For two bleary weekends early this spring, I set out to research beer tours and the craft beer industry in Northern California, taking an organized, 6-hourtour with North Bay Brewery Tours in late March followed by a small, independenttour at Bear Republic Brewing Company, a cutting-edge brewpub/microbrewery in northern Sonoma County.
Three locally born and raised home brewers/craft beer enthusiasts, brothers Ron and James Holt and their longtime friend Robert Watkins, launched North Bay Brewery Tours in April 2011. James Holt was on driver duty the day I sat down with Ron and Robert to get a rundown of their entry into a slice of the local tourism industry that generates approximately $123 million annually, according to a 2013 study by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board (EDB).
The trio worked at a Domino’s Pizza together while attending high school, but after graduation Ron Holt moved to L.A. to become a consultant in the restaurant industry, which gave him a practical business education he brought home to their nascent business.
Tired of their “day jobs” and with a desire to work in an industry they loved, they realized that while there were many wine tours, there were no beer tours in a region that is a leader in an increasingly profitable craft brewing industry and a major stop for traveling beer aficionados. “This is a craft beer Mecca, but public transportation is not great,” Watkins said. “Taxis are expensive and tours already exist for the wine industry.”
So they saved and borrowed some seed money, starting with one reconditioned, used bus, and in three short years have expanded to the point where there are now seven buses and a car in the fleet and they are in the process of refurbishing a stretch limo to add to the mix. They have also been on a “hiring binge” that is creating jobs, contributing further to the local economy.
“We decided we should make it a reality,” Ron said. “If we had $500,000 lying around, we would probably have opened our own brewery … This really is an ‘up by our bootstraps’ company.”
The expansion of their company loosely mirrors the growth of the craft beer industry both in Sonoma County and nationwide.
Craft Beer Sales Rising
The EDB reported that in 2012, craft beer sales rose by 15 percent nationwide and 41 percent in Sonoma County. There were 18 craft breweries in Sonoma County in 2013, with eight of those opening between 2011 and 2012. That number reportedly rose even more in 2013, so there are now more than 20 craft brewers and the EDB expects to do another study later this year.
“Three of the top 20 beers in the world are made in Sonoma County and the industry continues to grow,” EDB Executive Director Ben Stone said. “It’s been happening here for 20 years, but in the past three to five it’s been really taking off and is part of a national trend.”
The report also cites the yearly, two-week release of Pliny the Younger by the Russian River Brewing Company that generates an estimated $2.36 million in local economic activity by approximately 12,500visitors who swarm to Sonoma County for a taste of a beer that has been voted the unofficial best beer in the country by BeerAdvocate, an online beer rating site. Russian River was not on the menu the day I took my tour, but Petaluma-based Lagunitas Brewing Company, founded in 1992, which just completed a $15 million expansion in Chicago, was.
NBBT takes a broad approach to its tours, covering a range of breweries from the “flagship” breweries, such as Lagunitas and Bear Republic, to small production crafters such as Old Redwood Brewing Companyin Windsor.
There are also several types of tours, from a basic tour with a knowledgeable driver but basically “on your own” at the breweries, to all-inclusive VIP Tours, with lunch and a tour guide, as well as tastings and tours at three breweries. The bus even has a “kegerator” so that participants can drink craft beer along the way. There are other options as well as beer and food pairings and home-brewing workshops, along with a beer blog that features beer reviews and advice. One advantage to a tour with NBBT is that they go to small breweries and bring their knowledge gleaned from years of research, i.e. beer drinking.
“We’re not just another bus company,” Ron Holt said. “We offer a unique perspective on the industry on different levels.”
I showed up half an hour early for my first tour, not sure what to expect, but expecting a large group of thirsty beer lovers lined up at the infamous kegerator.
True to form, James Holt was the driver this day and new employee Trevor Mattingly was along for a training ride, while veteran tour guide Rich Clay was there to make sure everyone had a good time.
Lagunitas Cappuccino Stout — a “breakfast beer” weighing in at 9.2 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) — was on tap and the first brewery on the tour was Lagunitas, where we would get a tasting of several beers, lunch and a lengthy tour of their large Petaluma facility.
The bus filled up with a crew of 20-30-somethings from such far-flung places as Walnut Creek, Novato and Sacramento, and Clay played host, filling up plastic cups with beer and talking about what was in store for the day.
Clay told us that he “cheated” to get the job by bringing in a sample of his own home brew after his wife told him about the job. “I brought in a sample and they said ‘you’re hired,’” he said.
The Lagunitas Taproom in Petaluma has turned into something of a Sonoma County institution. On any given day, the large patio is packed with patrons drinking flights of fine craft beer and eating quality, localized food. The patio is furnished with picnic tables and there is a bandstand where local talent plays amid the din and chaos, while groups of people tour the brewing facility in the shadow of a dozen grain silos. Just one of those silos refills with 50,000 lbs of two-row malting barley every 18 hours.
We spent an hour and a half at Lagunitas, where we enjoyed beer, food and hospitality in “the loft.” The group was treated to an oral history of Lagunitas and we heard the story of the infamous 2005 “St. Patrick’s Day Massacre,” where the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control sent undercover investigators to a large party on the premises and subsequently closed the brewery down for 20 days. Lagunitas used that period to expand and created Undercover Investigation Shutdown Ale in memoriam.
From there, the bus went to Old Redwood, a small operation that currently has only three barrels. Along the way, Holt and Clay talked about the history and growth of the homebrew movement in the U.S.
Before the 1980s, homebrew was illegal in the wake of Prohibition. When the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition in 1933, it failed to make home brewing legal, although winemaking was allowed. In October 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed H.R. 1337, creating a tax exemption for home brewed beer, effectively making it legal, according to the American Homebrewers Association.
As states regulate alcohol on an individual basis, legalization was spotty and the last two states to legalize home brewing were Mississippi and Alabama, just last year. The legalization of home brewing has led to an explosion of licensed breweries in the U.S.
“We’ve kind of gone to a pre-prohibition structure,” James Holt said. “Before Prohibition, there were about 2,000 breweries in the U.S. Afterward, there was a big consolidation but now there are a lot of breweries popping up all over.”
According to the EDB report, there were 2,347 breweries in the U.S in 2012, the most in 125 years.
At Old Redwood, which opened in June 2012, we found a small operation with a tasting room and beer that tasted closer to homebrew than the more established, larger breweries that produce in massive quantities. It is a labor-intensive operation, because the scale does not allow much automation.
The beer is available at the tasting room and fans can purchase a beer club membership, which ships three, six or 12 large bottles per month.
We ended up at Fogbelt Brewing Companyin Santa Rosa, which opened late last year. Fogbelt is attempting to use locally sourced ingredients as much as possible and hopes to eventually produce enough of its own hops to create a market for an historical Sonoma County crop that was the predecessor to the ubiquitous vineyards from the mid-1800s to the 1930s.
“We’re seeing hops as a cash crop,” James Holt said. “There’s already starting to be a hops shortage.”
After a successful completion of my NBBT tour, I set my sights on another flagship brewery for another round, or two, of “research.”
My tour of Bear Republic was much more low-key, but equally beer-centric. For a tour of Bear Republic, all one has to do is call and, if there is a tour scheduled, show up at the famous brewpub in Healdsburg.
On the Saturday morning I booked my tour, I arrived at 10 a.m. sharp and was greeted by longtime Bear Republic employee Ryan Lindecker, who gave a small handful of us a funny, informative — and sometimes irreverent — tour of another pioneering Sonoma County institution, beginning with the five of us sitting at the bar with a glass beer “from the teat,” as Lindecker said.
My four fellow tourists, Kevin and Kim Macare and Brian and Lisa Fleming, had come all the way from Orange County to visit “wine country” but found themselves on a beer tour in Healdsburg. “I’m not a big beer drinker, but we learned a lot and it was well worth it,” Kim Macare said. “And we wanted to make today for Brian, who is not a wine drinker.”
With the likes of Red Rocket Ale and Racer 5 IPA, Bear Republic, established in 1995, picked up the torch from Lagunitas and ran with it, creating the hoppy, bitter India Pale Ales that have come to be known as the West Coast IPA. “Red Rocket put us on the map as a live craft beer and a trendsetter,” Lindecker said. “People didn’t think we’d get those bittering units that high back then.”
Bear Republic has an entire menu of about 90 specialty and semi-seasonal ales on tap and is in the midst of an expansion that could nearly double production, creating a “destination” brewery in Cloverdale.
In addition to the high-powered ales, Bear Republic has been creating less hoppy, lower alcohol brews, such as El Oso Mexican Lager, which won a bronze in the Great American Beer Festival in 2008. “Up to 2008, people thought we can could only win with big ales,” Lindecker said. “Then came El Oso.”
The Healdsburg facility has its grain silos refilled with 40,000 lbs of grain every two weeks, and it is milled locally. They use ingredients such as coriander, chocolate and molasses, before adding the yeast to “make magic.”
“In our business, the ‘born on’ date for domestic American lagers is actually the day it dies,” Lindecker said, explaining that filtering and pasteurization kills the yeast. “We make living, craft beer.”
Contributions to the Community
But it’s not just about beer for the larger producers. Lagunitas does not advertise, but relies on word-of-mouth, and in 2012 donated large amounts of beer or money to more than 2,000 nonprofit organizations for fundraising efforts, according to the EDB.
Bear Republic, which donated $40,000 to $70,000 in 2012-13, has even worked with the city of Cloverdale to address water issues that city has faced, although they use less than 1 percent of the water in the city, according to Clay Grosskopf of Bear Republic.
“We’ve been growing steadily since 2006 and we recently purchased the rest of the building in Cloverdale,” he said. “When we went to the city to apply for permits, they told us they didn’t have the water.”
Hence, Bear Republic entered into a unique public/private partnership to help the city commence with a well project, which should see two new wells online in July 2014. The brewery will advance the city nearly $500,000 as an advance payment on future water capacity fees.
Bear Republic is also working to reduce water usage by the recent installation of a bioelectric wastewater treatment system, which will also help generate electricity for the operation. Twenty-five to 30 percent of the company’s wastewater will be recycled through the new system, and when running at full capacity, could generate 50 percent of the company’s power needs.
Bear Republic has already cut its water use to half the industry standard, using about three gallons of water per gallon of beer as opposed to the six or seven most breweries use. “Twenty years ago, it was a 15-1 (ratio),” Grosskopf said. “We have flow trackers on every hose in the facility that is tracked on a computerized system … We’re the first company in the U.S. to install this unit.”
From the novice beer fan to the experienced beer enthusiast to homebrewers of all stripes, touring the local craft brewing facilities can be an educational, eye-opening and delicious experience.
Just be careful about having too many of those “breakfast beers.”
To book a tour with Bear Republic, call the Healdsburg Brewpub at 433-2337 or go to www.bearrepublic.com for more information.
To book a North Bay Brewery Tour, call 60-BREWS (602-7397) or go to www.northbaybrewerytours.com for more information and the Bay Beer Blog.
Lagunitas Brewing Company has a regular schedule of tours that can be found at lagunitas.com.
The Sonoma County Economic Development Board has a beer maponline at edb.sonoma-county.org, where the 2013 Sonoma County Craft Beverage Report can also be found under the “Economic Development Reports” tab. (http://edb.sonoma-county.org/pdf/2013/craft_beverage_report_2013.pdf)
Craft Beer Highlights
(all area codes 707)
Barley and Hops Tavern, Occidental
Bear Republic Brewing Company, Cloverdale and Healdsburg
Fogbelt Brewing Company, Santa Rosa
Lagunitas Brewing Company, Petaluma
Old Redwood Brewing Company, Windsor
Petaluma Henhouse, Petaluma
Ruth McGowan’s Brew Pub, Cloverdale
Russian River Brewing Company, Santa Rosa
St. Florian’s Brewery, Windsor
Stumptown Brewery & Smokehouse, Guerneville
Third Street Aleworks, Santa Rosa
101 North Brewing Company, Petaluma