Taproom: Brewing Up Good Design

Every brewery aims to express its personality through its taproom. Understanding how patrons enjoy these spaces can make or break a design project. Kevin Deabler, principal and cofounder of RODE Architects in Boston, helps to demystify the process.

Kevin Deabler Mar 10 - 11 min read

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From left: Rendering, construction, and finished space. Taprooms are often carved out of adaptive reuse buildings and embrace the authenticity conveyed by natural, found materials. Photos: Dorchester Brewing Co., Courtesy Rode Architects

The rise of craft brewing and the proliferation of local breweries and taprooms in neighborhoods across the country are emblematic of a culture that craves authentic, local, shared experiences. When you take the big step of creating a taproom where you can host the public and share your product, you are carving out your own space within that culture. In that act, you must carefully develop a design that speaks to the character of your brews and embraces the ethos of your company, while maintaining a high level of functionality so that the place can continue to deliver the product without compromise.

Engage Your Design Team Early

Choosing a designer that will engage your team early on in the process is crucial to ensuring that the finished space aligns with your goals. For the pairing to be successful, the team you select should also have an appreciation for the specific complexities of brewery design and experience in realizing similar projects. We recommend involving a design team early—even before signing a lease—to ensure that the program can work with the space and with your goals.

Breweries frequently occupy existing infrastructure in transitioning industrial properties. Depending on their former use, these properties might not yet have the drainage, floor-load capacity, or electrical service to accommodate a large-scale production use. The space constraints and circulation processes can be quite specific, as can site access and visibility and the feeling of procession that greets new patrons. Just like your brewery’s core values, the existing conditions of a site must be thoroughly understood before beginning design.

Understanding the challenges of a space and its impact on both the design direction and build cost are crucial, and at this phase of the project, input from engineers can be the difference between a smooth process and a costly nightmare. RODE, for example, has a long-established relationship with BLW Engineers, based out of Littleton, Massachusetts, on brewery projects in the Boston area. Their team shares a collaborative approach, born out of an understanding that most brewers are basically engineers and designers in their own right. Principal Mike Denommee explains that “we really try to work together with [the client] to help dovetail our [mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP)] system into their brewery process.… On most brewery designs, they are right in the trenches with us, and it’s important to be aware and respect that.”

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The spatial, structural, and infrastructural demands of the brewing process are particular and significant; they must be closely managed to enable a functioning facility. The equipment-heavy process sometimes has dramatic implications for the design, and early planning with an experienced design team can help ensure that the final product operates as intended. Denommee agrees, noting that “something that is overlooked on most projects is that fact that the brewing process is a design trade in itself, just like any other sub-consultant. It’s critical that this gets designed by the owner or brewery consultant early on because it trickles down to spatial programming and integration of our MEP systems.”

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Good designers ensure that every detail supports the conceptual themes driving the design and also work to make the space functional.

A Thorough “Discovery” Phase

Every business benefits from the act of self-reflection. Recall the steps that brought your business to where it is today and what those steps have taught you. Celebrate the values that drive customers to your brand today and envision the path to achieving your next goals. These guideposts may seem abstract but are crucial as ongoing tests for decisions to come.

Take the time to relate those findings to your design team. Ensure that the message is heard and can be relayed back in terms that both parties understand. Establish a shared language of goals and principles; these will serve as a robust foundation for the design process and will act as a guide for the future decisions the team will need to make.

Always begin with a listening phase. You are experts in your field, and any design firm should rely upon this depth of knowledge to inform the core of a design. It’s then up to the design team to flex their understanding of what they’ve learned through operational and aesthetic diagrams and imagery. Resist the urge to jump right into space-layout plans or equipment lists—communication and diligent iteration ensure that the design team accurately confirms the program and that when the team begins to craft an aesthetic, it is in line with your vision.

A good designer will know the questions to ask that will elicit the right information to inform the design of a brewery. Are you more driven by pride of the craft or the joy of sharing? Do you aspire to master a single style, or does your curiosity urge you to test your mettle in a wide variety of brews? Will you stay local and intimate, or is your aim global domination? The answers could be contradictory, surprising, or seemingly irrelevant, but they move toward a mutual understanding of what the project wants to be and help to solidify the core guiding concepts of the design.

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Good design is inspired, cohesive, and has some essential truth at its core. A collaborative process is the catalyst for the success of any project and allows designers to take your program and envision something spectacular.

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A “mood board” can ensure that the design team has an accurate understanding of the textures, tone, and look that the space wants to communicate.

Function Informs Form

What then, is the character of the space you are creating?

It is important to have a design team with the experience and know-how to craft a space that meets your goals for character and aesthetics while offering the technical performance that will allow the space to function. Retain a designer with the experience to know how to work within the parameters that will satisfy regulatory agencies. Select surfaces for their durability, cleanability, or flexibility. Understand the impact that acoustics, materiality, and natural or artificial lighting can have on the experience of a room and know how to manipulate those senses to find a cohesion with the mission of your business.

The design of a space often does not require an intensive intervention. Rather, the adaptive-reuse nature of many brewery locations results in the weathered, natural aesthetic of reclaimed and repurposed materials. This can align with the approachable, familiar nature of many craft brewers’ own stories. For more than a decade, one of the most ubiquitous materials found in taprooms to add a texture of warmth and character is natural wood. The familiar, enveloping aesthetic is practically synonymous with breweries—but take heed that proper treatment and sealing will need to pass muster with local building and health codes.

Some craft brewers draw in their clientele with a character and tone to their brand that is strongly steeped in imagery, color tones, iconic brew labels, or clever naming. A whimsical character—the joy of the process and of sharing a deeply vested interest—can make for an atmosphere of revelry, making every day a celebration. Others seek to emphasize the chemical precision and rigor of brewing by creating a carefully tailored, tectonic, detailed environment that serves to educate visitors on the process. The clean simplicity of a gallery-feel treats the process as art, providing a neutral canvas upon which the product can shine.

The layout and use of transparency and adjacency can immerse the visitor in the brewing activity, celebrating the choreography of movement that brings beer to life. The tall spaces required to house the glimmering, intricate equipment can transform visitor into parishioner. The evolving scents of the process envelop the patrons in an immersive experience. These are natural, inherent assets of breweries—use them and celebrate what they represent.

In every construction effort, designers know to expect the unexpected. Be flexible and creative and ready to adapt to unforeseen conditions. You probably don’t have unlimited time or an unlimited budget, so your design team must continue to hone its ability to turn barriers into design opportunities. An experienced team can be innovative in the face of a challenge and find solutions that elegantly resolve or improve the design.

Let the Design Build Its Own Personality

The spaces we’ve built that feel most alive are places of discovery and exploration, of revelry and relaxation. Build the space, give attention to every detail, and diligently pursue the goals you’ve set out for the project. But then, when it is finished, give it to the public and let it live on its own. A community arises around each brewery, one that shares the values of investing in local business, maintaining personal connections, and celebrating craft. Let the space and that community shape the business and be nimble enough to build on the personality that arises out of it. If it is grounded in the values the team established in the beginning, then the trajectory it takes, no matter how unexpected, will be true to the business.

Kevin Deabler is principal and cofounder of RODE Architects in Boston, Massachusetts.

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