Lewiston man readies Craft Brew Underground for Auburn opening

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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.”

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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.”

kskelton@sunjournal.com

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)

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  • Henry Jacobs

    Who says you cannot make a living off drinking? What a tasty job!

  • Midnight Tree Bandit

    “He is hoping people make a Lewiston-Auburn loop, checking out Baxter Brewing, Bear Bones Beer and CBU.”

    Um, hello? Why not Gritty’s in that loop? Not hipster enough? (Going to check this place anyway, though, even if it does sound like a hipster joint.)

    • Ethan

      Considering how Grittys doesn’t know how to brew good beer, that’s why it’s not mentioned.

      • Midnight Tree Bandit

        I cannot disagree strongly enough.

    • Mike Williams Jr

      I referenced them a couple of times in the interview, it just didn’t make the cut I guess. I have no problems with Gritty’s and hope we can all work together to promote the L/A beer scene.

      • Midnight Tree Bandit

        Aha, editorial choice. It did seem strange that you would neglect your neighbor.

        Apologies for the hipster comments. I’m an old curmudgeon.

      • Midnight Tree Bandit

        Since you’re here, I have a question for you, because I could not tell if it was implied or not. Are you focusing on the hundreds of Maine made craft beers, or are you bringing them in from all over?
        (I have dabbled with the idea of opening a wine and beer shop up in the Ellsworth/MDI area that dealt exclusively in Maine products. This was after talking to a couple of winemakers who talked about how difficult it was to get their wines into local shops without a distributor.

        • Mike Williams Jr

          The beer will be coming from all over. But with so much good beer in Maine, I’ll definitely be working in as much of that as i can. As I get going I will be turning more focus on working with the “little guys” without distributorship deals. Especially the ones that are particularly difficult to get to from L/A.

          • Charley Bucket

            Mike, how do you plan to get good cans/bottles from other states? What breweries do you plan to bring in? What Breweries on tap?

          • Mike Williams Jr

            Hi Charlie.

            The only way to bring an out-of-state beer legally, is to purchase it through the distributors in state. So I’m limited specifically to what it is that they sell, that I can have in the building. But the good news is that all of the distributors combined have tons and tons of choices.

            I have to keep what exactly I’m bringing in under wraps for a couple more days. It’s not completely worked out yet, but I also want it to be somewhat of a surprise when we finally open.

            A few hours before the soft opening on Friday, the beer menu will go live on the untapped beer app, as well as on our Facebook page. If you haven’t visited our page yet, it will be the best source of information regarding CBU.

            The page is facebook.com/CBUAuburn.

            Thanks for your interest!

          • Midnight Tree Bandit

            Good to hear! Best of luck, and I reckon I’ll need to wander down.