John Stuart’s first interest in homebrewing came about in a rather unusual manner. It was summer, 1981. He and a friend were searching a Dallas bookstore for a tome on Eastern philosophy, when fate introduced a book of another doctrine. For the rest of the summer, “New Brew It Yourself” consumed much their time. The high school seniors soon put the simple homebrewing guide aside, turning to other interests.
Fate ended a four year hiatus when John’s roommate found the old homebrewing equipment in a closet. At his insistence, John started brewing again. A little more serious about his rekindled hobby this time, John entered the Bluebonnet Homebrewers Competition, a statewide judging sponsored by the North Texas Homebrewers Club, in May 1987. Shortly thereafter, the blue-ribbon winning homebrewer was approached by the assistant brewmaster from Reinheitgesbot Brewing Company. The Plano, Texas microbrewery, also known as Collin County Brewery, was looking for help. Working mostly as a volunteer, though John was reimbursed for his time on the bottling line, this opportunity started the ball rolling, turning hobby into occupation for the young brewer. Reinbo, as the locals dubbed the hard to pronounce brewery, was pieced together mostly from dairy equipment. An early Texas entrant in the microbrewery business, it survived ten years, eventually closing in 1993.
Lacking opportunity for advancement at Reinbo, John looked elsewhere for full-time employment. Working with used brewing equipment purchased from a defunct brewery in Little Rock, Arkansas, brother-in-laws Rick XXXX and Ken XXXX were piecing together Addison Brewing Company. Consultants from Abita Brewing were hired to supervised and provide recipes. A help-wanted plea distributed through the North Texas Homebrewers Club, directed John to his first real brewing job. He signed on with Addison Brewing in August, 1988, though it took 14 months of installation and preparation before the first beer, Double Eagle Lager, hit the marketplace. Unfortunately, the under-funded brewery soon succumbed to the typical financial and family problems.
A chance meeting with Paul Smith, who was in Dallas for Triathlon competition, was fortuitous. Smith was founder and principal owner of The Mill Bakery Eatery Brewery, which at that time had two locations, Gainesville and Tallahassee, Florida. Stuart signed on in 1990, taking what would become a long, long ride on a booming brewpub chain.
The Mill had chain-aspirations. Smith purchased Winterpark Brewing Company in Orlando shortly after John began work. The new corporate brewer moved to Tallahassee, though he spent quite a lot of time at Winterpark, preparing the brewery and training an assistant. Between openings, John flew to Chicago for a two week Siebel Institute course on Quality Control. Fascinated by lab work, he enjoyed “breaking down beers to see what they’re made of.” The educational experience was rewarding, providing practical knowledge that helps him as a brewer even today.
Next came Charleston. This Mill was housed in a pre-Civil War ice house. As he would with all new stores, John was involved in every aspect of this new brewery, from equipment design to recipe specifications. Baton Rouge, Charlotte, Knoxville, Nashville, there would be 17 Mills in all, though not all brewed their own beer. To avoid regulatory problems, 30-barrel micro Beach Brewing Company was founded by The Mill owners to supply the restaurants. Abita Brewing had previously contract brewed for the growing chain.
Due to the fragmented ownership of each location, every Mill was vastly different. Some were more successful with beer than others. When Smith purchased a building in Atlanta in late 1995, John jumped at the brewing job. With a smile on his face, he moved to the Peach State in 1996. Situated in midtown, bordering historic Piedmont Park with a beautiful view of the downtown skyline, this Mill opened on July 8, 1996 at the height of the Olympic craze. Traffic concerns kept locals away at first, but eventually city-dwellers, downtown employees and park visitors discovered the food and beer and the warm, friendly confines.
As The Mill chain spiraled toward disenfranchisement in 1999, Smith purchased the Atlanta store outright. Smith was anxious to develop a new, more localized identity for his newly independent establishment. Capitalizing on the popularity of grassy Piedmont Park, Park Tavern was selected as the brewpub’s name.. The 30-acre recreation area was designed by Frederick Olmstead at the turn of the 20th century. It’s now a popular destination for joggers, picnickers, strollers, and, of course, folks in need of nourishment and liquid sustenance.
Working with a 15-barrel New World Brewing System brewhouse, four fermenters and six bright tanks, Stuart keeps five or six Park Tavern beers on tap at all times. John used to brew a Tavern Light, only to drop it from the menu when he realized why the corn flake blessed, low-calorie lager was so popular. Discovering that Tavern Light was usually ordered with a “give me your lightest beer” request, now John brews a “light” beer with more integrity and flavor. Named for a nearby neighborhood, Druid Hills, another Olmstead creation, Druid Pils is mild in hoppiness, as far as pilsners go. The brewer’s personal preference in beer is Munich Helles, so his Pils leans toward mellowness. German-grown Scarlet malt joins two-row in the malt bill. A blend of Saaz and Hallertau results in subdued bitter finish, though sometimes, depending on price and availability, American hybrid Liberty hops are used. Feeble light beer drinkers switched to Druid Pils without even knowing and liked it just as well.
John’s two other “got to have” beers are Park Trail Ale and Olmstead Amber. The recipe for Park Trail was adapted from an old Mill formula. Designed in UK IPA style, this medium bodied brew boasts about 30 bittering units. Added 15 minutes prior to boiling’s end, English Fuggles and Brambling Cross hops contribute aroma, while Target serves bittering duty. The beer is not dry-hopped, though it is filtered, “just to clear, not polish,” as all Park Tavern beers are, save the Hefeweizen. Two-row and Crystal malt provide malty counterpoint to the aggressive hop schedule.
Olmstead Amber is another Mill recipe reformulation. John toned down this “beefy” beer for drinkability’s sake, using a malt bill split evenly between Two-row and English Pale Ale malt, with a touch of Dark Crystal, around 80 to 110 lovibond, for color. Hopped totally with Liberty, the Amber sports about 20 ibu’s. Usually the fourth beer on tap, Piedmont Porter is all UK with British Pale, Dark Pale and Chocolate malts. Eschewing astringency, this lightly hopped beer (all Goldings) was first brewed as a bridal ale for Paul Smith’s wedding back in Florida. Though it never fit in at the Florida brewpubs, Atlanta has become a perfect home for the Porter.
Other rotating Park Tavern beers include Irish Stout. Always brewed for St. Patrick’s Day, though often available at least half of the year, this nitrogen-pushed brew is rich from Maris Otter malt, flaked barley, flaked oats and roasted barley. Well-rounded and creamy, this big ale improves with age. Bavarian in style, John’s Hefeweizen is 50% German Pils malt (Scarlet) and 50% Pale Wheat malt. White Lab’s Hefe yeast give more banana than clove taste. It’s a big seller and would be popular year-round, though John gives the Hefe a break when the yeast gets temperamental. Winter Brew is usually a Scottish Ale, though in 2001 John experimented with a Belgian Abbey Dubbel. Made with Belgian Pils, Carastan, Carapils and Munich Dark malts, candi sugar and White Labs Belgian Abbey yeast strain, the beer “turned out dynamite.” Given time and tank space, Oktoberfest greets the autumn season with a sweetish combination of Vienna and Munich malts, German Hallertau hops and a requisite lager yeast.
John pushes 750 barrels a year through his brewhouse and could do more if traffic stayed steady through the Winter off-season. His philosophy in offering such a spectrum of products is perfunctory: “I don’t necessarily go for a beer that offends no one. I go for beers that are aggressive within their style.” Too often, he’s been disappointed in a bar’s of brewpub’s line-up of similar tasting beers. That’s why he uses lots of different yeasts, realizing that that, in itself, can cause problems.
Fate introduced John Stuart to homebrewing and professional brewing. Now one of the South’s most seasoned brewers, he’s made the best of the experience. With over 15 years in the business, he still takes pride and pleasure with every pint sold.
Park Tavern Brewery
500 10th Street NE
Atlanta, GA 30309-4272