What made me first fall in love with craft beer years ago, wasn’t necessarily the product. It was the people, the place, and how it all tied into the experience of consuming that beer. Even now, visiting breweries is one of my favorite things to do. You can learn so much about a brewery just through a visit.
That’s the thing about taprooms– they create a memorable sense of place. They tie the product, something as simple as a beer, into an experience that connects the visitor with the location and community.
And as the market for craft beer grows, so are the number of new taprooms. I’ve noticed that more owners are putting a conscious effort into building a brewery that echos the meaning of their product. This new thoughtful approach of designing taprooms has benefited the industry by delighting both new and veteran craft beer lovers.
In Austin, we have been going through a bit of a boom ourselves with new craft breweries and distilleries opening up all over the place. In all this local growth, there’s one name that keeps popping up: local brewery architecture firm, OPA Design Studio.
About OPA Design Studio
Based in Austin, Texas, OPA Design Studio is a small team of talented architects. Established in 2008 by Stephen Oliver, AIA, the architecture and planning firm has grown and now features a long roster of recognizable central Texas businesses (many of which are distilleries and breweries!).
OPA works with new breweries breaking ground and existing breweries who are looking to expand. The brewery design firm can handle it all and guides their clients through the planning and design stages, always taking into account the brew production needs. Their eye for creating taprooms that are as beautiful as they are functional is what makes this brewery architecture firm so unique.
Stephen Oliver and his team have designed some of the most innovative and mesmerizing taprooms in Austin, Texas. From Friends & Allies to Live Oak Brewing, there’s a good chance you’ve enjoyed a craft beer in one of their buildings.
For this interview I sat down with OPA Principal, Stephen Oliver, (left) and Project Manager, Derrick Gaderson (right) for a conversation on the brewery planning process, what it’s like building the next generation of taprooms, and plenty of Austin craft beer history tidbits.
What’s your favorite project that you worked on? What makes them you favorite?
Stephen: We’ve had a few fun ones now. Still Austin was definitely a fun one. Live Oak was fun. NLand Surf Park can be interesting to see how that one plays out over time just because the whole facility is so unique, and it’s a different thing. The idea of just, even if you’re not surfing, being there and watching surfing.
Oddwood, which it’s not probably going to get probably the same press as some of the others because it’s a smaller facility. But as far as a really just easy hang-out spot? I’ve been there several times now just to chill because it’s a quieter and it’s got a different vibe. It’s not the big beer hole setting. So that one’s got a little good place in my heart too.
Plus knowing the history of that building and what it used to be back in the 80’s. I’ve done remodels on that building twice now. The first one was for a graphic design company that owned the building prior to Oddwood and when we first went in there I was like, ‘What’s going on with this weird roof?” And there’s a shower in the attic….
That building goes to show, I think how desperate breweries are and I say that with love. How desperate brewery owners are at finding the right location. Because we’ll polish anything.
It’s not the end of the world to have a building that hasn’t seen loved in a while.
If you can find the right spot to make it work from the zoning standpoint. We’re not San Antonio with like hundred year old old brick buildings lying around waiting for somebody who will love to restore them…We’ve got dumpy metal buildings at that. That’s at least half of the battle, it’s finding the right land.
BWSG: Yeah. I hear a lot that just finding the perfect location that works for them, and the government, is the longest step.
Stephen: Well both Oddwood and Vista opened within three or four months of each other, and they’re both 2015 projects for us. A chunk of that time was hunting. They met us, and brought us on board to help find the right spot. We have seen so many of these buildings and the same brokers.
We’re kind of shopping the same buildings around. But I know where all the zoning that works is. Which helps them kind of figure out, if these buildings have the bones necessary to make it work. Just because it was cheaper doesn’t mean I’m not going to spend twice as much in upgrading utilities.
What else have you guys have been working on? You guys must have had a busy end of 2017? How’s 2018 shaping up?
Stephen: Yeah the alcohol stuff is not slowing down for us at all. Things have been really good, really busy. We’ve been helping Austin Eastciders kind of scout out new locations.
Eastciders have kind of been brainstorming. That’s fun because they only have been a production facility and now they’ve got that little spot on the east side next to Friends and Allies. That was just kind of putting lipstick on the spot without really throwing a lot of money on it…
Just making the tap room happen in the original location. They want to historically keep that for as long as they could. [Note: Austin Eastcider’s taproom next to Friends & Allies was originally their R&D facility.] So we are doing a 16,000 square foot-ish in size. Brand new facility right down by Independence Brewing. That will be a brand new brewery for Austin and, kind of a bigger one too! We are also going into branding steps [on some projects]. That’s fun because some of our clients haven’t figured all that out yet and we get to be along that ride.
Derrick: Hop Squad is another one that’s going to be in [the North Austin] area. We talked to Alex Limon for months and months kind of before he got started. Then it was trying to find the right spot. And then when we found it, how do we make this work and dealing with the budget that is available depending on whether it is self-financed, family-financed, or if somebody has been able to gather budget capital.
For me, I think one of the fun and kind of challenging parts is always dealing with how [breweries] actually work and how [the clients] imagine it. It’s similar to when you work with somebody doing a house. Everyone imagines that, “Oh I want my house to look this and I want to have these rooms, and I want to have these spaces.”
And they have this imaginary image of how they live versus how they actually live. Where you don’t need this space because you actually never use it. But you know, that grand dining room would be better served in the kitchen where you spend all of your time.
So it’s from working with [the clients] on kind of a level of, “Oh, we found this building and we’re looking at this and we want to brew X amount” and “Okay, well that’s going to take these many tags”, and “Are we serving there or not?”
Stephen: And a different budget.
Derrick: Yeah and a different budget, you know it’s the dealing with the idea from the client and also the reality.
BWSG: So you’re bringing them down back to earth in a way?
Stephen: Yeah. Everybody comes to the table with a different set of experiences in other breweries. From a brewey’s standpoint, I can ask,” What’s the best practice? What is everybody else doing with respect to this?”
And everybody does something different and all that is from the system that they’re working on– the inherent weirdness or oddities of the building that they were in before that caused a certain piece of equipment to be set up differently, that in a way, another brewery wouldn’t do. Well you can’t do it normally, so this is how we make it work.
Then [the clients] actually got used to that and seems to be the norm for them. So then the in the new brewery, they are like, “Yeah that’s how we do it. That’s not how anybody else does it. That’s okay, that’s how we do it.”
Alright, the best practice is actually maybe what your most comfortable with…
And well at the same time, [we are] introducing them to other concepts that we have seen along the way that other people have liked. Sometimes they’re like, “Oh I haven’t thought of that before,” or other times, “Just let me brew the way I like to brew.”
Yeah it’s like if you’re going to ask Chip at Live Oak, how to make the best Hefe, he’s going to say horizontal dairy style tanks, not vertical tanks. And he makes the best hefe around according to a lot of people. Most people would go into that situation saying, “Oh I need horizontal tanks.” …Which take up different square footage.
Those are the things we would never know because we don’t have that brewing experience. We don’t have that twenty years of knowledge, but we become a sponge in those conversations.
We go, “Tell us all the good stuff.” And it helps us be better architects for them to know that there is actually a range of options. That’s why I think we have a lot of value compared to maybe other people, or doing a brewery for somebody as a one off thing, is they only know what that brewery tells them.
They may design something beautifully and all that, but to be able to just really bounce ideas back and forth is probably a rarity for most people who are getting a brewery built. When they are working with architects– they’re just not– there’s only a couple of people in the country who do what we’re doing. That’s a niche.
That’s made a lot of fun and we can’t imagine a better niche. Before we were doing a lot of breweries and distilleries, and now wine, and cider, and mead. It’s all about the back of house, front of house, and brand relationship for us. It’s not about the alcohol.
Could you walk me through a very basic overview of the process that goes from when somebody wants to open a new brewery, finding you guys, and getting started on building a brewery.
Stephen: At this point it’s 90% word-of-mouth of people sharing our name. Which I think always speaks well to having a good reputation amongst the people you’ve already done business for.
Then there’s other small groups that kind of find us online and they find a certain brewery architect blog or website. That’s been very beneficial especially outside the state. We are doing a brewery in Baton Rouge now. For this niche to really work well with us, and for us to continue to grow as it grows, we can’t just be in Austin– we can’t just be in Texas. It’s got to go beyond that.
Normally, they are reaching out to us. From that standpoint there’s kind of two or three groups. There’s the one that’s already up and running, and they want to expand or they want a second location. That was Eastciders when they came to us.
Very often they have a clear set of ideas of what they are trying to do. They are also maybe a little bit more knowledgeable. They’ve already gone from A to B. Now they’re trying to go from B to C.
They come to talk to us in terms of that way. Maybe hunting for the site or maybe they have already found the site, like Live Oak. They were going from East district 36th Street, to out by the airport. Chip already had that piece of property and had it for five years.
And he’s like, “I want to do a facility, here’s the size and here’s exactly what I need” For a year, we were working through that information. We tested out a couple of ideas on the side and about the same time like feed us all the information about your equipment.
How big is it? How many of them? What connects to what and what does this piece of equipment need for power, for plumbing? So that we can give that to our engineers. While at the same time we are trying to understand, how that impacts the building but those bubble diagrams and maybe a couple of quick sketches of what if it looked like this? That’s the initial month or so, it’s like a feasibility phase and trying to think how big does this need to be? How much more will it cost (if you’re just going to take a wild ballpark guess?)
Once it becomes clear that the idea has some legs to it and it’s time to get a little bit more serious, spend more time with it, and we go in and the schematic design. At that point, you’re trying to [figure out], this building is this tall, it’s got this many windows, this is how big all the rooms are, this is how the equipment is laid out…
We are in that phase for about a month. Most times the client will change their mind and in that month they have an “AHA” moment in the shower and go, “No, I want to move this over here.” And then we got to kind of undo some positions and that’s just part of the process.
I’d say the schematic phase is like a tornado. It’s circular always moving and hopefully in the same direction.
As opposed to a circular kind of doing, “Oh we’re just wasting time.” Sometimes that happens before you can move forward. Once it’s decided on, the project’s very real. It’s very parameters, it’s the materials being used– they’re all kind of set.
Then we are spending a couple of months working with engineers, of different types: structural, civil for the site, MEP for all the building systems. We’re putting together a permanent package to go to the city, spend a couple of months in the city trying to get that thing approved.
If it’s a brand new building, the timeline is really long because it takes a long time to get the site approved from the city. It takes almost a year.
BWSG: What about when you worked out Vista Brewing? They are far out of the city?
Stephen: So they are outside the city, at that point it’s just a county fire marshal, and getting their water stuff approved from the state because they have to dig a well. [Vista] had their own hurdles that where shorter, but definitely not to be underestimated out there.
But from a building standpoint. It’s just a fire marshal saying, “You’ve got the fire protection you need, so it’s not going to burn down.”
Derrick: Being in a county versus being in the city, is in the city they’ve seen projects like this. Sometimes in the county they have no idea what they’re looking at. You’re trying to make sure that they understand without having to describe the entire brewing process.
When we’re starting out, we’re also really interested in what are the people working with, do they have a brand yet? Do they have an idea of what they’re trying to portray?
Because again it’s definitely a balance between, being able to produce the beers and these types of beers or the types of spirits or the types of wines that somebody, that they might want to create.
Along with having that public face that they also need to project because it’s awesome if you can make really great beers or ciders or wines or liquors, but if you can’t get anybody to come in to your facility to taste them and you have to rely on distributors and that route, well you’re kind of going in a different direction than if you’re really going to open up something that has a tasting room.
That feasibility schematic area is also where we certainly knock out hard numbers for them: “Okay your building is this big, if you want to have a tasting room, you’re allowed this much space. And if we want to do something outside we’ve got to take, we only have this big of a bubble to work with, part of that can be inside, part of that can be outside.”
Stephen: That’s a tough pill for some people to swallow. Early on, it’s how far the numbers go, the reality of it. I told people in the past, and I think those numbers are kind of inching up more and more each day/month, at a minimum you’re spending a half a million dollars on a remodel. If you’re just trying to do a local small brewpub and you’re probably going to spend about half a million dollars on equipment.
Derrick: We’re passionate about what we do and to have clients who are just as passionate is really– it’s really a blessing. I mean it’s not it’s all designed by committee and nobody really cares as long as they’re able to meet XYZ goals for the year. This is our passion and we want our passion to be successful and they have it, we have it, our passion hopefully feeds them and their passion feeds us.
Stephen: It’s like it’s the opposite of designing for like an independent school district. Where you’re designing to a standard that has no connection to people’s passion for anything involved with the project. That this is a group of people you have to respond to and all of them are competing with one another. [Breweries are] the exact opposite.
Derrick: And [breweries] love showing us stuff. I spent a whole day with Christine [of Celis Brewery]. She showed me all the equipment that her father brewed on and his entire brew process and what he would go through. It’s incredible to be able to get that experience. I don’t make beer, I just drink it.
So it’s all this great knowledge that we’re able to share and that they’re willing to share with us and that at times we’re able to share with other clients. Nobody is so closed off that they won’t at least hear what we have to say. Which I think is good on both parts and it really is. We’re part of that learning process.
Stephen: There’s a fraternity of all this that is occurring. At some point there’s a level of competition at a certain degree, but people in [the beer] industry are really respectful to each other. It’s like they know that they can talk and collaborate and work on stuff.
Is there a trademark or style to an OPA-designed brewery?
Derrick: No. I wouldn’t say there is and that’s been the case for our firm. We have been in business for ten years and for me. just being in the field since 1999. I’ve listened to my clients and I have my own opinions and preferences. But I’d like to know what limitations they’re going to give me because I’m going to work within that. I’m going to challenge their ideas of some things and say” What about this instead?”
Ultimately my job is not to say I love designing white boxes, I’m going to give you the new white box whether or not you wanted a blue box, I don’t care I’m giving you a white box. For us, we may feel like things need to be regionally, contextually sensitive to the environment with deeper overhangs.
There are choices we make stylistically at some of our buildings that are more responsive to being in Texas. But at the same time, I think it’s fun for everything to look like it was made for them and not made for OPA.
I think part of that, also kind of goes back to the idea that every one of these breweries I’ve been for, for us it’s a project that we really want to be a part of. As we start working on it and a lot deviating from the conception, then the client comes in and we get excited about it. But in reality it’s the client’s baby. It’s ours, but it’s theirs.
So it’s more about speaking about our design or speaking about what the client wants more than really trying to interject OPA’s designing ethos into it.
Stephen: Yeah, and probably maybe a little more unique than what other people would do in the same situation for those clients.
We know we got to get the function right. They’ve got to be able to make a lot of beer and be more profitable and focus on their business before they start thinking style.
And that’s hard to do in an industry where we like thinking about the way things look and work together. I don’t want any client to walk away and go, “Oh well. It looks pretty, but man I can’t make any beer.”
It’s got to start on the other side first. I think whether expansion needs and let’s talk about that if that means more money goes towards the back of the house than the front of the house. We’re okay with that because we’re trying to help that industry in every way, shape and form.
Until we got into this niche, when we design a building sometimes it’s the last time we were there. Breweries we’re going in and hanging-out. We get to bring our friends and family in our office, and we go hang-out in the tasting room.
Derrick: Yeah absolutely. Before working here, I spent a decade doing retail– corporate clients all over the country. I go to a spot and see it before I start doing drawings, before we start the designing process and that would be the only time I saw it. I get pictures when it was done and some of them I have never seen [in person].
Stephen: It also makes us really harsh critics of our own work. Because when you walk in and you know that like where a corner had been cut or where we could have done something a little bit better? You stare at it and you go, “Oh, I missed that opportunity!” or “If only I would have thought before.” We can’t hide from it and so it makes us more careful because that’s where it’s our baby too.
Have you ever been to one of OPA’s breweries? Which one is your favorite? Let’s keep up the conversation and let me know in the comments!
NOTE: Most of the photographs in this article were taken by my wonderfully talented partner and photographer, Jason Babos. To see more of his work, visit here.