It’s easy to spot some of the similarities between bread and beer. Both have been around for centuries and require yeast, water and fermentation to thrive. It was these similarities that captured the attention of longtime baker and beer brewer Dennis Midden, fueling him to open a brewery and bread shop in Huntington Beach, Calif., that uniquely fuses the two.
“What I tell customers is that I’m a baker who loves to drink beer, so I’m in heaven here,” Midden says. “The bread has become a real passion of mine, and the beer is fun and it brings a smile to people’s faces. They love doing it.”
Midden opened Brewbakers in 1996, after working for more than 10 years as a food broker. His bakery career began at age 13, working at Pratzel’s Jewish bakery in St. Louis with his father.
“My dad’s philosophy was, learn the bakery. If you want to get out, get out, but you’ll always have a job,” he says. After getting his baker’s certification at AIB International at age 25, he was a baker in the in-store bakery at Schnucks Market, St. Louis and worked in real estate for four years before moving to San Francisco in 1981 and back into bakery.
“I was able to use my sales and baking experience to get hired on by [a bakery supplier] as a tech service rep for one of its food brokers. It’s hard to find a person who can both sell and bake,” he says.
He opened his own food brokerage a few years later with a partner, and began forming relationships with the manufacturers that would later provide product for his own bakery. He moved to Huntington Beach permanently in 1988 and started planning to open a shop of his own amid increasing supermarket consolidations.
“I probably represented all the companies that are out there in my 10 years as a broker. And they all bought each other in the late 80s and early 90s,” Midden says. “That’s one of the reasons I got out of it. Also I wanted something of my own, instead of always representing somebody else.”
The beer-bread connection
Midden began brewing beer at home around the same time, which sparked his interest in beer’s kinship with bread. “As I got into brewing, I started to see a real relationship between beer and bread,” he says. “You look up the history of bread, you see beer and vice versa. And I thought, ‘Wow, how cool to bring those back together!’”
His new hobby coincided with an influx of home brew shops in Canada as consumers sought to skirt the country’s soaring alcohol tax. This idea would lay the foundations for Brewbakers.
“Canada’s alcohol tax pays its medical, so it’s really expensive. Somebody got the bright idea to open up home brew shops so they could brew beer without paying taxes. And it took off like crazy,” Midden says. “I was trying to figure out how to tie beer and bread together into a business venture. The microbrewery concept didn’t work because I didn’t like the idea of wholesale only. The traditional brewpub didn’t interest me either because I didn’t want to do food.”
Being “first and foremost a bread and beer guy,” he settled on a brew shop where he would sell fresh-baked bread and Bavarian-style soft pretzels.
He added a food menu three years later, giving into customer demand. “Everybody who came in ordered a pizza while they were brewing,” he says. “So I said, ‘We’ve got bread. All we need is sauce and cheese.’ So we started doing it. It’s been very good for us, and we’ve since expanded into sandwiches, like burgers, grilled cheese, toasted ham and cheese, and a macaroni and cheese sandwich.”
Celebrating every batch
On-premise brewing comprises roughly 60 percent of Brewbakers’ business. The brewpub has a list of 83 beer formulas for customers to choose from, many of which are copycats of popular craft beers, though they also can do custom brews. To start the brew, customers measure and add grains and malt extract to a 26.5-gal. kettle that’s been filled with water. (Each of the six steam kettles bear the names of Midden’s brothers; the three bottling stations are named after his sisters.) The kettle is brought to a boil to steep the ingredients; then the wort, or unfermented beer, is chilled to 78ºF before the yeast is added and the wort is transferred to fermentation tanks. The process takes about two hours.
After two to three weeks of fermenting the beer, the customer adds priming sugar for carbonation and bottles the beer. The beer is ready to drink one week after bottling, when customers can brand their home brew with a custom-made label.
“We celebrate every batch; we don’t live and die by consistency,” Midden says. “So even if it’s the same type of beer, every batch is a little unique because we do such small batches. Whether it’s an extra few drops of water, 0.10 oz. of hops or boiling an extra minute–everything matters.”
The charming irregularity that characterizes each batch of beer also can be tasted in Brewbakers’ best-selling spent grain bread, which is made from the mash, or malt and grain residue that remains in the mash-kettle after the grain is mixed with water during brewing. Midden collects the mash just after brewing and mixes it into a simple bread dough made from white and whole wheat flour, malt, yeast and salt. He often adds brown sugar, honey and rye flour as flavor enhancers. The shop sells about 24 loaves per day.
“I’m very proud of the spent grain bread,” he says. “It’s always a little different. It’ll be dark or light because of whatever beer we make that day. When people brew here, they get to take bread home that day. Since it’s made from their grains we always say, ‘You can’t drink your beer today, but you can eat it!’”
The majority of onsite business comes from scheduled events, with Thursdays through Sundays being the busiest days. On a given day, the brewpub will host 10 events, ranging from beer brewing to pretzel and root beer making. “The pretzel and root beer parties evolved from requests by parents to do something different with their kids,” Midden says. “We always made soda, but they wanted something the kids could do, so we designed it around what the parents wanted.”
Midden starts and ends his days making wholesale deliveries of bread, beer and soda in an 80-year-old bakery coach that was repainted with the Brewbakers logo. The brewpub’s products are offered in nearly 20 local businesses–including delis, restaurants and supermarkets–contributing about 25 percent to the overall business. “We always did a little wholesale, and that’s actually increased,” Midden says. “Our pretzels do really well–we sell those to about four accounts a week, 20 dozen total–and we offer 20 to 30 varieties of beer to a number of local businesses.”
The German-style soft prezels also are a best-selling item in the brewpub, with about 36 dozen sold per week.
Midden usually arrives at Brewbakers at around 9:30 a.m. and starts shaping and baking pretzels, as well as mixing additional pretzel dough for the rest of the day and to form the base for pizzas and pretzel buns. He also mixes dough for scones and artisan bread–swapping out up to half the water with beer in many of his bread formulas. “Malt is great yeast food,” he says. “And beer is an easy way of adding the malt. Plus we have plenty of it around here.”
The oven contains a proofer, but Midden doesn’t use it; he prefers to give his bread time to ferment at room temperature. “My philosophy is the longer the bread ferments, the more flavor you get. So we just let it ferment on the bench. I’m always throwing beer and flour in the dough and usually making it the next day, so I’m kind of using a sourdough process in that way.”
Although most of his product is made from scratch daily (he typically bakes three batches of 20 loaves of bread), Midden procures par-baked sourdough and olive bread, as well as frozen cookie dough. He owes the quality of the product to his days working as a food broker.
“I always say, ‘Look at your space, look at your experience and do what you can. Do what you do best, and bring everything else in,’” Midden says. “When I was a food broker, I represented the best. I really had a good lineup of companies, and you can pick and choose when you’re a successful broker. People poke fun of par-baked or frozen product, but if my sourdough is baked right, you couldn’t tell it apart from scratch baked bread out of the oven. And the bottom line is, the customers like it.”
The five part-time employees start arriving for staggered shifts between 10:30 and 11 a.m. to clean out and fill the brew kettles, shape pretzels, wrap cookies and pretzels for the display case and help with on-premise events and food orders.
A hidden destination
Brewbakers has been at its current location on Heil Ave. for 11 years; the original shop opened on Main St. near the harbor in downtown Huntington Beach, but rent became too expensive.
“This is a good location for us. We like the retail front and warehouse look of it. We’re around the corner from a good area and you can’t beat the price we pay here.”
Brewbakers’ interior evokes Huntington Beach’s nickname as “Surf City USA,” with its laid-back atmosphere and walls plastered with cheeky beer posters and custom made beer labels. Long picnic tables are scribbled with customers’ notes and signatures. Various trinkets collected through Midden’s years of travels (he also is a licensed pilot) line the shelves behind the bar. The brewpub sees an average of 65 walk-in customers per day. Because it serves beer, tickets average $20 to $30 per customer.
“Some people don’t want to brew; they just drink,” Midden notes. “Others have been drinking here for years before they finally try brewing.”
It’s been an uphill battle to get the word out since Brewbakers first opened. “We’re a unique business, definitely a destination,” Midden says. “People don’t really walk by, and we’re not open late so we don’t get much of a bar crowd. We get a lot of tourists.”
A local hotel carries an ad for Brewbakers in its city guide, which has helped bring in tourists looking for something unique to do. Midden also advertises in local print media and is involved in the city as a member of the Kiwanis Group and Chamber of Commerce. He frequently donates gift certificates (appropriately in the form of empty beer bottles) to charity events for local schools and causes he is particularly passionate about, such as autism, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. “We probably do one silent auction for charity per week. I like them because it’s a good cause and gets new people coming into the shop,” he says.
Given that certain aspects of the business require customer education, Midden is paying a lot of attention to marketing it, especially online. “I hired a marketing broker who sends out our newsletters twice a month and tries to get us involved in all the local events,” he says. He also hired someone to build and maintain Brewbakers’ website, noting that having a web presence contributes a lot to his business and helps educate the consumer about how brewing works.
It’s about the product
Midden hopes to grow the wholesale pretzel and pretzel bun lines, given the uniqueness of the product. “I’d like to do more wholesale pretzels and reintroduce those pretzel buns, which we used to sell a lot of to supermarkets,” he says. “Pretzels are such a good little niche. Even now, I can’t believe nobody’s doing them really well.”
He also wants to expand the business to three additional locations within a 12-mile radius, with the help of a few partner companies. “I always wanted to build locations in Fullerton, Long Beach and Mission Viejo to build a strong base in this area and let people really know what we’re about. A lot of people tell me this is a franchise waiting to happen because it’s so different.”
Midden is hesitant to expand too much, however, noting that moving bread production to a commissary would take away from the overall customer experience.
“I think baking and brewing on premise is where the magic is here,” he says. “You want that aroma and freshness. I think it’s cool when there’s a commitment to doing that.”