How OPA Design Studio Makes Austin's Elite Brewery Taprooms
Stephen Oliver does his tap dance
Imagine a time when a Texas brewery couldn't sell its own beer to its own visiting taproom customers. There was a loophole breweries cartoonishly tiptoed through like top-hatted, waxed-moustache bootleggers in order to get their product in front of gawking tourists and local beer fans, and that was to peddle a logo souvenir glass to their visitors populated with a few "free beer fill" coupons inside. And while giving away all that liquid profit in exchange for moving a lousy $10 pint glass sounds like a super lucrative endeavor for small breweries statewide, it was joyously celebrated when the Texas legislature finally and legally allowed direct-to-customer taproom sales in 2013.
Taprooms themselves weren't necessarily emphasized as a brewery feature before then, where the tasting room highlights entailed picnic tables scattered around the fermenting tanks with maybe a crowd puller of spent bourbon barrels decorated in 1990s vintage microbrewery cliches like dried wheat sprigs in mason jars; just a real golden age of beverage industry design. But as a result of 2013, Texas breweries began to focus on the whole customer experience, moving beyond just the quality of the beer and further into the quality of its overall taproom culture.
"When the legislature put [those laws] into place after years of lobbying it was a little like the Wild West," recalls Stephen Oliver, principal at Austin-based OPA Design Studio, one of only a handful of American architecture firms tasked with visualizing taproom culture concepts that brewery founders envision into more than just "Instagrammable moments" (Oliver's description of showy tasting-room centerpieces that sometimes distract from a taproom's true conviviality). "Having your customer doing your marketing for you is usually a win, but it shouldn't be a substitute for a well thought out alignment of your space and the brand." Oliver explains that because most of OPA's brewery clients are family businesses with few heavyweight investors, founders often have to get creative with their brewery locations. "A lot of the time they are taking spaces that [other businesses] have overlooked," explains Oliver.
When Taylor Ziebarth, brewer and co-founder of Oddwood Ales, was combing Austin for a spot to host its wild ale barrel-aging program after decamping from Adelbert's Brewing in 2016, Ziebarth, along with co-founder brother Brett, discovered a 1950s standalone building on Airport Boulevard that once accommodated a Tejano nightclub, a restaurant, an advertising firm, and even a set from box office smash, Machete 2: Machete Kills. But Oliver and crew uncorked the awkward 2,500-square-foot layout into a Ruidoso retreat, channeling the brewery's namesake into 10 different wood species that adorn the taphandles, bartop, floors, patio, and chandeliers. The firm was even able to onboard a pizza kitchen, a customer-preserving feature that many local taprooms tend to lack.
"We saw some of our clients go into retail spaces and convert those into breweries, places you wouldn't typically think a brewery should go, but the market says that's where the brewery needs to be," reasons Oliver. "The [Oddwood] building needed so much love. It wasn't some architectural jewel but it didn't have to be. It didn't have to have that super high-end finish like you're serving sushi out of it, but the tasting room experience still had to be entertaining and comfortable, even if the space was a bit more gritty in the beginning. Taprooms like [Oddwood] have raised the bar for all of Austin."
Another dazzling OPA team project is the recently minted Beerburg Brewing in the Hill Country, a seeming design layup given the ambitious views of rolling habitat all the way out into the wooded horizon. To frame the view, eight-pane windows under large vaulted ceilings. And yet, without a radiant insight into the culture of craft beer and those who proliferate it, a taproom risks being a one-hit wonder for customers. "[Beerburg] uses the big windows for connectivity to indoors-outdoors, but people [also] want to see the equipment," emphasizes Oliver with regards to giving customers a full visual spectrum. "While we're trying to make more polished taprooms, we don't lose sight that people want to see the process. They want to see the brewhouse and the fermentation tanks. Without that, a taproom is just a bar. To connect the space where the craft is occurring, it has to make it all the way through to the taproom and even the biergarten, like, this is where the work happens and this is where the play begins. For a brewery to stand out, it needs to provide more than just the beer. There is energy to watching the day unfold for a brewery."
Even the old-school spots – gassy cool-dad breweries like Live Oak who fundamentally founded the craft beer scene in Austin – are recognizing the value of a heightened taproom experience as a worthwhile and necessary revenue generator. "For some [breweries], depending on if they were renting or owned their building, [they] had to decide if it was worthwhile for a big makeover, or to just transition to a new site as did Live Oak," states Oliver. "Moving from that old dairy facility was part of their long-term plan, where before, on the Eastside, it was nothing more than just a few people standing around a kegerator while workers hosed down a bunch of equipment beside you. They had a clear vision."
While there is merit to the ambience of the former Live Oak facility, which felt a lot like being behind the curtain monitoring the levers and knobs that make some of the country's best European-style lagers, Live Oak's five-year-old, 22,000-square-foot sprawling campus pays a more sincere homage to their central European brewing philosophy with a folksy approachability of ethereal materials intermixed with hefty groves of oak. Live Oak's taproom adheres to its acclaimed back-of-house integrity with its front-of-house charm by means of large window panes behind the bar presenting the brewery's tanks the way another brewery might present their beer festival medals. Those are Live Oak's trophies on full display. When asked if the beer itself ever influences the design of the taproom architecture, Oliver reflects, "You work with the palate you've been given. There is a branding focus while the architecture is being considered, and when all that is happening at the same time between the brewery and the designers, the energy is really cool. It becomes turbocharged and everyone is playing off each other's strengths to make the brand better."
Similar to the humble rural grace of Live Oak is a personal from-the-ground-up design favorite of Oliver's: "Vista [Brewing in Driftwood] feels so relaxed when I need a spot to hang out for the afternoon with my dog or a buddy. I love the way the two buildings respect the land and the trees around them. I was once talking to a lady next to me washing her hands next to me and [knowing I was the architect] she said to me, 'You know what I love most about this place? This is where my husband and I want to raise our kids.' When she said that, she hit a chord that I could only dream to hit on every project, where people embrace the place you make and make it their own."
Forthcoming projects for the excessively capable 13-year-old design firm include Southeast Austin's Meanwhile Brewing, fronted by former brewers from Portland's Breakside Brewing, Ghost Note Brewing in Dripping Springs, founded by a husband/wife team out of the Houston area, and Pinthouse Pizza 4, the firm's attempt at a Grand Slam for the hazy IPA impresarios.
And perhaps you've been as captivated as us with the dregs of Uncle Billy's old brewery site on Barton Springs Road being juiced into Austin Eastciders' glittering new tasting room. "That was another building that was long overdue for a reinvestment," says Oliver. "[It needed] a look and feel that was different than the one before, to be really in tune with what their brand is. It needed a lot of work to get it to this new life, but we still had to work with the existing building. The core walls had to stay the same but the rest had to transform drastically. It was a real hurdle. But now it has a vibrant, core connection to the neighborhood and it feels fresh. It was an amazing opportunity for a mature brand like Austin Eastciders to be in that spot near the park, and combined with their food, it was such a great opportunity to elevate what their cider is all about."
But great taproom design isn't meant to foster the schematic integrity of the brewery itself. Like a good baseball umpire, it should merely facilitate the game and be nearly imperceptible. It should bring an identity to the beer program but not surpass it – after all, quality of product is paramount in small beer. A great design should assist with expediting excellent service, as well as integrate seamlessly into the geographic milieu. Above all else, a great taproom should promote community.
"Breweries tend to embrace the idea of collaboration which is one of the reasons why we really like working with them," concludes Oliver. "There is so much connectivity between them. Sometimes it even feels like we are playing matchmaker. There is a sense of working together in the brewery world like no other industry."
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