Beside the driveway to the Moonlight Brewery near Sebastopol, a small white sign leans against a 16-foot pole in the hop yard. “Abbey de St. Humulus, Anno 2005,” it reads. Humulus lupulus is the scientific name for hops, but this is no European-style Abbey. Rather, it is a California monastery of the imagination.
Above the left pocket of owner Brian Hunt’s gray, official-looking shirt is his Moonlight label. On the right are embroidered the words “Fr. Jean-Pierre, Director of Ecumenical Services”—which could be one reason why rumors have circulated that Hunt is a monastic man. Apocryphal. However, this brew master does have the religious zeal of a missionary spreading the faith of quality craft beer through a land of drinkers guzzling dreck from a can. What drives him?
“The best craft beer possible,” he says. His enlightenment occurred some years ago in Leeds, England, during the Real Ale Festival. After tasting some of Britain’s best, he felt the calling to make better beer himself, but to do it on his own terms. Sitting in a plastic Adirondack chair on his gravel driveway on a wooded hill, shifting every 20 minutes to stay in the mid-day sun, he reveals his teaching.
“I’m just supporting my habit,” he says. (Friars wear habits.) “Just like a chef, I have to know my ingredients. I taste the grains, I chew on the herbs. Sometimes I make a tea. I pretty much just wrap my head around it.” After that there are no experimental small batches.
He makes 10 to 15 barrels and just puts it out there. Each barrel contains 104 pint glasses. Such confidence.
Hunt pours himself a glass of Moonlight and eagerly stops in front of a maze of piping near where his mash is initially filtered—the first step in the process—and in the fermentation room between tall cylinders full of beer in the making, obviously proud of what he has accomplished. Everything is contained in the square, gray brewery that he built in 2003. At an efficient 1,000 square feet, it is the largest commercial building the county would allow on his property.
Starting back in 1992 with much-used equipment cobbled together from other nearby breweries, Hunt now distributes his kegs throughout the Bay Area. When he talks about brewing, it is with the depth of devotion people usually reserve for discussions of philosophy or religion. He will not bottle his product because he believes that bottling ruins beer. Maybe it’s beer that runs through his veins.
“Whether it is beer or life, Brian thinks outside the box,” says Vinnie Cilurzo, brewmaster and co-owner, with his wife, Natalie, of Russian River Brewing Company, and surely in that class of unusual brewmasters himself. (For “outside the box,” read: “crazy alternative.”) “He is a pioneer in the craft beer industry.”
When Korbel closed its brewpub where Cilurzo was brewmaster and replanted the three acres of hops with grapes, he and his wife brought rhizomes for Hunt to plant. The two brewers shared the hops for a few years when both made a fresh hop beer, and they have become good friends. And while the Cilurzos eventually opened the Russian River Brewing Company in downtown Santa Rosa, Hunt has continued on his solitary path, making unusual beer from his own hops when he pleases.
Hunt has personal things he wants to keep secret. Any direct question about himself soon turns into a dissertation on another aspect of brewing. He made mead in his parent’s garage when he was only 15, but it was not with the typical teenager’s desire to get drunk; he just wanted to observe the magic.
That magic pulled him into biochemistry at San Diego State University, but he found that competing with pre-med students was not what he wanted. After two years, he transferred to the viticulture and enology program at UC Davis. His fermentation instructor, Dr. Michael Lewis, was also the brewing professor, and he gave Hunt a job working in his lab. The die was cast. He found the brewing department less competitive and more focused on the craft, which has its natural ups and downs.
At Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company of Milwaukee, his first job after graduating from Davis, Hunt was brought in to help turn around a faltering company. But he wasn’t a speech writer, which was evidently what they needed, for the CEO was quoted as saying that it didn’t matter what they put in the can, if it said “Schlitz” on the label, people would buy it. That was the death sentence for a brand that had once been America’s bestselling.
The brewers tried to bring back the public’s confidence. They succeeded in making a much better beer, Hunt says, but the damage was done. Budweiser took the lead and surged ahead. Schlitz management, concerned about maximum return on their investment, gave up, not reintroducing the brand to wide market sales again until 2008.
Hunt can find room in his soul to defend Budweiser, perhaps as part of his ecumenical duties. “Anheuser-Busch has tried to maintain quality, but also tried to be more efficient about it,” he says, a surprise for all the purists out there. He also stresses that when a company devotes too much time to advertising, it means it is paying less attention to quality. Since Hunt doesn’t advertise, he can devote all of his energy to quality. The result is a lot of happy drinkers.
Hunt has paid his dues as brewmaster for several craft breweries, and he’s ahead of the competition. Still, he’s relaxed, although always alert to a new train of thought about his favorite subject. He enjoys his life. He has a few Pinot Noir vines and makes wine. He grows enough hops, which his friends help him pick, to make a single batch of fresh hop beer every autumn. Because he won’t let the stuff touch glass unless it’s a customer’s glass, Moonlight is only found at area brewpubs, and the sign on his gate warns, “By appointment only.”
Occasionally, Hunt’s two daughters have helped with his business. “If they needed money badly enough, they were willing to wash kegs,” he allows. They are older now, which leaves Hunt as sole proprietor and employee. He makes about a thousand barrels of his product himself per year (compare to the 80,000 or so barrels that Lagunitas Brewery produces), sells his product himself, delivers his product himself, and if one is lucky enough to get an invitation to enter his brewery, will pour some of his product himself.
He has made Death and Taxes for years, as well as Lunatic Lager, Reality Czech, Bombay by Boat IPA and a few other regulars. But there is no telling what he will make next year for his special beer. “I like diversity in beer. I like to press the limits of what beer can do,” he says. “I want them to be intriguing. If everyone absolutely loves everything I’m making, then I’m really not experimenting enough.”
For the beer he calls Artemis, he reached back into history and used mugwort, Artemisia vulgaris, a plant in the same genus as sagebrush and tarragon. Mugwort is one of the herbs used in gruit, which the church in the Middle Ages ordained to be the only flavoring in beer. Hunt assures that drinking a pint of this every day for a week produces beautiful dreams.
In the beer he calls Working for Tips, he reached up into the branches of the redwood tree next to his brewery. The new growth gives a fresh taste to the drink while a few inches back, the needles contribute a more bitter flavor.
Just to keep things balanced, he calls Twist of Fate his “ultimate session beer. At 5.5 percent alcohol, it offers enough calories for stamina, and the hop content keeps your temperament relatively stable,” he says. To put it another way, three pints won’t get drinkers blitzed.
Next season it will be something new, something totally different, something no other brewery is making.
Yeah, he does this. It’s his calling. And whatever he does, he does it for you.
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