Topping it Off: Microbrew On Tap at the Republic

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Known for serving only the freshest, handcrafted foods, brothers Nathan and Wade Barkman, owners of The Republic restaurant in College Station, knew they couldn’t just come out with any beer. “It had to be over the top; better than everybody,” says Nathan. In addition to being the only brewer in the Brazos Valley and the smallest in Texas, it appears that Nathan Barkman is also the only accomplished founder of a brewery inside a fine dining atmosphere. With no book to read, nothing on Wikipedia and no one to turn to with questions, Barkman has been learning as he goes.

A longtime home brewer, Barkman always knew he wanted to have a commercial brewery. One of his oldest brewing memories happened in his garage during college.

Known for serving only the freshest, handcrafted foods, brothers Nathan and Wade Barkman, owners of The Republic restaurant in College Station, knew they couldn’t just come out with any beer. “It had to be over the top; better than everybody,” says Nathan. In addition to being the only brewer in the Brazos Valley and the smallest in Texas, it appears that Nathan Barkman is also the only accomplished founder of a brewery inside a fine dining atmosphere. With no book to read, nothing on Wikipedia and no one to turn to with questions, Barkman has been learning as he goes.

A longtime home brewer, Barkman always knew he wanted to have a commercial brewery. One of his oldest brewing memories happened in his garage during college. He was getting ready for a night with his friends when he was told girls would be joining them. Needing a more “girly” drink than his already brewed beer, Barkman looked to his kitchen to find ingredients, grabbing leftovers including apples, honey and wheat. All these years later, that same combination is behind the successful “dirty blond” brew that he has scaled for commercial production inside the restaurant.

Although one of his favorite pastimes has now been turned into a business, Barkman doesn’t treat it as just another job – it’s an art. About five years ago, Barkman attended the Brewing Science for Practical Brewing Courses at the University of California Davis where he met the legends of the brewing industry. Bringing his knowledge back to Texas, his experiments continue to this day as he plays with ingredients to create the perfect quaff. With a panel of taste testers with his wife as the chair, each batch is tasted for quality. “It can’t just be good beer; it has to be perfect every time,” says Barkman, “or [the customers] will favor something where they know what they’re getting.”

The task of operating a brewery within the confines of a restaurant kitchen has proven to be more difficult than he originally fathomed. In the beginning stages of the project and searching for advice, Barkman called all of the other breweries that tried to open inside a fine dining restaurant – except he couldn’t find any. The combined knowledge of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission and American Homebrewers Association didn’t add up to much; they basically told him to let them know how it goes.

Realizing he wasn’t going to receive answers or help from anyone else experienced in this type of small-scale, commercial brewing, Barkman did not let it stop him. “It’s kind of frustrating, but kind of exciting,” says Barkman.

He had to learn how to open a commercial brewery on an awfully small scale when there isn’t much equipment built to do so. A schedule had to be created that worked around the restaurant kitchen schedule because he couldn’t be brewing while the chefs were cooking. When he has two ideas and doesn’t know which one is best, he tries both. Probably the most surprising challenge that Barkman has had to face is keeping up with demand.

The first house-brewed beer was served on Valentine’s Day, and the new product was received so well that within four days all four kegs were dry. “There was no way I could have planned that!” says Barkman. “The problem is keeping up with production, which makes me feel good, but it’s a lot of pressure on us.”

The brewing process is not a fast one; he can’t whip up a batch in time for the dinner rush. Half a barrel (equaling a standard keg) takes approximately seven days to ferment, and then it must be transferred into another tank for seven more days before it can be bottled and served. The process requires precision: the perfect temperature in combination with the correct duration of time.

Since its debut, customers have been persistently choosing the house-brewed beer over those from large breweries. Barkman’s beer has accounted for 75 percent of beer sales, which have quadrupled, displacing many of the previously popular beers sold at The Republic. “We weren’t expecting to have to brew this much quantity,” notes Barkman.

Thus far, Barkman has brewed and served three original beers, but they won’t all stay on tap. Only the beer whose humble origins trace back to Barkman’s college garage – Moonshine Blonde – will stay in continuous production, made with whole, pressed apples and Navasota, Texas, honey. All of Barkman’s beers require fresh, and expensive, ingredients like whole flours, full-flour hops and usually honey. Specialty beers like his Sour Cherry Brown Ale and Copperhead Ale will make occasional appearances at the tap.

The main difference between Barkman’s beer and that of the larger breweries is what’s missing: preservatives, clarifiers or filtration of any kind. “Filtration would strip out a lot of the flavor and all of the good stuff in beer,” he says. “Mine is going to be loaded with vitamins and minerals!”

His beer also differs in alcohol content. While most beers are about four percent alcohol, Barkman’s beer is 6.9 percent alcohol. “It’s definitely not a session beer. Our staff is trained to make sure people are absolutely clear. You can’t drive home to Waco or go back to your meeting. It’s more akin to wine.”

Even with his successful flagship brew in steady production, Barkman has no intention of slowing down any time soon. Since he has the equipment, he plans to experiment with soda including ginger ale, vanilla soda and root beer.

“Everybody knows we have big dreams – we’ve made that no secret,” says Barkman. “We came into this town to make our mark.”