We're Talking Beverage, People

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.

Beverage PeopleLocally, 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.

Beverage People booksBurch, 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.

Beverage PeopleBurch 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.

Beverage People hopsSeasoned 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.

Beverage People suppliesI 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: Youve 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.


Shady Oak Beer is Barrelicious

Santa Rosa native Steve Doty made a very specific decision when he opened Shady Oak Barrel House in 2014. His craft brewery is 100% committed to barrel aging and wild yeast.

That dedication to an all barrel program from day one almost always goes hand in hand with a super passionate brewer. A brewer who wants to push the flavor and complexity boundaries of what beer is –  and that is exactly the kind of person I met when Steve and I sat down to talk about Shady Oak Barrel House craft brewery.

The idea of opening a new brewery can be daunting. It is a very expensive initial capital investment and cash flow can be a problem as you are scaling up recipes, figuring out a new brew house and not selling any beer. A lot of small craft breweries around the country have figured out coping mechanisms such as putting in a small tap room to sell fresh beer and contract brewing with other small breweries to essentially rent their brewhouse equipment for a day and then brewing and shipping their own recipes back to their own facility where fermentation and everything else takes place. This practice is referred to as gypsy brewing.

Shady Oak has made a conscious decision to invest its money in barrels and gypsy brewing has allowed Steve to invest in barrels and a barrel aging program that would allow Shady Oak to fulfill Steve’s vision of an all wild yeast barrel house.

Most breweries that open nowadays will try to supplement their barrel habit by brewing a damn good IPA, selling a lot of that IPA and then slowly scaling up their barrel program. Not Steve. Steve has no brew system, no tap room, just his wort and his barrels. The beer in those bottles he sells need a minimum of 6 months in the barrel before Steve will start to blend them in a way that suits his vision and that particular brettanomyces strain and the bacteria that is being produced. This is about as inefficient a way to open a brewery that you could imagine, but it was the only way Steve felt it could be done correctly for him, and it seems to be paying off:

See impressive Rate Beer Review here.

Shady Oak Barrel House was founded on the idea of embracing wild yeast and barrels as the primary way of inoculating his beers. Most of the great craft beers that we have come to know and love have relied heavily on different varieties of hops in their recipes as the primary driver of flavor. The practice of adding lots of hops has certainly become an entry point for many beer drinkers to become craft beer drinkers.

But now young brewers raised on those beautifully hoppy beers are discovering the wonderful world of wild yeast and what an amazing array of flavors that can be achieved.

An all barrel program like Shady Oak indicates a few things to me. Primarily, it is going to take a deep commitment to time and mother nature to get this project off of the ground. The shortest period of time Steve has from brewing to release is six months. A lot of his beers are a year or longer and up to 2 years. So you have inventory that cannot be sold (keep in mind a lot of the beers you see on shelves have turnaround times of about three weeks from brew day to bottling day). Also, each barrel has to be meticulously cared for and thought about in terms of extracting flavors and keeping balance. This level of thoughtfulness will almost automatically insure that a beer released from a program like this will be good, or at the very least very interesting.

It also tells me that Steve is committed to wild yeast. It is a particular mind set that ferments beer with wild yeast. Usually a mind set that is very passionate about fermentation and the almost limitless array of flavors that can be achieved with wild yeast if used correctly. This is a time and care issue. It takes time to corral a yeast strain and balance it out to how you see fit. Then you have to figure out what kind of beer will work congruently with a particular wild yeast strain. The only thing above time in this equation is thoughtfulness, and it is the thoughtfulness that goes into each barrel, each blend and each beer that makes a brewery like Steve’s so special.

Wild yeast strains are around all of us at all times. Yeast attaches itself to things like fruit skins and sourdough starters and the syrup like teas that brewers call wort. Yeast is always looking for a source of sugar to feed upon and propagate itself and it finds a mutually beneficial relationship in the aforementioned wort, because when yeast eats those sugars in wort it turns them into alcohol and creates beer.

Almost all brewers use commercial yeast instead of relying on spontaneous fermentation (wild yeast) because the commercial yeast strains have been sorted in labs to ensure the upmost quality in providing the exact yeast strain that a brewer wants to use. This is an awesome thing because it allows brewers to produce consistent, predictable results and provides people with the same tasting beer every time it is ordered. Everybody wins. I, the consumer, can have confidence that what I am buying is in fact what I am expecting.

However, as craft brewing is exploding, brewers are looking for ways to distinguish themselves and stand out in a crowded market place. Embracing and learning how to use wild yeast is a way to do it. When considering beers available on the shelves, things like wild yeast and barrel programs will usually indicate that even if you’ve never heard of the brewery or style of beer, it is worth taking a chance on because you can be assured that the beer was made with passion and dedication. In other words, in all likeliness, it will be delicious.


Pints With Pedigree

To say that Kevin Robinson is qualified to join the illustrious ranks of Santa Rosa’s brewing scene would be an understatement.

UC Davis, Lagunitas, Speakeasy Ales and Lagers, Russian River Brewery and a couple of years making wine in Napa (to learn about barrels) makes for an impressive resume to bring to his own brewery.

20150806_182945-01Hell, even his new brewhouse system has a pedigree. Originally purchased by Sam Calagione from the famous Dogfish Head Brewery, Sam sold the brewhouse system to Vinnie Cilurzo​at at Russian River Brewery when he grew capacity a few years back.

In turn, Vinnie sold the brewhouse system to Kevin at Plow this year, and the cycle of magic that turns out some of the best beer in the world continues.

20150806_183852-01The whole system should be in the beer brewer’s hall of fame with a track record like that. But here it is in Santa Rosa with Kevin – the mechanics behind his two new projects, Divine and Plow.

Originally from the San Diego area, you can say that Kevin didn’t choose Santa Rosa as much as Santa Rosa chose him. It seems that Santa Rosa has a way of attracting the best and brightest flavor-oriented people and keeping them here. The beaches, the woods, the wineries, the biking, and the list goes on.  It’s no wonder things keep getting more and more interesting in Santa Rosa, with master artisans like Kevin continuing to add to the mix.

20150806_184858-01A trend that is repeating itself over and over in the craft brewing industry, but might not be familiar to everyone, is the opening of tasting/tap rooms in industrial sections of cities. For me, eschewing the typical idea of a brewery opening near well-established restaurant areas, and seeking out the new in non-traditional places adds to the fun of trying all of these new beers.

Plow and Divine fall into this area of warehouse tap room, and I would encourage people to seek them out. Think of it as an adventure into the unknown where you approach a nameless/faceless industrial park and then open the door into a wonderful world of beer and friendly faces. Like-minded people after the same ideas and sharing the history, flavors and craft that makes beers and breweries so much fun.

From day one Kevin has taken a lesson from the wine industry in serving up to different labels under the same roof.

20150806_184848-01Devine is the sophisticated, more experimental, older brother of Plow. Devine does special edition beers that are a bit more refined than your basic everyday brews. A label for a special occasions.

Plow is the label that turns out your daily drinking beer. The Steel Share IPA and OX IIPA (double IPA) beer are brewed with the everyday drinker in mind. More refreshing and approachable than Divine, Plow is intended to be consumed today and make you happy now.

20150806_184632-01When you come to visit Santa Rosa, put Plow on your list of places to try. There’s something to delight every beer lover’s palate.


Public Display of Deliciousness

Heritage Public House’s menu is a testimony to the state of California’s craft beer business.

IMG_0057Roman D​’Argenzio is an imposing figure. The beard. The ink. The leather. At a glance you’d be more likely to take him for the leader of a biker gang than the GM of a gastro pub. But this is Santa Rosa and around here out there is the norm. So Dino (as his friends call Roman) seems perfectly suited behind the bar at Heritage Public House, the drinking/dining establishment he established on Mendocino Ave. in downtown SR.

IMG_0188-2Eat well. Drink up. Those are the words you pass under on the way in. And, while there’s an eclectic selection of pub food on the menu, it’s the beer list that draws crowds here, and rightfully so. Deep and ever changing, it’s a veritable who’s who of California’s best brews.

IMG_0046As Dino tells it, there are lots of great beers made in the world. But the beers of California are good enough, diverse enough, and endlessly interesting enough to warrant a place of their own. He created Heritage Public House to be that place.

IMG_0178As much creative director as general manager, Dino deliberated over every last detail. From the light fixtures to the artist-painted walls. From the pop-up art shows he puts together to his dabbling in brewing his own beer under the guidance of a classically and internationally trained brew master.

IMG_0125Heritage Public House is the kind of place that could only come from the imagination, passion and calloused hands of a Santa Rosa native like Dino. So take our recommendation and swing by. Eat well. And drink up.

www.heritagepublichousesr.com