April 9, 2009

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10 years of brews and blues
Strange Brew celebrates its history, plans for the future
By Katie Beth Ryan news@hippopress.com

The scenes-within-a-scene at the 10th-anniversary celebration at Strange Brew Tavern in downtown Manchester last Saturday mostly proved that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

There were the early 20-somethings, who were in junior high when owner Mitch Sawaya established the tavern in March 1999, taking shots in the basement as the UNC men ate Villanova for breakfast on the flat-screen TV. There were their parents, who stayed upstairs and nursed their Smuttynose IPAs, while listening to the Strange Brew All-Star trio of Howard Randall, Rick Rousseau and Jon Ross perform their repertoire of blues and rock. There were the brewery representatives hawking snowboards and beer coolers to the first people to step forward with a Miller Light bottle, or who could name Strange Brew’s predecessor at 88 Market St. (Rancho Loco). Of course there were the musicians — the All-Stars shared a bill with the New Hampshire Police Association Pipes and Drums Band and a cameo appearance by Commander Cody of “Hot Rod Lincoln” fame.

Last Saturday night, April 4, at the Strange Brew was much as it has been for the last decade. Not that anyone was complaining.

“I think the attraction to me is that it’s stayed the same. It’s that whole comfort-zone thing,” said bassist Ross of Portsmouth, who has played at the bar “since the Dead Sea was merely sick.”

That’s not to say that Strange Brew is stuck in the past. Named as one of the nation’s best places to drink a beer by Esquire magazine, it has broadened its appeal beyond the neighborhood watering hole crowd, drawing in more families for dinner. And it has managed to thrive in a market where a barrel of micro-brewed beer averages $150.

“We’ve gone from 18 draughts and a horseshoe bar to 72 [draughts],” said Jim Dugan, who has tended bar at Strange Brew for the last seven years. “There’s just tons of different setups. People come and go, musicians come and go.”

Rick Rousseau, drummer for the All-Stars, said that new music venues aren’t popping up every day, and Strange Brew is one of the few that doesn’t charge a cover. The set list autonomy that Sawaya allows musicians is even more difficult to find.

“It’s great to come into a place and he doesn’t tell us what to play,” he said. “I feel at home here. He doesn’t care what we do, as long as we’re entertaining people. He doesn’t care what we’re playing, as long as we’re playing.”

The downtown bar scene had many of the same players — Milly’s, Jillian’s — a decade ago, though the landscape was inherently different. The Verizon Center was still in the planning stages, and the much-ballyhooed restaurant and bar smoking ban had not yet been conceived. Sawaya, who worked in high-tech manufacturing before opening a bar in Haverhill, Mass., and then Strange Brew, said that there was, and still is, a natural camaraderie amongst the different venues.

“The competition that we had back then was good, solid competition. That’s why they’re still here,” Sawaya said. “What made it work was that we were all doing something different. If you didn’t like what was going on here one night, you could go somewhere else.”

The most immediate change Strange Brew patrons can expect is an expanded top floor to be used for meetings and functions. The bar is also looking forward to the city’s eased restrictions on outdoor seating that will enable it to offer lunch on the weekends, and to an ever-expanding beer selection. But the $2.50 draughts that draw in the weekend crowds aren’t going anywhere. Nor do the All-Stars plan to abandon their Tuesday night jam session, and Howard Randall wouldn’t dream of playing anywhere else in the Granite State on a Sunday night.

“Most of the bands I’ve had play here, I’ve known for 10 to 15 years,” Sawaya said. “There’s a lot of loyalty on their part and my part.”