Note: This column originally appeared in the Nov. 6 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press. For more information, you can check out my farewell Q and A pieces with A.J. Stoll and Kevin Pratt on this site. I recently met with Fig Mountain’s new director of brewing operations, Mike Hastings, and will have more info on him at this space soon.
Santa Barbara’s beer culture stretches back to the late 1990s when brewers like Island Brewing Co.’s Paul Wright, Santa Barbara Brewing Co.’s Eric Rose (now owner of Hollister Brewing Co.) and The Brewhouse’s Pete Johnson were either already brewing great beer or getting close to opening their breweries. Nevermind the budding emergence of Firestone Walker Brewing Co. in Paso Robles.
But in 2010, the local beer scene was bolstered by the arrival of two men — Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co.’s A.J. Stoll and Santa Barbara Brewing’s Kevin Pratt.
In Stoll, Fig Mountain had found a young brewer with the chemical and brewing know-how to help the new brewery expand while creating award-winning beers in the process. In Pratt, Brewco brought in an experienced brewer.
Stoll brought acclaim to Fig Mountain, and Pratt restored Brewco’s reputation as more than just a tourist trap.
And now, Santa Barbara is saying farewell to both.
Both brewmasters recently announced that they are departing their breweries this month for new ventures and new opportunities.
Stoll is off to Ireland, his ancestral homeland, where he and his partners are planning on opening Killarney Brewing Co. in a market he thinks is ready to explode in the same way the U.S. market has over the past decade or two.
“I always encouraged my staff to elevate themselves and take on new responsibilities and positions, and so that’s basically the same thing I’m doing,” Stoll told the News-Press. “My goal is to be an international brewery consultant … So in the short term, I’m going to this start-up in Ireland, and in the long term, what I’m going to be is I’ll be all over the shelf.”
Stoll will serve as a consultant for Fig, which is elevating head brewer Mike Hastings to director of brewing operations. Stoll will also help the Buellton-based brewery expand into Germany — a longtime dream of CEO Jaime Dietenhofer.
Pratt isn’t going so far — just up the road to Creekside Brewing Co. in San Luis Obispo. Pratt and his partners, under the umbrella of the newly formed Heirloom Brewing Co., are taking over the brewery as the first step toward establishing Heirloom as a production brewery.
Creekside won’t change much immediately but it will eventually serve as a tasting room and experimental facility for the larger production plant.
“We didn’t buy it to turn it into something else,” said Pratt. “We bought it because it was already a functioning brewery and already in the right construct we’re looking for — and a great location.”
The changes forced me to take stock of what we truly have here in Santa Barbara, and I went to visit an old favorite in The Brewhouse. Johnson continues to make high-quality, interesting beers out of his seven-barrel brewhouse. Recently, I sat down with him to taste some of the new beers on tap.
A favorite is the Milkman’s Handshake — a rich milk stout with loads of chocolate and roasted coffee notes to complement the sweetness from the lactose that gives the style its name.
Always a great place for strong beer, The Brewhouse also offers a Russian imperial stout playfully dubbed Crimea River. I also enjoyed the return of Football Saison, a staple for local drinkers every fall. The saison was dry and loaded with beautiful peppery aromas on the back end that you might expect from a saison, but at more than 7 percent alcohol by volume, it packs more of a punch than the typical farmhouse-style ale.
The Brewhouse is also about to release its 11th Harvest Ale. The annual beer utilizes fresh hops grown behind The Brewhouse and is a revelation of hop flavor and aroma.
It’s true that Pratt and Stoll brought great things to the Santa Barbara beer scene, and it will certainly be sad to see them and their talents go. But despair not, for the local community remains alive and well in those who have been around and are staying around.
Sean Lewis is a beer drinker, beer maker and the author of “We Make Beer: Inside the Spirit and Artistry of America’s Craft Brewers” (St. Martin’s Press). His column appears the first Thursday of the month. Follow him on Twitter @Sean_M_Lewis.