One late afternoon, three old friends are huddled together, reminiscing and joking while having a round at a table in the Belgian Bar, the cozy, dimly lit upstairs annex of the Brick Store Pub in Decatur.
It’s a reunion of sorts for Dave Blanchard, Tom Moore and Mike Gallagher, who partnered to open the Brick Store on June 27, 1997, not knowing that it would become both a beloved neighborhood fixture and widely celebrated as one of the best beer bars in the world.
Over the years, they’ve planned and plotted to create any number of celebrations, counting five-, 10- and 15-year anniversaries among them, while marriages, children, birthdays, new business ventures and the lives of longtime regulars marked the steady stream of days running between.
But the 20th anniversary, set for June 24, promises to be the most elaborate yet, with 20 one-of-a-kind collaboration beers on draft from 20 different breweries in the U.S. and Belgium, plus a host of rare and aged offerings from the pub’s cellar and points beyond.
Regarding the writer, who is trying to find out more about all that, Gallagher gestures around the room and conjures a memory. “We sat back at table 44 to talk about No. 10,” he says. “And I think we sat right here for 15.”
Blanchard, Moore and Gallagher first met in Athens, where they worked at bars and restaurants and frequented the Globe, a gritty but convivial college pub with a surprisingly good beer list, located a block from the University of Georgia.
In many ways, those experiences were the template for the Brick Store. That’s most readily apparent in the sprawling, horseshoe-shaped bar that anchors the original downstairs section of the pub. It was modeled after the bar at the Globe. And it quickly became the see-and-be-seen axis mundi of the burgeoning scene around Decatur Square.
“I remember our grand opening,” Gallagher says. “Fred Boykin, who was on the Decatur City Commission, walked up to me and said, ‘Where are all these people coming from?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, Fred. And I don’t really care.’ But it was kind and sweet that he cared.”
“I think what I liked about Decatur from the beginning was that the people seemed to be about the nicest I’d found in Atlanta,” Blanchard agrees.
Of course, in 1997, there were many things for people to puzzle over — and even sometimes be upset about — including the audacious absence of television sets, neon beer signs and familiar domestic lagers, such as Budweiser or Miller Lite.
But from the moment Blanchard, Moore and Gallagher decided that they would lease the run-down brick storefront at 125 E. Court Square, and remake an old beauty parlor into their ideal of a neighborhood pub, they were determined to do it on their own terms.
“It was exciting to watch as they transformed the building into their vision for their business,” former Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd recalls. “They had a tremendous impact through the type of people they attracted to the pub, both employees and customers, but they also were a key factor and influence in Decatur becoming the type of place it is.”
Nowadays, Decatur is a destination for everything from music venues and hip bars to some of Atlanta’s favorite restaurants, including Leon’s and Kimball House, two places Blanchard, Moore and Gallagher also partnered in.
How the Brick Store has remained so popular over the past 20 years seems to be a classic combination of friendly atmosphere, solid service and approachable pub fare that offers a little something for everyone, from a crave-worthy burger to fancier offerings like artisan cheese and local charcuterie plates.
But the Brick Store’s rise to the perennial ranks of best beer bars is a more involved story, though certainly the most historic moment was the passage of the 2004 Georgia law that made higher alcohol beers legal in the state.
The savvy response of the partners was to build out what became known as the Belgian Bar, featuring a host of Belgian and Belgian-style beers on draft and in the bottle in a rustic room that recalls some of the great beer bars of Europe.
They made some similar changes downstairs, adding more taps and bolstering the list of local and regional specialty beers in rotation.
Beer and cheese tastings, dinners, and distributors and breweries who are eager to supply special, limited-edition and rare beers have all added to the pub’s growing mystique over the years.
And as Blanchard likes to point out, all Belgian beers at the Brick Store are poured in brewery-specific glassware — a detail, he’s proud to add, that is something not seen in any other pub outside of Belgium.
“The way we take care of the beer, and store it, and serve it just made it a whole new and exciting experience for folks who were sort of going to the next phase of beer in Atlanta,” Blanchard says.
That was certainly something that the Belgian Brewers Guild took notice of last year during a ceremony in Brussels, where it extended an honorary Knighthood of the Brewers’ Paddle to Blanchard on behalf of the Brick Store for rendering “loyal services to the brewing profession.”
“I think we’re still the No. 1 St. Bernardus account anywhere,” Blanchard says. “And in 2010, we became only the fourth pub in the United States to receive the Orval Ambassadeur award — an award we’ve received each year since.”
Among the list of 20th anniversary beers, you’ll find a collaboration with St. Bernardus, as well as beers conceived with Allagash, Creature Comforts, Left Hand, Sierra Nevada and Three Taverns, all representing long-lasting relationships between the Brick Store partners and the breweries.
Brian Purcell, a homebrewer who went on to found Three Taverns, a Decatur brewery that specializes in Belgian-style beers, is one of those.
“I first discovered the Brick Store when I unexpectedly found myself in Decatur on a sunny afternoon in the late ’90s,” says Purcell. “After that first pint, a La Trappe beer no less, I immediately started making plans to relocate to Decatur — within walking distance of the pub, of course.”
Jason Ingram is the national sales director for Colorado’s Left Hand Brewing Co., but he lives in Decatur, not far from the Brick Store.
“I am in a truly unique position working with Left Hand as national sales director,” Ingram says. “We are sold in 41 states, and most likely if it is a top-rated beer bar, I have been there. The Brick Store is the gold standard. I hold them up as the shining example of what the definition of a ‘craft beer bar’ is.”
But Ryan Smith, the imaginative executive chef at Staplehouse, currently Atlanta’s highest profile and most in-demand dining destination, may take the prize for the greatest Brick Store testimonial.
“For God’s sake, I got married there,” Smith shouts out when asked to explain his devotion to the pub. “Mike Gallagher married us in the corner of the Belgian Bar while people were up there having lunch. It was the stupidest, most amazing thing, ever. And so, of course, that place will always hold a very near and dear place in my heart.”
As far as Blanchard, Moore and Gallagher are concerned, friends like Purcell, Ingram and Smith are all part of a much bigger Brick Store family that keeps on growing.
“We’re thankful for everything,” Blanchard says. “We’re thankful for the city of Decatur, and all the customers who became friends. There are just so many things to be thankful for.”
“I think there’s more luck to it than anybody cares to admit,” Moore says. “Timing and good fortune, and being in the right place at the right time.”
“The three of us started it,” Gallagher says. “But the reason that Brick Store is at the level it’s at and is still present and important and of the moment is because of the people working here. It’s the chefs and servers who make it happen every day.”