Something’s Brewing

Meet the North Bay homebrewers who are changing the beer world, one craft beer at a time

The line stretches down the block.

People from all walks of life are here, waiting on a Friday afternoon for a chance to taste one 10-ounce pour of beer. Stuck at the very end, watching the line move like molasses, is Steve Doty.

“I didn’t think it would be this crazy,” he says, shaking his head. “Obviously I was wrong.”

Doty’s here with his wife and hundreds of others at the Russian River Brewing Co. in downtown Santa Rosa for the release of Pliny the Younger, a double IPA with an 11-percent ABV. The potent, hopped-up beer—which last year jumped to No. 1 on Beer Advocate‘s rating of “Top Beers on Planet Earth”—is available just once a year, and people from Healdsburg to Hungary flock here to try it.

But Doty, a 29-year-old student, isn’t just sampling the sought-after beer; he plans on making his own version of Pliny the Younger, based on clone recipes found online, as soon as he can afford to buy the expensive hops required to replicate it.

Doty is part of an explosion of homebrewers across the North Bay obsessed with hops, malts and yeasts, blogging and tweeting about successes and failures along the way. Inspired by the creativity of intrepid craft brewers and with easy access to brewing equipment, homebrewers are making an enormous impact on the beer world at large—and the North Bay is at the forefront.

A homebrewer since he was 17, Doty began entering competitions in 2004 after perfecting his IPA recipe. In March, he’ll show off his skills on television; he’s just been cast in a reality show called Brew Your Own Beer TV in the Bay Area. “People are beginning to realize that you can make beer,” he says, “that’s maybe even better than what you can get in the store.”

Vinnie Cilurzo, owner of Russian River Brewing Co., agrees that the number of homebrewers is growing, and fast. “Absolutely,” Cilurzo says, pointing to the popularity of the Sonoma Beerocrats Homebrewing Club as one example. “They’re super active and all the local breweries totally support them,” he says.

Cilurzo started out brewing at home in 1989, and some of RRBC’s most popular beers, including Blind Pig and Damnation, began this way. The brewery’s rabid success since its 2002 opening has prevented Cilurzo from being as hands-on in the brewing process, but with the recent purchase of a homebrew system that can make 15 gallons of beer instead of the 620 gallons at the brewpub, Cilurzo is looking forward to getting back to the more experimental aspects of homebrew.

Cilurzo sees a connection between the continuing growth of craft beer breweries (as of 2009, there were 1,482 craft breweries across the United States) and beer lovers’ desire to recreate favorite beers at home. “It’s a great creative hobby. You can make what you want. It used to be that you brewed because there wasn’t a choice, but with the explosion of craft beer, that’s not the reason now,” says Cilurzo. “It’s the personal satisfaction of creating something, of being able to consume something that they physically made.”

Anthony Musick is one of those beer lovers. He started brewing beer 10 years ago in his kitchen, and today at the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center he’s making a California Commons, an Anchor Steam-style beer, his first foray into all-grain beer making. Tall and bearded, he heaves heavy stock pans onto the large burners in the OAEC communal kitchen. (Ironically, he’s moving a bit slow after drinking too much kegged Pabst Blue Ribbon the night before.) Musick plans on experimenting with ingredients from the springtime garden for his next batches of beer. Hops grow on the property, as well as rosemary and possibly yarrow, and he’ll use these to make obscure beer recipes from the book Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers by Stephen Harrod Buhner.

“Part of the appeal, and also part of what makes homebrewing so liberating, is that you can pretty much do whatever you want,” says Musick. “The sky’s the limit.”

The former bike mechanic became interested in brewing after he “graduated from King Cobra to decent beer.” As a fanzine editor who’s played in punk and indie bands for years, Musick gravitated naturally to the DIY aesthetic of homebrewing. His first beers were made on a single electric hot plate, but the beer he’s most proud of is a stout he and his girlfriend brewed with about a pound of dark roasted, organic coffee, which he says came out “awesome.”

“With the craft-beer revolution of the past decade and the growth of homebrew supply shops and online forums,” says Musick, tossing hops into a hot, bubbling kettle of wort, “everything’s been stepped up a bit.”

“I see home brewing growing and growing,” says Alan Atha, president of the Sonoma Beerocrats. In his black turtleneck sweater and gray beret, Atha resembles a beatnik or a college professor. A personal trainer and cycling coach, who calls nanobrewers like himself “new darlings of the scene,” says that the aspiring brewer should do three things: have a mentor; go all-grain; and go to school. (Even Atha still takes online classes with the World Brewing Academy.)

“We can take chances because all we brew is five gallons,” says Atha, “but they are smart chances. This is science and art.” Considered a neotraditionalist in local beer circles, it’s safe to assume that Atha and his “nano-brewery” Beltane Brewing won’t be producing experimental batches of smoked tamarillo beer or doughnut beer anytime soon.

But other brewers revel in wild possibilities. On a recent rainy afternoon, Sebastian Chevrolet stops in at Beverage People, a homebrewing and winemaking supply store in Santa Rosa, to pick up a special order of Belgian ale yeast. With him is eight-year-old son Mael, who sometimes helps sort through the hops and clean the boilers. Bob Peak, a partner at Beverage People since 2003, describes Chevrolet as a beer renegade, willing to play with flavors, styles and tastes in a way that other homebrewers are not. Peak has just finished telling me about his own experiments with quinoa ale (“Tasted like asparagus”) and a mugwort beer flavored with rosemary and redwood tips foraged from his backyard.

But Chevrolet is even more imaginative. He brews his beer outside, under a tarp. He’s currently working on a Belgian Tripel ale crossed with a West Coast IPA. “I’m doing so much weird stuff,” Chevrolet says in his thick French accent. “If you can crank out a beer that’s really weird, you can crank up the wow factor.”

Since he started brewing a few years ago, Chevrolet has made a bourbon cherry stout using 40 pounds of frozen cherries; a vanilla bean-wheat-cinnamon concoction that his friends called “ice cream beer”; and an imperial stout Cabernet that incorporated grapes.

Of course, every renegade has his epic fail. Chevrolet’s came when he cracked open a bottle of fresh-brewed ale and noticed that it smelled musty. He sipped on it anyway until his wife insisted that he throw it out. Later, as he cleaned out the boiler, he spotted two teeth at the bottom; a mouse or rat had gotten into the equipment and it’s fur and flesh had boiled into the beer. “Rat beer,” Chevrolet says with a smirk and shrug. Mael mimics gagging.

As Peak points out, homebrewers are lucky to have no commercial or legal restrictions, unlike commercial brewers. Like the band with no record contract, making fucked-up, innovative music in their parents’ basement, the lack of accountability lends itself to a certain daring willingness to try anything. This in turn inspires successful craft brewers to play with more challenging or out-of-the-ordinary flavor profiles, which in turn influences local microbreweries—who in turn influence major beasts like Coors and Anhauser-Busch. (Witness Anhauser-Busch’s Green Valley Brewing Co., a made-up name for its imposter microbrews.)

“There is an overall awareness that things are more accepted,” says Peak. “The commercial brewers have proof that people will be into it.”

This proof begins with local classes, which are booming with enrollment. “Gabe Jackson sold out of the first homebrewing class we offered recently. We had to add a second class,” says Peak.

“It’s very back-to-the-land,” says Robyn Rosemon, working across the counter at Beverage People. “People are growing their own hops. They’re interested in keeping things local.”

Rosemon has been at the store for nine years and brewed her first batch of beer when she was 21. Her recipe for Santa’s Little Helper Ale includes cinnamon, cloves, Northern Brewer hops and bitter orange peel, spice additions that make the beer kettle smell like hot pumpkin pie. Her intuitive attitude toward beermaking mirrors the cavalier reverence running through many homebrewers: they work with care and attention to create a final product that lets them throw all care and attention to the wind.

I decide that if I’m going to really dig into all this beer hubbub, I’ll need to take a class. David Graham and Dustin Ostroyeski, teachers of the Thursday-night beginning homebrew class at Bubble Beri in Cotati, stand before the room like characters in a Kevin Smith movie. Both wear backwards baseball caps and sport goatees and metal T-shirts. Ostroyeski’s long hair is pulled back in a ponytail; a bare toe peeps out from a hole in Graham’s checkered Vans. As they explain the basics of brewing—sparging, wort, malts, grains, yeasts, boiling temperatures— the room smells strongly of the grains bubbling away in the brew kettle. Graham and Ostroyeski show the class of 10 how to make barley wine, a hoppy, high-gravity beer using extracts. “We’re going to hop the hell out of this beer,” says Ostroyeski.

During the break, Ostroyeski, like many other brewers, cites Sam Calgione from Dogfish Head Brewery in Delaware as an inspiration for his willingness to push boundaries. Calgione has famously made beer out of everything from corn chewed up by human mouths to pieces of Maine cedar salvaged from a surfboard shop. But just as commonly referenced is New Albion Brewery, the extraordinary enterprise founded in 1976 by Jack McAuliffe in Sonoma, credited as the first post-Prohibition microbrewery in the country.

“How do you know if it’s good or not unless you do it?” asks Ostroyeski. “The Dogfish Head guy is where he is at today because of experimentation. He went on the outer edge.”

Graham offers us plastic cups of beer made for the recent Iron Brewer competition, sponsored by the Sonoma Beerocrats. Like Iron Chef, Iron Brewer involves the use of secret ingredients and teams of brewers. This year, the ingredients were black molasses and black licorice, and though Graham’s happy with the final product, he’s got bigger dreams when it comes to flavor profiles. He’d like to make a sourdough oatmeal apple cinnamon stout, and has considered throwing in a raw sourdough starter as his yeast. He also fantasizes about making a white chocolate and bacon beer.

“I kind of just want to see what happens,” Graham says with a laugh.

It’s this anything-goes attitude that keeps upping the creativity level for homebrewers like Alex Whitehurst. Now 24, Whitehurst decided against architecture studies in favor of pursuing a professional brewmaster’s certificate at UC Davis. It’s all part of a master plan, he says, to start a family-owned brewery and pub.

Whitehurst lives in a decidedly beer-centric house in Petaluma with his brother Eliott, but unlike most twenty-somethings, the brothers aren’t guzzling Natty Ice from beer bongs. They brew the good stuff out of their garage: bourbon barrel-aged brown ales. Gingersnap stouts. Imperial mole stouts. And tonight, the Whitehursts and friends play host to a beer dinner cooked up in the kitchen by San Francisco-based Mission Gastroclub, an underground dining club that specializes in pairing beer with delicious, locally sourced meals.

“I try to do the most off-the-wall things,” says Whitehurst over a plate of roasted beets and homemade bratwurst paired with a Czech-style pilsner made by his friend Shane Goepel. “You have a set of parameters, but you can make up whatever you want.” Compact and thin, in a black button-down shirt and red tie, Whitehurst looks more like a guitar player in an emo band than a mad beer scientist. He lays out his plans for a hot-buttered rum beer, for which he’ll purposely try to create a diacetyl—the “off” flavor that most homebrewers will tell you to do anything to avoid—to cultivate a buttery mouthfeel.

Whitehurst’s friend Jay Juhl stands above us, a Baltic porter made by Goepel and Eliott Whitehurst in hand. He says homebrewing is about “breaking people’s concept of beer.”

“Once you get into it, it’s easy to get to a nerdy level,” he says. Whitehurst agrees, mentioning books filled with clone recipes. The recipe for the award-winning Russian River Brewing Co.’s Pliny the Elder was published in two major brewing magazines, and Cilurzo himself will email recipes to the many homebrewers that contact him looking for guidance. “You find whatever favorite beer you’ve had,” says Whitehurst, “and you’re like, ‘I’ve got to make this!'”

Nerding out aside, Whitehurst says one of the best parts of brewing is being able to give beer as a gift. Over an IPA brewed by his brother, he shares the story of making an imperial coffee porter for his sister’s wedding. “People loved it,” he says.

This concept of sharing, both recipes and beers themselves, is echoed by many of the homebrewers I spoke with. What’s the point, they ask, of making a batch of wild deliciousness if you’re not going to drink it with your friends? As Beerocrats president Atha says, his favorite part of brewing is sharing it with people as “living proof” of the care and art that goes into brewing.

Where all that care and art spreading across the North Bay will lead is up to the imaginations of the brewers themselves. Or, as Ostryeski puts it, “You can fine-tune your recipes and come up with something great. The possibilities are endless.”

Where to Get Your Brew On

By Alma Shaw

The Beverage People This Santa Rosa store has been selling wine, beer, mead and cheese supplies since 1980; they offer beginning and advanced brewing classes in the springtime. 840 Piner Road, Santa Rosa. 707.544.2520.

Bubble Berri Doubling as a head shop, this Cotati store sells beer-making supplies and hosts extract brewing classes. 8579 Gravenstein Hwy., Cotati. 707.792.2259.

Napa Fermentation Supplies Serving the wine and beer community since 1983, this store sells equipment and ingredients and offers free homebrewing classes. 575 Third St., Napa. 707.255.6372.