Last week we posted a story about the unexpected closure of Schooner Exact Brewing’s taproom and restaurant in Sodo. We updated that post as we learned a bit more, trying to stymie any wild speculation. Now we actually know what’s going on and who is involved.
Yesterday I met with Marcus Charles, who is spearheading the new direction for Schooner Exact Brewing. Marcus is a local restaurateur and entrepreneur who is responsible for Local 360, Belltown Brewing, the resurrection of the Crocodile Cafe, the expansion of the Capitol Hill Block Party, and other things. He grew up here. He went to the U.W. He’s local.
Marcus told me that he is not part of a new ownership group at Schooner Exact, but has been brought on board to help steer the ship in a new direction. His future involvement in the ownership of Schooner Exact Brewing remains to be seen. I asked, but he didn’t seem to be thinking about that too much.
Most people rightly think of Matt and Heather McClung as the owners of Schooner Exact Brewing. They were certainly the most visible part of the ownership group. They started the brewery from scratch about 10 years ago along with their pal Marcus (a different Marcus), operating out of an Active Space unit in West Seattle.
Back in those days, when Schooner Exact was an infant, is when I first met Matt, Heather, and their original partner Marcus. Obviously, I’ve known them since. The profundity of this situation is not at all lost on me. If anyone is emotional about this story, I understand completely.
Matt and Heather grew the brewery into the Schooner Exact that we know today. A less visible part of the ownership team, Ray Spencer, has been there for much of the time to support the growth of the brewery. I think you know what that means. Breweries are expensive businesses to grow. Most of the brewery owners that you know (damn-near all of the brewery owners that you know) have partners that you do not know. This is reality. Bankers, investors, equity partners, and so on. Reality.
Although there has been a major shakeup in the ownership group, Marcus says that Schooner Exact has not been sold or taken over. The major equity partner is still there and is still committed to moving the brand forward.
The ship is now taking a different tack, with Matt and Heather stepping aside. Schooner Exact will sail on without their involvement. Suffice it to say that they have a vision of Schooner Exact that is not entirely aligned with the new direction. Yes, it’s quite sad. This was their baby, so to speak. Heather was an important part of the Washington Brewers Guild and a forceful advocate for the industry. Matt is a kickass brewer and is responsible for, among other things, some of the best Washington-made sour beers I’ve ever tasted. They will be missed, no doubt.
What Matt and Heather have planned for the future, we will see. Perhaps that’s a story for another day. Today I’m talking about what is happening at Schooner Exact Brewing.
According to Marcus, times have gotten a little tough for Schooner Exact, just as they have for many other breweries of this size. In large part, this is due to a rush to expand, which sounded liked a really, really good idea a couple years ago. In 2014 and 2015, massive expansion probably seemed absolutely necessary to thrive in the craft beer industry.
Like some other breweries in the area, that’s what Schooner Exact did. It expanded. Big time. The beer world has changed and now the brewery is looking to regroup, regain its footing in a crowded marketplace, and find a way to forge ahead.
Welcome to 2018. There are likely other breweries in the same boat.
Restaurant and Taproom
Here’s the plan. The restaurant and taproom is closed for remodeling, which is expected to be completed by March 1st. It’s being re-imagined under the direction of Marcus Charles. What he envisions is something more like a beer hall and less like a restaurant, though they will still serve food.
No doubt, people loved Schooner Exact’s elevated, healthy restaurant menu, but Marcus thinks something akin to a typical brewery taproom will be more successful. They will still have food, but he wants to provide it in a less restaurant-like atmosphere. He told me that the success of some of the other brewery taprooms in the area, many of which offer no food at all, helped him come to that conclusion.
The south side of the restaurant, which is currently a dining room, will be reopened as a lunch-counter that will have its own kitchen. Order your food at the counter and they’ll deliver the meal to your table. Order a beer next door in the taproom if you like. This will offer a quicker dining experience for the local lunch crowd. It will close at 3:00 PM when the doors to the lunch-counter will be shut.
The rest of the space will be redecorated to provide a more traditional beer hall vibe. On the far north end of the current taproom, the most recently opened space at Schooner Exact, there will be an elevated area with more seating, a big booth for groups, and a shuffleboard.
A lot of things will change behind the scenes too. Unbeknownst to most visitors, Schooner Exact currently occupies a big warehouse space in the building. Largely, this is used for storage—it is used to store things like pallets of aluminium cans stacked 16 feet high. The brewery will give up a lot of that space.
As for the beer, Joel Stickney is now the head brewer, as we reported some time ago. He’s been responsible for a lot of the brewing for quite a while now and is certainly capable of taking over, though Matt McClung’s vision and leadership will be missed. Schooner Exact will continue to make the beers we recognize and who knows what else.
Not long ago we also announced that Schooner Exact was forming a collaborative brewery with Belltown Brewing. No doubt, all of this is related in some way. According to Marcus, Sodo Brewing (the new collaboration brewery) will provide a way for both breweries to self-distribute beer. Also, collaboration fosters creativity.
Marcus says that moving forward Schooner Exact will focus less on packaged product. That is, the brewery will continue to fulfill its contracts and meet its obligations but will not seek to expand that part of the business. Instead, it will primarily focus on providing draft product to the market.
At this point, it sounds like the future of things like the sour beer program and the barrel-aging program are details that have not been fully thought through. Honestly, it wasn’t a big part of the conversation, but it sounds like those programs will continue to some degree. For now, the new Schooner Exact has a lot of work to do and I am sure the details will work themselves out.