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Breakout Brewer: BRU Handbuilt Ales & Eats

By creating ingredient-focused beers that accentuate the flavors he finds in beers, BRU’s Ian Clark creates beers that reflect his culinary mindset.

Emily Hutto April 18, 2015

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“I am, unfortunately, addicted to barbecued pork…unfortunately because I have to run a whole lot more,” admits Ian Clark, the founder, brewer, and chef of BRU Handbuilt Ales & Eats in Boulder, Colorado. “IPA is a great pairing for barbecued pork and a lot of roasted meats in general. The bitterness of hops accentuates that savory, caramelized, umami flavor,” he says.

That’s not to say, though, that barbecued pork wouldn’t also pair nicely with something such as a brown ale he continues, at this point in a full-blown ode to saucy, slow-cooked pig. “There are so many different types of barbecue sauce. A sweeter, richer-style sauce might go well with a brown ale, where the roasty maltiness will accentuate the sweet, spicy sauce and the richness of the pork fat.”

It doesn’t take long to realize that Clark’s forte isn’t just food or just beer; it’s the combination of the two. “I don’t brew like a brewer; I brew more like a chef,” he says.

Ian Clark started cooking at age fourteen, attended the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, and worked in restaurants in Hawaii, California, and Boulder before he started homebrewing in his garage. It was Clark’s “chefdom” as he calls it that made him dive into brewing headfirst.

“Being a chef, I wasn’t really interested in extract brewing. I had been cooking my entire life and the concept of pouring syrup into liquid was just so boring,” he explains. “So I quickly fabricated new equipment, made new equipment, and made bigger equipment to brew all-grain beer. Then I started getting experimental with things…and it just continued.”

What began as a modest homebrew setup quickly transformed into a state-of-the-art three-barrel brewhouse in Clark’s 400-square-foot garage brewery, walk-in cooler included. Clark sought the help of local Crystal Springs Brewery that had also started in the owner’s garage and, like a lot of small brewers, wrangled licensing restrictions and state laws for many months before finally registering BRU Handbuilt Ales as one of Colorado’s production breweries in 2012.

From day one, Clark approached his beers with a culinary mindset. When he first crafted one of his flagship beers, the Citrum IPA, his wife, Bryce, dubbed his beers “chef beers,” or ingredient-focused beers brewed with spices, herbs, roots, and unexpected adjuncts. “I like to take the things that I taste in beer and accentuate those flavors,” Clark says. “The Cascade hops in an American IPA are citrusy and piney so I added freshly zested lemons and juniper berries to bring out those flavors.”

BRU’s Citrum IPA is brewed with pale malts and Cascade and Chinook hops. “This is where my chefdom comes in. I tend to like a more balanced IPA, with a lot in the way of aromatics,” Clark says. “I keep it simple; I leave out caramel and crystal malts because they take away from the beer’s hoppiness. I dry hop heavily on IPAs. I use very little bittering hops, and come to the end of the boil, I’m dumping those hops in. Then I use a clean yeast strain. I hate to sound boring but I use Wyeast 1056. I like to keep it pretty clean.”

Another BRU flagship ale is the Obitus American Brown Ale, for which Clark hangs a bag of roasted dates inside the fermentation tank to impart warm, dried fruit flavors. It was one of the first recipes crafted in Clark’s garage, and it went on tap where he kept his day job as the executive chef of Boulder’s Centro Latin Kitchen.

In 2013, Clark took his love of cultural food, his experience in the kitchen, and his original three-barrel brewhouse to BRU Handbuilt Ales & Eats, a restaurant and brewery in east Boulder where Clark is constantly changing the food and beer menu to incorporate ingredients that are seasonally and locally available.

“I look at everything as full circle,” says Clark about BRU’s menu, where the bread is made from the brewery’s spent grain and the house vinegar is made out of its beer. “More spent grain goes to local pig farms, so we purchase pigs that were raised on our grain to serve in our restaurant.”

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“We call our food ‘urban American cuisine’ because we couldn’t fit it into a box,” Clark continues. “We have bánh mìs and pizzas and ribs. I draw classic and European cooking into it, but I tend to veer off around the planet, so we take influence from everywhere; whatever’s in season. If a local farm has fresh curry squash, then we bring it in; we cook with it, we brew with it, we do whatever we want with it.”

Clark, who is also an avid gardener, hops grower, and beekeeper, keeps the mystery alive. “I have the ability and luxury to brew three barrels at a time, which lets me worry about techniques and flavors without maximizing my system,” he says. There are fourteen taps at BRU and only five year-round beers, so the menu exists in a state of flux.

“Like our beer menu, BRU beer dinners are the chance to showcase unique ingredients or preparation methods,” says Clark. “If we, say, have a specific preserved lemon or hot sauce we’re making, we may build a dinner around that. We’ve done whole dinners around my bees and the honey that comes from them. If Oxford Gardens [a local vegetable farm] does killer whatevers, we might have a dinner for those, too.”

With Clark’s seasonal, full-circle approach to his menus comes a cooking and brewing philosophy rooted in relationships with local farmers. “I’m straddling two ancient fraternities (granted, historically women made most of the beer),” Clark says. “My chef buddies give me a hard time for being a brewer, and the brewers give me a hard time for being a chef. I can’t win.”

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