Beer is downsizing. Following the arc of small-scale artisan salumi, cheese, bread, olive oil and garagiste winemakers, now micro-batched, regionally-sourced, hand-crafted beer is the hottest thing in brewing. And the North Bay has a growing stake in the trend.
Somewhere between home-brewing and micro-brewing is nano-brewing. To illustrate the scale: Home brewers typically make about 5 gallons per batch. Nano-brewers, between one and three barrels at a time, topping out at a few hundred barrels annually. Micro-brewers like Petaluma’s Lagunitas Brewing Company may soon produce up to 600,000 barrels annually; a large “craft” brewer like Samuel Adams, 6 million barrels per year. Anheuser-Bush produces upwards of 100 million barrels per year.
But what they lack in output, a number of North Bay upstarts more than make up for in passion. Working from garages or tiny breweries, former home brewers from Novato to Healdsburg have single-minded devotion to developing best-in-category brews from IPAs to Belgian stouts. With start-up costs ranging from $50 to $250,000 and a labyrinth of city, county, state and federal licensing requirements, this brotherhood goes well beyond hobbyists.
In varying stages of development — from Healdsburg Beer Company’s established reputation to yet-to-be-completed breweries in Windsor, Novato and Petaluma — here are four Northbay nano-brewers to watch.
Old Redwood Brewing: Young Guns — With backgrounds in wine and food, the under-40 garage brewers of Old Redwood Brewing in Windsor are the most experimental of the bunch. The four collaborators, Adam Derum, Bob Anderson, Dominic Foppoli and Mike Stewart, plan to create a new small-batch beer each month using mostly Sonoma County ingredients. In fact, they’ve already got a running list that includes beers like Belgian Stout, honey Hefferveisen and pomegranate witbier. They’ve contracted with local farmers to grow hops for them in the Russian River Valley and hope to incorporate fresh spices and fruit into their beers. The partners are currently building a small brewery and tasting room off the Town Green where visitors will be able to taste through curated flights and recent brews.
“We want to educate people,” said Derum, who’s been tapped as the tasting room guy. Old Redwood is slated to open in mid-March and you’ll be able to find them at the upcoming Battle of the Brews on March 31 at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds. (redwoodbrewing.com)
Healdsburg Beer Company: The Veteran
Kevin McGee (healdsburgbeerco.com), who’s been selling his nano-brewed IPA for four years, is the grizzled veteran of the bunch. A lawyer by day, he’s already navigated the licensing and beer making process, selling out all of the 20 or so barrels he produces each year before he’s even brewed it. A true garagiste, he brews twice a month in his detached Healdsburg garage (all legal, of course) and primarily sells to restaurants in town. You’ll find it on tap by its large Old English H.
“I made the logo so you could spot it 25 yards away,” he said.
The vision for the beer, according to McGee, “is like when you go traveling through Italy and find some maniacal wine producer that is so good that no one lets it out of the village. I’m that brewer in Healdsburg.”
The former home brewer got his start after kicking around the idea with his former boss, wine mogul Jess Jackson.
“I showed it to him as a joke,” McGee said, “and he said, ‘You gotta do it.’” McGee knew he was onto something after watching 95-point winemakers drinking Bud Light at holiday parties.
“There is a market for beer drinkers with a honed wine palate,” he said.
McGee acknowledges he may not be making the trendiest sorts of nano brews, but aims instead for a perfect cask-conditioned IPA.
“You have to find your niche. I’m the guy who tries to make the best damn cheeseburger out there. Not the wackiest,” he said. “I’m not going to make something better than Pliny or Blind Pig. But the recipe I’ve done is guided by the principle that if I can’t sell it, I have to drink 31 gallons of it. So it better taste good.”
Petaluma Hills Brewing: Pico Brewer
Calling himself a pico-brewer, JJ Jay of Petaluma Hills Brewing (petalumahills.com) considers his forthcoming brewery an even tinier offshoot than some of the other regional nano breweries.
“Like most brewery start-ups, I’m a former home brewer. I didn’t start with a plan, but over 22 years I’ve transitioned from a vast majority of my beer being store-bought to having all my friends drink my beer,” said Jay.
He’s currently working on a three-barrel production brewery in Petaluma that he hopes to have up and running in 2012.
“All of my recipes are ale. I don’t do lager or pilsners and I don’t really mess around with flavors. My beers are more traditional,” he said. “I’ve purposely avoided IPA (which is a a flagship for local brewer, Lagunitas) because everyone else does that.”
Like the other nano-brewers, he’s looking to sell to nearby local restaurants and pubs increasingly interested in offbeat, artisan brews. Unlike some others, he’s not in a particular hurry to quit his day job as a character director at Dreamworks Studios.
“My overarching goal is to have a beer that’s just good to drink,” he said.
Beltane Brewing: The Artist
“I am part artist and part scientist,” said Alan Atha, who heads up Novato’s Beltane Brewing (beltanebrewing.com).
The former painter, photographer and current personal-trainer/cycling coach plans to open a cafe and brewery in Bel Marin Keys in July, 2012.
“Brewing is really an art form,” he said. “I had to learn the science of it.” He’s planning to do an ambitious 600 barrels per year.
“I haven’t even started brewing in the brewery yet and I have hop contracts for the next three years,” he said. “You have to think that far forward to pull this off.”
The former head of the Sonoma County Beerocrats, a popular home-brewing club, he takes his beer seriously, having participated and competed in several nano-brewing competitions and gatherings like last fall’s SF Beer Week’s Nano Fest.
Alan’s current lineup of beers include “Rumplestiltskin,” a West Coast Double IPA, a chocolate ale with TCHO chocolate, a French farmhouse ale and a barrel-finished dark sour beer in limited release.
“A lot of guys dream about doing this, but pulling it off is another thing,” said Atha.