Orange County begins to make its mark on the craft beer market.
By Linda Domingo
It’s Wednesday evening, and the tasting room at Noble Ale Works in Anaheim is beginning to fill up. Owner Jerry Kolbly is making sure all the brewery’s moving parts are in tiptop shape. He finally sits down to have a beer with his brewer, Evan Price, who’s sitting next to Matthew Olesh, the Placentia-based Bruery’s director of retail operations. The men sip from tall glasses, and the conversation rarely strays from topics related to the beverage they’re enjoying. It’s hardly an uncommon sight—to see the key players from various Orange County breweries at one table, swapping stories and tricks of the trade. The breweries even share yeast and equipment, and regularly collaborate on special edition brews.
“In this industry, our competition is Budweiser,” Jerry says. “It’s never a competition [between OC craft breweries]; it’s cooperation. … We’re many years behind what San Diego is doing, and in order to get there, we have to work as a team.”
The craft beer scene in OC is just on the verge of exploding, with seven of the county’s nine breweries (distinguished from brewpubs: restaurant-breweries that brew beer primarily for sale in their restaurants) opening in the past five years. And the recent growth reflects a national trend; according to the Brewers Association, the craft brewing industry grew 15 percent by volume in 2012, with more than 400 breweries opening in the country last year. Locally, the growth shows no sign of slowing: More breweries are slated to open in OC this year, and local brewers agree that craft beer is here to stay.
While Irvine’s Bayhawk Ales (opened in 1994) and San Clemente’s Left Coast Brewing Co. (opened in 2004) are OC’s oldest breweries, both are producer-breweries that brew for other companies. Left Coast did not open a tasting room to the public until this year, and Bayhawk still lacks a tasting room. Instead, two other breweries are credited with kick-starting the recent craft brew movement in OC: The Bruery, which opened in 2008, and Bootlegger’s Brewery in Fullerton, which followed just a few months later.
“Back then, [The Bruery and Bootlegger’s] were it—there wasn’t much else,” explains Benjamin Weiss, The Bruery’s director of marketing since the company’s beginnings. “As a 5-year-old company, now we’re the old guys on the block who people call for advice when they’re starting breweries.”
He adds that as one of the first breweries to open in the area presented unique challenges, including navigating health codes that were made for food processing facilities rather than for breweries. “A lot of the governmental agencies didn’t really know what they were looking for,” he says. “They would come in and say, ‘You can’t do that; that’s against health code.’ And then we’d say, ‘If we don’t do that, we can’t brew beer.’ And then they’d go, ‘Oh, I guess that’s OK then.’ It was a big learning curve.”
Patricia Barkenhagen, Bootlegger’s co-owner and one of the few women in what seems to be a boys’ club of brewers, echoes Benjamin’s experience: “It was unfamiliar territory. It was a little bit of a struggle just opening up, but back then, people didn’t really know what craft beer was.”
Despite the industry’s growth, Jerry says that opening Noble in 2010 was still a long and difficult process, taking twice as long and twice as much money as he initially anticipated. But that extended process is slowly changing, as more facilities open and the community and government organizations become more knowledgeable about beer. Jerry notes that Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait is a craft beer advocate who has been trying to attract more breweries and beer lovers to the city with initiatives like the OC Fest of Ales, an annual beer festival that took over the city’s Center Street Promenade for the second time in September.
Alcohol by Volume
Breweries have gained a foothold in north county, a region easily accessed via multiple freeways—which may explain the area’s continued popularity as a destination for breweries and craft beer aficionados. South county, however, has seen slower growth, with only one brewery, Cismontane Brewing Co., opening in the past five years. The small distributor, which opened in 2010, is tucked away in a shopping center in Rancho Santa Margarita, and owner Evan Weinberg explains that even though the brewery sees some business from south county, most of its distribution is in Los Angeles.
“It’s kind of weird being one of the only production breweries in south Orange County,” Evan says. “Traditionally, south Orange County has been really wine-centric. Beer’s always been the ‘other’ thing that people drink. … When we first started, we couldn’t get an account in south Orange County to save our lives.” But Evan foresees change, especially because a handful of south county restaurants recently have shown support of the movement.
“It’ll happen,” he adds. “It’s just a matter of time before people start to figure it out. I think when people have a good craft beer, it kind of changes their perspective forever.”
Small batch, OC-brewed beer is steadily gaining a following not only among young people looking for the newest trend or most unique flavors, but with consumers of all ages who are increasingly attracted to artisanal and local products. “The whole food industry is going fresh, local, handmade—the whole concept behind craft,” Benjamin says. To that end, many OC breweries offer beers that are locally exclusive, or only available in their tasting rooms. The Bruery’s oak-aged American red ale, Loakal Red, is only distributed in OC; likewise, Bootlegger’s beer is only available in Southern California. “Our whole thing is ‘drink fresh, drink local,’ ” Patricia says.
Another treat for the craft breweries’ communities is the common practice of pilot brewing—essentially conducting small-scale experiments. “We allow our staff to express themselves,” Patricia explains. “If they ever want to try a test batch, we’ll do a small one here, and then we’ll present it in our tasting room. If it does well, we’ll scale it up.”
A Long Shelf Life
This isn’t the first time the craft beer industry has experienced a substantial bump—in the 1990s, the United States saw huge growth in the sector with hundreds of breweries opening, only to shutter in the second half of the decade. Rather than minimize the movement this time around as a mere fad, however, the OC brewers agree that the recent growth is more organic, with a focus on quality rather than quantity. Many of the brewers have been passionate about beer since they were old enough to drink, and their decisions to open breweries stemmed from a love of craft beer rather than the desire to hop on a moneymaking bandwagon.
“Now, we’re meeting kids in their early 20s that have never had Budweiser,” Evan says. “They don’t even know what it tastes like. The craft beer movement is here to stay.”
Additionally, craft beer is now more accessible than ever—brewery doors are wide open to neophytes and connoisseurs alike. “Our staff are all Cicerone Beer Server certified, so they have the knowledge,” Patricia says. “You can come in and ask questions. … You don’t have to know beer. That’s what we’re here for.”
Publications such as Beer Paper LA, which covers both the LA and OC craft beer scenes, websites including occraftbeer.com and documentaries like “The Art of Beer”—a short film viewable on the Internet about the impact of craft beer on Southern California, featuring a few OC bars—are taking note of and documenting the impressive rise of the craft brew in our own front yards.
“I’m glad to be in Orange County—I’m glad we’re creating a scene here,” Jerry says. “San Diego’s got enough scene down there. … I really feel that we—along with the other few breweries—are going to be the ones, 10 years from now, that started it. We’ll be the first ones out of the gate.”
Also characteristic of the current movement is the collaborative spirit of the craft breweries, who, in OC, seem to unanimously agree that they’re all in it together to grow the scene and make Orange County a craft beer destination alongside places like San Diego and LA. Some breweries, like The Bruery, have even gotten together with others to make special edition, collaborative beers. “Imagine Toyota calling Honda and saying, ‘Hey man, we make cars. You also make cool cars. We should do a car together.’ That’s what it is. … It makes no sense to me,” Benjamin says. “I’m sure [with] big breweries, it’s another world. But with craft beer, we’re all best friends.
“Craft beer is … like 6 or 7 percent of the entire beer market,” he adds. “Most of it’s Bud, Miller, Coors or imports. So, drink any craft beer. Craft beer drinkers tend to be pretty promiscuous as it is. … We all just hang out and drink each other’s beer. The more, the better.” LBM