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TableRocking the Boat

Brewpub makes drastic changes to keep afloat in the growing beer market

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Kerry Caldwell is a statistical oddity, not only in Boise, but nationwide. The Long Beach transplant is a female craft brewer in an industry largely dominated by dudes.

"As soon as I turned 21, I started hanging out in microbreweries and brewpubs and drinking good beer, and I just always liked the environment more than a bar that served terrible beer," said Caldwell, who started homebrewing in Olympia, Wash., in the '90s. "I never got into drinking Bud Light or anything."

But gender is the least of Caldwell's concerns; she has relocated to Boise after a two-year stint as assistant brewer at California's Belmont Brewing Co. to revolutionize the beer program at one of Boise's oldest breweries: TableRock Brewpub.

"I was hoping to get a job in Boise, but that wasn't necessarily the time schedule; I wasn't expecting it to happen so fast," said Caldwell, who was hired as TableRock's new brewer while visiting her family last Thanksgiving. "I went home to Long Beach and told the head brewer down there, 'It was cool seeing my family for Thanksgiving... uh, I got a job.'"

Caldwell is part of a much larger rebranding effort at TableRock. As the craft beer scene continues to expand in the Treasure Valley, the sleepy suds spot doesn't want to be left behind.

"[TableRock] was kind of stuck in the mud," said owner Chris Nelson. "I kind of tried to baby-step through it and it just wasn't making enough of a difference, so I basically made a statement at the end of last year: 'Look I'm going to turn the whole thing upside down. We've got a couple of beers that are known, a lot of them that aren't,' I said. 'I'm going to throw the whole list out and we're going to start from scratch.'"

Longtime TableRock patrons will immediately notice a difference. Hopzilla and Nut Brown have been cast aside, and in their place, taps pour new brews like the layered and surprisingly potent TableRock Imperial Red, or the lightly nutty TableRock ESB, an English pale ale.

"Because I'm not from around here, I had no preconceived ideas of what TableRock was and wasn't," said Caldwell. "I think they hadn't had a very good reputation for having good beers, and I didn't have that in the back of my head coming here, like, 'I'm going to a brewery that isn't the most popular one in town.'"

TableRock's new beer program focuses more on rotating taps than offering a set lineup of staples.

"We'll drift into some standards, but I think we're going to try to keep it fresh and keep it new," said Nelson.

The brewery is also tapping limited edition kegs of cask-conditioned and barrel-aged beers every Friday, like a recent chocolate Belgian with brandied figs.

"We did an oak-aged porter with vanilla bean," said Caldwell. "But we only usually have one keg of it and it lasts only as long as it lasts. But that's part of the excitement; you want people to feel excited to come in here, like, 'What does TableRock have on Friday this week?'"

But all these changes haven't gone over without a few protests from regulars.

"People said, 'What the hell are you doing? You've got to be kidding me; where's the beer I've always had?'" said TableRock's new general manager, Eric Hilburn. "We said, 'You know what, try the new one.'"

The beer program isn't the only thing getting a makeover at TableRock. The brewpub also hired a new head chef, Mark Wilkerson, formerly of Bella Aquila in Eagle.

"We kind of want to change the face of pub food so not everything's fried," said Wilkerson. "We have a gluten-free menu. We'd like to see some, maybe, fresh fish. We're thinking about putting a Bavarian menu on there--some spaetzle and half chickens, schnitzel."

TableRock's kitchen is now roasting and slicing its meats in house and offering rotating chef's specials utilizing seasonal ingredients.

"I think mediocrity is king here when it comes to restaurants," said Wilkerson. "We're trying to pare it down and do 15-20 things perfectly and maybe layer in some specials. And layer in some beer dinners."

Ultimately, TableRock hopes to take back a chunk of Boise's beer-thirsty market. Though the brewpub doesn't have the distribution model of Boise's commercial craft breweries--like Payette Brewing Company, Crooked Fence Brewing and Sockeye Brewing, all of which have recently ventured into canning--it does hope to get its handles into more local bars and restaurants.

"It's a competitive market, like any market. ... That's why I think throwing out the old and coming in with the new, I think that it's about time," said Nelson. "An IPA 10 years ago isn't an IPA today, and so you have to change it. And I think that the other guys that are coming in are going to change their recipes, too, to fit the marketplace."

Caldwell believes there's space for all Boise breweries--new and old--to flourish in the rapidly expanding beer scene.

"There's room for all of us," said Caldwell. "Everyone has their clientele that they're aiming toward, and I don't think that we're all going for the same person."

But business goals aside, Nelson says he couldn't be more pleased with the new beers TableRock is brewing.

"I have to say, I'm happier with the beers we've produced since January than I have been with any beer that's ever been produced by TableRock," he said.

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