Industrial Converges with Historical at the Alehouse

Brian and Lisa Ford could not conceive of a more perfect location for their Auburn Alehouse than the historic structure once home to the Shanghai Restaurant and Bar, a favorite watering hole for locals from across Placer County. This Old Town institution reportedly occupied the space for more than 100 years and was operated the entire time by descendants of the original owner, Charlie Yue. Yet the Shanghai wasn’t the first choice of the Fords, nor their second. Though the site was an early favorite, it ended up being a fallback option that, in the end, was clearly meant to be.

“When we set out to build a brewery and restaurant, it was clear that Placer County comprised our target demographic, and it was ripe for welcoming what we had in mind,” said Brian Ford. “But finding a space large enough and negotiating a deal took far longer than we ever imagined.”

There were two essential requirements for the location the Fords envisioned: it must encompass at least 10,000 square feet, and it must have easy access to Interstate 80. While Old Town Auburn provided the perfect setting for a brewery, two early candidates—the Shanghai and the Mercantile Building—were simply too small. A long-empty, former restaurant at the Foresthill exit seemed ideal, but though they negotiated for months, the Fords were unable to strike a deal.

So, it was back to the drawing board in Old Town, and even though the Shanghai consisted of just 4,000 square feet, Brian recognized its potential. “I paid close attention to what it had to offer,” Brian explained. “The brick, the original tin ceiling complete with bullet holes, the history and because it is the focal point of the Plaza in Old Town made it nearly perfect. Plus, it’s just 1/10 of a mile from the ruins of the Auburn Brewery which made beer until 1908.”

The original Shanghai closed for good in 2005, and the owners quickly gutted the building which was in desperate need of renovation after decades of deferred maintenance. The floor was excavated and tons of gravel were poured in preparation to receive a pristine concrete surface. The 150-year-old building was reinforced with structural steel, resulting in an architecturally unique interior.

The first time he saw the improvements in February of 2006, Brian said, “It was like walking in and someone smacking you in the face. . .seeing the a-frame steel forming two dramatic capital ‘As’ that would come to symbolize our name, the Auburn Alehouse.”

It would, however, take some months of negotiating with the owners before a lease was signed, even though the historic district was in desperate need of a new restaurant. Old Town was still reeling from the devastating impact of a fire in October of 2005 that put an entire block out of commission, including two anchor restaurants: Awful Annie’s and Old Town Pizza.

After coming to terms on October 21, 2006, Brian swung into action quickly. “It took about three weeks to lay out the brewery, and then I asked architect Mike Murphy to put my vision on paper,” he said, adding, “as a building contractor who has built five other breweries, I knew exactly what I wanted.”

Brian’s intent was for the building’s design to reflect the primary purpose of the structure. “Clearly, the most prominent feature is the brewery,” he said. We took the time to make sure people understand this is a brewery—you can see the tanks from anywhere in the restaurant and from the street at night when the interior is lit. . .it’s stunning.”

Construction commenced in December, and even though he has managed many large projects, Brian brought in Steve Williams of Williams Lifetime Builders to serve as general contractor. Based on the scope of the project, which included designing the brewery and restaurant, Brian acknowledged: “I knew I needed help to get the project done in the shortest time possible. Steve and crew did a great job.”

In the end, the build-out took barely five months to complete. “We had a great group of contractors and the city made it easy on us,” Brian said. “If every job went this smoothly, maybe I would have never left construction!”

Beyond exploiting the original textures and materials of the building, new elements were added to create a very special environment. First, stained concrete was employed in the fabrication of the huge Alehouse bar and in both public rest room sinks, as well as in much of the flooring in the building.

Perhaps the most significant feature is the nine-foot Aleman figure that is the centerpiece of the restaurant. Said Brian, “It is comprised of most of the classic alloy materials: stainless steel, cooper, brass and steel.”

The finished product is a one-off, a singular venue that pulls tourists off of I-80 like a magnet. “It is a very cool concept, where Industrial meets Historical. We’ve created the ideal atmosphere for a brew pub where people can come to socialize and relax with friends.”

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Click here to read about the concept behind the restaurant.