It was somewhere between 1 and 3 a.m. on a Wednesday morning, and a plume of steam was rising above Santa Barbara Brewing Company. It was something of a majestic signal flare above the quiet downtown streets, as it shone in the glow of the city streets.
The source of the steam was inside, where brewmaster Kevin Pratt and I were brewing a collaboration project. Painted Cave Porter was based on a well-worn homebrew recipe of mine, and Kevin scaled it up to produce the same beer on his much larger system.
This beer, which was released at the pub in late October and should stay on tap at least through the fall, may have Porter in the name – but it does not fit neatly into any specific category. It was originally formulated as an offbeat Black IPA, but without the de-bittered malts that turn those beers black without adding much roasted character.
In place of those malts, I use black patent and chocolate malts, which give strong flavors of toast (burnt toast if too much is used) and chocolate. Mixed with a strong hop load and hit with a generous amount of hops during the fermentation process for extra aroma, the beer lands somewhere in the uncharted area between a Robust Porter and an IPA, so we settled on Robust American Dark Ale, or RAD.
Ultimately, though, it’s just beer. It is meant to reaffirm everything that is delicious about dark beer, while simultaneously challenging everything you think dark beer tastes like. And if I do say so myself, it’s quite good.
But what’s most important, is that a beer like this really wouldn’t have been possible at Santa Barbara Brewing Company without Kevin.
This was the first of what Kevin hopes to be a series of collaborations with local members of the beer community – this includes guys like The Sentinel’s beer columnist Zach Rosen, who was on hand for the beer’s release and gave it his stamp of approval in his column. It’s one of the many steps Kevin has taken to rehabilitate the beer and reputation of Santa Barbara’s eponymous brewpub.
Years ago, when Eric Rose was in charge, SB Brewing Company was winning medal after medal at the annual Great American Beer Festival. SB Brewing Company was part of a growing craft beer community, and was well-received at every turn.
But Eric left, as brewers of his talent are wont to do, and started his own brewpub – Hollister Brewing Co. in Goleta. Over the years between Eric and Kevin, Santa Barbara Brewing had a handful of brewers in charge. Some of them, like Chas Cloud who went on to be the head brewer at Surf Brewery in Ventura, were quite capable. However, the brewery was soon falling into disrepair.
When Kevin arrived in June, 2011, the previous brewer had already skipped town without even announcing his departure. There wasn’t much beer left in the tanks, and what was there wasn’t very good. The brewing equipment itself was in desperate need of attention.
Kevin set about repairing manifolds, rerouting piping and generally fixing, cleaning and reorganizing the entire production side of the facility. It’s a never-ending process, and Kevin is constantly tweaking the system to increase efficiency.
Soon after his arrival, Kevin had the equipment operating at a high level. It was working well enough that plumes of steam like the one I saw on the night I brewed there began popping out of the vents with regularity. It had been a foreign sight for so long that some neighbors even called the fire department for fear that the building was burning.
Kevin recalled a similar encounter.
“One night a cop was outside and knocked on the door,” Kevin said. “He asked about the steam and when I explained what it was he said ‘I’ve never seen that before.’ I said, ‘I know. I fixed it.’”
Not only does his constant tinkering help Kevin’s control of the final product – something that makes him happy – it also helps him ensure that he gets the most beer as possible out of his raw ingredients – something that makes the brewpub owners happy.
The next step is to make the customer happy.
Kevin knows that part of that involves making people like Zach Rosen and me interested, so that we can share our stories. But the biggest key to the consumer’s heart is through his and her tastebuds.
It has been a slow and steady trudge back toward respectability, but SB Brewing Company has made the trip and is better for it. With a fall lineup that will include Painted Cave Porter and a return of one of my favorite big beers, Old Wrecollection Barleywine, Brewco is back in prominence among a growing and diverse Santa Barbara beer community.