Roma Restaurant & Brewery is owned by two brothers who grew up in a foodie household. Making things from scratch is what they know, and that love of working with their hands and creating led them into the culinary world and, now, into beer as well.
Brent Pilrain and his brother Brian, one year older, both worked at a butcher shop in high school, and while Brent went on to work as a chef , Brian set out for a career of computer work and business administration.
“I didn’t enjoy that environment,” Brian says matter-of-factly. When he talks about food and beer, though, his voice picks up again with excitement.
The Pilrain brothers became restaurateurs in 2006, when Brian, Brent, and their parents Dave and Joy opened Roman Market in Willernie. They opened a second restaurant in 2011 with the colonial-themed Patriots Tavern in Stillwater, a few miles away. When the former Wildwood Bowl building (most recently The Hanger Room) in Willernie became available, they seized the opportunity and opened a third restaurant, Valhalla Nordic Smoke & Ale House, in 2015.
As hobbyist homebrewers, the brothers thought a taproom with house-made beers would complement the restaurant, so they put together plans for a small batch brewery and 100-person taproom and banquet hall in the restaurant’s lower level. The plan has taken longer to come to fruition than they envisioned.
“My brother and I were stretched too thin,” Brian reflects.
After running the three restaurants for six months, Brent and Brian closed Roman Market and Valhalla Nordic Smoke & Ale House at the start of 2016, merging the concepts into Roma Restaurant. After a year of honing operations, the brewery is finally ready too.
“[We’re] keeping it with the interests of the rest of the restaurant,” says Brian. Fitting the late Western period of the Roman Empire, the brewpub will be decorated with banners and tapestries. “It will feel like you’re in an old school speakeasy, only in Roman times,” he explains.
He’s excited about brewing beer on their direct-fire one-barrel brewhouse, which he describes as “a homebrewer’s dream,” because it’s small and flexible, yet professional. After the boil, the beer is stored in 42-gallon Blichmann fermenters on castors, allowing them to be wheeled into the cooler to cold crash when necessary. The beers each have a Roman-themed story, and are inspired by traditional recipes with an experimental bent.
Roma is already serving an early version of Brutus, which they guest brewed at Sidhe Brewing Company in St. Paul while waiting for their licensing to complete. The beer, an India red ale, is based on the betrayal of Julius Caesar.
Further calling back to Roman culture, in time he’d like to introduce wine barrel–aged beers and a recipe that uses an unmodified Einkorn wheat strain he’s been experimenting with.
“Being so small, the biggest benefit we have is we can do anything we want to do,” he says, excited to finally have the brewery in operation. “Being homebrewers at the base of this, we want to nail every style we can think of that inspires us in some way.” The entire Roma team, including owners Brian, Brent, and father Dave Pilrain, along with head brewer Creed Mechelke, stress a preference for clean and classic styles, but will venture into everything from barrel-aged beers to wild ales. With a kitchen full of equipment, Roma has an onsite smokehouse where they can smoke their own grains. He fantasizes about brewing a one-of-a-kind smoked Einkorn beer someday.
Now, he’s happy to be expanding the family business and keeping the tradition of creation alive.
“We were always brewing in the background,” Brian says, referring to the decade the Pilrains ran Roman Marketplace. “It’s not too different from cooking food from scratch. We enjoy the process: taking natural ingredients and doing the traditional process and making it into something that’s creative.”
Brewers: Creed Mechelke, Ron Wirth, Brian Pilrain, Dave Pilrain
Beer: Brutus India Red Ale; I, Claudius Patersbier Blonde; Britannicus London Porter; Augustus Golden Ale
Address: 310 Stillwater Road, Willernie, MN 55090
Hours: Sun–Thu: 11am–9pm; Fri & Sat: 11am–10pm
Correction: Head brewer Creed Mechelke’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this article.