What it Means to be a Community Brewery

pure order board

Recently, I had the opportunity to give a short speech at Blue Box 2015 — a conference hosted by First Beverage Group in Boulder, Colorado. It was a great opportunity to mingle with some movers and shakers in the beverage world, but I took it as a chance to talk about what it means to be part of a brewing community, and a collaborator within that community.

I believe video from that conference will be up soon, and I’ll post a link when that happens. But rather than laboring through a video of me nervously addressing strangers, you need look no further than one of our own local breweries to see what it means to be part of a brewing community.

Pure Order Brewing Company on 410 Quarantina Street is the epitome of the neighborhood brewery. They, along with Telegraph Brewing on Salsipuedes Street, are where the locals go for a drink when the crowds of visitors in the Funk Zone get a bit outside of comfort range. And for good reason — both breweries are making incredible beer.

Pure Order was recently among the winners at the Casa Pacifica in Ventura along with Institution Ales from Camarillo and The LAB in Agoura. While those other two are both great breweries, Pure Order was the only one in the winner list with a beer off its standard and regular production line — the Santa Barbara Pale. That beer will also be part of the upcoming Cost Plus World Market Summer Seasonal Variety Pack, which will be available nationwide. That’s a pretty big deal.

And yet, it’s Pure Order’s ability to keep things small and local that sets them apart. Recently, they’ve been helping me out by loaning their time, space and some equipment to help me brew 60 gallons of beer for a friend’s upcoming June wedding (and yes, full disclosure, this help is greatly appreciated and I’m sure impacts my favorable bias toward them. They also carry my book, We Make Beer, so I’m sure that doesn’t hurt either. I’m only human, but I like to believe that my opinions can remain relatively objective). This isn’t just because I write a beer column in the local newspaper or because I run this blog. James Burge and Pure Order are willing to help me out because I’m part of the local brewing community — the same way I’ve seen them help out home brewers who come in looking for advice and perhaps experience.

10 gallons of Strawberry Solstice, a collaboration beer I've brewed with Pure Order Brewing Company for an upcoming wedding.

10 gallons of Strawberry Solstice, a collaboration beer I’ve brewed with Pure Order Brewing Company for an upcoming wedding.

More and more often I hear locals tell me that Pure Order is their favorite brewery in town. I don’t think that’s a knock on any of the other breweries, as just about every brewery from Buellton to Carpinteria is producing high-quality beer right now (and one need look no further than the recent Dia de Los Obscuras to see how the beer community has embraced Telegraph). I think what that represents is how Pure Order has managed to capture Santa Barbara’s essence. Not just in the beer, but in the entire atmosphere provided at the brewery and its beer garden.

Beer isn’t just a business, at least it shouldn’t be. The best breweries aren’t just the ones pumping out the best liquid, they’re also the ones that represent and collaborate within the community (along those lines — there was a recent Instagram post from Kevin Ashford from Fig Mountain’s SB brewery showing a collaboration effort with Island Brewing’s Ryan Morrill, as well as both breweries’ brewing teams). Pure Order, certainly isn’t the only local brewery to embrace the community, but it’s embraced me, and I’m grateful.

edit: a previous version of this post misidentified Ryan Morrill as a brewer for Telegraph — he is the head brewer for Island Brewing in Carpinteria.

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Rumors? Rumors! …oh and new beer

I’ve had the fortunate displeasure of being busy with work lately, which has distracted me from the free enterprise of blogging. Without further ado, I’d like to spread some news that I’ve heard. I’d like to stress that these are only rumors and are subject to change.

Brewco

First up, I tasted a couple of new beers at Santa Barbara Brewing Company. The first was a new American Brown Ale, I believe it was dubbed Haley’s Brown (I should have taken notes). It was far hoppier than I expected, and for the first sip the bitterness took me aback. It brought out some of the roasted notes and gave a suggestion of coffee. But, emboldened by that first sip, I went on and tried a little more and as I became accustomed to the flavors I really liked it.

Next up was brewmaster Kevin Pratt’s second iteration of the popular Pacific Pale Ale. I was sad to see the previous recipe go, as it was typically my favorite beer there, but my palate is fickle and quickly warmed up to the new version. The beer wasn’t quite ready to be served yet, but the aroma was inviting enough to make me want to dive in it and maybe just live there for a while. It reminded me of Firestone-Walker Pale 31, which I’ve often said is the one beer I would live on if I had to live on only one beer.

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The same day as the SB Brewco tasting, Kevin Pratt and I had lunch with James and David Burge. Things continue to move slowly for the Burges, but at least they are slowly moving. Still no word on an exact opening, but it appears to be about a month or so away. In the meantime, they gave us a pretty picture to look at via their twitter feed:

(I’m not sure what the issue is with embedding tweets on this blog. I will have to figure that out and fix it).

Telegraph

Telegraph gave locals a sneak peak at their new tasting room during a recent Edible Santa Barbara event. I missed out on the event, but heard it went well. I also heard their new tasting room will be up and running in about a month. This will require more investigation and further reporting, and I will get back on this.

Fattys

Lastly, these guys. I don’t know much about these guys except that they are one of two or three new breweries opening in the area. I hear they’re small (batch sizes measured in gallons, not barrels) and I hear they’re new. That’s about it. Rumors have them located in Goleta, but I’m not positive on that. Again, there will be updates on Captain Fatty’s soon to come.

That’s it for rumors. If you know of more, feel free to share it with me here:

Institution Ale Company Opens

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Making the leap from home to pro brewer is something I, and probably every other homebrewer, dreams about. I know James Burge from Pure Order Brewing was dreaming about it long enough to do it. So too have my friends Ryan and Shaun Smith (with their father as their third partner) been dreaming.

The brothers and father team has finally made their dreams manifest, as Institution Ale Company opened on Wednesday to the public in Camarillo.

Now that we’re not talking about dreams anymore, we can talk about facts. One undeniable fact is that the leap from home to pro brewer is a difficult one. Forget about the fact that it’s hard enough to raise the kind of capital necessary to start any business, let alone one that requires a lengthy government permitting process and expensive brewing equipment. There are many issues that the pro brewer faces that homebrewers don’t. Each batch of professionally made beer has to taste consistently good. One bad batch can ruin the perception of a brewery.* A successful commercial brewery also has to be able to sell its beer. A world-class IPA doesn’t make any money wasting away in a brewery’s cold room.

With those challenges in mind, I did a little mental evaluation of Institution when I visited over the weekend just prior to their opening.

The first, and most impressive, thing I noticed was how professional everything looked. The brewery never had the feel of a beginner’s place, but more like the kind of spot a veteran brewer would open after a career of brewing for others. Everything was built by Premier Stainless, and quality-control elements were on full display. It’s so reassuring to see newcomers with glycol-jacketed stainless steel fermentation vessels instead of plastic barrels. Obviously it’s a bigger initial investment, but a worthwhile one.

Institution’s professionalism went well beyond having good equipment though. Even the little touches, such as custom kegs with the brewery’s name stamped on them, and printed keg collars (as opposed to sticker labels attached to generic collars) stood out. They are certainly small touches, but ones that give the perception of professionalism and experience rather than a hayseed start-up.

Those flourishes and details are important – maybe even crucial – but nothing matters as much as the beer. In that regard, I was very pleased to see that Ryan Smith** and Institution have nailed it. We sampled three beers on our brief visit – a Pale Ale (Batch 1), an IPA (Institution IPA) and a Red Ale (Sedation***). Batch 1 was the first batch brewed on the new system, and it had some rough edges, but was still a rather enjoyable Pale Ale. It came out a little more bitter than expected (each system is different, and pro systems often get much better hop utilization than homebrew setups), but there’s always room for extra hoppiness in today’s market. Institution IPA, on the other hand, was already a masterpiece. Brilliantly clear, yet unfiltered, it was also incredibly balanced. There was a delicate sweetness that was just subtle enough to let a glorious bouquet of hop aromas and flavors steal the show. We tasted Sedation right out of the fermentor, so it was a little flat, but I also found it to be incredibly well balanced and thought it had a delightful hop presence without being bitter. Shaun suggested that even though no bittering hops were used (the first hop addition comes during the whirlpool), he felt it was still too bitter (the whirlpool process is longer and hotter at the commercial level, and thus extracts more IBU out of hops than a homebrew setup). I disagree. I felt it was a beautiful example of a Red Ale, but I understand where Shaun was coming from. Most of Institution’s beers are hop-forward, and Sedation is meant to be a beer for a malt-loving crowd.

Whatever changes are made to recipes in the future, I’m confident that they will result in equally impressive beers. Shaun impressed me with his meticulous nature through every step of the brewing process, and that dedication is reflected in the finely-crafted finished product.

I do have one concern, and it is regarding this:

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That is Institution’s 5-barrel brewing system. I already mentioned how much I loved their equipment, and this system is no exception. It is well crafted, and should make excellent beer for many years. The question is, will it make enough? Breweries need to operate with a certain level of profit in order to succeed, and that can be hard to do on a smaller system. My guess is that Institution may need a strong tasting-room crowd to drive enough revenue, as the profit margin on beer poured on site is much higher than on kegs of beer at bars.

However, I must add that Shaun and Ryan already have an eye on expansion. There is already room and infrastructure in place to double fermentation capacity, and Shaun suggested that a new system may be in the works after three years.

In any case, I have nothing but faith in Institution Ale Company. I was thoroughly impressed with every aspect (even the tasting room design is simple and elegant), and I feel like it’s going to be a regular pit stop on trips between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles (it’s not too far from the Lewis Rd. exit in Camarillo – maybe a mile or so in easy traffic). I’m proud of the efforts thus far, and can’t wait to burn through some of my homebrew kegs so I can get their IPA on tap in my home.

*I once had a spoiled six-pack from Southern Tier, and I never purchased another sixer from them again – I did buy some more Iniquity though in bombers.

**Ryan runs the brewing operations, while Shaun handles the business and marketing side – although in a small start-up like Institution the roles aren’t necessarily rigid.

***Institution’s name is a play on the former insane asylum in Camarillo, so many of their beer names play with that theme.

Rumors and New Beer

John Palmer

Yesterday I was up at Valley Brewers to buy ingredients to get ingredients for a couple batches I’ll be brewing for their upcoming competition* and Sandy Harrison, the proprietor, mentioned that John Palmer, the author of How to Brew and the guy who essentially first taught me how to make beer (through his book, not in person) will be in the store on September 14. I must stress that this is not completely official, so I don’t want to give out specific times that could very likely change. This is also the same day as Firestone-Walker’s release of Velvet Merkin, so there may be some sort of tie-in or there could be a conflict. Right now it’s basically just a rumor, but it’s kind of a juicy one so I wanted to get it out there.

Yet another rumor – There will be a new brewery opening in Goleta. That’s basically all I have right now, but trust there will be more info on that once I get it.

Brewco

Yesterday was essentially a free day for me, so I spent it doing what I do best – drinking beer. After Valley Brewers (where another brewer shared a couple of Belgian Strong Ales with me that were much appreciated), it was back down to Santa Barbara proper for the new SIPA at Santa Barbara Brewing Company. The new beer isn’t quite a Pale Ale, and not quite an IPA. It’s something interesting. Made with 100% Munich Malt for the grist and with a healthy dose of Nelson Sauvign aroma hops (but no dry hops), it’s a beer that is simultaneously straightforward and complex. As always, it’s Kevin Pratt demonstrating that he clearly knows how to make the most out of his ingredients. I tasted it earlier in the week before it had been carbonated and filtered, and the grassy bitterness really took me by surprise. I had been expecting something with a ton of aroma but not a ton of bitterness, but it was almost the opposite (granted, the Nelson hops still stood out in the nose). On tap, it was just right. The bubbles lifted the bitterness off the tongue and took the harsh edge off it while helping the aroma pop out some more as well. It’s a one-off and might not be around for long, so get it while you can.

fig moutnain

Next it was over to Fig. Mountain’s Funk Zone location. I wanted to chat with brewer A.J. Stoll about Figtoberfest and get some quotes for my column, so Kevin Pratt and I went on over to see what was new. There were 16 beers on tap, the most I’ve seen at that location, including a Dunkel and a Bock. The Bock was called Sisquoc Bock – and I can’t remember the name of the Dunkel. Both are excellent dark lagers. These beers can have a tendency to get overpowered by plum flavors in the hands of less-skilled brewers, but A.J. is quite adept at making lagers and these are clean beers that allow the beautiful malt to really take the stage and shine.

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Because Santa Barbara is essentially a fishbowl, the boys from Pure Order brewing stopped by as well. James and David Burge said it was their first time at the Funk Zone spot (presumably they were the last Santa Barbarans to make it in there – but considering how busy they’ve been getting their own place up and running it’s understandable), and they wanted to meet A.J. and see what his brewery was like as well as taste his beers. In the meantime, we all wanted to know how things were going and they gave a little update. I had to leave before we could ply them with enough beer to spill all the details, but it sounded as though complications with their new power plant and the city of Santa Barbara have presented yet another hurdle in their opening. They still hope to open soon, and the beer community is anxious to see what they can do, but as always there’s a bit of red tape to get out of the way first.

That’s it. I will update those rumors (John Palmer, Pure Order’s opening, etc.) if I hear any more about them. If you’re wondering how the rest of the day went, it ended with a Lucero concert at Velvet Jones and enough F-W Double Barrel Ales to merit a cab ride home and a hangover this morning.

*I believe I mentioned before that Figtoberfest and the Valley Brewers Pro-Am would be the subject of my October column. It will instead be the focus of my September column (wouldn’t make too much sense to write about a homebrew competition two days before it’s judged when it would be way to late for folks to brew for it). It will come out on Sept. 5 – and will be on this blog on the 19th (or 20th… sometimes I forget).

Heads Up! Something’s Brewing East of the Funk Zone

Note: This column originally appeared in the Santa Barbara News Press on August 1.

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Heads Up! Something’s Brewing East of the Funk Zone

David Burge walked outside of the brick building and its roll-top doors to the cement path out front. He turned to face the patch of dirt and weeds on the property, and his eyes looked outward to see what wasn’t there yet.

“Here’s where we’re going to set up the beer garden, with tables and chairs and everything,” David said. “And back there closer to the fence we are thinking about planting some hops.”

The imaginary garden is all part of the plans for Santa Barbara’s newest brewery, Pure Order Brewing Co. at 410 N. Quarantina St., where David and his cousin, James Burge hope to make the leap from amateur home brewers to professionals. The duo hopes to be open in September, and looks to be on track to make their entry into the Santa Barbara beer scene with aplomb.

James will work as the owner/brewmaster, and brings along with him 12 years of home brewing experience. But moving from the kitchen into a production brewery means more than just scaling up a recipe from five gallons to 15 barrels (one barrel = 31 gallons). Fortunately, James and David seem to be on the right path.

The brewery’s indoor facility is dominated by four fermentation tanks that nearly scrape the ceiling. The brew kettle as well as the mash and lauter tun (the vessels used to extract sugar from barley) is tucked away into a corner alongside a large cold room.

In other words the Burges are doing just about everything right. A lot of home brewers make the mistake of jumping into the business with the same cost-cutting attitude that makes home brewing so appealing. However, with poor fermentation control and substandard equipment, many of those brewers are eventually washed away by a market that demands consistency.

Santa Barbara Brewing Company brewmaster Kevin Pratt was on hand for the little, behind-the-scenes peek into Pure Order Brewing, and he left the operation with a stamp of approval.

“This isn’t an amateur setup,” Kevin said. “This is a professional brewery.”

It was important to James and David to make this leap into the brewing business the right way – not just because they cared about the beer, but because they care about Santa Barbara.

The cousins searched for a location for about 18 months before settling on the North Quarantina spot. They nearly signed a lease in Goleta, but backed out at the last second.

“When it came down to signing the paperwork, we just couldn’t pull the trigger,” James said. “We wanted to be in Santa Barbara.”

“We want to be as authentic as possible,” added David, who grew up here and whose passion for his hometown is expressed in the brewery’s slogan, “The Beer of the American Riviera.”

The Burges aren’t alone in their desire to represent Santa Barbara as an emerging destination in the beer world. Telegraph Brewing Company, which has long been the only true packaging brewery in Santa Barbara, is moving one door down into a larger facility.

The old Quonset hut, which is still being renovated and is scheduled to open to the public around Labor Day, will be host to a bigger brewing system, bigger fermentation vessels and a much larger tasting room.

The expansion means that not only will Telegraph be able to brew more of the staples that have made the brewery so popular such as White Ale and California Ale, but the extra fermentation space and storage capacity means that special beers like Reserve Wheat and Petit Obscura will see increased production as well.

It also means an end to Telegraph’s wonky tasting room hours that formerly limited tasting to a few hours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

And as for the new competition moving in just a couple blocks away, Telegraph owner Brian Thompson isn’t too worried.

“I’ve met (James and David),” Brian said. “And they’re great guys. I’m really looking forward to their opening.”

If the lines that form outside of Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company’s funk zone location are any indication of the demand for locally-produced beer in Santa Barbara, then the light-industrial zone to the east should be able to sustain a larger presence from an old favorite and a couple of newcomers as well.

Ultimately, the addition of Pure Order and the expansion of Telegraph signifies a foamy, rising tide of better beer in Santa Barbara. The city may not be on quite the same level of a beer Mecca like Bend, Oregon, but these recent developments are steps in that direction.

Goings on In Santa Barbara – Pure Order and Telegraph

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I wanted to give you all a quick update about some exciting news in Santa Barbara’s beer scene. There will be more on this news in the August 8 edition of the News Press in my column.

First, there are some new players in Santa Barbara’s light industrial zone, as cousins James and Dave Burge are opening Pure Order Brewing Company at 410 Quarantina St. I was worried when I heard that a couple of non pros were jumping into the brewing business. Typically this approach leads to small batches of well-intended, but poorly executed beers.

However, I don’t think this will be the case with the Burges and Pure Order. The brewery is a full-fledged professional operation with no cut corners (at least not in the beer-making department). Dave is a die-hard Santa Barbaran, and I believe that his dedication to the local community will lead to some beautiful things out of the newest players in town. Look for them to open sometime in September (or, knowing the way things tend to work in this industry, October… fingers crossed for September).

Second, I took a peek inside Telegraph Brewing’s New facility. Some rumors were milling about that Telegraph was taking Carr’s space, but that’s simply not true. The Santa Barbara brewery is moving one door north, not south and is still remodeling the building. The good news is that there will be plenty of space for the brewery and a tasting room – which means the tasting room will actually operate on regular hours (my biggest pet peeve with Telegraph has been its wack tasting room hours).

The extra space in the brewery means lots of room to grow and an all-new brewhouse. The expansion will allow Telegraph to meet demand for its California Ale and White Ale, and it gives the brewery more time to focus on its specialty offerings – which, in my opinion, is where its true strength lies.

Check out my full thoughts and hear from the brewery owners themselves in my August 8 column.

SB Beer and the Mint 400

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the iconic and iconoclastic Hunter S. Thompson book begins as an ill-fated attempt to cover a dirt race outside of Sin City called the Mint 400. It was also what made me realize that I truly wanted to be a journalist, and that the journalistic staples of who, what, when, why and where didn’t have to be as dry as the desert air.

As soon as Thompson attempts his coverage of the race, the impossibility of the task is made clear. The clouds of dust and constant whirring of engines along the race’s route totally obfuscate the action in the same way that booze, ether and hallucinogens muddle up the later adventures of the book. There are those able to cut through the haze and see things that are going on, his clean-cut and highly professional photographer being one of them, but in doing so they miss the whole point. The buggies and bikes roaring through clouds of dust are on a meaningless and pointless path that only served to generate noise and dirt. As they bore on ceaselessly into the night, Thompson retreated to the bar where he could focus on those who stayed on the outside of the never ending race, but not so far away that they could not supply their own cynical opinions on the race. The whole incident stands as a metaphor for the people and stories that Thompson found to be truly intriguing. The subjects captured in his photographer’s lens were meaningless to him, because they were little more than interchangeable parts to the noisy, dirty race. Similarly, those who moved in conventional circles the way society intended were of little interest to Thompson. What followed in the book was an attempt to tell the story of the outliers and drifters that chose not to ride on the noisy, dirty and pointless race course laid out by society.

Wait… isn’t this a beer blog? It is. I’m getting there.

Some may argue that the craft beer industry began as something of a counterculture movement itself. Little guys like Sierra Nevada and Anchor pit themselves against brewing giants, and took every chance they could to gain a foothold into the marketplace. But the American Beer Revolution has progressed to a point that good beer has become mainstream – and breweries have become a part of popular culture and general society.

As the movement toward the middle continues, it is becoming more and more difficult to see through the opaque clouds of dust and understand what is really going on. With each press release announcing a brewery’s expansion or the arrival of a new brewery, more clouds of dirt are thrown into the air. Each of these things are newsworthy for their own reasons, but what about those clouds of dirt?

Thompson chose to ignore the race, and focus on those clouds of dirt. So if the takeaway from the Mint 400 was that the race was filthy and pointless, what is the takeaway from news like this announcement of the opening of Pure Order Brewing Company and the recent announcement of Telegraph Brewing Company’s expansion? It is certainly exciting, but I wonder what clouds of dirt are being thrown in the air here? Santa Barbara’s Funk Zone is already a haven for wineries, and now it appears that it will soon be an even more alluring destination for beer drinkers as well.

Pure Order will be located a mere block away from Telegraph’s new location (and its current one). Then there is the recently opened Figueroa Mountain brewery and taproom on Anacapa St., as well as old staples Santa Barbara Brewing Company and The Brewhouse. I want to be clear and state that I am excited, and I believe that this is ultimately a very positive thing for Santa Barbara and beer drinkers in the area. However, I hope that these breweries and brewers can avoid the pitfalls of the racers in the Mint 400. I hope that they can continue to push boundaries and explore new territory, so that when they do kick up dust, they do it on their own. A lone racer streaking through the desert with a rooster tail of sand behind him is a fascinating image. We celebrate that pioneer and innovator. A crowd of racers following the prescribed course gets lost in its own dust.