About 45 miles northwest of Palm Springs, you’ll find a brewery that has taken off—and plans to reach new heights in 2014.
Hangar 24 has an undeniable charm. Perhaps it’s the fields of oranges you pass on your way there; maybe it’s due to the old-school feel of the converted Norton Air Force Base building this Redlands brewery occupies. At the end of a dusty road, with the San Bernardino Mountains serving as a backdrop, the brewery and its large patio is often occupied by a slew of locals enjoying Hangar’s beers. Even if you’re not an aviation geek, it’s is unequivocally cool to watch small airplanes take off and land at the nearby Redlands airport.
Hangar 24 is named after the hangar where owner Ben Cook—a licensed pilot—and his friends would relax after a day of flying. Like most brewery owners, Ben started home-brewing years ago and fell in love with the craft and the culture. Cook graduated from the Master Brewers Program at the University of California at Davis after working in quality assurance at the Anheuser-Busch Brewery in Van Nuys. His background and passion for beer fueled the launch of Hangar 24 in 2008.
After rapid growth, Cook hired Kevin Wright, also a graduate of the UC-Davis Master Brewers Program, to be his head brewer. (He’s pictured below.)
With a background in engineering, this teacher’s aide turned brewer is as humble as he is strapping. When asked who he looks up to in the industry, the Milwaukee native couldn’t say enough good things about Mitch Steele, head brewmaster of Escondido’s Stone Brewing Company.
“I can’t say how many times I reach out to others in the industry with a question—and usually, it’s Mitch,” Wright said.
Owner Cook got the craft-beer bug years ago while watching a baseball game in Chico, which is the home of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. He tasted the pale ale—and it gave him a taste of what else was out there in the beer world.
Hangar 24’s main brew house—including some of the tanks and fermenters—came by way of Las Vegas’ Monte Carlo Casino. When the casino decided to stop brewing its own beer and sell the system, the Hangar 24 folks snapped it up—and the system now gets more use than ever before. In fact, brewers are often on the clock 24-7.
In 2013, Hangar 24 brewed a little more than 35,000 barrels—up from 17,000 barrels in 2011, and just more than 24,000 barrels in 2012. According to Cook, they are setting “lofty goals”: The brewery wants to increase production to 60,000 barrels this year, and 100,000 in 2015.
The brewery’s flagship beers are its Orange Wheat, Amarillo Pale Ale, Alt-Bier Ale, Helles Lager, Columbus IPA, Chocolate Porter and Double IPA.
Hangar 24 rose to popularity largely due to the popular Orange Wheat, which is grounded in local geography and ingredients. This year-round offering sources all of its oranges from the Inland Orange Conservancy/Old Grove Farm Share, a nonprofit co-op with small, local farmers. A massive metal blender purees the local oranges into a pulp before they’re added to the beer batch. It looks like a gigantic Orange Julius, of sorts.
Hangar 24’s Local Fields Series includes seven beers that highlight locally sourced ingredients, all in different beer styles. Using classic fare like dates, pumpkins, red-wine grapes, cherries, navel oranges, spruce and apricots, the series showcases ingredients from the high desert to the San Bernardino Mountains.
Cook explains that the Local Fields Series essentially started with the Orange Wheat: While technically not in the series, it’s the first beer from Hangar 24 that utilizes locally sourced ingredients.
“I never thought the brewery would get this big. When I first started, I just wanted to brew beer and be social,” Cook said with a laugh. “But I set it up so we could grow quickly. I’m always brainstorming—and now that I can see there is a chance we can get bigger, I think about why someone in, say, Wisconsin is going to want to buy our pale ale. They’ve got plenty of pale ales out there.
“But the Orange Wheat is super-unique, because we have oranges growing all around us. Redlands and the surrounding area is what created the orange industry in the United States. That’s very authentic and unique, and you can’t really copy authenticity. The idea (of the Local Field Series) evolved from there. …We’re one of the very few breweries that are sitting in an area that has a lot of farms sitting around it.”
When asked if he foresaw the explosive popularity of his beer, Cook humbly and quickly answered: “Not even. No way!
“That beer has a cult following now. I get it—I mean, that’s why I like brewing it. Brewing and taking something from down the street and integrating it into the beer, it makes it really authentic and local. People in this area really want to support the groves. … Bottom line: It’s a good-tasting beer.”
The first in the Local Fields Series is the Vinaceous, an old ale brewed with Mourvèdre grapes from Wilson Creek Winery in Temecula, and then aged in French oak. The second is Palmero, a fruity Belgian-style dubbel made with CoachellaValley’s own dates.
Named after the abundance of apricots used in the mash, Polycot (poly = many; cot = apricot) became one of the brewery’s five best-sellers. Brewed in early July when the Southern California’s high desert apricots are truly ripe and fresh, this beer also epitomizes local. The idea—and the apricots—originally came from a friend of Cook’s who suddenly had seven acres of apricots to share from a house purchase. The 7.2 percent-alcohol beer is Hangar 24’s first American strong ale, with a large portion of wheat malt.
Their Barrel Roll Series—a series of barrel-aged beers—keeps with the aviation branding theme. Immelmann is the first of seven beers, with the 2013 version coming in at 11.4 percent alcohol. This strong porter is aged for more than six months in single-use bourbon barrels and brewed with oats, cocoa nibs and whole vanilla beans.
The Humpty Bumpis a Belgian strong golden ale aged in oak barrels with Brettanomyces yeast for eight months. Hangar brews this inviting beer with apple cider from the local Riley’s Los Rios Farms; the resulting beer has notes of caramel, black pepper, apple and some farmhouse funk. Try this paired with citrus salads or nutty cheeses.
Pugachev’s Cobra is the third installment in the Barrel Roll Series. This award-winning 13.8 percent Russian imperial stout was first released in December 2011 and has been an annual release since. With intense flavors of dark fruit, chocolate, bourbon and roasted coffee, this brew can be enjoyed now, or shelved to savor in a year or two. It’s named after Victor Pugachev, a pilot that would suddenly raise his aircraft nose to near vertical before dropping the plane back into attack mode.
The brewery will be marking six years of existence this May—and Hangar 24 is celebrating in the air as well as on the ground. The Sixth Anniversary Celebration and Airfest is slated for May 17 and 18 at the brewery, complete with an air show, beer festival, concert series and food-truck festival. All proceeds will go to charity.
What’s been the biggest surprise in the brewery’s 5 1/2 years?
“I think one of the biggest game-changing surprises to me was, (years ago), me and a guy named Jim Hogarty spent I don’t know how many hours and how many beers getting our original bottling line set up. Eventually, we got it running and started bottling the Orange Wheat and Pale Ale. It was only about a month after that I got a call from Stater Brothers, a guy named Kevin Mackey. I was blown away, because I kept hearing from other breweries: ‘Supermarkets, don’t even think about it; don’t waste your time.’ That was a pivot point.”
Hangar 24 loves to showcase the flavors of Southern California—and it’s a blessed thing that soon, many more craft-beer lovers outside of the Golden State will get to enjoy these flavors as much as we do.