At South Lake Tahoe’s Cold Water Brewery & Grill, the mission statement is six words long: Great people, Great food, Great beer.
By Thea Marie Rood
Photography by Clare Rickman
Sometimes a business—or a business owner—comes along that people feel genuine affection for, quietly rooting for them from the minute the doors open.
That is certainly the case for Cold Water Brewery & Grill and its owner Debbie “Deb” Brown. Launched in November 2014, the awards immediately began piling up—best new business, best overall restaurant, and most recently, Brown herself was voted “Best Entrepreneur.”
But it wasn’t always an assured success. “There were a lot of naysayers,” Brown laughs now, in her jeans and flannel shirt before a busy “Flannel Friday” lunch rush starts. And one of the biggest doubters? Brown herself, who long talked about opening her own shop, but kept finding reasons not to do it: “I had a vendor who told me, ‘Deb, you’re the little girl at the end of the diving board—you keep looking over the edge and walking away again. You need to jump.’”
She’d actually found an empty building: the old Swiss Chalet restaurant that closed down in 2012 after the original owner died. “I drove by it—we all drove by it—and no one but this dumb blonde took a chance,” she says. “So, you know, it made me wonder: ‘Am I crazy? I could be making the biggest mistake of my life.’”
But underneath the admittedly blond hair, Brown has a discerning head for business. She can tell you how many cars drive by her Lake Tahoe Boulevard location—per day—and that it is perfectly situated to be an easy right-hand turn for folks coming in from Northern California on Highway 50. She also has more than 20 years in the restaurant industry, including a four-year tour around Europe after college (“learning about food”), and a stint working gambling boats in Savannah, Georgia, before finally landing here. She started as the director of food and beverage for Sierra-at-Tahoe, then director of operations for Camp Richardson, and finally the general manager at Stateline Brewery. It was always her dream, however, to have her own place. “People just don’t usually hold onto a dream quite this long,” she says with a grin.
What finally convinced her to jump? A real plunge in—wait for it—cold water, of course. She entered the Tahoe 22 (also known as “The Crossing”), a paddleboard race across the lake. If she made it to the finish line, she’d figure out how to start the business. But weather kicked up and there were 4-foot swells. “The Coast Guard was alongside me, yelling, ‘Get in the boat, lady!’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘I can’t! I have to open a brewery.’ They thought I had hypothermia, that I was crazy. But I did it—I finished the race. And that gave me the courage to open Cold Water.”
The reality was often challenging, however—securing financing, painting walls, building 35 tables (including several in the bar out of slabs left over from the Angora Fire). Then there were the chronic paperwork hurdles. “I remember one day, I had to get to the county recorder’s office in Placerville to record some documents, but I’d also made plans to meet with a contractor back up here, so I was rushed,” says Brown. “I got to the recorder’s office, and this woman tells me everyone is at lunch, it’ll be a couple of hours, why don’t I go shopping or something and come back. And I said to her, ‘I’ve waited 21 years to open my own business—is it okay if I just sit over there and wait?’ A couple of minutes go by, and the woman comes back, slides my papers across the counter, and says, ‘My mom waited 21 years to become an author. Go open your business.’”
So Brown did—and the combination of scratch food and craft beer has attracted awards, but more importantly, loyal customers. “We pay attention to all the details; we’re not cutting any corners,” she says, frequently excusing herself from a conversation to see to a table, hug a friend standing hesitantly in the doorway, or pick up a dropped napkin from the rug. “But the real recipe to success? I’ve got these people.” She waves her hand in the direction of her happily busy staff. “And these are the top echelon: people who care.”
Like everything associated with Cold Water, there is a quality of destiny to Justin Kaplan becoming its executive chef. “I had been following the opening on Facebook,” he says. “And I randomly reached out in October ’14 and said if they needed any chef consulting, I was available—but I wasn’t looking for a job; I had a job in North Lake. Deb got hold of me and said her chef had bailed. So we chatted for a few minutes, and I agreed to come cook for her and her friends.”
He was hired, of course, and has been racking up awards of his own: winning the Sample the Sierra Chef Challenge two years running, for example. Held each September at Bijou Community Park, this nerve-racking contest involves cooking mystery ingredients on camp stoves in a park pavilion, under the gaze of shrewd judges and a ticking clock. “It’s a challenging cooking venue,” says Kaplan. “But it also gives me a chance to meet and talk to other chefs.”
He is in fact always curious about food, and always evolving in terms of cooking it. Kaplan’s culinary background was “high-end, modern,” in places like Manhattan and Philadelphia, but his style was beginning to deviate into something else when he met Brown and came to Cold Water. “Now I want to cook ‘delicious,’” he says with a smile. “If it’s a burger, make it the best. So we have, for example, an East Coast supplier that does a special short rib ground beef designed just for us.”
The CW Burger is always on the menu, as well as the famous Baby Kale Caesar, which Brown says highlights Kaplan’s ability to do simple food with a “twist” to it. “I called chicken Caesar salad ‘airport salad,’” she says. “Meaning every airport has the exact same salad. He suggested kale instead of romaine, but I’m not a big fan of kale. So he listened, and he used baby kale, and he used panko instead of croutons. It’s brilliant.” She also credits him with finding Loch Duart salmon that is sustainably raised, and never makes her small restaurant smell of fish.
But Kaplan also works with the seasons, which means much of his menu changes frequently, creating some local comedy: like when he is out shopping and a customer shouts across an aisle, “Hey, that corned beef sandwich—is it back?” And there’s a reason the locals clamor for these seasonal dishes to return: The corned beef is made daily; the brisket—for the winter chili—is cooked overnight; there is also a duck confit pot pie. “Deb calls it California comfort food,” says Kaplan. “But I really just want to make something for everybody—if the husband wants steak and potatoes, and the wife wants a big salad.”
Brown is equally pleased that Kaplan’s food attracts a wide swath of diners—including seniors who enjoy the upholstered benches by the fireplace, foodie millennials sharing their plates near the large windows, and families in front of the big-screen TV watching a game. “I know there are parents who like to go out with their kids, but can’t face another pizza place,” she says.
Ryan Parker, Cold Water’s brewmaster, makes beer-making seem easy on a tour of his on-site brewery. He holds out the barley, which he and his assistant Stephen Johnson mill there, and explains how—like loose leaf tea—it becomes “wort” when combined with water in a large steel tub. Next he talks about adding hops, then yeast—and shows the bubbles that mean fermentation is happening. “That’s it, those are the only ingredients to beer,” he says nonchalantly. “And I don’t use any chemicals or preservatives.” Once a batch is done fermenting, it goes directly to the cold room, where it chills, and finally to the wooden tap handles at the bar (which, in Cold Water’s indomitable way, are cunningly designed for each individual beer by local artist Heidi Reshman).
Parker’s simple explanation belies two things, however: his exacting expertise (he was the brewmaster for Stateline Brewery, which is where he met and first worked with Brown), and how much fun he is having designing—and naming—these beers. “I really like Mr. Toad’s Wild Rye,” he says, pointing at the board behind the sunlit bar. “And Citra-ass Down, which has a big kick of citrus.” He is happy to drink his creations at any time, and comically calls his mustache his “flavor saver.”
But there is a serious side to Parker and his belief in his product. “Look, the difference between wine and beer is beer brings people together,” he says “Wine can get a little uppity, but beer equals community. You can be in jeans and a plaid shirt, and sit next to a guy in a suit and tie, and both enjoy a beer.”
There is also the sense that Cold Water is on the “front-end of a wave” on the South Shore. “This is such an amazing moment in the beer movement,” says Brown. “There are so many breweries coming along, and they are all so different—that’s what creates the scene.”
Cold Water Brewery & Grill
2544 Lake Tahoe Blvd., South Lake Tahoe, CA