Franklin's is a great brewpub, but it shouldn't be.
Before opening the Hyattsville establishment in 2002, Mike Franklin never ran a restaurant and had zero brewing experience. None. The guy sold toys, for Pete's sake.
He chose the location based on the fact that he liked the old building that now houses the shop attached to the brewpub. It's also walking distance from his house.
You know what else is walking distance from his house? Squat.
This is Hyattsville, Md. Located between the Northeast D.C. and College Park, and famous for absolutely nothing at all. There's a small neighborhood and a few gas stations, but not a whole lot else. There was even less back in 1992 when Mike decided to buy an old hardware store and convert it into an "urban survival store," replete with toys, games, knick knacks, and a damn fine selection of craft beers and wine tucked away in the back. Originally, the shop also had a sandwich counter, which was the precursor to the brewpub.
After a few years, Mike got to a point where he figured he either had to grow his business or sell it, so he gambled on growth.
Although he sold Bud and Miller in the shop, Mike noticed that a lot of his regular customers were buying the craft beers he stocked. In the late 90s, brewpubs had a slightly better success rate than restaurants (meaning they were failing a little less than restaurants), so Mike figured he had an audience that wanted craft beer and the data to justify launching a brewpub.
Recap 1: A two-story brewpub located close to nothing that features a menu that's more bistro than bar grew out of a beer cooler and a sandwich counter. This shouldn't work. Yet, Mike and wife Debbie have one of the best beer bars in the D.C. area. Go figure.
"This turned out to be a 'build it and they will come' story," Mike said.
Despite Mike's complete lack of restaurant and brewing experience, he clearly knows how to run an operation. Since the day it opened in 2002, the place has been a destination for Mike's Hyattsville neighbors and beer geeks throughout the region.
Luck seems to be a reoccurring theme for Mike. While he was building Franklin's, Mike hedged his bets and had the space designed so that if he couldn't find an affordable brewing system, the areas he set aside for the tanks could be converted into dining room space.
No need. Mike lucked out and found out about an Ohio brewpub that was going under and auctioning off its brewing equipment. He headed north, placed a bid, and called Debbie to let her know he just bought a brewery.
As every brewery needs a brewer, Mike put the word out that he needed someone to run the operation. Two dozen applications and five in-person interviews (beer tastings) later and Mike found Charles Noll, Franklin's resident brewer.
Given the consistent quality of Charles' beer, it's clear that Mike got lucky again.
Like Mike, Charles didn't set out to be in the brewing business. He graduated from college in New York with a degree in criminal justice. But Charles was always more interested in home brewing than busting perps, so he followed his sister out to California to try and get into brewing. He did. While living out of a campground in Northern California, Charles went from apprenticing at a local brewpub to enrolling at the American Brewers Guild.
Once a certified brewer, Charles headed back to Albany where there was a growing craft beer scene, but fewer people vying for jobs in the industry. There he spent a few years as head brewer at the now-defunct Malt River Brewpub. Although he was able to produce a few beers based on his own recipes, most of the beer was brewed using a mishmash of previous brewers' directions. Eventually, it became clear that the Malt River Brewpub was not long for this world, so Charles began checking help wanted ads. He found Mike's.
Recap 2: the toy guy (right) who never ran a restaurant or a brewery hired a criminal justice grad (left) whose primary brewing experience came from a failed brewpub where he followed other brewers' recipes.
Of course this would work. And it has.
Enough about the back story, let's talk beer. Charles makes good beer. And to be clear, the only recipes that Charles brought from Malt River were his own. At any given time, Franklin's has eight beers on draft, five of which are constants ... sort of. Anarchy Ale is the house beer, but no two batches are alike.
The ale tends to be a hoppy style, but Charles tinkers with the recipe with every batch to keep the beer geeks happy and avoid too much repetition. The rest of the standards - the Twisted Turtle Pale Ale, Sierra Madre Pale Ale, Private I.P.A, and Bombshell Blonde - cover most of the popular beer styles. Charles also tries to keep a stout or porter on tap most of the time, but like the Anarchy Ale, the recipe changes. During my recent visits, Charles had worked up a batch of pepper stout. (I liked the stout, but didn't get any of the pepper. However, a guy seated next to me at the bar nearly gagged on his sample because it was too "hot" for him. I guess spice is relative.)
For the rest of the taps and the rest of the year, Charles produces a regular rotation of seasonal beers. This summer it's been the Summer Wheat Ale and a German-style Helles. With fall closing in, Charles' Oktoberfest will be returning. During the holiday season, a Christmas ale is produced, and spring means Maibock.
Along with the seasonals and standards, Charles brews up a variety of rotationals, including red ales and malty session beers, like Mission Accomplished, which was still on draft when I stopped by last.
On top of all of this (because producing more than 2 dozen different styles of beer a year just isn't enough), Charles has a firkin.
Actually, let me back up. Franklin's has a nitrogen tap, which makes any beer poured through it very smooth and creamy (think Guinness), albeit artificially. (Beer taps in the U.S. use carbon dioxide to force the beer from the kegs to the taps. The CO2 also preserves the beer longer, reducing waste. While efficient, it does inject additional carbon dioxide into the beer. Replacing the carbon dioxide with nitrogen allows the beer to come out at its natural CO2 level, but with a bit of added N.) The natural way to do this is to use a beer engine, or handpump, which requires the bartender to manually pump the beer out of a beer cask. This is the way most British ales are drawn in the U.K. However, you can't use a standard keg with a beer engine (American kegs are designed for the gas systems), so it can be a pain for most American bars that don't want to deal with special beer taps or casks. That's not the case with Franklin's. Because the beer is brewed on-site, it wouldn't be a big deal to keep a couple casks on hand for the beer engine. Charles said his biggest problem is lack a space to set up a beer engine and cooler for the beer cask.
So until Mike builds him a beer engine station (please Mike, build him a beer engine station), Charles has a firkin to fall back on. Firkins really are the second best thing to a beer engine. Basically a firkin is a 9 gallon keg that Charles can fill with one of his standard, seasonal or rotating beers, or he can whip up something special. And because the firkin relies on gravity, not a CO2 tap, the beer comes out completely unadulterated. Every Friday, Charles puts a new firkin on the bar. Rarely does it see Saturday morning.
If that's not enough to convince you that Franklin's is a great beer bar, they also sell and fill growlers. Although Mike did a great job designing the place, sometimes you'd like to drink the beer at home. That's where growlers come in. You can buy one of theirs or bring in your own.
(Being able to fill any growler is big. I have a growler from a North Carolina brewery that I once took with me on a trip down to one of my favorite beer bars in Durham. Although the place sold growlers, they would only fill their own. They really didn't care that I carted that damn thing four hours, hoping to fill it with some of North Carolina's finest hoppy goodness.)
And if that's still not enough to convince you, consider that Mike Franklin still has one of the best selections of craft beers in the area. The sandwich counter was converted into shop space when the brewpub opened, but he never stopped selling beer and wine. In fact, he's expanded the shop's beer selection since the brewpub opened.
There are a few places in the area to get fresh beer: District Chop House, the Rock Bottoms and the Capital City locations. None of them produce beer as consistently good as Franklin's. Add to that the extra touches like the growlers, craft beer selection and Friday firkins and you have one of the best beer bars in the D.C. area.
That's not to say I don't have a few quibbles. First off, Franklin's is a restaurant first and a brewery second. That means the food is quite good (the onion rings are kick ass), but this isn't a restaurant review. As bars go, it's not much of one. But that wasn't Mike's goal. He intended to open an establishment that would attract neighbors, families and beer enthusiasts, in that order. To that end, he has succeeded.
But I'm a purist at heart. I like my bars to be bars. At Franklin's you're just as likely to see a family having dinner as you are a few guys unwinding over drinks after work. All that being said, Franklin's is a God-send to beer geeks with kids. There are few places around here where mom and dad can enjoy a well crafted beer while the kids root around for a new toy or fist-fulls of candy. I also like Mike's decision to put the bar on the second floor, away from the toys and (most of) the tots.
The bartenders are another issue. Every bartender I've encountered has been very friendly. On the other hand, I've swung though on a slow Friday and had to work to get the bartender's attention ... while sitting at the bar. Other times, I got the impression that the bartender was content to give me the beer menu and allow me to engage in a bit of self-study. I don't expect the bartender to go though the ins and outs of every beer with me, but a good bartender should be knowledgeable about the beers and (most importantly) willing to talk about them. I would also expect the servers in a brewpub to be knowledgeable about the beers.
Then there's the general store and Web site. Both do a great job of hiding the great selection of beer and wine for sale. Unless you wandered past the stuffed animals, candy bins, greeting cards, various tchotchke and into the back of the store, you would never know there was a large selection of craft beers, imports and wines available. And no where is it posted that you can buy a bottle of wine from the shop and bring it into the restaurant for a $10 corkage fee (although why you'd want to drink wine at such an excellent brewpub is beyond me). Unfortunately, the Web site is no help. The section on the store has more information on the shop's former life as a hardware store than anything on the beer and wine available. I wonder how many regulars have gone elsewhere for craft beer unaware of the selection Mike keeps hidden in the back.
But how can I blame Mike for a few miscues when he's running an otherwise great beer bar? After all, it's not like the guy has ever done this before.
Score: 14 or 20 (beer: 6 of 8, atmosphere: 3 of 5, bartenders: 3 of 5, other elements 2 of 2)
Want to see more photos of Franklin's? Check them out here.