The name change still trips up some customers every now and again. They walk into Kilt Check Brewing and ask if it is a new brewery, only to see owner/brewer Mike Campbell is still behind the bar, the throwback decor still adorns the same walls, the Groundskeeper Willie Cream Ale is still on tap, and so on.
“It was like starting new again, people poking in (and asking) new brewery? We still are (seeing that) almost every day somebody comes in and (asks),” Mike said with a laugh.
The former Drafty Kilt Brewing had to change its name due to a trademark dispute with an Atlanta brewery. It was another bump in the road for the small Northeast Heights brewery, tucked away at 4814 Hardware Drive, nestled just west of San Mateo and south of McLeod near the dollar theater. I sat down with Mike over a pint of Black Sunshine Robust Porter last week for our annual Look Back/Look Ahead Series.
Mike said the one thing he learned over the course of 2018, besides being thankful that the name change stress is behind him, is that any brewery, big or small, has to find a way to stand out.
“It was a pretty good year,” he said. “We do have to provide entertainment, we have found. We’ve got to try to stay relevant with 40-plus breweries in town.”
Of course, even having events on site is not always a guarantee of a successful night of business.
“Some nights, like tonight is professional comedy, it will be pretty good,” Mike said. “Tomorrow night, I don’t know who’s playing, but if the band doesn’t have a following and we pay a percentage, being a small place with basically 52 capacity, I can’t afford a big band. I don’t have the space to put a big band. Even if 50 people are here (drinking) to the three-beer limit, I’m limited on how much I can sell in three hours.”
Weekly events like Geeks Who Drink on Tuesday and X-ile Open Mic on Wednesday have become profitable nights for Kilt Check, Mike said.
A veteran of the craft beer scene dating back to his time at Rio Bravo Restaurant and Brewery in the 1990s (the one on Central that has no connection to the current Rio Bravo Brewing on Second Street), Mike has seen the scene change and evolve over time.
“When the Brewers Guild had a meeting at Canteen a while back, several of us older guys were standing around, and another of the younger brewers asked back when there were only five of you, it must have been easier to sell beer,” he said. “We looked at each other and shook our heads no, it was almost like begging people just to try it. I humbly say I’m somewhat responsible because I stood three or four nights a week in the lobby of a restaurant or a bar that had us on tap, giving samples back in 2000.”
Nowadays, brewers are not begging people to try their beer, but they still have to work hard to keep up with one another as more and more breweries open. Mike said Kilt Check has quite a few goals in 2019 to stay relevant.
“I still need another tank and some more kegs,” he said. “We’re looking at canning, starting to price machinery. I’ve got plenty of space. The beers are tasting good. The equipment works well, minus a jag or two with a used insert-whatever-you-want here.”
With more brewing capacity, not only can Mike aim at canning his beer, but he can get back to making some of his favorite lagers.
“I want to brew my double bock,” he said. “Once again, humbly, I’ve been told by other pro brewers that I own that style in this state. I’d love to have had it ready. It’s more of a winter beer, let’s be real. But, it’s so good, it’s like a candy bar with a kick.”
The brewhouse that Kilt Check bought from La Cumbre does have decoction capability, Mike noted, so it can easily brew lagers. With another tank just for lagering, Kilt Check would be able to consistently make use of a lager yeast throughout the year.
“My dream right now, I brew my lager, my pre-prohibition lager, then maybe a dunkel, and then the double bock,” he said.
Beyond the beer, Kilt Check will join the ranks of breweries who have decided it is time to add more food to the menu.
“(We want a) small kitchen,” Mike said. “It does hurt us to not have more food. … For the four other breweries that I’ve worked for that had restaurants, I don’t know how to run a restaurant. It looks like a pain in the ass. The owner never seems happy. So when we opened, I didn’t want to take on an added facet that I don’t know (about). At the same time, I didn’t want to partner with anybody. If they fail, it drags me down.
“But, looking just at something (where) I can get more of a lunch crowd. During the holidays when you have friends and family in town, you want to go somewhere that you can eat and drink. Some restaurants around here will even give a discount and deliver.”
2019 could also be the year that Kilt Check finally gets to add the patio that Mike has long wanted. The delay was due to something out of his hands.
“Just a couple months ago, we got the parking lot situated with the City,” he said. “We needed to wait until that was done. We made it almost two-and-a-half years without a certificate of occupancy because we didn’t have proper access. Which, in this case, this is an association of buildings. Everything outside there (the brewery’s front door) belongs to the association. I have no authority, no right to change that parking lot. It’s not mine, but the City still held me up until they did it.”
For every smaller brewery in town, keeping things fresh and customer-focused is more than a priority, it is the key to survival.
“We’ve just got to be able to keep people in the door consistently,” Mike said.
Whether it is the Sunday afternoon karaoke that Mike highlighted, or weekly trivia, music, comedy, or other entertainment, or just getting more beer out and adding food to the menu, Kilt Check has a busy 2019 ahead. Mike said he is up for all of the challenges, more than two decades into the brewing business.
“It’s still a fun industry and I’ve loved every minute of it. I love the way that it’s exploded in this town,” he said. “It’s gotten so popular that it is putting us on the map. People plan their vacations (around breweries).”
We wish Kilt Check plenty of luck going forward, and once again thank Mike for his time and another little fun history lesson on our local scene.