Brass Tap adds food to its plate of craft beer

It's a simple cause and effect that works both ways.

Eat pretzels and pizzas, and you get thirsty for beer.

Drink beer and you get hungry for pretzels and pizzas.

For the folks at the Brass Tap, it's a no-duh reality they hope will translate to heady business. Its flagship location that opened last week at 10019 N Dale Mabry Highway in Carrollwood is the first to have a full food menu to complement the more than 300 kinds of craft beer.

When I say full menu, I'm not talking Cheesecake Factory, where you need a table of contents to figure out the choices.

We're not even talking food that requires utensils.

But it's tasty stuff that goes down well with the beer, which is the whole idea.

James Walker, the chief development officer for the Brass Tap, started cooking up the menu even before Beef 'O' Brady's acquired the franchising rights to the Brass Tap a year ago. He knew food would help the bar compete with more traditional, sit-down restaurants and encourage customers to linger longer.

Rather than hire some culinary wizard, the bar tapped its own ranks to create a menu focused on baked pretzels, pizzas, burgers and paninis, presumably concocted over a few pints at the bar. Everything had to be quick, easy to prepare — and salty.

While a prime rib panini might hit the spot after a tough day, the beer remains the golden child. Every menu item lists recommended brews. (For the prime rib panini, it's a Belgian Dubbel, Scotch Ale or Dry Stout.) The beer cooler dwarfs the kitchen.

"This a craft beer bar. Everything we do is about the beer," Walker said. "The food is here to support the beer program."

The Brass Tap has no intention of jumping into the restaurant business, like Cigar City Brewing successfully did a few miles north with its new brewpub. But it does want to grow.

Since Tampa-based Beef's acquired the Brass Tap in June 2012, the chain has expanded to seven locations and has 40 signed deals nationwide. Some of those expansion areas, like in Virginia and Maryland, ban bars that sell only booze. Hence, the need to figure out the food.

Without divulging numbers, Walker said adding food should generate "appreciable" income but won't make or break the bar's success. The liquid business model works fine without solids.

The World of Beer, its main competitor, is thinking along the same lines. It dabbled briefly with food at its now-closed locations in Tampa Palms and at 5226 Fourth St. N in St. Petersburg. Now it's gradually introducing "Tavern Fare'' at locations nationwide, including the one in Carrollwood and cities in Texas, South Carolina, Virginia and Illinois. Paul Avery made it one of his priorities upon taking over as president and CEO earlier this year.

In some ways, adding food to a bar is more difficult than adding beer to a restaurant. You need space to store it and make it. You also need equipment and people.

The Brass Tap was able to incorporate food at its new Carrollwood bar because it built the first corporate-owned location from scratch in a strip center. The less-than-300-square-foot kitchen piggybacks the long, narrow cooler area behind the bar.

Walker purposely designed the menu around items that don't require much prep work or cookware. Instead of fries, which need a deep fryer, they serve kettle chips. Pretzel dough doubles as pizza crust and pretzel bites served with hummus.

There's no mistaking that beer remains the boss. Order the ham and cheese panini — it's served with chipotle mustard infused with Pale Ale.

Susan Thurston can be reached at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110.

Brass Tap adds food to its plate of craft beer 06/03/13 [Last modified: Monday, June 3, 2013 11:29pm]

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