Julian Bruell left New York City to return to Cleveland, and now he’s leading the way for Collision Bend Brewing Co.
Story by Ed Carroll
Photography by Michael C. Butz
For beer enthusiasts and foodies, the only thing better than enjoying a tall cold one or noshing on a plate of artisnal appetizers is, arguably, indulging in both while taking in a scenic sunset along the waterfront. Collision Bend Brewing Co. in downtown Cleveland aims to offer it all.
Not only does this newest port of call provide the setting thanks to its riverfront patio along the east bank of the Flats in what was once the Watermark Restaurant, it – not coincidentally – has a beer for that very occasion: Lake Erie Sunset, an American wheat with hints of blood orange.
At the helm is Julian Bruell, whose surname is synonymous with Cleveland’s culinary scene. Zack Bruell, Julian’s father, is known for Parallax, L’Albatros, Chinato, Cowell & Hubbard, Dynomite and Alley Cat, to name a few. But Julian has already made a name for himself, cutting his teeth in the restaurant business in New York City, and now the 27-year-old is stepping out on his own in his hometown.
A last name won’t be the only thing Bruell’s brewpub has in common with his father’s restaurants.
Julian grew up learning from Zack, and in late March, prior to Collision Bend’s scheduled opening in mid April, he said those who visit Collision Bend can expect the same high quality they’d find at the elder Bruell’s restaurants.
“The quality (of the food) will be really high,” he says. “It’s not going to be bar food but it will be a little bit more comfort food. We’ll have the same expectations for beverage, food and services as (my father’s) restaurants, but it will have a different feeling.”
Bruell tapped brewmaster Luke Purcell, formerly of Great Lakes Brewing Company, to oversee beer-making operations. Collision Bend’s food is meant to complement its sudsy concoctions, and for that, executive chef Andy Dombrowski, who’s worked in a few of Zack Bruell Restaurant Group restaurants, is on board. Collaboration will be key at Collision Bend, and the trio will focus on pairing menu items with what’s on tap.
“The food will always be complementary to the beer we’re brewing,” Bruell says. “I think that beer is much easier to pair with than any other beverage. Wine is a little subtler and it doesn’t pair with spicy or salty as good as beer does.
“I think that’s going to make an experience that’s really different for people. We’re going to focus on pairing certain food with (Purcell’s) beer and bringing people back because they’ll remember that and think, ‘Wow, this has changed the way I think about beer or food pairing.’ I think that will be really unique.”
For the time being, the only way to taste Collision Bend beer will be to head down to the Flats for that unique experience; there are no immediate plans to distribute it in grocery stores like some other locally brewed beers.
Another part of the experience is the building itself. The 12,000-square-foot space is balanced by the main dining room and bar on one side, where distressed wood and exposed brick dominate the décor, and large, shining silver brew tanks on the other side.
There also is the “Brewer’s Room,” intended for private events and small parties, and two patios – the main patio hugging the Cuyahoga River and an upper patio closer to the building that will be temperature-controlled so patrons can enjoy the outdoors throughout Cleveland’s colder-weather months. Including patios, there will be 325 seats.
Bruell says the years of experience he, Purcell and Dombrowski bring to the table – as well as the service experience of employees coming over from Zack Bruell Restaurant Group restaurants, with Zack’s blessing – can set Collision Bend apart from an increasingly crowded Cleveland beer scene.
Purcell agrees, and says after a few years of brewing taking a secondary role to his sales and marketing responsibilities at GLBC, the idea of collaborating with the kitchen and getting back to actually brewing re-energized him.
“The whole experience of working with the kitchen is very exciting for me,” he says. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. And it’s real. I don’t like talking about things that aren’t really happening just to have something to say. There’s a lot of ideas flowing right now and I expect those to continue.”
On tap, on the menu
Collision Bend will have at least eight of its own beers, including the aforementioned Lake Erie Sunset, which Purcell says was named in part to honor the legacy of the Watermark Restaurant.
Bruell says to expect between 20 to 30 food items on the menu, but they don’t want the guests to get too filled up on any one dish or glass of beer.
“I’m not going to say there won’t be some bigger dishes, but we don’t want to fill people up, we want people to have a full experience. When you get one dish and you get one beer, you get only a limited experience, so being able to not fill someone up on food and one beer is really important. We’ll be doing flights (of beer), so you can have all these different flavor profiles of beer and food. Maybe that’s just my style personally, but I like to have a lot of different experiences in a night and I think that you can get it all in one place here.”
Bruell says while his father is known for extensive menus, Collision Bend will feature mostly small plates with a lot of sharable items.
“I think that’s the point of going to a brewery,” he says. “I think in Europe, which is kind of our model, it’s about camaraderie and getting together and appreciating the day and forgetting about all that outside of your life and just having a conversation and this communal experience. So that’s why we’re having sharable items.
“We’re also having this diversity of flavors, we’re not going to have one type of cuisine like we do at a lot of (my father’s) restaurants, like we have French or Italian or this or that. I think that’s the unique part of our menu, it’s so many different flavor profiles, and that’s why it’s going to be great with (Purcell’s) beer list.”
Like father, like son
Zack Bruell says it hasn’t always been easy for Julian to follow in his footsteps, but he’s confident his son can succeed.
“I have no doubt (Julian) can do it,” he says. “He came from a Michelin three-star restaurant. He’s 27 years old but he might as well be 45 with all the experience he has. When he went to New York City, I encouraged him to go straight to the penthouse, don’t stop in between. Go to the top and you can always work your way back down, but the lessons at the top will serve you well at a McDonald’s, if that’s what you choose to do. I believe that this could be something special, this brewery.”
Zack says by leaving Cleveland, his son forged his own path into the restaurant industry.
“I did not want him to follow in my insanity,” he says. “But he wanted to. I did not encourage it at all. Julian’s a people person, he’s very passionate about what he does and the one thing he got from me is that if you’re going to do something, you do it right. You don’t do it half-assed. Now he’s got the opportunity to work with two of the best in the city in Andy and Luke.”
Zack is excited to see what his son does at Collision Bend.
“This could be different from any other brewery or brewpub in the city,” he says. “Usually, the food is secondary in those places. And while the food is secondary in this place, the quality of the food could be off the charts, and it’s very simple.”
Julian spent his early years learning from his father, but Zack says he now hopes to learn from his son and he’s proud to see Julian start off on his own.
“Julian’s not trying to emulate me,” he says. “He’s a front-of-the-house guy and he knows his stuff. The idea here is for him to teach me. I wanted to learn from him.”
Now that Julian is older, he says his relationship with his father has matured.
“I was really kind of his son and employee when I was younger,” he says. “Now it’s kind of evolved. I’ve opened restaurants before, but especially (in Cleveland), it’s a different market. It’s my first one (in Cleveland) but I feel pretty confident. Luke is amazing to have on the team and I’m glad to have him and Andy, who has done all (of Zack’s) restaurant openings, and he’s really talented. I think you have to have a sense of calm and these gentlemen have that. It’s calm and confident when you open a restaurant, so I think we have a really seasoned team and I think that’s going to make things very smooth in opening.”
If necessary, of course, advice from his father is only a phone call away. Regardless, Julian is looking forward to working closer to home and closer to Zack.
“I’m pretty grateful to be back working near him,” he says. “He kind of saved me from being burned out (in New York). He never pressured me to come back but he presented the opportunity, and I’m very grateful for that.” js