Something’s brewing in wine country

Times Staff Writer

DARK, chocolaty porter made the nearly forgotten 19th century way, by blending new and aged beers. Summery pale ale with a note of buckwheat honey. Belgian-style wheat beer spiked with lemongrass.

Thanks to a small but dedicated group of craft brewers, serious beer is making news in Santa Barbara County.

Two new brewpubs opened here on the same day last month, making a total of seven places, most of them recent arrivals, where you can taste fresh local beer in Santa Barbara County.

That’s quite a few breweries for a place this size. Are we talking serious beer in wine country?

We sure are. Here’s a dirty little secret: Beer is the everyday drink of winemakers. There’s even a saying, “It takes a lot of beer to make wine.”


The whole country is enjoying a craft beer renaissance, no question, but it’s not equally distributed. Local breweries are commonplace in Northern California, and there are a fair number in San Diego County, which has a dozen breweries on top of a score of brewpubs. Los Angeles County lags behind, especially given its larger population.

Most Santa Barbara breweries are brewpub-size operations that make small seven-barrel (about 108-gallon) to 15-barrel (about 230-gallon) batches. As a result, most do not bottle their beer, though they will sell you a “growler” -- a half-gallon jug -- to go. Some places give a discount on your next half-gallon if you bring in an empty growler.

The only moderately big operation is the well-known Firestone Walker Brewing, which distributes bottled beer throughout Central and Southern California. (Bowing to local custom, it also sells growlers at its Buellton taproom.) Nevertheless, a couple of the smaller fry -- Telegraph Brewing and Island Brewing -- bottle their beer for sale in local liquor stores, and their brews show up on Central Coast restaurant beer lists.


Aged in wooden barrels

THE wine country milieu seems to color Santa Barbara beer. Three of the breweries -- Telegraph, Hollister and Walker Firestone -- age or even ferment some of their beer in wooden barrels. Most of the brewers say their beer is designed, like wine, to go with food. Typically, Santa Barbara’s brewers (by contrast with certain outfits in San Diego, notably Stone Brewing) do not like a lot of hop bitterness in their beer, even when they’re going for a strong hop aroma.

The food relationship goes beyond that, even beyond cultivating local farmers for the honey or strawberries to throw into an exotic brew. A couple of breweries donate the spent grain from the brewing process -- it makes desirable animal feed -- to a farmer who repays them with a yearly pig. Bet you don’t find that sort of thing going on in Milwaukee. Another thing you might not find going on there is some of the wild experimental brews being made in Santa Barbara.

Hollister Brewing Co., one of the most ambitious of the Santa Barbara breweries, is located in a huge shopping center in Goleta, half a mile from the UCSB campus. Obviously, college students drink a lot of beer, but Goleta is also home to a number of high-tech firms, and this provides a sophisticated clientele that doesn’t hesitate to order unfamiliar brews such as Kolsch (a cross between ale and lager) or Weizenbock (a dark, malty wheat beer).

The pub is a big, airy place with stylish slate-gray walls. A low wrought-iron fence worked in a pattern of barley and hop plants separates the outdoor dining area from the sidewalk. Beyond the dining room is the brewery, displayed behind a big plate glass window in a room lined with gleaming white tile. Beside brewing here, brew master Eric Rose is also planning to age some beers in used barrels -- dark beers in the Bourbon barrels, he speculates, maybe a Belgian ale spiked with dates in the Pinot barrels.

The beers he makes at the moment include a couple of pale ales, an organic amber ale and a jokey “smoked hemp ale” (“The J”), made with smoky German yeasts and sacks of sterile organic hempseed, which gives a subtle nutty flavor.

Rose has far wilder plans, including some beers fermented with 100% Brettanomyces yeast. This is wine country heresy -- most winemakers are desperate to stamp out the dreaded Brettanomyces, which gives a flavor variously compared to meat, mushrooms, leather and elastic bandages. But Rose likes its effect on beer. His eyes shine as he exclaims, “It gives a sour lemonade finish!”

In addition to 16 taps for Hollister beers, there’s one here for the brewery’s homemade root beer. The pub menu includes a root beer float -- or, if you prefer, a stout float.

Telegraph Brewing is a young operation -- it started selling early last year and opened a tasting room only this April (it’s tiny, just four stools and a counter in a corner halfway walled off from the rest of the brewery). Brew master Brian Thompson looks young too, though he’s already had a prior career, like most other craft brewers. He was a Wall Street analyst when beer took over his life.

His version of wheat beer splits the difference between the fruity Bavarian Hefeweizen and the spicy Belgian wit styles, and his pale ale falls between the English and the hoppier American interpretations. For that porter of his that ages part of the beer, he uses secondhand Zinfandel barrels, so the porter comes out with a hint of oak and a wild note of Brettanomyces on top of coffee and chocolate flavors.

“Wine drinkers have more of an affinity for the porter,” Thompson says. “Beer drinkers are not accustomed to swirling and sniffing.”

Most Santa Barbara brewers have something to say about the city’s legendarily hard water. Some grumble about it, but Thompson champions it. “It’s a great mineral profile for brewing richer, fuller beers,” he says. “I couldn’t do a classic Pilsener in this town.”

The Brewhouse, which has been a brewpub for four years (a pub for nine), seems the quintessential local Santa Barbara hangout -- its website gives streaming information on surf conditions. It has the smallest brewing capacity in town.

Nevertheless, it usually has eight or nine beers on hand. They might include a Belgian-style wheat beer with a refreshing tart finish and the usual Belgian orange peel and coriander flavorings plus a dash of lemongrass. Or perhaps a subtly smoky porter made with beechwood-smoked malts, such as the recent “Smokey the Beer.”

Pete Johnson is the only brewer in town who regularly makes Belgian-style ales: Saint Barb’s Abbey, Dubbel and Tripel. You might not find them all on tap at the same time (this is a small brewery), but the Abbey is a medium-dark ale with an elegantly yeasty, spicy nose underlaid by dried fruit.

Johnson has a couple of hop plants growing in his parking lot. In fall, he harvests the hop “cones” (blossoms), and one day each year he offers a fresh-hop beer.


A beat with the brew

IN Carpinteria, a dozen miles south of Santa Barbara, a beer flag where the train tracks cross Linden Avenue indicates Island Brewing Co.'s pub-like tasting room. Owner Paul Wright’s story is the familiar one of a man becoming obsessed with beer-making -- except that he started out as a home winemaker and was thinking of owning a winery.

But he didn’t. “Wine is a very seasonal hobby,” he explains. “Wine is very capital-intensive, and inventory-intensive, too. Beer answered a lot of the questions.”

He distributes his bottled beers as far south as Ventura. They include Blond (a crisp Kolsch) and Jubilee (a stronger version of pale ale technically known as an Old Ale), as well as the usual craft-brew lineup: IPA, wheat beer, brown ale.

But why is there a drum kit in the brew room? “When you live in a small town,” Wright explains, “you get involved in things. I joined the Rotary Club, and all the big players in town are members.” The result was a band, the Brew House Boys, with the city manager playing bass, two local attorneys on guitar and Wright as drummer.

The oldest Santa Barbara area brewery is Santa Barbara Brewing Co., a busy, cavernous pub on high-traffic South State Street. “We opened Aug. 2, 1995, during the Santa Barbara Fiesta,” says founder Wayne Trella, a former real estate broker. “It brought in crowds -- they practically destroyed the place.”

The beers range in seriousness from the ultra-mild Beach Blonde (27% of the bar’s business) to the well-balanced, appetizingly hoppy Pacific Pale Ale and the State Street Stout with a pronounced coffee nose.

This year, the brewery will expand, doubling its capacity. “In 60 days,” says Trella, “we will be looking at a site for brewing outside. Six months to a year and we’ll be brewing there.”

The dozen-year history of Santa Barbara’s brewing scene has been plenty of time to develop at least one tangled tale.

Technically, Downtown Brewing Co. isn’t a brewpub, because the beer isn’t made on site (it’s made in San Luis Obispo County). Since Downtown Brewing is on far upper State Street, Santa Barbarans relish saying that it “isn’t downtown and isn’t a brewery.”

That hasn’t kept them from flocking there, because it’s an attractive, spacious sports pub with outdoor seating. Its beers include a solid, medium-malty amber ale (Reggae Red) and a light pale ale with a note of buckwheat honey (Honey Blonde).

Technically, also, Firestone Walker Brewing Co., the most widely known of the area breweries, is not a Santa Barbara brewery these days, even though it was founded here in a corner of the Firestone Vineyard in Los Olivos.

Here’s what happened. In 2002, Firestone Walker planned a larger brewery in neighboring Buellton and had even constructed a huge building for it, but then the well-regarded SLO brewery in San Luis Obispo abruptly put its big, new 55-barrel Paso Robles brewery on the market. Firestone Walker snapped it up, so its beer is now made in San Luis Obispo County and the Buellton operation has become a restaurant and taproom.

Meanwhile, new owners have bought the old SLO brewpub and renamed it Downtown Brewing Co. and begun opening additional branches, including the new one in Santa Barbara. Downtown makes four of the beers that its pubs sell and gets the rest brewed for it by Firestone Walker.

Firestone Walker’s brew master, Matt Brynildson, worked at SLO for a while, and Downtown’s brew master, Steve Courier, currently works for Downtown and Firestone at the same time. “It’s a lot of guys who’ve known each other for a long time,” Courier says.

The wine country connection is clearest with Firestone Walker, owned by Adam Firestone -- a third-generation winemaker and current president of Firestone Vineyards -- and his brother-in-law, David Walker. When they decided to try brewing, they automatically thought of using wine barrels. In time, they developed a system of fermenting beer in Bourbon-style charred oak barrels.

This gives a hint of smoke and vanilla to Firestone-Walker’s Double Barrel Ale, but the basic impression is a broad-shouldered malty ale palate. No wonder it’s the local favorite -- David Walker says it’s the No. 1 selling beer on tap on Santa Barbara and No. 3 (after Budweiser and Bud Light) throughout the Central Coast. Firestone Walker’s porter also gets the wooden barrel treatment.

Firestone Walker’s other two regular brews are a fairly malty lager and an American pale ale. The last also shows the Santa Barbara taste -- it explodes with hop fragrance but is scarcely bitter.

So in Firestone Walker’s case, maybe the saying can be read backward. It takes a lot of wine -- three generations’ worth -- to make beer. Or at least wine-country beer like this.




All along the beer route

The Brewhouse. 229 W. Montecito St., Santa Barbara, (805) 884-4664; Brewpub with as many as nine of its own beers on tap, plus outside beers. Growlers available. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday.

Downtown Brewing Co., 3744 State St., Santa Barbara, (805) 682-7803; Branch of a brewpub based in San Luis Obispo. Ten of its own beers on tap, some outside beers. Growlers available. Open 11:30 to 2 a.m. daily.

Firestone Walker Brewing Co., 620 McMurray Road, Buellton. (805) 686-1557; Restaurant and taproom. Four Firestone Walker beers on tap; growlers available. Open 5 to 8:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday. Beers also available at Albertsons, Ralphs, Vons and Bristol Farms markets and many liquor stores in Central and Southern California.

Hollister Brewing Co., 6980 Marketplace Drive, Goleta, (805) 968-2810; Brewpub. Sixteen beers on tap, plus selected microbrews; growlers available. Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.

Island Brewing Co., 5049 6th St., Carpinteria, (805) 745-8272; room. Seven or eight beers on tap, no outside beers. No growlers, but 22-ounce bottles are available. Open 2 to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Website lists restaurants, markets and liquor stores that stock the beer.

Santa Barbara Brewing Co., 501 State St., Santa Barbara, (805) 730-1040; Usually eight beers on tap; also outside beers. Growlers available. Open 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Telegraph Brewing Co., 416 N. Salsipuedes St, Santa Barbara, (805) 963-5018; Tasting room. Usually four beers on tap. Growlers available. Open 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday through Friday, 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. Its website lists restaurants, markets and liquor stores that stock the beer.

-- Charles Perry