Combine one restaurant veteran with two longtime brewers, then turn them loose for a year.
The Wheel Apizza Pub, which opened in Eugene this spring. Billed as a New Haven-style pizzeria and brewery, founders Steve Mertz (of Laughing Planet and Tacovore), Trevor Ross (co-founder of Claim 52 Brewing), and Tobias “Toby” Schock (former head brewer at Agrarian Ales) say they are focused on “connecting with people who want quality local pizza and quality local beer.”
With Portland’s Apizza Scholls a regular on national “best pizza” lists, Oregon is no stranger to the Neapolitan-influenced Connecticut-style apizza (pronounced “ah-beets”). The key is the dough: hand-formed crisp, thin crust is soft and pillowy inside, like a fresh-baked loaf of artisan bread. A rustic char adds flavor and character — though here that comes from an electric pizza oven instead of traditional coal-firing.
Mertz, who attended high school in New Haven, has long wanted to bring that city’s pies to his adopted home of Eugene. Schock and Ross’ goal was to focus on small-batch brewing rather than fighting the distribution and shelf-space wars.
“We wanted to center the food and bring a quality drink and social experience,” says Schock. “We wanted to be more of a destination, not just a brewery.”
After acquiring their space in April 2017, the team opened up the layout, examined pizzerias in San Francisco and Portland and worked on recipes.
“We tested cheese pizzas for months,” says Ross.
Fermented for 48 hours, Wheel Apizza’s sourdough crust starts with wheat from Camas Country Mill, just outside of Eugene. Meat and vegetarian pizzas come together with ingredients sourced from Oregon whenever possible. And while the pub is based in “West Coast influences and East Coast traditions,” they will adapt when needed. While clam-topped pizzas are popular back East, “they failed out here,” says Ross. “But Oregon bay shrimp with ricotta and local bacon? Huge success.”
A visual reminder that pizza’s not the only star at this place, customers can see the 7-barrel system made by Portland’s Practical Fusion through a doorway between the bar and the open kitchen.
“Everyone goes through their paces in plain view,” says Ross. “Customers can talk to us. We’ve got nothing to hide.”
While Schock heads up brewing, he and Ross support each other for creativity and overall brewhouse backup, so not everything is dependent on just one person. The manual system is hard-piped throughout, including the 15-barrel hot liquor tank and direct-fire natural gas kettle.
“One-hundred percent” of the heat is captured by an exchanger for reuse in the hot liquor tank.
Most of Wheel Apizza’s 10 beers, such as Quest Pils, aren’t even kegged. They’re served straight from one of six brite tanks in glasses or take-home crowlers. Standouts include an amber lager, a dry-hopped sour and Oregon Love Pale, made entirely with state-grown ingredients.
“The quality and diversity of our beers reflects the quality and diversity of ingredients,” says Schock. “We import from the Czech Republic, Belgium, France, New Zealand. As a pub we want to grab as wide and high-quality as we can, but funnel to a select 10 taps that are distinct from each other. We don’t have every single style, but it’s a nice variety.”
However, knowing that some people wouldn’t be interested in visiting a brewery, Wheel Apizza bills itself as a pizzeria and restaurant first. Their beverage list can accommodate all tastes, including cider, wine, cocktails made with local spirits and house-made sodas.
Coming off their respective brewery experiences, Schock and Ross also have regular discussions about what makes a healthy, viable operation.
“We gotta have a positive environment,” says Schock. “Growth is important, but you can’t survive the struggle unless you know it’s positive and have a good team behind you.”
Most customers have first been coming for the pizza, says Schock, then they realize it’s a brewery too.
“They love the pizza and beer, then they ask where we get our beer, and we love their reactions when we tell them that we make it in-house ourselves.” •