By Marjorie Rice
When Rob and Candy Berkner opened North Mountain Brewing Co. nine years ago, their vision was simple — a microbrewery/brewpub with a restaurant serving beer-friendly foods backed by a craft brewery specializing in small-batch Belgian-style beers.
Today, the concept has grown with updates including additional room for making beer, and revamped dining areas including patios and barrel-based tables in the main dining room, built by Rob from barrels previously used to age wine and beer.
While the couple are tweaking the building and menu, they’re also taking steps to refine their approach, taking over their own distribution and paring down some aspects of their business.
Rob and Candy both lost their fathers in the last year, and that’s resulted in a desire to simplify what can be a high-pressure life as restaurateurs and brewers.
“It’s been a lot for us, and we’ve kind of retracted,” Rob said. “We need to refocus on doing what we’re doing well — the experience of people within this building, the restaurant. We’re going to keep doing retail sales, but we’re going to do it ourselves (they parted ways with their distributor recently) and hopefully have a short, mostly local list of people who will sell our beers.”
Part of that experience is a new venture for the brewing company — a room devoted to pinball, where guests can hang out, have fun and take part in tournaments. The room, with gleaming machines that reflect the newest in game technology, also will be available for private parties.
It’s a venture with Mark Pearson, a local pinball wizard who has a large collection of the machines. The president of the Arizona Pinball Players League, he’s currently ranked 58th in the International Flipper Pinball Association and worked with the Berkners to put the machines in place and keep them running.
Pearson is organizing tournaments, Rob said, with their first held in July. There will be more to come; check the brewery’s Facebook page for updates.
The menu is constantly changing as well, blending chef Jackie Abril-Carlile’s traditional culinary training and Candy Berkner’s Chinese/Filipino/Spanish heritage. While still offering selections from the pub’s original “brew-centric” fare, it has expanded to include lumpia with peanut sauce and Thai chili sauce, Lolo’s Asian sliders (beer-braised pork sliders topped with Asian slaw served on Hawaiian sweet rolls), and Thai pizza with peanut sauce, mozzarella, braised pork, Fresno peppers, bell peppers, mushrooms, shaved Brussels sprouts, shaved carrots, red onion and sweet chili sauce — a savory combination with a sweet chili tang.
Candy’s Filipino fried rice takes the dish up several notches: a stir fry of jasmine rice, shrimp, braised pork, bacon, egg, bell peppers, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, shaved carrots, onions laced with soy sauce and sesame oil. If you only have room for one menu item, this should be on the short-list of considerations. Brussels sprouts are hardly traditional Filipino staples, but Candy likes them, so they’re included. It’s one of those personal touches that gives North Mountain Brewing its distinct personality.
Build-your-own pizzas and burgers, along with poutine, fish and chips, cottage pie and other pub favorites fill out the menu — definitely a cut above the usual bar food. Abril-Carlile adds seasonal dishes as the inspiration hits, so it’s a good idea to check out the daily specials.
But this is a craft brewery, and it all stems from the original purpose — to make hand-crafted, small-batch brews that reflect Rob and Candy’s passion for great beer.
“We do love Belgian ales. The yeast in the beer is a wild yeast, a cousin of wine yeast, and it’s a huge flavor profile,” Candy said. “They have so much flavor. And they’re great with Asian food.”
“A lot of wine lovers take to Belgian beers because they’re outside the realm of usual beers, with unique flavors,” Rob said.
It’s been a challenge to introduce customers to Belgian varieties, Candy said. “This is not a Belgian town — people here are more into IPAs, but that’s what we do, and they’re coming around to Belgian beers. That sets us apart from other places.”
Meandering through North Mountain’s beer menu can be an adventure as well as education. The Sloper Saison is a case in point. Here’s just part of the menu description: “typically a low alcohol beer made for farmers by farmers… our version is a nice balanced beer with a bit of a funky Belgian flavor and a hint of pepper.” Candy says it’s a great match with Asian foods and Mexican fish dishes.
Or Satan’s Gut Brimstone Ale: “Brewed with mesquite, cherry and beechwood smoked malts. Then added some roasted and smoked poblano, Anaheim and Fresno peppers.” Another to match with spicy Asian and Mexican dishes.
“Right now, we’re down to 19 beers, which still is a lot for a place this size,” Rob said. “We can go through each beer and each menu item and discuss which would be the best combination, but it all comes down to what you like. It’s so subjective.
“It’s like my beer. Mine tend to be a little bigger, a little malty. That’s the difference between the breweries. You have to find the one that pleases you the most.
“That’s the whole reason the craft breweries started, to try new style, new tastes. So go out and try new styles, to find out what you like — not what someone else tells you is great.”
North Mountain Brewing Co., at 522 E. Dunlap Ave., is open 3 to 9 p.m., Tuesday and Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Thursday and Sunday; and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 602-861-5999, or visit www.northmountainbrewing.com.