Calicraft Joins The Bay Area Craft Beer Scene

The Bay Area’s craft beer community continues its recent growth spurt with the launch of Calicraft this May. Several weeks ago Bay Area on Tap had a chance to sit down with founder and head brewer Blaine Landberg at his Walnut Creek home to talk about the new brewery and sample his beer before it hits the market.

Founder and Head Brewer Blaine Landberg

A native of Willows, CA, Blaine grew up in a family of home brewers. Even though he was too young to actually try any of the beer his family produced he remembers fondly watching family members come up with whimsically named beers like the kangaroo themed ‘Roo Brew. He decided at the age of fourteen that he’d one day start his own brewery. He later started home brewing himself including time brewing in his dorm at UC Berkeley while studying Business Communication in a Consumer Society. As he watched the craft beer movement bloom, he observed it took four things to be a successful brewer:

 

1) A good product

2) Capital

3) Distribution

4) An understanding of the retail market

 

While Blaine worked on the first part in the course of his home brew experiments, he found an opportunity to work on the rest when he entered the job market. In 1999, Blaine joined Honest Tea. Although there are differences in distribution of tea and alcoholic beverages, he accumulated valuable knowledge of how to get a distributor to move product from the warehouse to the retail marketplace and also got to be part of that fledging business growing from a small start up to a successful company. As his business and brewing expertise grew over the years, he finally decided he was ready to make the move from hobbyist to professional brewer.

Blaine’s Pilot Brewing Setup

The first beer we had an opportunity to try was The Cali-Cölsh, a take on the Kölsh style native to Germany. In what we were to find was a pattern for Cali-Craft’s beers, this is a mash up of the traditional with just the right amount of local flair. The beer features a Kölsh yeast strain from Cologne Germany, California select malt and a blend of German Noble and American Crystal hops. The Crystal hops are fairly similar to the spicy Noble varieties to which they owe their parentage but add just enough additional intensity to justify the “Cali” part of the beers name. Even with these tweaks, the beer really delivers all that one would expect from the style. A good Kölsh is hard to come by, most of the more enjoyable versions we can remember were either home brews or were shipped in from other areas. We’re very excited to have a fresh local version around for summer.

 Probably the boldest and definitely the most hop forward of Calicraft’s initial releases is Oaktown Brown. For this big brown ale the brewer uses California grown Cascade hops and adds French, Hungarian, and American oak cubes during fermentation. We had an opportunity to sample tea brewed with oak from each region separately. The kaleidoscope of smoke and vanilla notes had us wondering momentarily whether we were at a beer tasting or a Scotch tasting. Tasting the elements of the beer separately really enhanced our appreciation of its complexity and helped us to get an idea of why each type of oak was included. This one is a good bet to get the attention of hop heads and whisky drinkers alike.

The final beer we tried is also the one that Blaine says he feels may be the future of his company. Blurring the lines between beer, mead, and wine; Buzzerkeley is a strong blonde ale split-fermented with both Belgian ale yeast and Champagne yeast and includes a whopping five lbs of star thistle honey per keg. Before trying the beer we had a chance to sample the honey, which is from the brewers own bee-keeping operation in Northern California. The honey ferments very clean and adds relatively subtle honey flavors that fit in almost seamlessly to the overall flavor profile of the beer. Blaine noted just that a few decades ago the beer drinker and the wine drinker were generally separate demographics. These days the lines are much less distinct, it’s very common for the craft beer drinker to enjoy a good glass of wine and vice-versa. He sees this beer as a potential option for these crossover drinkers. He may be right; we’ve since had the chance to bring a sample of Buzzerkeley to a party and it was a big hit with people with a very wide range of palates, including wine drinkers.

Star Thistle Honey For Use in Buzzerkley

Blaine started partner brewing his beers at Hermitage Brewing in San Jose the beginning of April. Kegs and bottles of Calicraft should start showing up around the San Francisco Bay Area in May. Longer term, he hopes to move production to the Shadelands area of Walnut Creek, complete with a tasting room where he can try test batches, one offs, variants, and also do some beer and cheese pairings. Blaine adds that these future plans are things he hopes to do “if” his new brewery is successful. From what we’ve tasted so far we have no doubt it will be.

Drake’s Barrel House and Brewery Visit

A producer of fine ales since 1989, by now it’s no secret to local beer lovers that San Leandro’s Drake’s Brewing Company crafts a great beer. What all may not know yet is they opened a barrel house and tasting room last June and have been doing some exciting new things there recently. Bay Area On Tap recently took the opportunity to visit both the barrel house and brewery and in the process had the chance to chat with several members of the Drake’s staff over a few beers.

Our visit started with a tour of the barrel house and brewery guided by Kelsey Williams, Community Manager for the brewery. We were told that when former Drake’s brewer Rodger Davis, now at Triple Rock in Berkeley, started the barrel aging program back in 2007 there were only 6-10 barrels going. Right now they stand at about 170 ranging from whiskey to wine barrels. From the barrel room we continued to the production brewery to take a look at the fermenters, grain silo, and kegs getting ready to be shipped. Drakes distributes in California only, currently only to the Bay Area and parts of Southern CA. Soon they’ll expand to the Sacramento market, something they seem excited about. We’re certain Sacramento folks will be excited as well once they get a taste.

No grain, no gain!

As we left the brewery and returned to the barrel house tasting room we were offered some 1500 Ale, long a favorite of ours. This version was served on cask and brewed with Zythos hops. The cask program at Drake’s is headed by Alex Nowell, one of several talented brewers on staff. We were met in the barrel house tasting room by Drake’s current head brewer Brian Thorson. We have been huge fans of what’s been happening at Drake’s since Brian has been on board as head brewer. Brian advised us that he had spent several of his early working years in the computer science industry and found it didn’t suit him. “It’s much easier to put in a long day when you love what you do” explained John Gillooly another member of the brew staff. We had to ask Brian if there was a conscious decision made under his watch to expand from their excellent standard beers like the IPA and 1500 Ale to ales such as the incomparable Aroma Coma, the aptly named Hopocalypse, and award winning barrel aged sours like Brette Davis Eyes that have had beer geeks salivating recently. According to Brian the answer was simply increased capacity. Now that they have the space and time, they simply brew the beer styles they want to drink. It’s not at all a coincidence these line up with the palates of us rabid beer geeks. By their own admission the brewers themselves are also geeks.

As something of a surprise treat, we had the opportunity to chat with John Martin, owner of Drakes Brewing since 2008 and owner of Triple Rock and Jupiter Brewpubs in Berkeley since the days of way back. In fact, his 26 years at Triple Rock make him the longest standing craft brewery proprietor we can think of now that Fritz Maytag, long time owner of the seminal craft brewery Anchor Brewing Co, got out of the beer business. Since the main focus of our site is the unique culture behind the craft beer industry in the Bay Area, we couldn’t resist the chance to pick the brain of such an integral figure in the history of bay area craft beer. When we asked how John got into the business he told us that he heard about a case study while in college stating that small breweries couldn’t succeed, and from and economic standpoint, had no reason to exist. When California’s first brewpub opened in Hopland, CA in 1982, John, who had homebrewed previously and had a restaurant background, and his brother Reid decided to get in on it as well. Together they opened the now iconic Triple Rock Brewpub in downtown Berkeley in 1986.

From that time on, brewpubs started shooting up in many other places and met with various levels of success and disappointment. Distribution from the handful of microbreweries around at the time also met with mixed results, region by region. When early craft brewers from the Pacific Northwest started to distribute in Southern California for example, they found it comparatively difficult to make inroads compared to Northern California. As John stated “it takes time for palates to be elevated”.

The Bay Area seemed to be among the early adopters in the craft brew phenomenon for a number of reasons. Among them was our attitude of support for the local, which drew us in to the early local brewpubs to try the new and interesting beers offered there, readying us for flavorful beer from other areas when those became available. It seems there were also other elements in the early Bay Area craft beer scene that made it different than other parts of the country. Per John the culture of teamwork and cooperation in the local industry was helped along by the fact that our area had beer festivals earlier on than some other regions. If you meet up with your “competition” enough in a positive, celebratory, environment it’s easy to get to know and like one another. This helped prevent the animosity we’re told existed in some places early on. Drakes still embodies this cooperative spirit, helping out up and coming brewers by allowing them to brew at their facility while they get their own operations off the ground. For example, Steve Altimari’s Highwater Brewing currently has their home at Drakes, and Almanac and EJ Phair have also brewed there in the past.

So what’s next from Drakes? We got Brian to share that some of their fantastic barrel house only beers should be seeing bottles soon, possibly as soon as the end of the year. First up are likely to be their heavier whisky barrel aged stouts and some of the lighter wine barrel aged sour ales. A little closer on the horizon a beer called Hopocalypse Black Label, a Triple IPA, will be available 02/04/12 at the barrel house. Just ahead of San Francisco Beer week. Mark your calendars, I know we have. Cheers!