Craft beer historians often speak fondly of the role of the community tavern in American history -- a place of open discourse and kinship, where folks could spend time discussing the issues of the day, often with their families in tow, over a few pints of fine locally brewed beer. Keith Symonds, co-owner and brewmaster at the east side's new Next Door Brewing Company, had just that thought in mind when he decided to open a brewpub.
Next Door Brewing opens Saturday, August 31 with three flagship ales, a menu and dining area intended to foster a communal atmosphere, and a plan to carve a niche in the Madison beer scene that emphasizes collaboration, neighborhood interaction, and, of course, great beer.
Located in a former appliance shop at 2439 Atwood Avenue, with several communal tables and a large, open bar area, Next Door clearly has a tavern concept in mind. "We want a place for polite political discourse," says Symonds. "We want a place where you have to talk to people you don't know."
Good beer, of course, helps facilitate such settings; the brewery will offer three beers out of the gate. One, named Wilbur, is a cream ale with malted oats (thus a Mister Ed reference). WPA, their pale ale ("The W stands for whatever you want it to," says Symonds), will be made with Wisconsin-malted barley and hops, "so it really is a Wisconsin product," he adds.
Next Door's other debut tap is an ale dubbed Sevex. "I come from a New England brewing tradition," Symonds says. "Particularly before Prohibition, the brewers in New England were all ale brewers. They were English, Scottish, Irish stock; it wasn't until later waves of immigrants that we started getting more lager beer. And all the ale brewers had a stock ale -- essentially, the brewer's favorite."
At that time, Symonds explains, it was still illegal to list the alcohol on beer, but "all of their labels conveniently had Xs on them that everybody knew was the percent alcohol. Mine is Sevex, because it's 7% alcohol by volume." The ale features Maris Otter, a malt with a deeper, richer flavor, plus a little crystal malt, with a very bright hop aroma but moderate bitterness at only around 30 IBUs. "It's dangerously easy to drink at 7% alcohol," he jokes.
In addition to these flagship brews, Symonds says, "I will always have something black on, rotating every two, three months; the first is an oatmeal porter. There's no reason oatmeal has to just stay in stouts!" Other offerings will be seasonal. Next Door patrons can expect harvest ales in the fall, spiced beers at the holidays, and perhaps a maibock in May -- it's not only the brewmaster's favorite style, but his birthday month as well. The bar will also serve beers from other local breweries, with taps featuring House of Brews and Karben4 releases upon opening.
What about food? Symonds says "the menu is far more skewed toward small plates, things that you can order three or four of and share with the table. We want guests to have the communal experience of dining together, of breaking bread together." It will also include eggs two ways, Sassy Cow cheese curds with a tempura batter ("so they're really fluffy," he notes), pickles, mixed nuts, three or four sandwiches, two or three entrees, and some soups.
"The third part of the program," says Symonds, "is collaborative brewing, working with other commercial brewers, restaurateurs, chocolate-makers, painters, musicians, and seeing how their creativity and mine can cross and mesh and make something different, but express it with beer."
Sitting at one of Next Door Brewing's high-topped tables made of wood sourced from an old malt house, Symonds discusses his affinity for brewing. "There's something hardwired in me about beer," he says. "People talk about having to learn to like beer; I never had that problem."
Symonds grew up in central New York, then lived in New York City, where he saw an ad for a homebrewing class through the New School adult education program. "I was completely fascinated by it, bought equipment, started brewing, and started going to the homebrewers' meetings in NYC," he recalls. "Within six months I was vice president and the year after that I was president. Two years after I started brewing, in 1990, I joined the Beer Judge Certification Program and in 1993 became a master judge, before I was 30." Back then, New England Brewing Company was Symonds's local microbrewery, and he got his start volunteering to pour at their events.
In 1994, both brewers left the brewery, and Symonds stepped in. "I took a 60% pay cut from Wednesday to Monday so I could go brew beer," he laughs. Since then, Symonds, who moved to Madison six years ago, has become known as the "Beer Prof" -- his brewing CV includes hosting the Beerpocalypse Now talk show on WYOU and consulting for several brewery startups.
Symonds met his current business partner, Pepper Stebbins, while he was a regular at the Great Dane-Hilldale, where Stebbins tended bar. "We started working on a business plan about two and half years ago, to open a brewery," says Symonds. "Pepper knew more about the front of the house stuff and I knew how to do the buildout and run the brewery." With fellow partners Aric and Crystal Dieter, Symonds and Stebbins began to put wheels in motion for a three-barrel brewery.
While neighbors were concerned early on about some the possible impact of the brewery on the neighborhood, the business moved forward as Symonds and his partners worked to address potential issues. "We're trying to work with the community right next to us, and we've gotten great support," says the brewermaster. He's already talked to the owners at Stalzy's Deli, just down the block, about making a joint harvest beer to be served at the restaurant's Oktoberfest party.
"We had a lot of meetings at Stalzy's from the start and they've been really supportive. Bunky's, right next to us, has been great; the Victory Cafe is my tea fix every morning and they're excited too," says Symonds. He adds that other community businesses have already contributed to the brewery itself: "Martin Glass did our doors and windows; our upholstery was done by the guy right next to us."
It's all part of Next Door's focus on community. "As we were kicking names around one of the ones Aric kicked out was Next Door Brewing, and all four of us realized that's exactly what we wanted in terms of expressing who we were," says Symonds. "We're your next-door neighbor."