Barrington Brewery & Restaurant Enjoys a Moment in the Sun
Andrew Mankin recalls that when he and business partner Gary Happ were crunching the numbers regarding their planned use of solar-heated water for their brew-pub establishment in Great Barrington, what they saw gave them reason to pause.
But not for very long.
“We decided that at some point you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is and do something,” he recalled, as he talked about the system they were contemplating — one that would coincide with, and be a key element in, the construction of a banquet facility that would complement their already well-established brewery and restaurant on busy Route 7. “When you’re putting up a new building, you’re spending a lot of money on all kinds of things, so we thought, ‘why not something that’s environmentally friendly?’”
That ‘something’ has turned out to be an investment that has paid off in a number of ways — from dramatically reducing natural-gas bills to giving Barrington Brewery & Restaurant a branding identity — ‘solar-brewed beer’ — that is not only earth-friendly, but helps generate business as well.
“People will come in, point to those words, and say, ‘what does this mean?’ said Mankin, who, as the company’s owner/brewer, is not only willing but well-equipped to explain it all. (Usually, the dissertation includes handing the individual one of the informative placemats the company uses that not only detail the solar hot-water use but explains the brewing process in five easy-to-follow steps.)
Overall, the sun-heated water gives many environmentally conscious individuals and families a reason to turn off Route 7 and into the large converted barns that comprise this operation. Or another reason, to be more precise.
And there must be several, said Happ, now a nearly 40-year veteran of the ultra-challenging hospitality industry, noting that, while the beers brewed at that location — labels that include Black Bear Stout, Hopland Pale Ale, Berkshire Blond, and Ice Glen IPA, along with a host of seasonal offerings — are a huge draw, there are hundreds of microbrews available in this region. In short, the food has to be good, too.
Barrington Brewery & Restaurant has that part of the equation covered with a menu, classified generally as ‘pub fare,’ that includes everything from barbecued ribs to shepherd’s pie to spinach and eggplant casserole.
To say this establishment effectively blends beer and food is not just idle talk, Happ noted. Indeed, those aforementioned brews are included in the recipes for menu items ranging from the chili to the blue cheese dressing to the famous (it’s been profiled in Bon Appetit a few times) chocolate stout cake.
“We try to keep everything simple, and we make everything here,” he explained. “It’s not a fancy, expensive menu, but it’s good, fresh food.”
As for that aforementioned banquet facility, named Crissey Farm, it has become a solid addition to the venture, said Mankin, noting that, in a region studded with venues at both the high and low end, this 200-seat room has become an attractive middle-of-the road option.
“We throw a very good wedding for a very fair price,” he explained, adding that the facility is drawing its share of other types of events as well, including corporate outings and meetings. “It’s an attractive alternative for people looking for something in the middle.”
For this issue and its annual Restaurant Guide, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Barrington Brewery and Restaurant, where the bright ideas include, but are certainly not limited to, the water-heating process.
Lager than Life
It doesn’t take much time, or many words, for that matter, to describe the décor and the mood at this establishment. ‘Beer’ will do just fine.
It’s brewed on the site, served on tap at the tavern portion of the eatery, sold in pint bottles (the partners distribute to a few other locations as well), explained on the placemats, and reflected on the walls — all of them.
There are pictures of old breweries, tavern signs from a long time ago — one declares that something called ‘white rose special’ costs 20 cents a bottle — and glasses, coasters, and trays bearing the names of brewers from the present, past, and distant past.
While referencing the huge display of coasters — Mankin has no idea how many there are on display or in storage because there’s no room left to display them — he pointed to a couple of his favorites: Dog & Parrott and Ridley’s Old Bob.
Those were brewed in England, which is where Mankin cut his teeth in this art and science. He was a self-described home brewer some 30 years ago, when he had a chance to learn from the masters at the Vaux Brewery in Sunderland in Northeast England, near the border with Scotland.
Upon returning home, his thoughts turned increasingly toward making beer a career, not a hobby. And when he met Happ, things started to come together.
Happ, then a partner in the hugely successful 20 Railroad Street restaurant in Great Barrington’s downtown, was selling his interest in that entity and eyeing a new entrepreneurial adventure. Mankin was looking for his first.
They decided to blend their resources and talents and opened Barrington Brewery & Restaurant on Route 7 in what’s known as the Jennifer House Complex, which featured antique shops and other forms of retail.
Over the past two decades, this venture has become a key component in a broad revitalization effort that has seen Great Barrington evolve from a sleepy Berkshires town “where the sidewalks were rolled up at 8 o’clock,” said Happ, to a true year-round destination.
The town’s rebirth has included everything from new shops and restaurants to the stunning $9 million renovation of the 111-year-old Mahaiwe (pronounced Muh-hay-we) Theatre. Now known as the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, it presents music, dance, theater, opera, talks, and movie classics (The Graduate is playing on May 21).
With this new vibrancy has come both opportunity and challenge in the form of greater competition, said Happ, adding that Barrington Brewery & Restaurant has thrived by drawing both local residents and the tourists that now come all 12 months of the year, and through creation of a niche with many elements.
Food (moderately priced) and beer are obvious ingredients, both figuratively and literally, he explained, but the ‘green’ factor is also a key part of the equation.
And there’s more to it the solar hot-water system, which, when installed, was the largest such facility in the region. Indeed, the venture buys its power from Pine Island Farm in Sheffield, a partnership dairy operation that boasts what’s known as an anaerobic digester facility, in which the methane from animal waste is converted into electricity and sold to National Grid.
“When we write a check for our energy at the end of the month, we don’t make it out to National Grid, we make it out to Pine Island Farm,” said Happ, with a strong dose of satisfaction and pride in his voice. “From the beginning, we’ve always tried to run a green business as best we could, and we’re continuing down that path.”
The next step, already on the drawing board and well into the development stage, is to create a photovoltaic system on a two-acre parcel the partners recently acquired and generate enough power to operate both the restaurant and Crissey Farm.
Unfortunately, the state has thrown a roadblock of sorts in front of what Happ called the “crown jewel of our greenness.” Apparently, there is a cap on photovoltaic systems of this type, and it has been reached, he went on, making it clear that this was a source of great frustration.
“Here are two guys trying to do the right thing, run a good, green business, and leave a small footprint, and who’s holding us up? The state,” he said with noticeable exasperation. “We’re ready to go.”
Whether the state eases restrictions on solar-power systems and allows the partners to proceed remains to be seen, although both men believe this matter involves the question ‘when?’ and not ‘if?’
In the meantime, they will continue making beer with solar-heated water and press on with their efforts to grow the banquet side of the business.
Off to a solid start, 200-seat Crissey Farm, opened just as the Great Recession was starting in the summer of 2008, is creating a niche in its own right, said Mankin.
“We have a wedding booked every weekend right into October,” he explained. “Over the past few years, business has really picked up.
Icing on the Cake
Mankin told BusinessWest that Barrington Brewery isn’t shy about sharing the recipe for its famous chocolate stout cake. It’s already been published in Bon Appetit, he noted, and staff at the restaurant will hand patrons a copy if they ask for one.
This willingness to share trade secrets is somewhat rare in the restaurant business, he acknowledged, but the company isn’t worried about losing business from the practice.
“It’s not easy to make it — there’s a lot that goes into this,” he said, referring to the stout cake.
But those exact words could be used to describe the restaurant industry itself. The Barrington Brewery has succeeded by creating an effective niche — one that involves price, beer, food — and a green philosophy.
All that gives this establishment star power — in all kinds of ways.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]