Just Brew It!
By Robert Kreutzer
Few things are more refreshing than an ice cold Budweiser in a frosted mug on a hot day. But, if that’s where your idea of good beer ends, you might as well stop reading now.
For decades, “Bud,” along with Coors and Miller, were what Americans thought beer was all about. Many of us were happy to guzzle them while barbecuing, doing yard work or watching sports—something even some beer snobs still enjoy. But those macro-brews never represented all of what beer in America is all about.
Truth is, beer styles vary tremendously, from the crispy light pilsners—of which Bud and the other biggies could be said are a cruel parody—to imperial stouts, best described as black holes in a glass. These styles, as well as many others, will be represented at the Taste of Brews festival scheduled in Riverside this Saturday.
The fest rounds up over 30 breweries—which call themselves “craft beers,” ranging from locals barely graduated from their garage to national brands like Samuel Adams. Visitors will indulge scores of styles, most of which you can’t find on your supermarket shelf. “When you’re drinking craft beer, it’s just a different taste,” explained Marcus Cole, brewmaster at Kat Daddy Brewery in Moreno Valley. “You can taste all the different flavors in the beer, plus you can get different kinds of beer.”
According Matt Becker, head brewer at Packinghouse Brewing Company in Riverside, a personal connection is as important in the beer biz as it is in anything else.“Pretty much anything is better if you know where it comes from and who made it,” said Becker. “It’s not just some faceless product made by someone far away.”
Slurping it Up
The early history of beer in this country was that of local and regional breweries. The combination of abundant grain, readily available fresh water, American enterprise and more than a few expatriate brewmasters gave the United States, prior to World War II, a brewing tradition as solid as any in the world. Post-War, though, brewers figured out they could mass produce beers with less grain, less hops and, of course less flavor. It was good for business, but it gave American beer a less-than-stellar reputation. Adolphus Busch, the founder of Budweiser, even referred to his own beer as “that slop” and rarely drank it.
And we, the people, slurped it up. There were foreign and premium beers available, but they were usually more expensive and oftentimes weren’t that much better than the mainstream brews. It was up to a few regional breweries, such as San Francisco’s Anchor Brewing Company, to represent the finer side of American tradition.
That sorry state started to change in the ’80s. Jim Koch brewed his first batch of Samuel Adams (based on a centuries-old family recipe) and steadily built his Boston Lager into a national brand. Along the way, Koch and other rebels let the country and world know flavor, complexity and body were coming back to American beer.
The correction of a clerical error also changed the American beer landscape. Home winemaking was legalized right after the failure of Prohibition. Beer-making was also supposed to be, but the stenographer left out the language. Congress fixed that in 1978.
Thousands around the country took up home-brewing, finding that ingredients and equipment were quite inexpensive. Homebrew could not only be made cheaper than store-bought, but also tastier and much more adventurous. Home-brewers also discovered they could brew traditional styles, such as bitters and altbiers that were all but impossible to find at stores and experiment in ways unthinkable to commercial brewers.
By the early ’90s, a vibrant craft brewing movement was underway. The pale yellow liquid that didn’t taste much different coming out than going in yielded some of its marketplace, though not much. Craft brews today still only account for 6-percent of sales nationwide—but it did mean much more choice for beer drinkers, at least for those that bothered to seek it out.
“The craft beer culture now is the way wine culture used to be,” explains Chuck Foster, Brewmaster at the I and I Brewery in Chino. “It’s a supposedly small business in out-of-the-way places where you can find different things, things out of the mainstream, but now you can now try things you never could a few years ago.”
Big business has taken notice. BJ’s has become a big box brewery chain. The national brewers have bought up former regional and small breweries (and, some say, ruined them) and have even put out corporate beer disguised as craft beer.
Now, American beer is no longer the laughingstock of the beer world. American beer-makers have proven adept at not only producing the best styles from around the world but have even invented new styles along the way. Cities such as Portland (both Maine and Oregon), Denver and San Diego have become microbrewery meccas. “For a long time, people had frowned on American beer,” said Foster, “but now European brewers send their best to Southern California to learn our ways.”
“The Bigger the Better”
The good news for us here in the IE is that the movement, far from giving us the finger, has taken hold here, with brewers from a wide variety of backgrounds setting up shop locally. Many of these brewers—some of have started in the last year—will be on hand at Taste of Brews. Perhaps the IE’s greatest success is Redland’s Hangar 24.
“I started as a home-brewer. People liked the beer I was making so I kept at it,” said Ben Cook, founder and master brewer at Hangar 24. Cook hit the books, graduating from Cal State San Bernardino with a biology degree and also graduated from the University of California, Davis’ Master Brewer program, plus he served time with Anheuser-Busch.
Growth has been rapid at Hangar 24. Cook’s beers are available at restaurants, bars and stores all over SoCal, and are spreading to Central and Northern California. Cook fully expects to find the success of other big-time craft brewers, such as San Diego County’s Stone Brewery. “We’ll grow as much as the local market will allow,” explained Cook, taking a break from preparations for an upcoming anniversary event. “We enjoy growing. The bigger we get, the more it allows us to brew better beer. We can brew more styles and make more complex beers.”
Like several other brewers, Cook cited local pride as one part of Hangar 24 that drives his ambition. “Our success means we can buy more local ingredients and also employ more local people,” said Cook. “We’ve used locally grown oranges to make the Orange Wheat, which is our signature beer. We also use a lot of other locally-grown ingredients.”
But Hangar 24 is not the only brewery experiencing solid, borderline spectacular growth. Several other breweries, even without aggressive marketing, say they are almost doubling their business. This is especially impressive since many of them, far from ritzy downtowns and restaurant rows, are located in industrial parks with aircraft parts and blueprint shops for neighbors. While some are attached to restaurants, most are little more than tasting rooms that owe their growth to simple word of mouth.
Cole is not yet even a full-time brewer. He is currently finishing up a 25-year stint with the United States Air Force. Stationed at March Air Reserve Base, Cole began his Kat Daddy brewery about four years ago. “I was a home-brewer for a while. A lieutenant colonel in our unit got me into it,” said Cole, who specializes in strong, dark beers. “I’ve done some internship, and I’ve set the ground for this to be my full-time job.”
While Cole says he has doubled the size of his business, he doesn’t seek to be a major player in Southern California craft brew scene. “I want it to be just as it is now,” said Cole. “I like the area where I am. I know my customers. It’s fun interacting with the people I know, I have my retirement and it’s too much work to try and make a brewery that big.” Nonetheless, Cole has sold his beer to restaurants as far away as Solvang.
Riverside has a checkered brewery history. The Riverside Brewing Company started in the early ’90s but struggled along the way, went through name and ownership changes, and now the building sits abandoned downtown. But craft brewing in Riverside is far from dead. At least three breweries are churning out what they feel to be world-class beer. Becker says he feels real good about Packinghouse Brewery’s prospects. “We can’t make enough beer,” said Becker. “We started expanding a few months ago, and we’ve had to triple our storage space. The bigger the better. I want to get our beer out to as many people as we can.”
Like home-brewers, craft brewers can play around with their beer and actually have fun. “I don’t have too much money invested in ingredients, so I can experiment a lot,” said Foster, whose I and I just turned 1 year old. “We’ve made 85 different styles of beer. I’ve used lots of unusual ingredients—cantaloupe, papaya, even cucumber. And if I’m not happy how they come out, I’m unapologetic about changing the recipe.”
Still, consistency is a challenge for any brewer. The home-brewer can get away a different taste every time; but, that’s one of the joys of home-brewing, although it can be the kiss of death commercially. “The worst thing that can happen to any brewery,” said Becker, “is to have someone try their beer, have that person recommend it to his friends, then have it taste different two weeks later.”
Riverside’s Area 51 Brewery not only prides itself on good beer but plays on the ever-popular theme of little green men. Yes, it is an ET-friendly watering hole, where alien props abound. Owner and brewer Mike Hawkins says the motif is a marriage of two great interests of his—technology and the great beyond. “Area 51(the purported site where the government hides UFOs) has always been a captivating subject to me, and brewing was something I liked,” revealed Hawkins.
Hawkins, who is also a filmmaker, was a home-brewer until he took the commercial plunge in February. Up until then, he worked out of his garage but slowly planned to go public, buying ET and UFO themed props as well as brewing equipment. “I bought stuff off eBay or wherever I could,” said Hawkins. “I filled my garage so full I couldn’t park my car in there anymore.” But Thus far, Hawkins says it has been worth it.
“I built that place by myself. I’ve had to wear 20 hats, but we’ve been growing since Feb. 1,” said Hawkins, who moves like the Tasmanian Devil when at his brewery. “People love what we make and our beer is all about the taste. Word of mouth has just gotten around. I think we’re meant to be something.”
All of the brewers love to talk about beer and brewing. Perhaps because of that, brewers say the craft beer business is not the capitalist cutthroat free-for-all like so many other industries, but more like a fraternal order. “We absolutely talk to each other about hops, yeast and grains,” Kluver revealed. “We talk very frankly. We all help each other. I never feel competition. I think there could be 100 more brewpubs in Southern California and there’d still be plenty of room for growth.”
Taste of Brews at White Park, 3901 Market St., Riverside, (714) 375-1132; www.tasteofbrews.com. Sat, Jun. 25. Noon-4pm. Tickets $29.75-$45.