Elevation Eats: Loving from-scratch at Coldwater Brewery in South Lake Tahoe
We at Elevation Eats feel a special connection to Coldwater Brewery. Coldwater opened its doors the same week we moved to Tahoe, in the fall of 2014. We were one of Coldwater’s first customers. We didn’t know too many people in town yet, but Coldwater felt like home for us. Delicious “California comfort” food? Check. Craft beer selection made in-house? Check. Giant TV on the wall? Check.
Coldwater is everything you want in a local brewery restaurant. Owner Debbie Brown, executive chef Justin Kaplan, brewmaster Ryan Parker and their stellar staff have picked up the banner of South Shore cuisine and are leading it forward ever fearlessly. We had the chance to sit down with Brown to find out what makes Coldwater flow.
“I’m that girl with the dream,” says Brown. “I have been waiting and wanting for over 21 years to open my own business.”
Brown moved to Tahoe 23 years ago and has been involved in the local food industry ever since, working everywhere from Sierra-at-Tahoe to Camp Richardson. She has witnessed first-hand as the Tahoe food scene has struggled to take root.
But as many have noticed, the last couple years have seen a new wave of innovative restaurants and, of course, breweries.
“I’d like to consider ourselves to be the forerunners of [the brew scene],” says Brown. “I think for me, it was about the scratch element. It was about being all-grains. We’re an all-grains brewery.”
Working from scratch is what Coldwater is all about. The food and the beer are created side by side (the fermenters are actually in the kitchen) from their raw ingredients up. There are no frozen food bags.
“Opening up a bag and pouring it into a pot … that’s just not it. … There had to be something richer. There had to be something that we could celebrate.”
Brown and Kaplan rotate the menu twice a year. Their winter menu, which debuted this past December, has 16 new menu items. This allows for constant creativity in the kitchen. Brown believes is giving credit where credit is due.
“I mean what Justin Kaplan has brought from a food standpoint … he’s won [Sample The Sierra] two years in a row … and he’s asking everyone to raise their bar. … And what makes Ryan an amazing brewer … it’s really about balance. It’s about that whole glass filling up and being rich all the way through, right? And I really believe that Ryan’s got balance.”
But Brown doesn’t let them have all the fun. Everything in the restaurant has her personal touch, including the tables.
“I built all the tables,” she says, laughing. “Yeah, I didn’t have enough money to buy tables so every table in the restaurant I built in my driveway.”
We got a chance to sample some of the new cuisine from the winter menu. Brown was all too happy to show it off.
“We’ve got a really beautiful flatbread spiced apple brie dish that’s really fun. It’s an appetizer dish. The beet salad that we’re doing, it’s a winter beet salad. It’s different than our summer. It’s more classic. It’s a beautiful dish,” says Brown. “The exciting thing is we are doing a house-made veggie burger that is beyond incredible. It is rice, black beans, and quinoa that goes through a robot coupe, and then we’re adding a sautéed bell pepper and artichokes… and then it’s going to have tzatziki sauce with fresh cucumbers on it.”
We also sampled the veggie rice bowl, a Coldwater staple, which consists of a wild rice blend, broccoli, jicama (a Mexican turnip), edamame, carrots, mushrooms, bell peppers and cashews. We also loved the new fried chicken sandwich served with pickles and hot sauce.
As it turns out, Brown is as bold as Coldwater’s cuisine. In an effort to build up the courage to open her restaurant, she took on a 22-mile paddleboard trek on the lake, and 16 miles into the trip the weather turned against her. “We had 4 and a half foot swells, and I spent the last 6 miles freezing my booty off, hypothermic, all the way to finish line, and that’s how she got her name as Coldwater. And if you think about it, it’s one of the main ingredients to make really good beer.”
Brown acknowledges that Tahoe is not an easy place to run a restaurant. The fluctuating seasons create a perpetual cycle of feast or famine, and a restaurant’s location determines how much tourism versus localism it receives. But she believes that more businesses are better.
Coldwater is nestled into a growing part of South Lake Tahoe known as “Midtown,” where several restaurants are clustered together. Brown considers her neighbors to be partners, not competition. “I’m super excited to be a part of Midtown and to celebrate my friends Paul and Mercedes Beran. They own Blue Dog. Dale Dodd owns Scusa,” says Brown as she nods across the street to the other two restaurants. “My personal feeling is: I love it. I love more businesses; I love more investments coming into Tahoe… Nobody eats in the same place every day.”
Brown also rejects the commonly held notion that there is a talent-pool shortage in Tahoe. When referring to her staff, she beams, “I build really great sandboxes. I’m a mom … so I’m selective, and I don’t believe what people say in this town at all about not having a good employee base. I have the best employees… The secret to success is people. You build the sandboxes. You make it a fun place to be. That’s the secret.”
Coldwater overflows with an atmosphere of warmth and fun. “I think people take food too serious. They do. They forgot that food is supposed to be fun.”
Brown’s motto: great food, great beer, great service.
“If you can remember [those] words, you’ve got it!”
We get it, and we’ll be back.
Elevation Eats is the brainchild of Rae and Troy Matthews: South Shore locals, Internet enthusiasts, and the food-obsessed, Tahoe-loving, annoying-couple down the street. This is their second food-related project. Their first is the blog LustForCooking.com, a celebration of cooking at home. Elevation Eats is dedicated to documenting and promoting the Tahoe food scene with a focus on sustainable living and cultural advancement.