For 18 months, Mark Shintaffer oversaw the renovation of a large historical building along the riverwalk in downtown Mount Vernon. It was a project filled with the kind of ups and downs that come with trying to turn a 100-year-old building into something modern and state-of-the-art.
Shintaffer’s end goal was to turn the rundown building, which used to house the Lyric Theater, into a destination brewery and restaurant. By mid-March of this year he was finished and ready to fling open the doors.
Then the pandemic hit.
The weekend that District Brewing was set to open in late March, the Governor was preparing to issue his Stay Home, Stay Safe order. Shintaffer never got to truly open the brewery. Instead, like many breweries and restaurants, District had to pivot quickly. They began selling pizzas and crowler and growler fills to go. So far the response has been promising.
“We continue to blow through kegs, so the consumer has responded very well,” said Shintaffer.
For weeks now customers have been lining up in front of the brewery along the riverwalk, waiting their turn to order pizza and beer. Inside the building, the beautiful brew tanks serve as the backdrop to a large dining room, with a second floor of customer seating overhead.
Until this week, the beer on tap has been outsourced. But Monday Shintaffer finally posted a District Brewing original: First Strike, a West Coast IPA. Three days later, Tropical Vacation, a hazy IPA, was added to the menu.
Along with helping him make connections in the craft beer world that has already led to collaborations with Iron Horse Brewing and Bale Breaker, brewing at a big player like Elysian taught Kochendorfer a lot about the beer-making process.
“(I learned) that details make the difference between a mediocre beer and a great beer, and to always question the accepted wisdom if you ever want to make progress,” Kochendorfer said.
As for the beer at District, Kochendorfer plans to focus on hop-forward beers. But that doesn’t mean he’ll be looking to just fit his beers into a pre-defined style or flavor profile and start pumping our cookie-cutter IPAs.
“I plan to make a wide variety of hop forward beers in a range of different alcohol content and in varying degrees of haze or clarity,” said Kochendorfer. “There will be names and descriptions to guide you through them of course, but as brewers, and drinkers, we are blessed these days with an amazingly wide variety of hops that continues to grow every year and I intend to play with as many of them as possible to bring people uniquely refreshing hoppy experiences.”
District will have 20 beers on tap, most of them being their own beer.
When looking for a brewer to head up his operation, Shintaffer wanted someone with experience in a professional setting and knowledge of how to make beers consistent and reliable. He believes that’s what he’s got in Kochendorfer.
“When John’s brewing he’s brewing to the gram,” Shintaffer said. “He’s a scientist. It’s all math for him. He’s dialing in each recipe so it’s exactly the same every time. We want our customers t to be able to depend on that.”
For Shintaffer, beer is just part of the experience he hopes patrons enjoy when District can finally open to foot traffic. With the restaurant focusing mostly on pizza and the theme and decor around movies (paying tribute to the building’s past as a theater), Shintaffer wanted to create a place where everybody felt welcome.
“The concept is really neighborhood brewery; that ‘third place’ feeling,” Shintaffer said. “We want people to bring the wife, the kids, your neighbor. It’s going to be a fun environment.”
The vision Shintaffer has in his head was put there by Pinthouse Pizza, a small chain of pizza and beer spots he visited in Austin, Texas. Like what District will eventually do, Pinthouse has customers order their pizza and beer at the counter and then sit down and eventually bus their own tables.
“It’s new to our area,” Shintaffer said, “but I believe that if you build it they will come.”
Shintaffer comes from a long line of beverage people. His family started Sound Beverages, a beer and beverage distributor in Whatcom County, 70 years ago. In recent years, Shintaffer decided it was time to try opening his own brewery.
“I’ve enjoyed the business, but I needed to find something of my own,” Shintaffer said.
For now, he’ll have to wait a little longer until that vision is fully realized.
First Strike IPA
| KEY INGREDIENTS Mosaic, El Dorado, Centennial, and Pahto hops | ABV 6.1% | IBU 67
If you’ve spent any time on “craft beer Instagram,” you know T.J. and Emily. In about a year, the Borden’s Great American Beer Quest has ballooned to more than 5,000 followers and is one of the most enjoyable follows for craft beer fans.
For T.J., who works full time in the construction industry, and Emily, opening The Republic, is one way to take their social media presence and place it in real life. And despite the fact we’re all quarantining and bottleshops can no longer host guests for a pint, The Republic opened last week.
I recently sat down with T.J. and Emily to ask them some questions about their craft beer journey.
| Interview edited for brevity by Aaron Swaney
Question: How did this whole thing come about? Where did the idea come from to open your own bottleshop?
TJ: The origins are really with Doug and Jeff at the Independent. They had been wanting to do something new, not necessarily a new location, but branch out and try something different. I was helping them scout places and after a while they approached me and asked if I’d be willing to go in with them as a partner. I remember when I called Emily, thinking this is one of those things where she shoots down the dream. I called Em and said ‘Jeff and Doug want us to go in with them on a bottleshop and beer bar,’ and I barely finished the question and she was like, ‘Yes!’
Emily: Then I remember thinking, ‘Oh wait, what does that mean? How much money?’ But as soon as he said Jeff and Doug want to start a beer bar I was like, ‘Yes!’
Q: When was that?
Emily: It was June. I remember because it was toward the end of the school year and I was meeting some friends for happy hour and I was like, ‘Apparently we’re starting a beer bar business. I don’t know how this is happening though.’
Q: How has the partnership been with Doug and Jeff?
Emily: It’s been great. They come from the industry already and there were so many times we would have been lost trying to open this place without knowing how to go through different avenues to get certain permits or getting Square up and collecting money. They know how to get into distribution centers. Their wealth of knowledge on how to start a successful business of this style was huge.
Q: How did you guys get involved in craft beer?
TJ: I’m a late-comer to the beer scene. I was just looking at my Untappd and my 6,600 unique check-ins and that’s since June 2013 and that’s about the time I got involved in craft beer. At the time, I was just a Hefe drinker. I couldn’t handle the bitterness. I didn’t like the malt stuff or the dark beers. Hefe was a good gateway beer. Like so many, my palate has adjusted to where I’ll drink anything. My go-to is a good IPA. Emily has been a beer drinker for a long time. (laughing)
Emily: Same thing, though. The hefes and then the gateway was Corona (laughing). Super, super light. Then we started trying different things. I remember for the longest time I didn’t like anything pumpkin or sour, and then he had me try a pumpkin sour and I’ve liked both ever since.
Q: How is your craft beer experience as a couple?
TJ: We try to go to breweries together as much as we can, but there’s a lot of them while I’m traveling for work that I’ll hit on my own. But in general we like to go together and in part that’s what spawned the Instagram thing. We don’t like just going to a brewery and talking to ourselves about the beer. We love engaging with the staff and the brewers whenever we can. We want to get the story behind the beer and that’s formed what some of our favorite beers are. Some of our favorite beers and breweries aren’t necessarily our favorite beer, but rather the story behind the beer.
Q: When did you start the GABQ Instagram account?
TJ: February of last year. In a previous job I was traveling around the country and that’s when I started hitting different breweries and got more into beer. That’s when I got into my tin-tecker obsession … which now has an application because they’re hanging here (pointing to all the tin beer signs adoring The Republic’s walls). So when I was home from those travels I’d tell Emily about them and that was the one downside that she wasn’t with me. I got to go to all these iconic breweries, but I was by myself.
So we started talking and we were like how cool would it be if we could travel around together and go to these places. It kind of morphed from how cool would it be to what would we have to do to make that happen. We started going down that path of: Is there a way we could basically hit the road part time and go on some major road trips? We were working on that and a friend said, ‘Well, you should really build your brand.’ We didn’t really know what that meant, but she introduced us to Instagram, which I equated to Pinterest. We set it up and we’ve been blown away by how much it has taken off, especially since I’m not a writer or a photographer.
Emily: And we really haven’t been able to travel much yet. We’ve largely just done stuff in the Pacific Northwest so far. Though I guess we are a big deal in Tennessee.
TJ: Yeah, we took a trip to Tennessee and got a good following there. It’s really surreal.
Q: So you didn’t really know much about Instagram when you started?
TJ: No, not at all. In fact, our first five posts didn’t even have hashtags. I’d heard of hashtags, but didn’t know that’s where it applied.
Emily: I had an account, but had like six pictures posted from years ago. TJ watched so many videos on how to create a brand, how to use hashtags to pop up in feeds. All of that. He did so much research on it.
TJ: I basically watched the YouTube video “Instagram for Dummies.”
Emily: We talked to our friend Nadine and she said you should do polls and giveaways and once we did those things we started getting more followers.
TJ: Turns out people love it when you give way Great Notion beer. (laughing)
Q: At its peak, how many hours a day were you spending on Instagram?
TJ: It became the focus of my ADD. I was probably on there 3 to 4 hours per day. A lot of it was just the social aspect and the building up of our audience happened on its own.
Emily: I remember TJ calling me when he started the account and he was like, ‘We have 12 followers!’ I was like, ‘Why are 12 people following us?’ And my friend’s like, ‘They’re just bots.’ But there were still 12 bots following us! I had no idea that 12 followers would turn into whatever we have now. (5,555 as of Monday)
Q: How do you take the two brands you have now? Will you meld them?
TJ: One of the other aspects to hitting the road is we started researching RVs. We have dogs, so we’re not going to be hotel-hopping. As we’re watching all these videos, we’re seeing all these people just living on the road. They sell their house and all their things and live this simple lifestyle. It kind of developed into the Great American Beer Quest and the logo (the keg camper logo was designed by Tasha Riedman of The Independent Beer Bar). That morphed into an idea of starting YouTube channel where we’re actually going around and visiting the breweries and interviewing the brewers. More getting the backstory of the brewery and less about just sitting down and talking about what we like and don’t like about the beers.
Though the bottleshop does delay the plans of hitting the road a bit it also adds to the story once we hit the road. No longer are we just craft beer fans hitting the road, but now we own a bottleshop. It gives us more of a connection to the industry when we’re talking to folks.
Q: So how long are you delaying hitting the open road?
TJ: I think once we get this up and running and things are back to normal, we’ll be in a better position to stay home and focus on the bottleshop and then hit the road for a few months and the partners (Jeff and Doug) can focus on it while we’re gone.
Q: Why did you decide to open The Republic in Marysville?
TJ: There’s only two breweries in Marysville. By the standard for cities in Washington, that’s really low. But both are killing it. Whitewall is doing really well and R.J. at 5 Rights has taken off. So often he can’t even keep up with the demand for beer in his taproom. That’s what made us feel like it could work. Marysville is a good-sized, growing city in Washington and they didn’t really have anything like this, so we felt there was a need. It seemed like a gamble, but it felt like a natural spot. We’ve found that the craft beer community is supportive of not only breweries but bottleshops. There’s a couple of bottleshops that aren’t too terribly far away that we might be poaching a little business, but not much. And everyone has been really supportive. Eric (Schaffer) from The Hop and Hound and Dan at Special Brews have been up front offering help for whatever we need.
Emily: It seems like the people of Marysville are excited. We’ve had several people come through this past week that are like, ‘I can’t believe you’re just down the street from me. This is going to be great.’ They’re excited and for now they’re just coming through and grabbing what they like.
Q: How was the process of building out the space?
TJ: Definitely longer than we’d hoped. But like anything that’s the story. The real estate in Marysville was tough. There wasn’t a lot of commercial real estate available that fit what we needed. A lot of them were warehouses that were far too big for us. On the flip side, other places were just too small. We finally found one. It did need some electrical and plumbing upgrades and so by the time that was done it was quite a bit of infrastructure that had to go into it.
Q: What is your philosophy on the beers you’ll have on tap and in the coolers?
TJ: Well, you gotta bring people what they love. Like Great Notion, we knew word would spread about us having it and that would get people to know about us. Other than that, we’re definitely going to carry the fancier higher-end beers, but the most part you’re not going to be buying anything for your cellar. You’re going to find stuff that you want to take home and drink. We will eventually expand into more of that stuff you’ll want to take home and put away. Because we weren’t exactly certain about the Marysville beer scene, we brought in the shit beer too. But thankfully I can say we’ve been open eight days now and we have not sold one Bud Light, and I could not be happier about that. I don’t mind that I’m sitting on 120 cans of it. I’m perfectly happy we haven’t sold one.
Q: But it does sound like you’re going to have a style for everyone?
TJ: Yeah, but at the moment we are IPA heavy. We have 12 doors of coolers and six of them are IPAs and pales. The rest is covering all the styles. What we have been surprised by are the ciders. They have been huge in Marysville. A lot more so than I thought.
Q: Opening up in this time, customers not being able to stick around for a pint and instead lining up out the door and buying to go, how has that been?
TJ: It’s been encouraging to see the turnout we’ve had so far. In many ways, it’s been greater than we expected. We considered not opening up until we could open for real, but we finally figured it’s not going to cost us anymore to be open than not, so we figured let’s get open and build a clientele and learn the market. So far it’s worked. During the week is slow, but the weekends have been good. We’re doing the whole social distancing thing and only have three people in at a time and we’ve had many times where we have a line out the door waiting to get in. We never would have expected that.
Q: What is the plan when you can open for real?
TJ: We’ll have tables and 14 seats at the bar. We can fit about 30 people comfortably. Right now, we’re filling growlers, 32- and 16-ounce mason jars, and we’re excited to move more to draft since that’s where we can support some of the smaller breweries. Eventually we’ll have 19 beers on tap and we’re sitting on about 250 different beers, ciders and seltzers and that’s growing slowly.