Chad and Branden Miller’s father always told his sons to do one thing and do it better than anyone else. It was advice that stuck with them, so when they opened Black Shirt Brewing in 2011, that one thing was to make amazing ales, all of them in shades of red. And while the beers were red, the Millers and Chad’s wife, Carissa, all wore black — in honor of one of their musical heroes, Johnny Cash. A painting of the singer, his middle finger raised in salute, adorns the wall of the River North brewery.
But over the past four and a half years, that “one thing” has changed, Chad says. “We always said that we were just going to concentrate on the beer, but as we grew and world changed around us, we said, maybe we need to concentrate more on the experience that people are having here. I love brewing beer more than anything, but we realized that it is not just about us; it's about the people who are coming in here.”
Today the Millers will open a small pizza kitchen and restaurant inside the brewery. In doing so, they become the first Denver brewery (as far as we can tell) to convert from a taproom to a brewpub.
The menu right now includes three artisanal pizzas, three salads, bread, candied bacon and dessert. All of the menu items are named for Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, and the Millers — along with menu consultant Bill Greenwood, of Beano’s Cabin in Beaver Creek, and longtime pizza chef Matthew Kender — put as much thought into the way the ingredients in these items play on the palate as they do with their beers.
They have also incorporated their beers into the food — marinating chicken or olives in saison, using spent grain in the pizza crust, and in other ways. “I think we're doing a good job of utilizing the beers and flavors of the beers in our menu,” Branden says. “But only when it makes sense on the palate.”
Part of the reason for adding the kitchen was because the Millers got frustrated with food trucks, which they say were unreliable, demanding and sometimes served stale or just plain bad food. “We didn’t want to say, 'Here, try these stale nachos alongside a beer that we spend five and a half months making,'” Chad explains. “But we also didn’t want to offer bags of popcorn or a sack of jerky with them, either.”
Still, the transition took a lot of time — more than eighteen months — and work: Black Shirt opened up and remodeled part of its brewhouse for seating, creating more cramped quarters for brewing and barrel-aging. They also gutted a room that had served as an office for the pizza oven and kitchen. “We had to get really, really creative,” Chad says. “It’s been stressful as hell.”
And they are still on a learning curve. As Branden was serving pizzas during a soft open on Tuesday, he set the pizza stand on the table upside down before setting the pizzas on them, laughing as he fixed the problem. “I’m a brewer,” he says.
But the Millers are also perfectionists, something they tease each other about — so they’ve poured a lot of thought into the menu, which is likely to change with the seasons and expand slightly.
Here is the current slate:
The Carter: Roma tomatoes, mozzarella, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh basil
The Johnny: Red Ale roasted sausage, fennel, fontina, BSB tomato sauce, oregano, roasted garlic clove
The Cash: BSB IPA BBQ sauce, roasted chicken, taleggio cheese, mango, caramelized sweet onions, arugula
The Folsom: Roasted chicken, avocado, egg, Tender Belly bacon, Maytag blue cheese, buttermilk ranch, iceberg lettuce, marinated cherry tomatoes
The Sue: Whole roasted zucchini, black-walnut vinaigrette, fried egg, mixed herb salad, roasted black walnuts, red grapes
The Line: Chimichurri flank steak, creamy Dijon dressing, roasted red onions, charred corn, cotija cheese, sweet gem, red sorrel greens
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Black Shirt’s kitchen will be open Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Keep reading for more photos.