Kristen and David Lewis Brewshine BBQ & Tap House 3109 Federal Boulevard 303-561-1111
For Brewshine BBQ & Taphouse, Kristen and David Lewis took over a building near the corner of Federal and Speer boulevards that had recently seen a couple of pizza places come and go; before that, it was a dive bar with a small stage for live music. The open dining room and music setup appealed to the couple, but their plans for Brewshine go well beyond a neighborhood barbecue joint -- although in a city with a barbecue inferiority complex, getting the smoked meats right isn't a bad start.
David Lewis takes his barbecue, and cooking in general, very seriously. When he was growing up in Philadelphia, part of a Polish-Italian family, there was always food being prepared. "And we're Jewish, so everybody cooked," he notes. "Everything we did -- there were multiple courses. When I was fifteen years old, I was doing the Thanksgiving turkey for the whole family."
At that age, he dreamed of owning a restaurant and working in a kitchen, but that early dream turned into a nightmare. "When I was eighteen, I got my first job working in a kitchen, and I hated it," he recalls. It wasn't the work or the cooking that turned him off, though -- more the attitude of those around him. So he headed off for college in Missoula, Montana, where he switched to tending bar. Food was still on his mind, and he took culinary classes in school. But he never earned a degree, instead taking a job as an oil-and-gas investment salesman and eventually starting his own company.
"I don't have anything to hang on the wall," he explains. "But I'm 35 and I've already retired twice. It's part of the way I was raised. My dad said, 'It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you work hard.'"
David attributes his drive to do things right to the example that his father set: "Dad worked two or three jobs to give us a lifestyle that allowed us to go somewhere."
And where does a Philly kid from an Italian-Polish-Jewish family pick up barbecue skills? Lewis's love of cooking and his do-it-yourself mentality led him to a North Carolina friend and pit master who was part of the competitive barbecue circuit and taught David the basics. Indulging his need to know, David also spent time in Texas and St. Louis picking up tips for dry rubs, sauces and smoking techniques.
Business eventually brought him to Colorado Springs, where he met Kristen, the daughter of Polish immigrants, who had moved from Chicago when she was younger to train as a figure skater. She became David's accountant and the two married, but she also had dreams of running a restaurant.
The couple moved to Denver in January 2014, intent on opening Brewshine; while David heads the kitchen, he says the restaurant is really Kristen's baby, one that she planned for five years. Since their home is in the Highland neighborhood, they began scouting locations along West 32nd Avenue, but they soon realized that parking issues and small dining rooms were the norm along that stretch. When the former Illegal Pizza space on Federal became available, it seemed like the perfect fit. "I like the openness of the space," says Kristen. "I wanted kind of a chill, down-home place."
With the space secured, David went to work perfecting his recipes. "I call it craft barbecue," he says with just a bit of a smile. "People who like barbecue cringe when I say that." What he means by "craft barbecue" is that he's taken what he's learned from exploring the major barbecue regions -- the Carolinas, Texas, St. Louis, Kansas City and Memphis -- and used it to make something he feels is unique. "There isn't anything I use that doesn't come from one of those regions," he says.
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From those regional explorations, he developed his own rubs, injections and sauces to highlight the individual meats: His brisket gets a dry rub like the ones he found in Texas, while the ribs -- moderately smoky and sporting a telltale pink smoke ring -- hew closer to Midwestern styles. His marinade, though, dates back to his teen years, when he used to hunt with his dad. "I've made my own marinade for game since I was a kid," he explains.
He stacks his smoker primarily with fruit woods but takes a chef's approach to building flavors by adding other woods along the way for depth and color. And here David is vague with the details, like any pit master who wants to keep a few secrets from the potential competition. He's not shy about serving up a few of the ingredients in his sauces: Along with a vinegar base (which he picked up from his North Carolina training), he uses Oskar Blues Old Chub to concoct standard, sweet and spicy blends.
Beer is another integral part of the plan for Brewshine. Right now there are 24 beer taps, with another 25 selections in bottles. "I try to build everything we serve around Colorado," David says, "except for the beer. People who like beer like to try more than just Colorado beers." The "shine" part of the name comes from the 35 different moonshines behind the bar -- most of them hidden behind a bookshelf that opens to reveal the bottles.
But the Lewises didn't choose the name Brewshine just to describe the bar's current variety of beer and liquor; it was also a nod to the brewing and distilling business they envision, an offsite facility for which the restaurant will serve as a tasting room. An avid brewer, David is working on recipes while scouting for a spot to build the eventual brewery. He knows he won't be able to do it alone, so he's enlisting the help of his stepfather, who has more than 25 years of professional brewing experience (primarily in Montana and Idaho), to get things started.
That way, he and Kristen can keep the focus on food and customer service right now. "The better we treat the customers we have, the more we'll get," David says. "It's not a place we need to churn and burn." Instead, they hope that the big space, the live music and the newly installed bar-height community table will encourage neighbors to linger.
"We're young, we're new, we're growing," David admits, pointing out some of the changes he's making to attract a bigger swath of northwest Denver residents. He's putting the finishing touches on the new back patio he built himself, and he's talking to the property owner across the intersection of Speer and Federal to see if he can put a Brewshine sign there to attract more attention. Although Brewshine has twenty or so parking spaces (with an additional 65 spaces of overflow across the alley), he thinks that drivers don't notice the bungalow-like building with the BBQ sign out front.
If the couple has their way, though, their combination barbecue restaurant, brewery and moonshine distillery operating on the edge of three quickly gentrifying neighborhoods -- West Highland, Lower Highland and Jefferson Park -- will definitely get noticed. And David plans to hit the competition-barbecue circuit this summer to attract smokehouse aficionados from around the region, so that Brewshine will attract customers from outside of north Denver, too. "I'm never going to relinquish full pit control," he says, while conceding that he plans to eventually pull away from the daily barbecuing task. And that will be possible if Brewshine gets popular enough.
"I want to be sold out of barbecue every day by four o'clock," he says, referring to traditional smokehouse operations in the South. "I don't miss ninety-hour work weeks, which is what I've been doing."
But with so many irons in the fire -- and so many plans for Brewshine -- a forty-hour work week doesn't seem to be in Lewis's future.
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Or in his DNA.