Guest Blogger and resident beerthusiast Tom Edwards’s search for Santa Rosa’s home brew roots culminates in a conversation with The Beverage People’s Gabe Jackson.
I once saw a brewery ad that went something like, ‘We all started as homebrewers’. I always liked that ad. It was not only a cool way to pay homage to the homebrewing community, but it also represented the unique connection commercial brewing has with its more informal cousin.
This association is rather remarkable, and never more so than amidst today’s ongoing wave of craft beer popularity. On one hand, you have a hobby that brims with Lebowski casualness. Mid-brew beers are common, mellow vibes surround the often long stretches of waiting on the brew, and desire for profits inhabit a galaxy farther away than anything the Millennium Falcon could dream of reaching.
Commercial brewing, on the other hand, has a rich history of being an economic force, and the industry’s multi-billion dollar sales produce streamlined operations that maximize efficiency. To anyone who has toured a large brewery, they can surely attest to the fact that the scale and scope of modern beer manufacturing is staggering. Often absurd amounts of raw materials combine and evolve through stellar engineering to eventually inhabit the six-pack or keg at your local watering hole.
You would think that for one to dive into such a bustling industry and gain control of an operation, it would require a lifelong involvement in the field, or at the very least, high honors at one of the nation’s leading brewing institutes. Although those tracks can no doubt lead to professional brewing careers, there is also a significant portion of today’s most prestigious brewmasters and brewery owners that started out – not as certificate clad professionals – but rather eager homebrewers, boiling wort in the kitchen and buying ingredients from their local homebrew shop.
This is where the aforementioned ad comes full circle, and there are great, local examples that illustrate where a passion in homebrewing can take you. Lagunitas’ Tony Magee, for instance: here’s a guy who went from a modest career in printing, to commanding one of the most successful breweries in the nation. Lagunitas made around $200 million in 2015 and looks to produce well over a million barrels of beer this year. On top of that, their partial acquisition by Heineken was named the top business story of the year by The Press Democrat.
Although Magee’s success has many contributing factors, one of the main catalysts was a creative spark that leapt from a gifted homebrewing kit and ignited a passion for beer making and the prospect of making a business from it. Although notable, stories like Magee’s are common in the brewing world, especially Santa Rosa’s Out There corner of the world. Young breweries like Cooperage, Fogbelt, and HenHouse have successfully used their old homebrew enthusiasm to create companies that are now healthy components of the local economy.
The aforementioned developments offer the following conclusion: homebrewers sometimes evolve into professional brewers, and professional brewing has had a sizable impact on the local economy – almost $170 million in 2013, and constantly climbing. Equally impressive was the record shattering $4.88 million from the 2016 Pliny the Younger release. Given this dynamic, it really sheds light on how beneficial it can be for a beer scene to have a hearty homebrewing presence.
Locally, this scene has been cultivated and influenced heavily by The Beverage People, who have been at ground zero for thousands of journeys into homebrewing and provided excellent materials and knowledge to countless beer makers. Anyone in Santa Rosa who has attempted to make their own beer will be familiar with TBP, and the city couldn’t ask for a more competent and welcoming organization.
Founders Byron Burch and Nancy Vineyard started the company in 1980 and helped pioneer homebrewing methodology, most notably through Burch’s book, Brewing Quality Beers: The Home Brewer’s Essential Guidebook, which has sold over 250,000 copies.
Burch, a former national Homebrewer of the Year and Beer Judge Certification Program master judge, was a standout figure in the world of homebrewing. He recognized a lack of resources available to the serious homebrewer, and strove to enrich the hobby by providing quality materials and education.
The Beverage People’s presence did wonders for the local homebrew scene, whose club soon met major success in competition. Starting in 1986, they won ten consecutive club championships, solidifying the area as a fermenting force to be reckoned with.
Burch sadly passed away in 2015, yet his far reaching legacy continues to be felt across the beer world. Ricardo Norgrove, owner of Bear Republic, was recently quoted as saying, “I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t read Byron’s book.”
In addition to the founders, The Beverage People has utilized a high caliber team of beer, wine, and cheese making enthusiasts. Bob Peak, a Harvey Mudd graduate and former manager at Vinquiry, is a veritable treasure trove of information. His time with TBP has spanned 13 years, 10 of which were spent as a partner.
Seasoned customers may also be familiar with Gabe Jackson, who worked at the shop from 2007-2013. Gabe was another shining star within the organization – teaching classes, organizing events, judging competitions, etc – yet parted ways a few years ago in order to pursue a career in public accounting. Despite this path doing well to facilitate the growth of his young family, he couldn’t help but maintain a lingering fondness for both the company and local homebrew community.
In the latest spring newsletter, Gabe made the exciting announcement that he, along with his wife, Jane, will be taking over ownership from Bob and Nancy as they transition into retirement over the next few years. This changing of the guard is a historic point in The Beverage People’s timeline, and it couldn’t have gone to more capable and deserving persons.
I sat down to talk with Gabe as a new epoch is sliding into place for TBP, and with passion for good beer at an all time high, future prospects are upbeat.
TE: Given the exciting growth of craft beer in the last decade, how has The Beverage People evolved alongside the industry, both in size and focus?
GJ: We have continued to expand products and information to keep abreast of current trends – sour beers, barrel-aged beers, styles with lots of hops i.e. “Pliny the Younger”, etc.
TE: Do you feel this most recent upswing in craft popularity has differed from previous trends? What sets it apart?
GJ: This upswing is a continuum of the pattern. More people exposed to quality beer, drink higher-quality beer.
TE: You’ve been in business for over 30 years, what was the homebrew scene like when you first opened your doors?
GJ: Actually it’s 36 years. A bit quieter LOL! Supplies were 3 varieties of compressed raw hop bricks, three kinds of malted barley: black patent, crystal and pale, plus munich after a while. The brewers mostly used canned malts and the real old timers used hopped malt extract from Blue Ribbon. Batches were six-gallon because when you brewed six, you ended up with five. So all recipes were six-gallon.
People were eager to learn and read about new techniques so books sold very well.
TE: The number of Sonoma County breweries continues to climb as the area evolves into a more diverse destination for beer. Given you have been one of the only local places for aspiring brewers to acquire materials, how does it feel to know you have played a role in such an important economic development?
GJ: It obviously is a point of pride to have been there at the beginning and helped assemble the information and supplies to create a homebrew store that is a destination when people visit the area. We were also lucky, as Sonoma County is just such a dynamic place. We were fortunate that Byron was such a great writer and so passionate about the hobby. He helped so many people and his methods of brewing are still the blueprint that most homebrewers use, whether they realize it or not.
TE: Legend has it that Ricardo Norgrove of Bear Republic had dealings with you guys in his homebrew days. Are there other notable instances where Beverage People customers went on to be pro brewers?
GJ: Yes, Ricardo was a student of Byron’s and honored that with a memorial party at Bear last September.
There have been many brewers who have come through these doors – certainly, back in the day, Paddy Griffen, a former employee stood out. When he was at Moylans, he developed their signature beers.
Many other brewers were casual customers or serious homebrewers that went on to start breweries or become a brewmaster. A partial list would include Michael Laybourn and Norman Franks – Mendocino Brewing, Don Barkley — New Albion and Mendocino Brewing, Randy Gremp – Calistoga Brewing and Third Street Aleworks, Randy Johnson – Third Street, Tyler Lafferty, current brewmaster – Third Street Aleworks, Tyler Smith – Cooperage Brewing Co., Adam, Bobby, Dom and Mike – Old Redwood Brewing Co., Steve Doty – Shady Oak Barrel House, Jeffrey Jay (JJ) of Petaluma Hills Brewing Co, and Remy Martin and Paul Hawley of Fogbelt Brewing.
In fact, Lafferty, Marin and Mike Hewitt – brewer at Lagunitas were all Sonoma Beerocrats who went to the UC Davis Master Brewers Program, roomed together and all went on to successful brewing careers.
TE: With craft beers becoming increasingly complex in their recipe design and aging process, have you noticed customer purchases becoming more varied and technical, or is there still a big desire to replicate the classic styles?
GJ: Yes, customer purchases are more complex and technical. We have brought in several new malts and there is increasing demand for “sour beer” yeast and bacteria strains. Lots of brewers are using pumps now, where it was mostly gravity flow in the past. Interest in classic styles (other than IPA) seems to be softening – we even discontinued our barley wine ingredient kit. There is also a soft movement toward smaller beers; Session styles and Cream/Alt and Kolsch beers.
TE: Homebrewers are a unique breed, as is the hobby itself. What are some things about homebrewing and those involved that you appreciate?
GJ: I appreciate the combination of artistic creativity and technical precision that the best brewers bring to the craft. It is stimulating to talk about new ingredients or techniques and rewarding to compare notes on technical matters. They’re a very friendly bunch as well and willingly share information. Quite different than the winemaking customers.
TE: What can Sonoma County expect from The Beverage People in the future?
GJ: Probably a continued growth in odd flavor combinations, ingredients not usually seen in a beer. And cider. There has been a huge movement in the country and particularly Sonoma County to revitalize hard Cider, both still and sparkling. It’s a lot of fun to be part of that as well.
We have a love for this community that we hope will continue to return steady growth to the company as well as develop a next generation of fermenters!
Although each visit to The Beverage People tends to yield an educational conversation, classes are also available. You can visit them at their 1845 Piner Road location, Monday – Friday, 10AM-5:30PM, Saturdays 10AM-5PM, and online at TheBeveragePeople.com.
Could you be the next beer fan to catch the brewing bug? Give The Beverage People a visit and start your own beer making adventure. Who knows where it will take you.