Brues Alehouse's potential exceeds the mere financial success of a combined restaurant, bakery, brewery and music hall. The new Pueblo Riverwalk hub, with a tiny boutique hotel to join the mix under the same roof later, could play a key role in catalyzing the cultural rebirth already underway in the underdog city.
The bones of a once-mighty metropolis still show through the architecture of the historic downtown; Sangre de Cristo Arts Center continues to mature under strong new leadership as part of the united Pueblo Creative Corridor; The Haunted Windchimes have placed a pin on the music map, as has Songbird Cellars Tasting Room as a great vino-fueled venue; young entrepreneurs like LastLeaf Custom Print & Design's Mathias Valdez lend a cool, relevant vibe, in line with the town's graffiti charm; and businesses like Hopscotch Bakery, Bingo Burger and Solar Roast Coffee have laid foundational groundwork for a hopeful culinary boom and bites beyond sloppers and heavy Tex-Mex.
Pueblo, despite good sushi and a few other decent ethnic options, has long lacked a fine dining scene, much as Rio Bistro has tried, while Steel City Diner and Restaurant 1521 came and went. Shamrock Brewery has held strong enough as a local brewhouse and Irish pub amidst many a classic dive bar, but Brues brings together a culinary and drink collaboration unparalleled in investment and ambition, with just enough frill to meet the gustatory desires of the gastropub generation.
The Garcia family — known to Puebloans for their Total Terrain landscape contracting business — spent millions over the past 21/2 years to overhaul the city's former police station. Tony, son to Marty and Linda and holder of president and master brewer titles already at the age of 25, brews on a brand new 10-barrel system backed by 80 total barrels of serving tanks — placing him immediately among the top five outfits in our region in terms of capacity. (Space also remains for growth, including a barrel-aging room already in the works.) After undergraduate studies at Claremont McKenna, a small liberal arts college in California, Tony attended the Siebel Institute's rigorous and respected brew school in Chicago, which included a three-month study abroad in Munich. Come warmer weather, when Brues' rooftop and Riverwalk patios open, he'll be satiating the needs of up to 575 occupants at a time.
Good thing his beers are damn good, on-point by style with a few interesting twists. More on those below, but the brews conversation doesn't stop in the 24-tap bar area, a low-ceilinged industrial-decor lounge dotted with bigscreens and overlooking the open bakery and espresso counter.
Beer banter continues into the food menu, as former Broadmoor banquet culinarian and Trinity Brewing chef of 31/2 years Brian Blasnek has infused his "elevated Americana" menu with house beers at many turns, aided by the Trinity experience plus a first level Cicerone certificate. Blasnek also picked up strength in the choice of former Public House chef Mike Harris as his sous chef, and the baking team counts both Tony's girlfriend Isabel Burson, a Johnson and Wales grad, and Michelle "Chef Pink" Smith (dressed in a hot pink chef's jacket), a Le Cordon Bleu grad. Even assistant brewer (and head of marketing) Daniel Price, a transplanted college friend of Tony's, influences the menu, having created two beautifully balanced beer cocktails: a brilliantly bitter Ca-IPA-rinha with house IPA, Leblon Cachaça, lemon and lime, muddled mint and agave nectar; and a Bigboy Stout with two ounces of Solar Roast espresso and an ounce of Bulleit Bourbon joining the house milk stout to create a luxurious barrel-aged effect — velvety sweetness finishing with deep rye- and oak-pecked roast flavors.
Let's backup for a moment, though, and talk about how to access Brues, which feels maze-like on a first visit. We park on the bridge above the river, on Grand Avenue, which currently offers no direct entry inside. So, we walk around the building to Main Street then hook down a sidewalk that wends its way toward the Riverwalk under a pedestrian footbridge. Brues' front door and patio face the water, and once inside, a hostess stand splits the bar area from a separate dining room and a cavernous music hall filled with more dining tables. (The next performance listed on a current calendar isn't until March, and I can't help but think back to 32 Bleu's headache with concert noise conflicting with a dinner crowd. Plus on a busy night we're already practically yelling at one another to be heard, concrete floors bouncing every sound.)
Blasnek says he wanted a small menu, which will change with each season, and he's reaching out to area growers like Milberger Farms to supply veggies. He's limited himself to two pages, with desserts and drinks listed on separate paper fliers. Generous bowls of oily mixed olives, very vinegary pickled vegetables, or fries with optional beer dips start at only $3. Two more bucks buys you a killer, rich, green-chile beer-cheese sauce on a loaded fry option called the Puebloan. Or garlicky beer-steamed mussels in a beer-cream sauce run $11 — so you can see how he's constructed a limited menu to fit both the frugal working class and the spendy set.
Entrée-portioned salads are $7 to $9 and the quinoa and tabbouleh mixed green salad sports a gorgeous lemon-blonde-ale vinaigrette, finishing super light with simple, clean flavors. The Brues Alehouse salad by contrast feels a bit complicated and disparate, with strong acid from a slightly overdressed balsamic vinaigrette coating a tangle of shredded Bibb lettuce and Brussels sprouts, contrasting red-grape sweetness, clove-strong pickled butternut squash cubes, and a salty prosciutto chip.
Sandwiches on nicely fluffy house buns run $9 to $13, including a pulled Red Bird chicken construct with cheddar, fried onion strands and not enough amber ale barbecue sauce to impart good times. But the Brues Alehouse Burger is laudable with good char leading into a flavorful patty — from Shamrock Foods' Gold Canyon Gourmet Angus brand, which uses the upper two-thirds of USDA Choice grade beef — dressed in biting lemon-garlic aioli, gouda, bacon, caramelized onions and arugula, addressing all five taste sensations at once.
A five-item main entrée list tops out with a $24 steak, but we're drawn to a Colorado trout and a plate of bison short ribs braised in the house stout. The fish sees a perfect pan sear, just beyond raw to an unctuousness perpetuated by a lemon brown butter, the citrus continuing into a crisp apple-radish slaw; only the creamy cauliflower purée could use a touch of salt. The butternut squash purée accompanying the bison needs nothing, its sweetness buffered by potent, bitter mustard greens and a rich jus that complements a pure pot roast flavor on the tender, fat-capped bits of meat.
The bakery makes a thoroughly proficient traditional macchiato and Flat White with Solar Roast's espresso. The coffee plays particularly well with a stout brownie under vanilla ice cream and raspberry stout sauce, as well as a badass banana-caramel-chocolate tart with a thick ganache top. A cranberry-walnut upside down cake offers bright flavors, aided by a cranberry-orange syrup, but smacks a little dry. Brues' maple-bacon bread pudding, however, arrives with the drama of a thundercloud, a full strip of crisp candied swine stuck into a dollop of vanilla ice cream ridged by lines of bourbon caramel, which bring in big notes of the magic hooch. A layer of chewy bacon inside the dense wedge is lavish, especially alongside the Bigboy Stout beer cocktail.
I'm not a bread pudding guy, just like I'm not a huge smothered-fries guy, but I'd order both again at Brues. And the real shocker is I'm not a blonde ale guy, but I find it the most impressive and surprising brew on the list. The menu mentions "Belgian brewing techniques" and "a massive grain bill," and in chatting with the brewers we gather that they add dextrose or table sugar to the boil, which boosts the alcohol, but more importantly the smaller chain sugars force the yeast to create more fruit esters. Strawberry aromas lead in the nose, and those esters "make it drink sweeter mentally," says Tony. Yet it still finishes dry, at a deceptive 8 percent ABV.
The Probation ale (used for the mussels' cream sauce and the fries' cheese sauce) also drinks crisp, in the vein of a Pilsner Urquell, bready with honey aromas in a slightly funky nose and a touch of apple cider vinegar on the front. The Valve-3 amber plays it on the lighter color side, but boasts big caramel notes in a mostly malty body, while Brues' Pat-Down Pale Ale goes fairly high-hop while remaining approachable to non hop-heads — a good gateway beer. The dry-hopped Leadbelly IPA goes all-in with splendid grapefruit character stemming from Azacca hops, backed by the same Chinook and Columbus as the Pat-Down. Finally, the chocolatey and toasty Manther's Milk Stout feels a little thin on the body considering the oats in the grain bill and added lactose, which lends just a touch of sweetness.
Tony concedes he's still learning the new system and is aware of a few flaws in his initial batches that he's remedying in successive runs. Still, even if we're talking about the usual beer styles, to launch this strong on brand-new equipment is impressive. Brues' beers must be bully, he's well aware, because the beer's the proverbial glue that holds the operation together. I think of that interdependent synergy while on my barstool: At once, I can smell grains boiling in the beer kettle, and sugar- and espresso-laced aromas wafting over from the bakery as I taste through layers of flavor in our meal. This place, best as we can see, should kill it. Not just be the talk of the town while it's new, but a longtime landmark to help popularize Pueblo. Let's drink to that potential.