Spotlight On… Project P.U.B.
Breweries are heavy. We’ve got big, heavy tanks that hold thousands of pounds of beer, in addition to kegs, cans, bottles, and hundreds of pounds of ingredients lying around here at any given time.
Buildings constructed during the 1840s probably couldn’t handle that weight. People weren’t necessarily concerned that, 170 years later, someone might want to construct a brewery in them.
“I was originally going to make this a brewery,” he explains, “but once I got my structural engineers’ plans back, it was going to be a substantial investment for renovations and equipment. I didn’t really want to start that deep in the hole.”
Not wanting to give up entirely on his dream, the concept for Project P.U.B. was born. Each month, Michael turns the twelve taps in Project P.U.B. over to a different brewery, creating a brewpub experience with an entirely new menu around the brewery’s offerings, and CMBC has moved in for the month of December.
If it sounds insane… you’re absolutely right.
If it sounds like something you don’t want to miss… you’re absolutely right.
Originally opening in February of 2017, Project P.U.B. — Pop Up Brewpub — is the upstairs bar of Tapastre, an American tapas restaurant in downtown Somerville that’s been around for twelve years. Michael has been owner of both for the past six years.
Before that, the building at 1 West High Street in Somerville had been just about everything since it had first been constructed as a home in the 1840s: it was a library, county offices, a police station, and it served as the town jail at one point.
“We got this building in ‘04,” he tells us, “and, at the time, it was abandoned law offices, and there was an Italian restaurant in the basement.”
They spent a year-and-a-half renovating the building, moving the Italian restaurant upstairs where Project P.U.B. is now, turning it to fine dining, and opening Tapastre in its place. Originally, Tapastre’s menu was focused on Mediterranean tapas, with each page of the menu focused on regions around the Mediterranean — Italy, France, Turkey and Greece, Spain, and North Africa — each section with a handful of tapas and a wine or beer pairing.
“But, it’s hard to find good wine from North Africa,” Michael jokes.
Furthermore, the concept was a little limiting to the chef. If, for example, they wanted to remove a dish from the France section, it needed to be replaced with another dish from the same region.
“I understand that being in the kitchen — as well as being in the brewhouse — is a very artistic expression,” Michael says. “You get to be creative with your dishes and your designs, and I really encourage that. So, I like to foster creativity and allow the chefs to use whatever ingredients they want and pull inspiration from wherever.”
So, during the economic downturn in ‘08, they shuttered the fine dining concept upstairs and focused their energies on Tapastre, changing the downstairs concept into what it is now, with influences from all over the globe, without being constrained by region, or even having to stick to tapas.
“We’ve got Asian influences, Southern American, American,” he says. “They’re all over the place. And once I redesigned the menu, it opened up the option for sandwiches and burgers and thin-crust pizzas and soups and salads for the lunch crowd and for people who are looking for something a little more substantial.”
Once he changed the concept for Tapastre, he began focusing on craft beer, ditching the bottle cooler and putting in the draft system.
“When we did,” he tells us, “beer sales went up 700% and sales overall went up 50%.”
At the time, no one in Somerville was catering to the craft beer segment, so Michael saw a huge opportunity and went for it.
“I figured I’d get ahead of the wave,” he says. “And not only that, but you get bored with the same five beers at every restaurant and every bar. Variety is the spice of life.”
At Tapastre, they’re constantly rotating their taps. Their twenty-three taps turn over so quickly that the menu on Tuesday will rarely reflect the menu by Saturday.
“And we’ve been pouring you guys more here,” Michael says, “and things have been received very well.”
“Literally, any keg that we tap from you guys is gone within days,” Michael says. “It’s not even like we’re sitting on it for a week.”
Once the new concept was in place at Tapastre, Michael wanted to change chefs. He’d gone through several before the heavens opened and kismet intervened.
“I put an ad out on Craigslist almost four years ago,” Michael says, “and out of fifty responses, I got to this one guy’s resume, and the first thing on there was that he opened Stone’s World Bistro out in San Diego. He’s featured in their book. He was their opening chef and designed their entire menu.
“I was like… ‘okay…’.”
Needless to say, bringing on Chef Carlton Greenawalt was a no-brainer.
“I had him put out a few dishes, and they were killer,” he says. “He’s been the Executive Chef for both Tapastre and P.U.B. He helped me conceptualize P.U.B. and design the entire menu.”
When Carlton came on, the upstairs area had been empty for quite a while, and Michael explored his options as to opening it as a brewery.
“I’d gone really far,” he tells us. “I had structural engineers in here, I had architects in, I had everything drawn up and planned out. I petitioned the mayor and the town to change the zoning, which they actually did to allow me to open a brewery here.”
However, the necessary renovations were going to be substantial, so Michael changed up the concept. Again.
“I know what the craft beer world is,” he thought. “I’m well-versed in it, I know what is lacking.”
So, he set out to create a brewpub-like experience without the bother of having to brew beer, while, at the same time, giving some of the smaller breweries in the area the exposure that a brewpub would bring.
Switching the space from Italian fine dining to a brewpub required a bit of renovation, with the entire establishment now sporting reclaimed wood and bare bulbs throughout.
“I ripped out the carpet and laid a hardwood floor,” he says. “I built all the light fixtures, I installed the draft system. The wooden bar ran all the way across, there was a bottle cooler underneath, and there was a water fountain. So, I cut the bar in half and installed the draft system. I put the chalkboard in, I wired all the electric, I did all the lighting. All the fixtures in the other room. All the tables are reclaimed barn wood. All the chairs are reclaimed barn wood. I used a lot of barrels from Weyerbacher to make some of the tables. I also used them to make trim.”
Once he had the concept in place, finding a brewery to be the first guinea pig wasn’t easy.
“Once I came up with the concept,” Michael says, “I had a short list of breweries for the first year. I reached out to several of them, and the initial response was, ‘No. Whoa.’”
A few big-name New Jersey breweries turned him down in the beginning. It’s difficult enough for some of us to make enough beer for all of the accounts who want to have us — to add, essentially, another taproom into the mix is a daunting prospect.
So, Michael went a little bigger for the first few months, bringing Founders in for the first month.
“Within two months,” he says, “the tables kind of turned and the reps were coming to us, and it’s continued.”
A month ago, they put the question out on Facebook: what brewery do you want to see at Project P.U.B.?
“So, I thought, let’s finish the year strong,” Michael says. “It’s gonna be a great month.”
While we were there, Carlton stopped in to discuss the upcoming menu with Michael and Sales Manager Tom LoBianco, who was also on hand. As they change breweries on the first of the month and we were there on the 27th, they didn’t have much time to get things finalized.
At Project P.U.B., there’s a core menu that stays the same from month to month, featuring charcuterie boards with artisanal cheeses, “pickled things,” shareable appetizers such as duck fat fries, chicken liver mousse, and duck confit tacos. The entrees tend toward comfort food such as “craft” mac & cheese made with a Cape May IPA beer cheese, slow roasted pork bellies, a fried chicken sandwich, and a pub burger.
“It’s more of a gastropub-style up here,” Carlton says. “And we change it seasonally. I pair certain things with the brewery, and certain things are just what I want to make right now.”
One of the difficulties that Michael and Carlton must overcome, particularly when devising a menu, is the constantly-changing nature of craft beer. Even in the Tasting Room, we don’t keep the same things on week-to-week or even day-to-day.
“We try to pair the dishes with the brewery’s core brands,” Michael says. “If we do have something that stands out as a fantastic pairing, we’ll communicate it verbally.”
Random things, indeed. Right now, Carlton has a shrimp and chorizo flatbread made with an Always Ready ricotta, which sounds fantastic, but isn’t a combination we’d ever have considered.
Carlton calls the menu “beef heavy,” which fits for the time of year. As things turn colder, people tend to want something that’s a bit heartier. So, you’ll find a porter-braised short rib, which Carlton will likely switch off which porter he uses — Honey Porter or King Porter Stomp — throughout the month.
“Even with the seasonal menu,” Carlton says, “you can come back a couple times in the same month and try it again, and you’re not going to get the same thing.”
The menu also has a roasted bone marrow with a Honey Porter mustard, a vegetable pot pie with a Cape May IPA sauce, a holiday burger with a turkey patty, apple-caraway stuffing, and a porter gravy, and a “le” Cape May dip with an Always Ready au jus. In addition, there’s a “deconstructed” seared scallops sushi, and lamb and feta tacos.
They also make a different beer ice cream each month, using Honey Porter in the ice cream this month.
As you might imagine, a concept like this is a lot of work. Aside from finding another brewery to sign on each month, you’re looking for one that can keep the twelve taps full for a month, you’re redesigning the menu each month, and, on the last day of each month, kicking a number of kegs, rolling in new ones, taking down the signage for the old brewery, and decking out the interior with new logos.
“Changeover day is crazy,” Carlton says.
“I do blame myself,” Michael jokes. “But Sarah’s a huge help.”
Sarah, Michael’s sister and manager, graduated with a degree in criminal justice and was interning across the street at the prosecutor’s office, serving at Tapastre and P.U.B. as a second job.
“It’s nice to have people who are very trustworthy and very reliable,” he says. “When the internship was up, we trained her behind the bar, and she picked it up like that. It was crazy. And people love her. She’s so personable and likable. We had some changes down here, and I put her in charge and she’s been killin’ it. I’m really impressed with what she’s been doing. I’m really fortunate.”
Project P.U.B. hosts a beerfest in June and an Oktoberfest at the end of September. When he originally went to the city council, aside from the mayor, no one had any idea what a beer festival was.
“At the time, our mayor was a really progressive guy,” Michael says, “and a homebrewer.”
Mayor Brian Gallagher has since moved onto county freeholder, but he was obviously all for the idea. He asked Michael to do a little more research and come back for a more in-depth discussion.
There was a bit of pushback from the town, but Michael eventually prevailed enough to create an Oktoberfest on Division St., which had recently been renovated as a pedestrian mall.
“I ran out of beer in five hours,” Michael remembers. “I had to pull kegs from the bar to keep up. We sold out of everything. I had to drive to Hunterdon Distributing in the morning to throw some kegs in my pickup truck so I had beer for the next day.”
Even though the event was an unqualified success, Michael was still getting some pushback from the town. He was able to partner with ten local businesses, and, today, the festivals have outgrown Division St. He’s since moved it to North Bridge St., and it’s quickly outgrowing that. They’re currently looking into other venues.
In addition, they host a few pub crawls throughout the year, one being the Saturday before Halloween and a “Holiday Spirits” pub crawl in the middle of December, on the 15th this year.
“Everyone meets in costume or an ugly sweater,” Michael explains, “we meet up on Division St., and we split into groups. We had 500 people at the Holiday Spirits crawl last year. The events I throw in this town get really popular. People love drinking and they love beer and they love doing it outside.”
Until Michael came along, no one was really doing that for Somerville.
“I don’t want to take credit for the downtown revitalization,” he says, “but a lot of the energy and a lot of the young people coming in and a lot of the events, nobody’s doing anything but me in town.”
It hasn’t always been easy, due, in part, to what Michael calls his “distinct personality,” but they’ve managed to benefit Somerville.
“Now, if I can do something that benefits everybody,” he says, “they’re going to usher it through and let it happen. So, we’ve worked with local food banks and local regional shelters. We definitely give back. One of my business philosophies is that if we can do something that’s fun, socially responsible, give back a little bit, and make a buck? At the end of the day, everybody’s happy.”
Essentially, what stemmed from a bit of disappointment in learning that a brewery wouldn’t be viable at the site has grown into a concept that’s simply unmatched anywhere else in New Jersey.
“This is the first project in my life that I’ve seen from concept to execution,” Michael tells us. “I’m proud of it.”
We’ll be rotating through Cape May IPA, Coastal Evacuation, Devil’s Reach, Always Ready, King Porter Stomp, Honey Porter, Crushin’ It, Sea Mistress, Biscuits N’ Honey, City to Shore, Extra Ready, Mop Water, and Wakey Wakey Coffee Stout on Nitro. In addition, we’ll be tapping special kegs of Temporarily Permanent and Boughs of Barley on Wednesdays. Growler fills are available. Project P.U.B. and Tapastre are closed Mondays.