By Joel Hersch
The world of craft brewing, which first blossomed during the ‘70s in the garages and backyards of homebrewers craving more character and flavor than the major labels were providing, has begun to open up in unprecedented, palate- and mind-expanding ways. This evolution is prompting beer lovers to rethink what defines truly excellent beer. In Santa Cruz County, as local brewers hone their craft into entirely unique niches and new restaurants intertwine menus with the fruits of their labors, there’s no better place to experience what some are calling a
craft brewing revolution.
In the past year, a number of new restaurants and taprooms have opened their doors here in Santa Cruz—Lúpulo Craft Beer House on Cathcart Street downtown, Beer Thirty Bottle Shop & Pour House in Soquel, West End Tap & Kitchen on Santa Cruz’s Westside, and Assembly on Pacific Avenue. All pay homage to traditional European brew houses, featuring beer-literate bartenders, community seating where patrons can spark up conversations, and a diverse rotation of beers from craft microbreweries. In seeking out and showcasing these craft beers by small breweries—whose production may be so low and niche it never makes its way into stores and restaurants—new light is shown on the ever-evolving world of craft brewing.
According to Zachary Davis, the co-founder of Assembly, which opened its doors in March, their aim is to serve artisan food and drink, both beer and wine, in ways that enable patrons to shed their preconceptions and expand their knowledge—especially when it comes to the beer. He describes a transition in craft brewing that’s bringing the most dedicated brewers into a class on par with that of winemakers, producing a beverage sophisticated and complex enough to war- rant deeper contemplation than most consumers have given to a market dominated by the light-adjunct lagers of mega brewers such as Anheuser-Busch (Budweiser) or the Coors Brewing Company.
“The craft beer industry is approaching this new level of maturity, and it’s producing brewers of a skill level that’s re- ally starting to match those of master vintners,” Davis says. “Brewers are finding niches and expanding them in ways that haven’t been done before. They’re changing a style, exploring it, and making their own best version of it. It’s like a brewing revolution.”
Adair Paterno and Tim Clifford, the founders of Sante Adairius Rustic Ales in Capitola, are a good example of two brewers exploring the intricacies of a style; in their case, the Belgian-style saison.
Despite their low production—Sante Adairius sells most of their annual 750 barrels of beer out of a small Capitola brew- ing facility and tasting room—the microbrewery has become known near and far for their sour beers, a brewing technique that incorporates yeast and bacteria to produce tart, delicately acidic flavors; techniques that have been used in Bel- gium for centuries. For examples, try the Saison Bernice or the SARA Loves Brett—“Brett” is a reference to the bacteria used in the brewing process called Brettanomyces.
The souring of a brew batch can sometimes occur accidentally for brewers and yield a beer far too pungent for consumption, but as they fine tune their techniques, some have begun to draw out the art and intrigue of these flavors through balance, regulation, and understanding consumers’ tastes.
“It’s increasingly common for brewers, rather than business people, to actually own craft breweries, and this closeness to the product and commitment to its quality allows the brewery and the consumer to grow together,” says Paterno. “At Sante Adairius we age many of our beers in wine barrels and often use what some would consider alternative yeasts and bacteria to coax dry, tart favors out of the fermentation.”
Craft breweries in the United States have proliferated dramatically in the past 30 years. According to the national Brewers Association, the number has gone from just eight in 1980 and 537 in 1994 to more than 2,400 in 2013. As of June last year, craft breweries are opening at a rate of more than one per day. But despite the growth, craft breweries hold only a small portion of America’s beer market share, says founder of Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing (SCMB) Emily Thomas.
In addition to brewers creating amazing new beers, the craft brew revolution is also an economic one. For craft brewers to get better traction in the industry, Thomas says the collective goal of the Brewers Association is for craft breweries to acquire 20 percent of the market share by 2020.
“It seems like a small amount, but right now we only have about 7 percent,” she says.
That increased market share for craft microbreweries will mean more buying power when it comes to the agricultural market, which is closely tied to breweries’ operations. SCMB brews a variety of creative, all-organic, seasonal beers— Horchata Pale Ales and Lavender IPAs, for instance—but their dedication to organic can make sourcing ingredients difficult.
With improved market buying power, she says craft micro- breweries, especially ones with strict criteria like hers, will have better access to raw farm goods such as hops and grains.
“So,” Thomas says, “to reach our goal [in just six years], it will take a revolution.”
One new microbrewery in Santa Cruz will be called New Bohemia Brewing Co., slated to open in February of next year. Its founder, brewer Dan Satterthwaite, knows the brewing world from both sides of the aisle; he brews for big label Gordon Biersch Brewing Company, which he call his “day job,” but was formerly an avid homebrewer. The New Bohemia brewery and taproom, or “NUBO,” will open on 41st Avenue near Pleasure Point.
Satterthwaite, who studied brewing overseas in Munich and worked for a stint at a small brewery in Germany’s Black Forest, will hone his craft around the traditional German brew- ing style in the lager format. He says that it is an exciting time for small craft brewers whose beers are being put on tap in restaurants like Assembly, Lúpulo, and West End Tap & Kitchen, but that it is just as exciting for all the beer lovers who get to taste their creations.
“These trends in brewing come from the pursuit of trying to do something that’s historically interesting—unique, non- repeatable versions of what we know as beer,” Satterthwaite says. “And that’s because of these small guys. They’re stretching the definition of beer.”