Owner Viet Vu, who lives in San Francisco with his wife, said he’s aiming to open the spot, at 1763 Alcatraz Ave., within seven months. Vu, 37, said the atmosphere will be intimate and laid-back, with several kinds of house-brewed beer for sale along with 10-13 other local craft beers to drink on-site. Wine and light snacks will be available, but distilled alcohol will not be served.
(Update, March 29: The restaurant will be called Hoi Polloi Brewpub, and owner Viet Vu told us the background: “I always liked the idea of the 99% so to speak. I always liked the idea of: This is who we all are, this mass of people. I grew up in a working-class background, and the name kind of represents that.”)
Craft beer, local breweries and nano-brewing have been gaining popularity in recent years. In December, Slate.com noted that tiny breweries are “changing the industry.” Wrote author Mark Garrison: “Nanobrewing provides an opportunity for skilled homebrewers to dip a toe into the commercial market, without having to find investors or take on crushing debt to secure the kind of funding required to start a microbrewery or brew pub.”
Heather Irwin of The Press Democrat illustrates the scale nicely: “Home brewers typically make about 5 gallons per batch. Nano-brewers, between one and three barrels at a time, topping out at a few hundred barrels annually. Micro-brewers like Petaluma’s Lagunitas Brewing Company make 600,000 barrels annually; a large ‘craft’ brewer like Samuel Adams, 6 million barrels per year. Anheuser-Bush produces upwards of 100 million barrels per year.”
Vu describes his vision as a “place where people can have conversation,” unhindered by television, with a soundtrack that will run the gamut from underground hip hop to indie rock. Down the line, Vu said, he hopes to install DJ tables and bring in friends to play sets: “We want to keep it old school, and just make use of vinyl records — real turntables with mixers and stuff like that.”
The space, with room for 30-40 people, will feature a bar and a few tables, with brew kettles and fermentation tanks in the back. Vu said, initially, the couple was scouting spaces in San Francisco for the new venture, but ultimately decided on the Berkeley space after seeing the high prices and “daunting process” related to opening a business in the city. Vu said he’s lived in Berkeley and Oakland at various times and “liked that part of the East Bay.” Driving around one day, he came upon the 613-square-foot storefront on Alcatraz, which was blighted after decades sitting empty.
“The rent was right, and we thought the neighborhood looked great,” he said. “There’s a lot of potential and other businesses around. A lot of the people in that area really wanted a place they can come hang out.”
The space has been vacant since 1983 when it was used for retail, according to Vu’s applicant letter to the city to request his business permit. (See the rest of the application materials on the city website.) The Zoning Adjustments Board approved the application on Feb. 28.
Vu said it was his father, Thanh, who sparked his interest in beer and brewing. The two had hoped to go into the business together, but Thanh died of liver cancer in 2009.
“My dad was a brewer as well as many other things he was in his life,” said Vu. The two would hang out and try different craft beers, and visit breweries and pubs together, some as far away as Mexico and Vietnam. “It was one of the things we shared with each other. We always kind of shared that common passion for beer.”
Initially the plan had been for Thanh to handle the brewing. When his father died, Vu said he thought their dream was over too. But several months later, he had a change of heart and decided to study brewing himself. Vu quit his job as a paralegal at Wells Fargo and enrolled at the World Brewing Academy in Chicago. During the course, part of which takes place in Munich, Germany, Vu learned about all aspects of brewing, from the science of the process to the business end of operations.
Since then, he’s become an avid home brewer of American ales, pale ales, stouts, German-style beers and more.
Vu said he wanted to open a nano-brewpub in part because that fit within his budget, but also because he had a vision for a small, neighborhood space.
“A lot of breweries are really big,” he said. “I always felt like an intimate space would work better in an urban setting.”
Vu said he looks forward to working with neighbors in a range of ways. He hopes to collaborate with Easy Creole (set to open next door at 1761 Alcatraz Ave.) and will allow his customers to carry in creole food to the brewpub. He also plans to offer up the space for neighborhood meetings, philanthropic events and other community happenings.
He noted that the city had been very helpful in the planning process, and said the “great staff” at the Office of Economic Development put him in touch with “all the right people,” from neighborhood business contacts to the local police area coordinator.
Due to the state of the property, Vu said there’s a lot of work to be done to get the space ready to open. It will need complete renovation, with updates to the plumbing and electrical systems. The floors will be refinished and a wall that was plastered over will be exposed to show the brick below.
Once the brewpub is underway, Vu said customers will find him serving beer behind the counter. His brother, too, will be on staff, along with perhaps one other person. Hours are planned to run Sunday to Thursday from noon to midnight, and Friday and Saturday from noon to 2 a.m.
He said his father, in the end, might not have agreed with the vision.
“He would think that the size we’re starting with is crazy. He would think it doesn’t make sense,” said Vu. “A ‘do it big or don’t do it at all’ type of thing. He’d say ‘You’re not gonna make any money.’ But the idea is not to make money. It’s to enjoy what I do.”
Small brewing endeavors seem to be picking up speed quickly. According to the Hess Brewing blog, 93 nanobreweries were in operation nationwide as of December, with another 50 in the works. The blog lists Beltane Brewing in Novato, Van Houten Brewing Co. in Marin, Petaluma Hills Brewing Company and Healdsburg Beer Co. a bit further north, 510 Brewing in Fremont, and Elizabeth Street Brewery and Clara St. Brewing in San Francisco as efforts planned or underway. In February, Pine Street Brewery joined the San Francisco nano-brew scene, according to Eater SF. Berkeley, too, has been experiencing its own beer revolution recently. Click the links below to learn more.
Sierra Nevada to open beer tasting room on Fourth Street [03.20.13]
City approves sour-beer brewery for ‘beer geeks’ [03.19.13]
Beer garden, burger spot to open in South Berkeley [03.15.13]
Burgers and beer duo debut in Albany on Friday [03.07.13]