Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Whole Foods Market's "Brew & Brau"

First there was sliced bread. Then came the iPhone. Now, another great idea whose time has come: a pub inside a grocery store.

It gets better. The grocery store is Whole Foods Market, a chain with more than 300 locations in the U.S. that is widely praised for its conscientious buying practices and wholesome products.

Better still, Brew & Brau, the in-store pub which opened March 14 at the Glen Eagle Square shopping center in Glen Mills, qualifies as a “tavern” under Pennsylvania’s archaic Liquor Code, which permits it to sell up to 192 ounces of beer for takeout – that’s anything from a 12-ounce bottle up to two 12-packs. (You’re forced to buy a minimum of one case if you shop at a Pennsylvania beer wholesaler.)

And this spot is a mere 1.6 miles over the Delaware state line.

Hang a hard left as soon as you walk into the Whole Foods and you will see the natural wood and plate glass enclosure of the Brew & Brau, a space large enough to comfortably house a bar with nine stools, high tables with seats for another 20 or so, and a walk-in cold room for bottled beer.

Out front, piled high on either side of the entrance, are stacks of six-packs – an intentionally brazen proclamation of beer for sale.

One wall of large windows in the pub looks out onto the bakery area of the store, beyond which lie a salad bar, wells of bulk olives, hot food islands and deli counters. A person could do all right on either side of those windows.

Consistent with the Whole Foods philosophy, the beer you’ll find on the eight taps inside the pub is fresh and local. Christine Meredith, the company’s wine and beer buyer for the Mid-Atlantic region, came up from Rockville, Md., to get the pub running.

“The Philly area has so much culture and pride around beer,” she said when asked about the decision to feature an all-local draft lineup. “And it fits with our mission in everything we do: We’re about recycling and reducing shipping distances, and we’re about freshness and supporting the local community.”

Dan Koltonuk, a Whole Foods cheese counter veteran and self-described “beer nerd” who will oversee the beer program at Brew & Brau, said “the taps will allow us to bring in breweries that don’t bottle, so they might not get as much exposure.”

The beers flowing on opening day underscored those ideas: a small-batch German altbier that Philadelphia’s Yards Brewing Company custom brewed for Whole Foods; a rye IPA from Dock Street Brewery in Philadelphia; the acclaimed HopDevil Ale from Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown; Krook’s Mill Pale Ale from Manayunk Brewery in Philadelphia; an IPA made with mango and ginger by Boxcar Brewing Company in West Chester; Insana Stout made with chocolate and soy bacon (!) by Prism Brewing Company in North Wales; Lucky S.O.B. Irish Red Ale from Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick, Md.; and the highly sought-after Nugget Nectar Imperial Amber by Tröegs Brewing Company in Hershey.

Discarding the geographic outliers of Flying Dog and Tröegs, the remaining six breweries are all situated within 40 miles of the Brew & Brau.

The bottled beer selection does make some concession to shoppers looking for familiar mass-produced brands, with about a quarter of the shelf space devoted to names like Corona, Heineken, Samuel Adams, and Blue Moon. But the rest of the cooler is stocked with, inch for inch, one of the most diverse assortments of craft beers and imports you’ll find in the area. Offerings from revered breweries like Bell’s and Founders that do not distribute in Delaware are likely to draw many beer-loving First Staters across the Pa. line, sales tax be damned.

Most of the stock is available as singles for building what Brew & Brau calls ‘Mix-A-Six.’ “We want to make it easy for people to try new stuff and see what they might like to buy more of,” Koltonuk said.

Beyond beer, the Brew & Brau offers six local wines by the glass and a variety of organic coffees, some locally roasted. The venue is prepared to accommodate coffee-seekers in the morning, a lunch crowd geared toward something more nutritious than fast food, and an after-work clientele ready to settle in for a pint or glass of wine and shed the day’s stress – perhaps before or after picking up a gallon of organic milk and a bunch of organic Peruvian bananas.

On opening day, a stream of the curious and the thirsty kept most of the stools occupied throughout the afternoon, but the crowd surged dramatically a few minutes after 5 p.m. Jason Kohser, a co-owner of Boxcar Brewing who was on hand for the festivities, happily joined Meredith and the regular Brew & Brau staff behind the bar, taking orders and slinging pints like a pro as the traffic picked up. Kohser’s IPA was selling nearly as briskly as the more established brands.

Kathy Koons, a customer from Chester Heights, sampled with approval a Boxcar IPA at one of the tables away from the bar. She said she was “just casing the joint” that day, but she liked the size of the store, and the prepared foods might be something to try.

Koons usually shops at the Whole Foods Market in Devon, but is excited about the new location since gas prices are becoming a factor. She said the Brew & Brau seems like “a good place to come after work, meet your friends and have a beer.” These last three words she emphasized with particular relish.

His post-work visit was the second trip to Whole Foods that day for Kevin Branin. He had also popped in at lunchtime to grab a salad. Branin, who lives in West Chester, works just down the road from Whole Foods at Arora Engineers, so he had been patiently eyeing the site as construction progressed. He was back after 5, still wearing his charcoal gray suit, casually enjoying a pint of Nugget Nectar. “I’ve got to pick up some tomatoes,” he said, smiling.

A group of Wilmingtonians nestled at the bar, sipping Paradocx chardonnay from Chester County. Among them was Kim Merkl, who thinks the Brew & Brau is a great idea. “What could be better than stopping by for a glass of wine before shopping?” she said. “You’ll be more relaxed and make better decisions!”

A little after 6 p.m., the crowd swelled again. For having been open less than one day, the atmosphere in the bustling room had a surprisingly relaxed feel, like it was already populated with regulars. At 6:45, the Nugget Nectar tapped out, and Koltonuk swiftly rotated in another sixtel.

“This is a limited-availability seasonal. This may be all we get,” he mused. Nevertheless, to sell out of it so quickly did not seem like a bad problem.


  1. Great write up. I had no idea WF had a tavern. I'll certainly check it out. I was wondering whether WF would be selling beer in PA. Very happy to hear it's open now.

    1. I'm telling you, Mike, this is a Very Good Thing™.