Go big or go home. That seems to be the motto at Avery Brewing Company, which celebrated its 22nd anniversary this year by decamping to a new $27 million campus in Boulder. But the move did more than up Avery’s production capacity and give visitors a peek into operations via a catwalk over fermentation tanks and bottling and canning lines. For the first time in this lauded craft brewery’s history, food is a focus, with a program that aims well beyond typical brewpub fare. “I don’t have a pub menu, because I want to reach toward the next thing,” explains executive chef Chris Blackwood, who scouts local meats, produce and cheeses for the extensive menu, which changes weekly. “Avery doesn’t stop at a few beers, so why should I stop at just a few menu items?”
And that’s why I found myself savoring some of the best vegetarian tacos I’ve ever had at one meal and smothered cheese curds at another. Dusted in cornstarch and spices, the misshapen curds had been treated to a quick splash in the fryer and came out hot, crisp and slightly oozy, without the squeakiness that people from Wisconsin go crazy about — not that even cheeseheads would miss it with this presentation, given the silky mashed potatoes and spiced, fried fingerlings underneath. A smother of gravy transformed the pile into a poutine, and while it wasn’t as gourmet as the versions at Euclid Hall, it proved deliciously approachable, and just what I wanted with my chai brown ale. This is how good that spud-curd combo was: Even straight from the microwave, a machine not known for working wonders, the leftovers were impossible to resist, and my husband and I polished them off the next day, semi-ruining the dinner we were in the process of cooking.
Downstairs at Avery sits the tap room, a loud, friendly place with windows to the patio, a hops-decorated chalkboard listing the day’s beers on tap, and the impressive row of thirty taps they flow from. (The same thirty are poured in the restaurant.) Black-and-white photos on pumpkin-colored walls chronicle old-time breweries and Boulder’s early days, but most people in the room are focusing their attention on their friends or the multi-page beer menu — or both — as they debate who’s ordering what, a tough decision made even tougher by all the tantalizing descriptions of currants, tangerine, dark cherries and so on.
Head upstairs from the tap room and you enter the back side of the restaurant, with walls painted a stately burgundy and wooden light fixtures that evoke split oak barrels. With tall ceilings, concrete floors, concrete walls and little to absorb the sound — no tablecloths, curtains or visible soundproofing panels — the restaurant is only a half-notch quieter than the tap room. Given the heavy flow of guests traipsing up the stairs and through the tables to find the hostess stand on the other side, it’s nearly as rocking upstairs as down.
Both rooms serve the same all-day menu, which has a noticeable Southern/Creole slant, thanks in part to Blackwood’s years in Florida and Alabama — not to mention a recent stint at the Post Brewing Company, the Big Red F outpost in Lafayette that’s famous for its fried chicken. With a similar goal of good beer/good food at both operations, it’s reasonable to expect a fierce rivalry between Avery and the Post, but Blackwood, a friend of Post executive chef Brett Smith, shrugs that off. “The only competition I have with Smitty is in fantasy football,” he quips.
Knowing how well Southern food pairs with beer, I tried my share of down-home staples. For the most part, they were acceptable — but definitely not what you’d get from a barbecue joint, and nowhere near as tasty as the glasses of Summer’s Day IPA and Reverend that I drank with them. Spare ribs were on the dry side and tasted of smoke, not meat. Brisket was sliced thick and served with warm barbecue sauce (on the side, wisely), but the beef itself was drier and tougher than what I’ve had from dedicated ’cue shacks. Cornbread was sweeter than cake, and pork-belly beans lacked the rich, meaty punch promised by the name. Chicken thighs in the chicken-and-biscuit entree were richly smoked and full of flavor, but the andouille gravy tasted as light as 3.2 beer, and the lone biscuit, with all the flakiness of a roll, was burned on the bottom.
But I liked a barbecue sandwich with mustard slaw and cheddar, and would have loved it with a better ratio of meat to bun. The barbecue nachos also needed more meat. In keeping with its goal of serving more than the typical pub grub, the kitchen had playfully swapped out Tex-Mex toppings for smoked Gouda and cheddar, pork-belly beans and your choice of brisket or pork. If only those toppings had been more generously applied, the nachos would’ve been a knockout appetizer (along with the cheese curds, of course), a must-order for every table with the first round of beers. As it was, the toppings covered but a fraction of the surface, and an extra layer of cheddar near the bottom couldn’t make up for the shortage of good stuff everywhere else.
Other dishes, too, suffered from the If Onlys. If only the onion soup hadn’t tasted watered down, as if too much stock had been added to too few onions. If only the marble rye on the cherise, a vegetarian reuben, hadn’t been so puffy and thick that the sandwich tasted mostly of rye rather than the enticing green-chile kraut, Gruyère and roasted squash. If only more Gouda, salt and pepper had been blended with the mashed potatoes so that they didn’t come out bland and pasty. If only the romesco had been heated before being spooned over a side of cauliflower.
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SHOW ME HOW
After several disappointments, I took my chances with the roasted-veggie tacos. A vegetarian dish at a non-vegetarian restaurant can say a lot about a kitchen. Would it be a throwaway, something offered out of obligation, not inspiration? Would it appeal to omnivores as well as plant-based eaters? Would it be any good? No, yes and definitely yes. The spectacular tacos did more than taste good: They showed what this kitchen is capable of. Sweet potatoes, kale and zucchini had been evenly prepped and fashioned into a creative filling rounded out with goat cheese and quinoa — the latter a thoughtful, protein-packed addition. Shallots were pickled; an avocado that could have just been sliced was grilled instead. The sauce wasn’t pico or tomatillo, but rather a smooth carrot-habanero, with the vegetable’s natural sweetness mellowing the heat. The vegetables, cheese and tortillas all came from local suppliers.
In old-school brewpubs, a vegetarian entree would’ve started with a portobello, if it started at all. But Avery Brewing Company, with its expansive menu and high-reaching aspirations, is anything but old-school, and beer drinkers have responded in droves: The kitchen serves up to a thousand people on a busy summer Saturday. Such volume might explain the uneven execution that’s keeping the restaurant from becoming a food destination in its own right. Still, while the food program can get bigger, there’s no need to go home when you’re hungry — and that’s a welcome change from the way things used to be.
Avery Brewing Company
4910 Nautilus Court, Boulder
Menu items mentioned here:
Cheese curds and potatoes $8
Onion soup $6
Barbecue nachos $13
BBQ sandwich $13
Chicken and biscuit $15
Meat, Meat, Meat $18
Roasted-veggie tacos $13
Avery Brewing Company is open 3-10 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (bar open until 11 p.m. seven days). Learn more at averybrewing.com.