The first thing you’ll notice about Gunwhale Ales’ new 9,000-square-foot space in Orange is the art on the walls. Behind the bar in the taproom is a riot of colorful cacti, all of them painted with surprising finesse and attention to detail.
Above the long wall, which is punctuated by windows that look into what will become a substantial brewery, is Gunwhale’s old time-y logo, superimposed over a historic lot map of Orange as it existed a century ago or more.
Sure, there are other artsy craft breweries in Orange County (though not many). But Gunwhale has an advantage: one of its three founders, Bobby Fitzgerald, 41, is a professional artist who has worked at Sony for the last two decades. He’s responsible for the room’s classy ambience.
“I studied fine arts at USC,” Fitzgerald explained. “Painting, sculpture. I lived in Italy. I did all the walls and the charcoal drawings in here. It’s something I really enjoy.”
Still, it’s hard not to notice that there’s a lot of wall space to paint on in the new facility. Is Gunwhale ready for the quantum leap from artsy boutique brewery to a bigger, riskier, more competitive league?
“We always planned it that way,” Fitzgerald said. “We wanted to start small but build the expansion brewery and invest in the production and distribution side once we had proved the concept. We wanted to test the market first to make sure everybody liked what we had.”
Everybody did. From its beginnings in a Costa Mesa warehouse not far from the Lab, Gunwhale has separated itself from the pack of beer startups that have appeared over the last few years in O.C.
Its Bait Ball, an unfiltered IPA with a hefty 6.6% ABV, has been a big seller, and Gunwhale is now moving into canned beer. It’s a small but growing presence on shelves in some Whole Foods stores and Costa Mesa’s Hi Times, among other local retailers.
How much does Gunwhale want to grow? The size of the new brewery tells the tale.
“We can probably produce about 12,000 barrels a year [once the Orange facility is finished],” Fitzgerald said. That’s several magnitudes above its present capacity in Costa Mesa. “There’s potential [to expand into] the space next door, too.”
Gunwhale’s ambitions don’t stop at the Orange County line. “We’ve signed a distribution agreement for San Diego,” Fitzgerald said.
Isn’t that a “coals to Newcastle” move? San Diego is one of America’s great craft beer capitals.
Fitzgerald shrugged and smiled. “I’m from San Diego originally. Some of the kinds of beer we make is under-represented there. So there’s definitely potential.”
Gunwhale has made a specialty of farmhouse-style ales, with their tart, bold, somewhat funky flavors. (The reason: Gunwhale’s current head brewer Kevin Hammons spent several years at the Bruery in Placentia, one of O.C.’s original quality craft beer makers, which has distinguished itself with that style of beer.)
“I think our approach to [farmhouse ales] is kind of unique,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re mixing hops and yeast in interesting ways and finding new ways to explore yeast-driven beers.”
Nationally, the craft-beer trend seems to have cooled lately. About 1,050 craft and independent brewers opened in 2018, according to the Brewer’s Association. But 2019 craft breweries were shuttered, a closure rate of 3%.
Fitzgerald says he and his partners are undeterred.
“I think [Orange County] is really underdeveloped in terms of the volume and the number of large breweries that are here, compared to the Ballast Points and the Stones and the Green Flashes of the world,” said Fitzgerald. “There’s definitely room for [Orange County] breweries to become that successful.”
Bait Ball was being poured on the afternoon I visited, along with several other signature beers. I was impressed by Majordomo (7.5% ABV), a farmhouse ale that’s balanced and citrus-y, and Shellmaker (5.5%) an oyster dry stout that lists actual oysters — yes, whole ones — in its list of ingredients.
As always, the quality of Gunwhale’s beers is consistently impressive. And thanks to Fitzgerald’s other profession, the new Orange location offers a bonus: some high-quality artisanal stuff on the walls, too.
IF YOU GO
What: Gunwhale Ales (new location)
Where: 1501 W. Orangewood Ave., Orange
Information: (949) 239-9074; gunwhaleales.com