We Love the Nightlife: Inside E.J. Phair’s New Brewery & Taproom
With a newly opened taproom and event space, the longtime East Bay brewers hope to transform Pittsburg into a live music destination.
Named after founder J.J.’s grandfather Ewart John, E.J. Phair Brewing Company has come a long way from its start off of Detroit Avenue in Concord. Since opening in 2000, Contra Costa’s longest continuously operating brewery has grown to include two successful East Bay restaurants, and most recently celebrated the opening of a new taproom and brew space in Pittsburg last month.
The new 15,000 square-foot brewery, housed in a 1922 building that once held one of the first Ford dealerships on the West Coast, features a taproom and event space for live performances. After warming up the new digs with three bands on opening weekend, the staff at E.J. Phair has been going full-steam ahead with comedy shows, open mic nights, and live music every Saturday. We stopped by on the weekend to check out the new space’s acoustics, sample a few beers, and chat with J.J. about the inspiration behind the opening and what’s next for E.J. Phair.
Transforming the Space
The company signed the lease on the building that houses the new brewery six years ago, but the space needed a complete structural retrofit before opening. When the economy tanked, J.J. scaled back and leased the restaurant space across the street instead, which already had a kitchen and required less work to open. When he finally transformed the original building into a brewery, the front space turned into a tasting room, complete with a stage for live performances.
The project was truly a labor of love. J.J. had a hand in virtually everything, including the floor (which started as weathered-looking wooden slats), the panels on the wall (patches of exposed brick peak through, lending the taproom an industrial vibe), and the concrete bar top. As for the two indoor barns? “The wall was such a big wall, and we needed to do something to break up the space. We had this idea [of the barns], and it ended up working really well in the long run,” he says.
Bringing Live Music to the Area
The idea for a live music space originated when J.J. noticed a gap in the local music scene, especially in terms of larger venues. “The whole area is somewhat underserved for live music, even in Walnut Creek,” he says. “We offer something unique, and we’re just trying to get over everyone’s perceptions of Pittsburg.” Friends of the brewery installed a state-of-the-art sound system, in the hopes of transforming the Old Town Pittsburg building into one of the premiere music venues in the area, and a plan to expand the stage is already in the works. “It’s such a cool place, with a great vibe and great energy,” says J.J. “We had someone come in from a nearby town and say, “I’m no longer embarrassed of my zip code.’”
When I swung by on a Friday night, a friendly din welcomed me into the newly refitted building. What was once an empty, light-filled space with high ceilings during the day had been transformed into a soft-lit concert venue brimming with casually dressed locals. The vibe was decidedly relaxed, and while groups of friends filled the tables and chairs, there was plenty of room to move around and snag a seat at one of the high counters facing the stage. The age of the patrons varied, with gray-flecked beards amidst the hoodie-and-Converse crowd, but the space seemed welcomingly devoid of the newly minted 21-year-old crowd.
For the evening’s “Woman’s Night,” promoters looked all the way to Sacramento for performers, bringing in headliner Katie Knipp to showcase her talents on guitar, piano, and harmonica. While the crowd got younger and dressier as the night wore on, the vibe remained largely unchanged. There was a genuine sense of excitement and community about the taproom, and people largely ignored the basketball on TV in favor of listening to the music, sharing stories and laughs, and throwing back a few pints.
E.J. Phair brews all of its beers at the new brewery, which will soon feature 14 taps with close to 100-percent E.J. Phair beers (the restaurant across the street will share its 21 taps with guest brews). Inspiration for the beers comes from all the great craft breweries in California and Oregon, but the team has also looked nearby for inspiration, including a collaboration with Pittsburg’s Steeltown Coffee & Tea for a coffee-laden stout.
“We try to introduce a new beer every few months,” says J.J. “Things gets stagnant if you don’t.” Right now, the team is working on a Vienna lager, which they hope to release later this year. While J.J. thoroughly researches new styles before attempting them, the naming process is a little less scientific. “We shout out the names, and sometimes they stick,” he admits. “There’s a story behind each one.”
“We’re really working on booking great music, getting our beer in bottles, and revitalizing downtown Pittsburg,” J.J. shares. Artists to look out for in upcoming months include blues slide guitarist Roy Rogers, Tommy Castro, and The English Beat. Budding musicians can polish their chops during Wednesday open mic nights and Brew Ha Ha, organized by Jennifer Wadsworth, is an every other Monday combination of eight to ten stand-up comics and a main headliner.