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The Brick Store Pub

The Brick Store Pub

On a balmy Saturday afternoon in early October, a convivial throng of beer connoisseurs stood three-deep at the bar at the Brick Store Pub. Many had traveled from as far away as Alabama, Tennessee and North and South Carolina to spend the day at the Atlanta beer mecca on the occasion of its inaugural Hop Harvest Festival.

Beer-geek banter filled the air, along with the pungent citrus and floral aroma of hops. The crowd shifted in waves, pressing against the burnished horseshoe-shaped bar downstairs and climbing to the more intimate confines of the Belgian bar, tucked into a cozy, loft-like space above a flight of creaky wooden stairs.

For one day only, all 25 of the pub’s taps had been turned over to big, bold I.P.A.s, including eight Belgian or Belgian-style I.P.A.s and several rare one-off casks, prompting discussions that quickly turned to a spirited assessment of favorites and worried questions about what might run out first. By midnight, people were still hanging around, but few were fully aware that another milestone in Brick Store history had been reached.

“Hop Harvest has the potential to be the biggest thing we do,” said the co-owner, Dave Blanchard. “It’s just viral the way it caught on. But that’s what’s happening now. It’s really cool how much things have changed in that way.”

Wandering into the Brick Store the night it opened in June of 1997, you would have been to hard-pressed to imagine that 13 years later the modest storefront on the Square in downtown Decatur, Ga., a leafy suburb within metro Atlanta, would become widely celebrated as one the best beer bars in the world.

Bellying-up back then, you might have noticed the eponymous exposed brick walls and been coaxed into ordering a Dogwood or Blind Man ale. Then as now, many first timers would be puzzled by the absence of television sets, neon signs or mega domestic lagers, such as Bud, Coors or Miller Lite.

Then, you might have heard Ben Folds Five emanating from the sound system. Now, it would more likely be Gentleman Jesse and His Men, the recent recording by one of the pub’s cadre of hip, young, beer-savvy bartenders and servers. Then, the best-selling beer was Warsteiner, a light German lager. Now it’s St. Bernardus Abt 12, a strong Belgian ale.

With very little money but a lot of sweat equity and enthusiasm, Blanchard and his partners, Tom Moore and Mike Gallagher, were able to remake an old beauty parlor into a friendly neighborhood pub. And from the start, they were successful on their own terms.

“The first night, we thought we were rich,” remembered Gallagher. “All three us were bartending, and people were throwing money at us because they knew how hard we’d been working to get the place open. We ended up making about $500 in tips.”

“Actually,” Moore said, “I was thrilled because we were able to go out and buy enough stuff for the bar and the kitchen so we could open again the next day.”

The Brick Store prides itself on being a down-to-earth gathering spot for Decatur locals. Yearly Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day and Oktoberfest parties, as well as sponsorship of the annual Great Decatur Craft Beer Festival, have cemented a symbiotic relationship with the community.

Especially at lunch and early in the evening, it’s not uncommon to find regulars at the bar who were there on day one. A former employee, Mary Jane Mahan, has even written a book, “Love at the Pub,” about the scene that has grown up around the place.

“When we first opened we had a lot of young couples,” noted Moore. “Now they’re 13 years older, with two or three kids, but they’re still coming.”

The explanation of how the Brick Store has remained such a popular watering hole for well over a decade seems to turn on the congenial atmosphere, smart service and solid pub fare that includes burgers and fish and chips, as well as lighter salads and the likes of baked brie and hummus platters. Of course, there’s the winning beer, wine and spirits menu.

How the Brick Store joined the ranks of America’s perennial best beer bars, such as Monks’ Cafe in Philadelphia, Spuyten Duyvil in Brooklyn, Hop Leaf in Chicago and Toronado Pub in San Francisco, is a more complicated story.

Blanchard, Moore and Gallagher said the watershed moment for the Brick Store, and every other serious beer bar in Georgia, was the passage of the 2004 law that made higher alcohol brews legal in the state.

In rapid response, the trio built-out what became known as “the Belgian Bar.” The expansion – “upstairs and to the left,” is how a Brick Store T-shirt maps its location – features eight draft taps and over 120 bottles of Belgian and Belgian-style beers. Downstairs, where there were once 13 draft lines and a handful of imported, local and regional specialty beers, there are now 17 draft lines and over 65 bottles in rotation.

Monthly beer and cheese tastings, periodic beer dinners and distributors and breweries who are more than willing to offer up special, limited-edition and rare beers have all added to the pub’s mystique, bringing in scores of thirsty travelers every week.

“Walk in here on any Saturday,” Blanchard said, “and ask people where they’re from, and you might get four or five different states and a whole bunch of people who have made a pilgrimage from the suburbs.”

Another pilgrimage, reserved for invited guests, begins in the alley behind the pub, where a heavy steel door leads to a winding stairway and ends in a series of underground caverns that once made up a bank vault. The walls are decorated with memorabilia and scrawled notes from brewers, including Allagash’s Rob Tod, Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione and Stone’s Steve Wagner.
Despite its irreverent resemblance to a rock club dressing room, this is the Brick Store’s beer cellar, where hundreds of vintage and limited edition bottles and kegs are being aged. It represents what is perhaps the most substantial investment in ensuring that the pub will continue to be an important destination for beer connoisseurs for years to come.

In February 2009, Blanchard, Gallagher and Moore opened their newest venture, Leon’s Full Service, taking over a former gas station building around the corner from the Brick Store.

While the partners reject the notion that Leon’s is a “gastropub,” they’ve certainly created a more refined version of their original vision. The modern interior addresses its lively street corner surroundings via tall windows and garage doors, showcasing an inviting sidewalk beer garden and a crushed slate bocce court.  

Several longtime Brick Store employees run Leon’s. Gallagher’s brother, Ryan, is in the front of the house. Miles Macquarrie presides over the bar, where cool culinary cocktails and a thoughtful wine list join sophisticated beer offerings. Chef Eric Ottensmeyer is in the kitchen, turning out snacks, sandwiches and entrees that merge cleverly updated tavern fare with local and organic ingredients.

Even if Leon’s is about pushing the envelope a bit, with a more stylish atmosphere and more ambitious food and drink, beer is still where the action is – accounting for the largest percentage of beverage sales and bringing in aficionados lured by the reputation of the Brick Store.

“When it comes down to it,” Blanchard said, “we’d be stupid not to do what we do, and do it as well as we do it, with great beer, proper glassware and knowledgeable staff. This is continuing education for the way beer should be presented in bars and restaurants. Both here and at the Brick Store, there’s always something to keep us on our toes. It’s still exciting, and it’s still fun. And it doesn’t look like it’s going to be ending any time soon.”