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In early March 2020, Nashville’s night skies churned as a brutal tornado with winds whipping up to 165 miles per hour blitzed restaurants, residences, and Smith & Lentz Brewing. The tornado tore off the brewery’s roof and blew out a wall, scattering cinder blocks amid mangled steel. Just days later, the pandemic again twisted the world into distorted forms. The sole silver lining to a global calamity is timing. While other breweries rejiggered business for a virulent reality, the sidelined Smith & Lentz team dreamed of serving dinner and lunch. “We had an abundance of time to think about food,” says Kurt Smith, a founder along with Adler Lentz. Previously, the taproom offered scant fare to pair with its pilsners and IPAs, an omission from the founding vision. The duo resolved to rebuild with a wood-fired oven suited for making pizza. “We were sitting in the brewery’s ruins and decided to go for it,” Smith says.

Smith & Lentz making pizza
Pizza making at Smith & Lentz Brewing in Nashville. | Photo by Andrea Behrends.

Last February, almost one year after the devastation, Smith & Lentz opened its online ordering system. Around five minutes later, the brewery switched it off. “It printed around 50 orders in the first few minutes,” Smith recalls, and the kitchen needed to catch up. Since then, demand hasn’t dimmed for the brewery’s blistered pies, regularly served with pitchers of Pizza Palace Pilsner. “We have a new customer base of people that like good food and come back frequently,” Smith says. “Even if they don’t drink beer, we have something to offer them.”

Pizza and beer are longtime friends, hot pies and cool pints devoured cheek by jowl. The bond deepened during the pandemic, which saw sales boom for pizza, a satisfying salve during all those anxious months. The portable and affordable comfort food was delivered to doorsteps and eaten at home, perhaps with four-packs of local beer. And there’s more to the affiliation than mutual deliciousness and convenience: On a foundational level, beer and pizza are both built from grain, water, and yeast.

Increasingly, breweries are looking to roll in the pizza dough. They’re using yeast strains that pull double duty for fermenting pizza and beer, as well as sourcing farmers market toppings as intentionally as they do hops for a double IPA. Breweries are partnering with pizzerias on custom beers, plus leaning into regional variants such as pillowy Detroit-style pies and cracker-crisp bar pizzas native to Massachusetts. Pizza and beer are the right pairing for these economically tumultuous and socially distant times. “Like beer, pizza is an affordable luxury and something that tastes great seven days a week,” says Adam Romanow, the president and founder of Castle Island Brewing in Boston. After everyone has been standing six feet apart for so long, “pizza has the power to bring people back together.”

Hearty food is often absent from today’s brewery taprooms, the weekly specials largely liquid. The concept helped taprooms mushroom throughout the latter 2010s, spreading like spores across cities far and wide. But local beer can get lost in a crowded field. By turning taprooms into pizzerias offering distinct pies, breweries can become dual destinations—a prescient move for persevering through the pandemic. Even before Covid, George Johnson knew he needed more than beer in Portland, Oregon, among America’s most mature beer markets. “It’s like, ‘How do we distinguish ourselves?’ ” Johnson says. The Detroit native began homebrewing nearly 30 years ago, and his hobbies expanded to include making his hometown’s signature Detroit-style pizza—baked in rectangular steel pans, the fluffy pizza topped first with cheese and then sauce. In 2014, Johnson traveled to Detroit to learn under pizza expert Shawn Randazzo. “I was the 10th person he trained, and he kind of gave me the Northwest region to represent the style,” Johnson says. (Randazzo passed away in 2020.)

Assembly Brewing George Johnson
Assembly Brewing owner George Johnson. | Photo by Aubrie LeGault.

Johnson returned with a recipe that formed his business plan. “Bringing Detroit-style pizza could help us cut through this crazy beer market,” Johnson says. In spring 2019, he and business partner, Adam Dixon, opened Assembly Brewing, underlining the Motor City theme with a mural inspired by artist Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals. Assembly’s pies and malt-rich stouts and amber ales drew hungry and thirsty crowds. During the pandemic, Assembly closed its dining room and switched to a contactless-pickup model that sustained the brewery. “It was like, ‘Okay, they can get beer everywhere, but they’ll need to come here to get our pizza,’” Johnson says.

Cellarmaker Brewing opened in San Francisco in 2013, finding ready fans for its fast-revolving juicy pale ales and hop-rich IPAs. The category soon exploded and “supply was kind of met,” says Connor Casey, the CEO and co-founder. “But there’s never enough pizza.” In January 2019, the company opened Cellarmaker House of Pizza. It also specializes in Detroit-style pies, leaning on fresh vegetables drawn from farmers markets and left-field combos, such as clams and andouille sausage and confit potatoes with black garlic. Pizza dough is “the ultimate template,” Casey says. During the first six months of business, the brewery received curious reviews. “People were like, ‘Oh, this pizzeria is pretty good, but they just started brewing beer and could use some work,’” Casey says, laughing. 

Initially, to-go pizza was an afterthought. When that uneasy March shuttered San Francisco, Cellarmaker invested in a larger oven and custom boxes. As an essential business, “pizza was a great spot to be, food-wise,” Casey says, adding that Cellarmaker sold the pizzeria’s brewing system to create more pizza production space. “Our pizza game is damn near as important as our beer game these days,” Casey says. 

“Our pizza game is damn near as important as our beer game these days.”—Connor Casey

Drinking beer while waiting for take-out pizza is ingrained in the South Shore of Massachusetts, where personal 10-inch bar pies cooked in steel pans are a specialty of the region’s blue-collar dives and pubs. On busy Friday and Saturday nights, wait times can stretch an hour or two. “What people do, me included, is sit down in a bar and order a beer and a couple of pizzas to go,” says Romanow of Castle Island. “And you have a couple more beers while you wait.”

The brewery assumed that behavior would be replicated at its new South Boston taproom, which opened in September with Bardo’s Bar Pizza, a spinoff from local restaurant Lombardo’s. “People come in and grab a case of beer and walk out with pizzas stacked on top,” Romanow says. Castle Island will take phone orders for its bar pizzas, the crust infused with its flagship Keeper IPA. “But if you want to get your pizza faster, come have a beer with us, order your food to go, and the bartender will take care of you,” Romanow says. This precipitated a shift in the brewery’s self-perception. “We thought it would be a taproom that served food, but in reality, the way that our customers in the community have adopted us, we’re a restaurant that brews its own beer.”

Familiarity with yeast strains and fermentation is beneficial for breweries looking for a piece of the pizza pie. “We ferment everything,” says Pete Ternes, a founder of Bungalow by Middle Brow, a brewery, winery, bakery, and pizzeria in Chicago. The brewery has banked up to 16 yeast strains for fermenting its breads, sauces, baked goods, and sourdough-driven pizza—one is topped with pickled giardiniera relish and saison-infused cashew cheese.

Long Beach Beer Lab
The Mushrooms Inverno pizza and the Margherita Stav, served with glasses of Mama Stache at Long Beach Beer Lab. | Photo by Dylan + Jeni.

White Labs opened in 1995 to supply yeast to breweries, and the company has expanded to include brewpubs in Asheville, North Carolina, and San Diego, which opened its kitchen earlier this year. Beers starring White Labs yeast are served with wood-fired pizzas cold-fermented for 72 hours with Norwegian kveik yeast. “Pizza was a natural fit. It’s a yeast dough, and we’re a yeast company,” says head of business development JoAnne Carilli-Stevenson, adding that the taprooms sell kveik yeast packets to go for making pizza at home. 

Blending passions is big for Levi Fried and Harmony Sage, the married brewer and baker, respectively, behind California’s combined Long Beach Beer Lab and vegetarian-focused Long Beach Bread Lab, which opened in 2017. Making basic sourdough pizza crust wouldn’t cut it for Sage, a classically trained pastry chef, and Fried, who has a background in biochemistry and microbiology. They settled on a dough incorporating pilsner malt and fermented cold for 18 hours, with a culture captured from local grapes and apricots.

According to lab analysis, the culture doesn’t contain Lactobacillus, the bacteria that lends a trademark tang. It instead contains wild Saccharomyces—the customary family of brewing yeast—and Brettanomyces that, curiously, produces lactic acid. “That’s where we get the sourness and why my dough does so well in cold fermentation,” Sage says. Fried also uses an isolated strain from the culture to make Saison de Madre, a Belgian-inspired table beer. “It makes the malt shine a little bit brighter,” he says. 

The duo wed pizza and brewing in unexpected ways. They send nutrient-rich spent grains to a mushroom farmer, who uses the medium to grow the fungi for their pizzas. Moreover, Sage takes shavings from the brewery’s beer barrels to smoke almonds that become vegan ricotta. She also finishes pies with flourishes befitting a dessert shop, creating star-shaped stuffed crusts and piping ricotta high enough to mimic a birthday cake. “We want to make it feel like we’re the Willy Wonka of the beer and pizza world,” Sage says. 

“We want to make it feel like we’re the Willy Wonka of the beer and pizza world.”—Harmony Sage

Brooklynite Danny Bruckert loves beer’s theatricality, the way foam crowns a well-poured pint—maybe one of his own. He worked in brewing for nearly a decade, rising from keg washer to head brewer at Sixpoint’s Brooklyn brewery. Now he’s driving the Groundlings Pizza truck across New York City and upstate’s Hudson Valley, parking at breweries, lighting the oven’s wood, shaping dough, and pulling pizzas from flames. “The fire and drama add to the experience,” he says. 

The food truck previously belonged to his brother, Luke, who ran Little Oven Pizza in Portland, Oregon.

The brothers reconnected in Brooklyn at Circa Brewing, where Bruckert brewed and his brother made pizza. They left in 2019 to cast their lots with the mobile pizza business, filling a cheesy niche. “Our intention was just to work with breweries that wanted nothing to do with the food industry,” Bruckert says. It was an easy sell. Tougher yet was piloting a pizza trailer around Brooklyn’s hurly-burly streets and parallel parking outside breweries. “It’s probably taken a few years off my life, but it got us started,” he says. (Luke has since moved to Alaska; pizzaiolo Jonathan Collado is now Bruckert’s partner.) Instead of hunting down wild yeast, Bruckert favors a faithful off-the-shelf baking strain—no different than brewing, where drinkers expect a favorite beer to taste identical, time and again. “You need a house strain that you can depend on,” he says.

Smith & Lentz pizza and beer
A Red Pie and pepperoni pizza paired with the Crunch Pilsner at Smith & Lentz Brewing in Nashville. | Photo by Andrea Behrends.

Forty years back, few folks thought deeply about pairing beer and pizza, two great tastes that taste great together. Cold domestic lager and a large pepperoni pie—what more do you need? Over the decades, brew kettles and pizza ovens became crucibles for creativity, leading to new pairing possibilities. “Pizza has been elevated to such a high level in this country, and so has beer,” says Jan Chodkowski, the head brewer and an owner of Denver brewery Our Mutual Friend. “It’s finally time to combine them.” 

Last fall, Chodkowski teamed up with local pizzeria and oyster bar Cart-Driver to create Cart de Saison, a Belgian ale flavored with basil and strawberry-like Strata hops. “We thought it would be super crushable while pounding tons of pizza as fast as you can,” Chodkowski says. 

Razza is a wood-fired pizzeria in Jersey City, New Jersey, where chef and owner Dan Richer considers his nearly 15-year-old sourdough starter to be the “lifeblood of his restaurant.” To celebrate the release of his book, The Joy of Pizza, Richer worked with nearby brewery Departed Soles to create Lievita. The blonde ale features New Jersey malt, hops, and yeast selected from Richer’s sourdough starter. “I’ve always been a beer lover because it’s so adjacent to what I do on a daily basis,” Richer says.

Tomato sauce is also a consideration for creating a coupling. Is the sauce spicy? Inundated in oregano? Gobbed with garlic? The LaRosa’s Pizzeria chain, a staple across southwest Ohio and surrounding region, is known for sauce that’s “a little sweeter,” says Jake Rouse, the CEO and co-founder of Northern Kentucky’s Braxton Brewing. It developed LaRosa’s Lager, released last October, as a middle ground between a pilsner and classic lager. “The beer is a bit more bitter and hop-forward to cut some of that iconic sweetness,” Rouse says. The lager is served on draft at around 50 LaRosa’s locations, and the brewery is working on canning, too. “That will let us sell it to go and have them deliver it with their pizza,” Rouse says. 

Not all pizzas are portable. “We have not seen pizza being good during the pandemic,” says Matt Storm, the owner of The Masonry, several Seattle restaurants that specialize in craft beer and wood-fired pizza—best enjoyed in person, immediately. “I spent years telling people, ‘Don’t take our food to go. It turns into a shell of itself,’ ” Storm says. “I had to turn around and be like, ‘Actually, can you please take our food to go?’

Aseembly Brewing Beer
The PA Extra Pale Ale at Assembly Brewing. | Photo by Aubrie LeGault.

”Storm saw business headwinds gather prior to the pandemic, especially as beer drinkers turned to taprooms. “Having a well-curated tap list isn’t what it used to be,” says Storm, who long toyed with brewing beer. Mid-pandemic, he partnered with pal Brian Strumke, the Stillwater founder, to launch the Fast Fashion brand of intensely hopped IPAs, which they brew in Snoqualmie, Washington. Storm released the first beer, Hot Pizza, in October 2020 and it soon sold out. So did subsequent drops for beers such as Tinned Fish and Ranch Cups, and Fast Fashion even sponsored a new hop varietal nicknamed Anchovy. “We did that just so we could make Hot Pizza with Anchovy,” says Storm, who is building both a Fast Fashion taproom and brewery in Seattle, slated to open this spring. He’s keeping his Masonry restaurants running, too. “Pizza and beer will always be a good pairing,” he says. “There’s no chance of that stopping.”

Physically, emotionally, and economically, we’re collectively living through an altogether destabilizing era, a steadily fluxing state of dread and delight, hardship and uplift, stumbling backward and toward a better tomorrow. In difficult days, pizza can be a cheesy security blanket wrapped around our warmest memories of Domino’s delivery, pizza Fridays at school, the gooey slice that’s salvation after last call. “Most people’s pizza memories are rooted in youth,” says Richer of Razza.

For breweries, adding pizza can seem like a certain bet in uncertain times. Johnson and Assembly Brewing hope to begin looking for a second Portland location soon, and Cellarmaker is bringing a new pizza venue to Oakland. Bruckert of Groundlings is also planning to permanently park his business, eyeing upstate. The hope is to open a brick-and-mortar pizzeria, perhaps a brewpub, fermentation running from crispy lagers to crunchy crust. “I still consider myself a brewer at heart,” says Bruckert. “I’m looking forward to merging brewing and pizza making.”

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