Sante Adairius Rustic Ales owner and brewer Tim Clifford acknowledges Santa Cruz beermakers are an iconoclastic bunch. (Photo by Chip Scheuer)

Beer is a beloved member of my inner circle. To simply classify it as a beverage omits the strong artistic connection I feel to it, and the instant bond it creates with other like-minded brew-philes. So I decided to put some DIY where my mouth is and make my own.

In the Santa Cruz community, I am certainly not alone.

James Hoffner, a member of the Santa Cruz-based brewing supply co-op Seven Bridges, says brewing is booming, and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

“We opened our doors 15 years ago, and have been doing a steady retail business ever since. People in Santa Cruz have the do- it-yourself attitude, and many people enjoy beer, so why not make it at home? Homebrewing is constantly growing in popularity.”

The craft brew industry is exploding throughout the U.S.; it grew 12 percent in 2011, despite the recession, and continued to grow in 2012, according to a study by the Craft Brewers Association. That growth is evident in Santa Cruz County, which is home to seven (going on nine) breweries, and countless enthusiastic homebrewers. Its calendar full of brew-related festivals includes this weekend’s Twisting Tasting on the top of the Rittenhouse building in downtown Santa Cruz, which will emphasize the boundary-pushing style the new generation of beermakers is bringing to the art. 

Around here, they often start out in the same place.

“We see new customers almost every day looking for a home brewery starter kit,” Hoffner says.

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Changing Tastes

Since Prohibition, the American beer tradition has been overwhelmingly dominated by mega-breweries, and now only two remain: MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch. They control over 90 percent of the market, but the persistent growth of craft breweries is starting to make them sweat. The conglomerates have started fighting back by filling the supermarket shelves with craft beer lookalikes such as Blue Moon and Shocktop, and snapping up considerable shares of smaller breweries like Kona. Anheuser-Busch’s most recent acquisition is the leader in Mexican beer production, Grupo Modelo.

These beer behemoths have built their empires on crystal-clear lagers, and that style has overwhelmed the market for decades. The marketing insistence on drinking beer at near-freezing temperatures masks the tastelessness of the beverage. Has anyone ever really enjoyed drinking a Bud at room temp?

“American tastes have been changing. We’re reverting back to darker, more complex beers, beers that might be a little skunky, or hoppy, or even a little sour,” explains Hoffner. 

These styles require time, patience, quality ingredients and more than a little bit of love and creativity—which are not necessarily characteristics that lend themselves to mass production.

“It’s homebrewers that are pushing beer in new directions. They’re creating beer styles that advance the scene,” says Hoffner.

 

New Brews

That may especially be true at Sante Adairius Rustic Ales, which opened in Capitola in May of 2012. The self-described “homebrewers brewery” lacks a lot of industrial equipment, but has used this as an opportunity to make small, unique batches, which gives them the freedom to experiment wildly without a huge overhead.

“Our equipment is rudimentary, but that’s what makes our beers rustic,” explains brewer and owner Tim Clifford, who started the brewery with his wife, Adair. “And because we’re making beer in such small quantities, we’re able to embrace the playful Belgian tradition of non-formal brewing techniques.”

Sante Adairius’ successes are many, including an array of whimsical Belgian and light, saison-style beers, a heavily hopped “831” IPA, and the recently here-and-gone brew entitled Fumare, a smoked saison. Clifford says friends, fellow brewers and other community members in Santa Cruz have provided many of the initial materials for his brewery, and trade everything from knowledge to yeast. He enjoys passing that knowledge on, and a young yet earnest homebrewer can walk away from a conversation with a new appreciation for the brettanomyces yeast strain and its sour flavors.

“Santa Cruz is an pretty iconoclastic town,” he says. “People here are celebrated for doing their own thing. We’re bullheaded about making the beer we want. Authenticity is paramount, and that authenticity is evident in Santa Cruz.”

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Uncommon Talent

Renegade brewer Alec Stefansky of Uncommon Brewers might agree with him. Stefansky began his brewing history by exploiting a then-overlooked university loophole in college, and his rebellious act became a path for his passion. After establishing Uncommon in 2002, the rule-breaking found its way into his beer, which he has infused with everything from toasted California poppyseeds to bacon. “No one else was doing it, so we thought, why not?” he explains.

Thirsty patrons can now imbibe his critically lauded creations around the country, and in several Canadian provinces, Australia, Japan and England. However, Stefansky still believes in localism, and he continues to source his organic ingredients from within California as much as possible. He cites the proximity of Seven Bridges as a major factor when choosing his Old Sash Mill warehouse location, and, although Uncommon doesn’t have a tasting room, his beers are available at several Santa Cruz County spots.

 

Getting Twisted

Community is paramount at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, which has evolved since its beginnings eight years ago into a gathering place for locals, tourists and students alike. Owner and brewer Emily Thomas began brewing with her uncles in Portland in the early ’90s. She received the prophetic gifts of a homebrew kit and a toolbox as a graduation present, and returned to her Santa Cruz mountain home to…be an engineer for 13 years. And then she started a brewery.

The community has been a heavy influence in the expansion of the SCMB in a variety of ways.

“For one, it’s the reason why we’re organic,” says Thomas. “This community has a strong awareness of where what they consume comes from. We source all of our ingredients from Seven Bridges, and have a very close relationship with them. It’s important to us to support the local community, because we’re a part of this community.”

Thomas has helped to keep that relationship dynamic by hosting a variety of beer-centric events. But traveling for months out of the year can be tiring, and she wanted to host a tasting event that would be fun for brewers, too.

From that desire, Thomas created the Twisted Tasting, a foodie experience not for the faint of heart. The event returns to the top of the Rittenhouse building in Santa Cruz on Saturday, Feb. 16, featuring 40 brewers whose beers reflect the adventurous nature of DIY brewing culture, and locally produced, beer-inspired foods. There will be two sessions to this year’s event, in the afternoon (1-4pm) and evening (6-9pm).

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“Traveling and doing events can be exhausting for brewers. I wanted to make an event that would be fun for them too, and enable them to let their creativity really go nuts. I want them to make some crazy beer.” Spoiler alert: Thomas hinted that SCMB’s contributions could include beers flavored with onion, smoke, white chocolate and pomegranates.

“There’s personality in what you create,” says Kathleen Genco, one of the founders of the soon-to-be Discretion Brewery in Soquel. She and her partners have been striving to create a community spot at which friends and neighbors could gather regularly. That philosophy is threaded through the thirst-quenching, low-alcohol lagers and saisons that will take center stage on their menu, enabling patrons to linger over a few beers. Although they haven’t yet opened their doors, they’ve coordinated a web of support among themselves, Fogline Farm and Main Street Garden and Café.

“Fogline will use our spent grains from the brewing process for compost and chicken and pig feed. We have a small kitchen that Main Street Garden will prep out of, using Fogline ingredients, and we’ll work with them and feature a weekly menu to pair with our beer,” says Genco.

 

Moment of Truth

Like so many in Santa Cruz, my own DIY brewing journey began at Seven Bridges. I surveyed mysterious sounding ingredients, innocuous and not-so-friendly-looking equipment, and a variety of numbered rubrics I didn’t fully understand. The nonchalance of the co-op member assisting me calmed me, and I felt a certain amount of triumph leaving with a box of grain, malt, pellet hops and yeast.

My boyfriend and I painstakingly measured and read temperatures and stirred and YouTubed our way through Seven Bridges’ red ale recipe. We alternated between pacing anxiously around our kitchen, re-sanitizing equipment and watching a thermometer increase and decrease by tenths of degrees.  Several spent nerves and one six pack later, we proudly tucked 5 gallons of muddy slurry into our closet to ferment.

The process really wasn’t difficult—if you can boil water and read a thermometer, you’re more than half way there. And there were unseen benefits: warm, earthy smells that lingered in our kitchen for days and the creeping anticipation while staring at the fermentation lock for long minutes, waiting for tiny gas bubbles to be released because they proved that yes, this thing is alive.

Throughout the process I attempted to channel my inner Hoffner, who says, “My biggest suggestion for any new brewer is to be patient and relax.  Fermentation is one of the oldest methods of preserving food and although modern technology has made it more complicated, you do not need a science background or to invest a lot of money to make beer.  Beer is alive and brewing it requires you to be involved in every step of the process.”

I felt a surge of satisfaction wash over me as I cracked my first beer a few weeks later. I felt a kinship with beer lovers both contemporary and long gone, and blessed to be part of a community where not just ingredients but ideas come to be fermented and shared. And, you know, it tastes great, too.

Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing’s TWISTED TASTING will be held Saturday, Feb. 16 at the top of the Rittenhouse Building in Santa Cruz. There will be two sessions, 1-4pm and 6-9pm. Tickets are $65.