Note: This profile originally appeared in Issue 66 of BeerAdvocate Magazine. Also – the brewery has since moved down the road, and there is now a sign.
There is no sign outside Dunbar Brewing Company proclaiming “Locals Only.” In fact, there isn’t really a sign outside Dunbar Brewing Company at all. With the exception of a sandwich board next to the small parking lot, there’s little to promote the hidden brewery tucked into the corner of a small commercial building in Santa Margarita in California’s central coast.
If you don’t know what to look for, you’re likely to drive right past the little beer haven deep in the heart of wine country. At just under 500-square feet, the brewery and accompanying tap room is a cozy spot to grab a pint when it reaches the maximum capacity of 25 people, and that’s just the way owner and brewmaster Chris Chambers likes it.
This One’s Just Right
Dunbar has undergone a variety of changes since its initial incarnation in 1997. Chambers originally opened the brewery in 1997 in nearby Los Osos, but closed three years later when he joined the Army National Guard to serve as a weapons trainer. After his service, Chambers relocated to Santa Margarita and opened the doors again on May 15, 2009, albeit with no fanfare.
“I guess I’m a little more modest than that,” he said. “We do well, so there’s no point in putting up a billboard on 101 saying ‘Microbrewery, 1/4 of a mile, turn left.’ For me it’s always been word of mouth. We’ve never done a lot of advertising. You found us.”
Five days a week, Chambers stands behind the bar pouring pints for regulars and the handful of visitors coming off the 101 freeway for a break. They are greeted by an impressive assortment of breweriana and the soulfully-melancholic voice of Johnny Cash (With no exceptions, Johnny Cash is played over the brewery’s sound system. Chambers explained that it is a “Cash-only” bar).
Most likely, visitors are greeted by familiar faces as well.
“I grew up in this town and I kind of got drug in (by some family friends),” said Lauren Galena, who was celebrating her 28th birthday at the brewery. “I know a lot of locals around here, and there’s good word of mouth”
Galena said that she comes to Dunbar about three times a week, once after Farmer’s Market on Thursdays, once after a family dinner on Sundays, and usually once more during the weekend. Adding, “there’s usually a different crowd for each night of the week. We’ve all got our nights.”
Chambers is proud to play an active part in the small community. He talked about Dunbar’s role in helping to build a local basketball court as well as the handful of beer dinners they host in collaboration with local restaurant Bonnie’s Kitchen.
“When I came into the industry in 1997, that’s how it was. Beer festivals were fundraisers for communities and along the way that got lost and it became for your back pocket,” he said. “I think now it’s going back to where it should be where more of the things are going on that the breweries that are around are more community-based and are focused on that, and it’s good to see. There was definitely a time there where it was lost, and I’m glad to see it coming back.”
The brewhouse rests about a yard away from the bar behind a wrought-iron cage. It is a small three-barrel system designed by Chambers and built by a local machine shop for the original Dunbar Brewing Company. The three-vessel brew house has a narrow elevated walkway alongside that allows Chambers easy access to the kettles, but also serves as a makeshift stage when patrons, or Chambers, have had a couple beers and want to jam on the acoustic guitars hanging on the wall next to the kettle.
Tastes Like Beer
Chambers’ passion for beer began during a brew session with friends, but, like so many other brewers that started in the 90s, blossomed into a full-blown obsession the more he explored the hobby.
“I had some friends that were brewing and they said hey you should come over and brew beer,” Chambers said. “It was basically heating up extract and calling it beer. I was like, ‘I don’t know what that was but I don’t think it was beer.’ It was pre-internet so I went out and bought a couple of books, started reading about it and started brewing. It’s always been my focus to perfect something instead of like most homebrewers do, brew all sorts of different things and cloning different beers, I started working on my own beers and continuing to brew them and work on the recipes until I perfected them – and those are the beers on tap today.”
Chambers says he formulated recipes and made decisions on grain additions by chewing the grains to see what they tasted like. The result was often dozens of carboys filled with various brews scattered throughout the shady parts of his living room.
The clutter eventually led to Dunbar’s initial opening, where Chambers’ creative efforts had a more reasonable outlet. After his time in the military, Chambers wanted to refocus his attention on the beer, and he wanted a brewery that reflected that.
“When we opened this place we talked about one thing that we both wanted was no TVs,” said Chambers’ wife, Lauren. “We just wanted it to be kind of somewhere you can come and hang out and it doesn’t matter who you are, you can find a common bond with everybody. I think that’s something that has really happened. Everybody that comes in just chats with everybody else and gets to connect with other people. That’s what it’s all about, good beer and good people.”
Simple and Traditional
Forget the fact that there’s no room for it, Chambers has no desire to start a barrel-aging program. He would rather focus his attention on crafting traditional and timeless British ales. To prove his point that good beer didn’t have to be extreme, Chambers brewed a single malt (Maris Otter) and single hop (Challenger) beer dubbed SMASH.
“Everything last year was over-the-top barrel aged,” he said. “I wanted to strip it down and go the exact opposite. When you have one grain and one hop, you can’t hide anything. I wanted to show the industry that we know what we’re doing and make an amazing beer. My intention was to only brew it once, but (my customers) won’t let me stop making it.”
The beer stands alongside a lineup that focuses on Chambers’ five mainstay beers (see sidebar), although there are a handful of seasonals and special offerings. One such special offering, to be unveiled in May as Dunbar’s third anniversary beer, was still hidden away in carboys tucked alongside the wall of the brewery’s tiny fermentation room and makeshift cellar.
Chambers brews once a week and occasionally one of his regular taps will dry up before the next batch is ready, but that’s just the way it is at Dunbar. He may be unapologetic about his brewing schedule or the size of the bar, but he’s always welcoming to a familiar face or a stranger. After all, as Lauren Galena said, “It’s a family here. I know that’s funny to say about a bar, but it is. It’s a family.”
Sean Lewis is a home brewer, a freelance journalist and is currently working on his first book for St. Martin’s Press