound), Ribs ($15 - $39), and Fried Chicken ($22) are already crowd favorites, but everything else we tried was excellent, including the Half Smoked Chicken ($20), Whole Chopped Hog ($14-$28), Pan Seared King Salmon ($24), Pork Chop ($28), and Burger ($14-$16.) We have yet to try the Osso Buco ($32) or the Lobster Spaghetti ($28), but are sure to shortly. Their Pork Belly small plate is a bargain at $12, especially considering that it is smoked for 12 hours before being laid on a bed of roasted sierra beauty apples, potato hash, and spicy greens.

The veggie in our crew was so enthralled with the cauliflower steak ($10), that she even talked me into trying it, and it was phenomenal. There is also a Veggie Burger ($11) along with sides of Creamy Slaw ($5), Collards ($6), Brussels Sprouts ($6), Beets with horseradish ($6), Fries & Aioli ($6), House-made Pickles ($4), Mac & Cheese ($8), and Butternut Squash ($6), all of which should are great additions to any meal, and along with a few seasonal salads and soups, should keep even the most ardent veggie in your crowd happy.

Being a southern boy, it is no surprise that Beerman knows how to handle dessert. We have tried several but we keep coming back to the Pecan Pie, which is one of the best I have ever tasted.

And last, but certainly not least, is the drink menu. Along with a full bar, Brewsters pours a wide range of beers from tap handles topped with various kitchen utensils. Front and center is Brewsters own IPA, which is contract brewed by Petaluma Hills Brewing Company. Two other Petaluma Hills beers on tap are the “Dated 1858”, a ruby IPA, and my favorite beer of all time, “Porterluma.” Representing Petaluma proudly, Brewsters also offers beer from Lagunitas, 101 North, and HenHouse, along with an array of other local brews, as well as popular craft beers from afar. And yes, you can get Coors, Miller, and Pabst in cans or bottles, if that is your thing.

For anyone who has visited the beer gardens of German or Austria, it is clear that Brewsters Beer Garden captures the authentic Gemütlichkeit. At the same time, Brewsters never loses sight of the fact that Petaluma is no cookie-cutter town, so cookie-cutter BBQ and other local cuisine simply will not do. The owners are always present with an open ear and open eye to make sure that the town is happy with what they offer. With a flair for authentic BBQ, a menu that sources local produce and regional beer, and an iconic location and view, Brewsters will play an integral role in not only reviving the downtown district above Washington Street, but will offer Petaluma a whole new culinary option when looking for a way to relax and enjoy the bounty of our area.