AUBURN — After three years of planning, dreaming and taste-testing more than 1,500 different beers, Mike Williams Jr. is nearly ready to launch Craft Brew Underground.
He has filled the CBU menu with 130 different bottles and cans from all over the world, plus another nine on tap.
“A big selection is definitely going to be key,” said Williams, 46, of Lewiston.
“I want to taste stuff that I’ve never had and I’ve got a pretty good basis of what isn’t around here. I definitely chose a lot of things that I’ve never had before because I’m going to have fun with this, too.”
Williams said he had eyed the empty nightclub space at 34 Court St. for more than two years, convinced it was the perfect spot for his plans. He would phone the landlord regularly asking: “Has anybody rented it yet. Is anybody looking at it?”
Nope, still there.
“I think there was a point in time where he just thought I was crazy,” he said. “This had gone on so long. There’s no way this guy is ever going to pull this off. But I’d keep calling him, and then it finally happened.”
CBU officially opens Friday, Feb. 23.
By day, Williams is a housekeeping manager at Oxford Casino. He owned his own cleaning company for eight years, closing it when the last recession hit.
He was looking to start his own business again when he approached Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments three years ago for guidance in drawing up a business plan, inspired by southern Maine’s craft brew scene.
“You go down there (Portland) and there’s 100 choices of places to go — breweries tap houses and all that stuff,” Williams said.”But Lewiston-Auburn, it’s very underserved when it comes to this.”
He is hoping people make a Lewiston-Auburn loop, checking out Baxter Brewing, Bear Bones Beer and CBU.
Part of the long journey to opening centered on financing. Last fall, Williams received the city of Auburn’s first Storefront Traffic Accelerates Revitalization, or STAR, business loan.
Yvette Bouttenot, manager of the city’s community development division, said the program was designed to fill empty commercial spaces downtown.
If Williams hits parameters, such as creating at least one full-time job, the city’s $10,000 loan will be forgiven in five years. AVOG provided a $10,000 matching loan to secure the STAR funds.
Williams has hired three employees for the opening and might soon hire a fourth.
Bottle prices will range from $2.50 to $18. CBU does not have a full kitchen, but Williams plans to partner with different eateries to offer three items each week.
Because it has taken years for things to come together, Williams has had time to visit plenty of other bars and lounges, taking notes on what he liked and did not like.
“The loudness was definitely a big one,” he said. “There’s nothing I dislike more than going to a place where you’re yelling across a table, ‘This is such a great beer!’ There’s nothing fun about that.
“I want (staff members) here who know about the beer. For me, one of the worst things is to go to a place and sit down and say, ‘What’s this beer like?’ (and hear) ‘I have no idea. I don’t drink beer.’ Even if you don’t like it, you have a reason you don’t like it. That helps that person make a decision.”
The space, which Williams has overhauled from its nightclub days, has two lounges with exposed brick and stone and seating for 60. He has brought in a shuffleboard table for patrons and turned a little brick cubby into a charging station for phones.
“I just want it to be a laid-back place for people to come, drink some beer, try some things they 100 percent have never had before in their lives,” Williams said. “That’s the biggest thing. And to not have to worry about a bunch of crazy people.”
Mike Williams Jr. is bringing his new business, Craft Brew Underground, to 34 Court St. in Auburn. Offering more than 130 beers, Williams wants patrons to experience a wide variety of brews. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Mike Williams Jr. could not bring himself to repaint CBU’s purple bathroom, a holdover from a former nightclub. Instead, Williams has dedicated the bathroom to Prince, the flamboyant singer, songwriter, record producer, actor and director who died at 57 on April 21, 2016. One of Prince’s biggest hits was “Purple Rain.” (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Craft Brew Underground in late January, while still under construction. Mike Williams Jr. plans to open Friday, Feb. 23. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)
Craft Brew Underground is in the former Cellar Door space at 34 Court St. in Auburn. (Daryn Slover/Sun Journal)