"Me and power tools have a long acquaintance," says Bill Stewart as he relaxes in the office of Bardo Rodeo, his self-proclaimed "largest brewpub in America," located in an abandoned Oldsmobile dealership at 2000 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia. Indeed, Stewart has an affinity for things mechanical. He and several employees have just finished suspending an automobile engine about seven feet above the floor in Bardo's cavernous main room. The engine was surgically removed from an Alfa that they sawed in half out back.
Strewn about the office are a few forks and plates, an industrial-size box of earplugs and some half-filled ledger pages. Stewart's brother, Graham, who manages this space-age beer hall, works quietly at a computer amidst the incessant squawking of two answering machines.
Stewart is dressed like the grunge king of Wilson Boulevard, a lanky man of 35 with a shock of unruly brown curls, dressed in flannel shirt, jeans and hiking boots. "I'm the Lucifer of yuppies, cast out of yuppiedom," he says. "He's a hippie that figured out that capitalism is a lot better," opines Alan Beal, Bardo's brewer .
Stewart was once one of them. A "suit guy" with an MIT architecture degree, designing restaurants for Marriot Corporation in Bethesda, Maryland. He blew his cover and escaped for New Mexico's wide open spaces in 1982. "I designed fire stations and stuff on an Indian reservation," he says. In Albuquerque, Stewart discovered artÐand Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. He started drinking better beers. And he became a practitioner of neon and car-part art, two disciplines that made him popular but didn't line his pockets.
Following a stay in Australia, Stewart and his wife, Alice Despard, settled in Washington, DC. In January 1989 they opened their first club, the BBQ Iguana, at 11th & P Streets, "in the middle of crack city." Stewart took it as an omen when someone blew a hole in the wall and stole the club's sound gear in June 1990. Bill, Alice and son Dillon moved across the Potomac to Stewart's hometown, Arlington. They opened Roratonga Rodeo, an eleven-tap beer bar, at 2711 Wilson Boulevard in October 1990.
By April 1991 Stewart and Despard had separated. Alice kept Roratonga, eventually renaming it Galaxy Hut. Bill opened Amdo Rodeo, with 22 taps, a few blocks up the road at 2830 Wilson Boulevard. With 80 seats, Amdo was on the small side, but larger than Roratonga. The bar was fashioned from the driver's side of a '73 Cadillac El Dorado, with working lights. The jukebox was stuffed into the sawed-off rear end of a hearse.
Intending to turn Amdo into a brewpub, Stewart bought 45 7-barrel Grundy tanks and installed what looked like a stainless steel swimming pool in what had been the ladies room. Stewart was going to ferment chilled wort trucked in from the Old Dominion Brewing Co. in Ashburn, Virginia. Plans for the "wortpub" were abandoned when he decided to open Bardo Rodeo.
During construction, Bardo seemed to take on a life of its own. "It wasn't designed. It was like an organic development. The county inspectors would come around and say, 'What have they done now?'" says Stewart.
The consummate low-cost operator, Stewart knows how to get stuff cheap. Walk-in coolers? $1,500 each. He bought the kitchen at an auction for 1,500 bucks. Tables are particle board, with car wheels for feet ("Bought a truckload of 'em."). Stewart asked friends to paint the tabletops. They're all different. (Check out the sperm table.) Rubbermaid chairs are $4.50 per. Wall treatments: spray paint.
Stewart says Bardo Rodeo is like "Amdo on steroids." The club dwarfs anything he's ever done. "Bardo has walk-in coolers the size of my first two clubs," he says. There are 900 seats in its 20,000 square-foot space. The brewery knocks out 22 barrels at a shot. There are always 8-12 Bardo beers and a few dozen outside products on tap.
The front bar is dominated by a 1966 Plymouth Fury that juts through the plate glass window. "The fire department came by twice after we put it in; people kept reporting an accident," says Stewart. Inside the barroom, the car's front end houses the CD jukebox, which spins everything from Eno to Aborigines to James Brown to Butthole Surfers.
Stewart redecorates seasonally. "People get bored every three months," he says. One day a flock of "flying chicks"Ðfoot-long, winged, bare-breasted Balinese womenÐshows up hanging from the ceiling. Giant parasols dangle like mutant mushrooms in the main room. Stewart directed a two-day project to paint part of the floor with thousands of dots the size of quarters, to duplicate an Aborigine drawing he saw in a book. Then there's the engine. And the sandbox. And the neon squiggles. And the eight-foot tall weeds growing like an alien plantscape behind paneless windows.
"I'm not a party animal. I just hang around the house and play with my kid and work on my motorcycle. I go to bed at 10:30 and get up at 7:30," says Stewart.
Stewart is proud to charge as much for his beer as Capitol City Brewing Company, an upscale brewpub in Washington, DC. At the same time, the hippie in him disdains controls. Successful restaurants maintain careful control over food portions and other costs. A pie should yield a prescribed number of pieces. "He doesn't care if the pie gives him four pieces or one piece," says Beal. Graham Stewart is there to count the pieces.
Stewart maintains a fine balance between commerce and nonconformist attitudes. "He comes into staff meetings and says, 'Don't even mention TVs to me. TVs would be selling our soul,' " says Graham Stewart. On the other hand, "Bill didn't want pool tables at first. Now he wants to go whole hog." Bardo has 18 pool tables. But don't look for TVs anytime soon.
Like a bad dream to the Absolut school of advertising, Stewart's ads are anti-style and hand-wrought. An ad in Washington City Paper featured a nude photo of Stewart's ex-girlfriend in the shower. (When told the photo had been published, she supposedly asked, "Do I look fat?") Another advertisement promised "raw torrid sex" and "large American autos." The subject in a full-page ad in the local beer paper, BarleyCorn, was stretched out in a bathtub, totally exposed except for her crotch, which the editor masked with a well-placed hop cone.
A 1985 trip to Tibet infused Stewart with an appreciation of that country's culture. (Bardo is the Tibetan word for purgatory.) He brewed a batch of chang, a Tibetan beer made from raw barley and converted and fermented by a blend of yeast, mold and fungus known as phap, for a group celebrating Losar, the Tibetan New Year, in February 1994. Still containing barley, the chang oozed from the tank like funky oatmeal. "It tasted kind of like lemonade. It had sweetness from the barley and sourness from lactic acid," says Stewart.
Stewart obtains recipes from brewers around the country. "I hang out with brewers and tell 'em I want a recipe, something really weird," he says. Dan Carter, who now brews at Westport Brewing Company in Kansas City, brewed El Jefe Hefeweizen and Gran Cru for Stewart and gave him the recipes. Russ Schehrer of Wynkoop Brewing Company, Denver, did the same with Russ' Raspberry Beer and Chaco Canyon Chili Beer.
Grant Johnson at Marin Brewing Company, Larkspur, California, gave Stewart the recipes for Chinook Pale Ale, Porter and James Brown Ale. Centennial IPA came from Eric Taylor of Anderson Valley Brewing Company, Boonville, California. Beal designed Slant 6 Strong Ale. Several beers, including White Lightnin' Barleywine, which won a Silver Medal at the 1994 Great American Beer Festival, were designed by a "mystery brewer" that Stewart declines to identify.
Stewart knows that many of his customers want flavorless beer. For them there is Vincent Black Shadow, an exquisitely insipid brew made with corn syrup adjunct. Stewart serves a light version called Head Light to drinkers who think VBS offers too much sensory stimulation.
The brewery turns out plenty of hoppy wonders for those who are in on the joke.