Please welcome our newest SR Beer Ambassador, Tom Edwards.
With Seismic Brewing Company, Chris Jackson is raising the bar for brewing the highest quality beer with the lowest environmental impact.
Chris Jackson has a pedigree that makes wine fans dizzy.
His father, Jess, founded Jackson Family Wines in 1982 and the company has swelled to produce over 5 million cases per year, with influence reaching far beyond the vineyards of Sonoma and Napa counties. For most Santa Rosa residents, this description is blasé, referencing a well known brick in the County’s economy. What isn’t so well known, however, are the details surrounding Chris’s latest solo venture: Seismic Brewing.
For many in the Santa Rosa beer scene, the whispers had circulated for quite some time before Brewbound and The Press Democrat broke the news that Jackson was throwing his hat into the craft beer arena, and in such a way that has rarely been attempted. Sure, over 600 breweries opened in 2015, but lumping them in with Seismic is like assuming the Tesla Gigafactory is merely one of countless factories opening around the nation.
Why the distinction? Based on the basic methodology of commercial brewing, one may guess that all breweries follow a fairly uniform flow of operations. That assumption is fairly accurate in that, by definition, most beer makers extract wort from a barley mash, boil and add hops; then cool the batch down and pump it into a yeast-laden fermenter. Depending on the type of beer, an exothermic fermentation grips the vessel for days to weeks and at the end of conditioning, finished beer is transferred and packaged in keg or bottle.
As production develops, however, the aforementioned processes become increasingly energy intensive, with operational byproducts often growing to an overburdensome degree. For instance, the industry standard for water use is seven barrels for every barrel of beer produced. That is a significant disparity with serious monetary and environmental implications, and innovative brewers have been working hard to bring that number into a more efficient range.
Seismic, for instance, is aiming for an awe-inspiring water/beer ratio of 2/1 and, no, that was not a typo. This lofty goal for uber-sustainable operations is at the core of Jackson’s business outlook, which seeks to eradicate energy inefficiencies with clever foresight.
According to Jackson, “When Patrick [General Manager and former classmate] and I first discussed the prospect of opening a sustainable brewery, the idea behind it was to make world class beer while also mitigating our environmental impacts. As we investigated the applicable technologies, it became obvious that there were already ready-made solutions for mitigating both our water footprint and our carbon footprint. The question wasn’t whether we would have to invent new processes. It was about how many of the existing innovative processes we could employ while constructing our brewery from the ground up.”
Talking with Jackson, you can really sense his passionate determination. Tall and of moderate build, he speaks with a soft, low tone, often gesticulating thoughtfully and steering through topics with the proficiency of a politician. I found myself nodding at length in between questions; not because I felt it a polite conversational formality, but rather because I truly agreed with his sentiments, both in their practicality and poise.
He spoke at length over his plans for green, efficient technology, and when encountering this information, it’s important to keep in mind that most small breweries would love to invest more in sustainable technologies. However, so many are operating on self-funded start up budgets, sometimes borrowing or buying used equipment to get started.
This relative procrastination is not simply a fault of the typical fledgling brewery, but rather a result of the brutal war against undercapitalization that is waged in a company’s early years. Even if following the most meticulous business plan, financial projections can warp painfully under the demands of contemporary markets. This lack of funds is consistently listed as one of the major reasons behind breweries going under, and therefore regarded with an ominous reverence.
Seismic benefits from having a more favorable cash flow, allowing for many key areas within the brewery to be done right the first time, so to speak. When confronted with the issue of waste water, Jackson looked to local veterans Bear Republic and Lagunitas, who have been on the forefront of effluent treatment for years. The technology utilized was born out of MIT through the company Cambrian Innovations.
Brewery effluent can comprise up to 70% of all incoming water, and it is with zero exaggeration when brewers peg it as the bane of their existence. To illustrate this, just imagine the thousands of barrels of brewery water used for brewing, cleaning, and packaging, and picture 70% of it going down the drain and into a city’s water treatment facilities. That may be fine for a brewpub making 2,000 bbls of beer a year, but what about a regional player cranking out 200K bbls, or 30 micros all in the same municipal treatment grid?
In a world with no regulation or concern for the environment, this effluent could be carelessly diverted out of the public eye, but today, in California’s carefully regulated business ecosystem, companies must either meet city standards or close their doors. This is why, in the past, Lagunitas agreed to pay ungodly amounts of money to truck all effluent to East Bay MUD, and many breweries are investing millions in waste water treatment technology, all with the goal of processing their own WW to the point where it is either fully reusable or reduced in strength so that city facilities aren’t impacted.
As for Seismic, the Cambrian technology will not only treat high-strength effluent, but also produce energy along the way with their patented EcoVolt Reactor, therefore minimizing energy needs. Not one for doing things halfway, Jackson has even more cards up his sleeve to push sustainability. “We invested in top quality insulation to bring our cooling costs down. We decided to purchase the entirety of our electricity through Sonoma Clean Power and therefore offset the carbon footprint of our electricity consumption through locally made geothermal energy. My personal favorite, however, are the dual purpose technologies we are employing. For instance, our C02 vaporizer both warms our C02 into useable gas and chills our glycol through temperature transfer between the two. Likewise, our steam condenser creates enough hot water to mitigate the electricity needs of the Cambrian Ecovolt.”
Innovation like this isn’t just good for Seismic and its relationship with the city, but also for us, the local beer lovers. The number of Santa Rosa breweries will continue to climb for the next year or two, and with efficient operations in place, it establishes a more favorable climate for these businesses to flourish and do what they do best – brew beer.
Speaking of the devil, beer fans will be happy to hear that Seismic is aiming to produce a wide range of styles. Says Jackson, “I love Christian’s abilities with hop heavy beers. I also think that Andy is a wizard with both barrel aging and sours. Patrick is also a fan of provincial styles like Kolsch and Pilsner. We built Seismic with the goal of being able to leave a mark in many respective styles. However, every beer we bring to the table has to have personality and contribute to the discussion about its respective style. No Seismic brew will be superfluous.”
Reflecting on his past in the wine industry, Jackson admitted he is having fun developing a more beer-focused palate. “Coming from the wine industry, I’m used to drinking beverages that come in around thirteen-fifteen percent alcohol and have good acidity and viscosity on the mid palate. We are definitely evaluating brews with an emphasis on aroma, flavor, balance and complexity. The fun part of the industry is learning how many great styles there are, learning about their history and trying to put our own spin on them.”
Jackson, despite what some may theorize, will not have any business dealings with his family’s wine company. “Seismic is my own personal venture. It is completely separate from Jackson Family Wines. Everything that happens during our run will be a reflection of my hand picked team, their experience and their hard work.”
Although eager to become a regional player in the local craft beer boom, Jackson does not desire the massive bulk of breweries like Lagunitas, which looks well on their way to producing 1 million bbls in the near future. Initial annual outputs put Seismic more around the 8,000 bbls/year mark – a fairly ambitious volume for a new brewery but not unattainable when considering Jackson’s contagious enthusiasm and relevant business clout.
Currently, the Seismic team is feverishly cutting through the regulatory red tape, installing all the necessary equipment, and honing in a very star-studded lineup of beers. If all goes correctly, production will begin in proper by fall, giving Santa Rosa much to look forward to this winter.
The last word goes to Jackson himself, whose answer regarding Seismic’s business outlook brims with class and perfectly encapsulates the craft beer spirit.
“I want Seismic to exist well beyond the craft beer boom. When we think of craft, we think of the core principles at the heart of the movement. These principles are quality, individual expression, collegiality and a willingness to push the boundaries of the status quo. Seismic is very much a long term vision and we seek to be ambassadors of craft principles in practice. Both Patrick and I will be happy when we hit each of our anticipated milestones. Turning our custom brew-house on for the first time. Having our beer poured in our first account. Celebrating with Andy Hooper and Christian Toran as they win their first medal. What excites my team and me, is the prospect of building a successful brewery with the ethos of high quality and sustainability from the ground up. Sonoma County craft beer is competitive. We’re here to compete with all the great talents of our local scene. We hope to leave our mark on the industry both today and for decades into the future.”