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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Local beer weeks celebrate the culture and community of craft brewers across the U.S. These events give the beer-lover a chance to taste a variety of rare and new beers, meet area brewmasters and hang out with fellow beer-drinkers.

Featuring local breweries, pubs and restaurants at their best, beer weeks allow attendees to experience a “beercation” filled with gastronomic pairings, rare tastings, beer dinners and festivals showcasing thoughtfully crafted suds.

While the Coachella Valley may not have as many breweries as, say, Los Angeles or San Diego, the rate at which the craft-beer revolution has taken hold and demanded attention here is impressive. Two award-winning Coachella Valley breweries—Coachella Valley Brewing Co. and La Quinta Brewing Co.—are celebrating their second anniversaries this year, while Rancho Mirage’s Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse has taken home a lot of notable craft-beer awards—including the 2015 California State Brewery of the Year honor from the California State Fair.

Therefore, it’s time for our area to have a beer week of its own: Introducing Coachella Valley Beer Week, to be held Nov. 13-22.

CVBW is a 10-day, valley-wide celebration aimed at attracting beer and foodie tourism. It focuses on our fantastic local breweries as well as surrounding Southern California craft brewers. It will feature festivals, beer dinners, tours, pub/restaurant crawls, tastings and more. Full disclosure: I am one of the two founders of the week; Brent Schmidman, aka Schmidy, is the other.

We will be kicking off the week with the Beer Goddess Brewmasters’ Dinner on Friday, Nov. 13, at the Purple Room in Palm Springs. Chef Jennifer Town is preparing the perfect menu, using a handful of Southern California craft beers. Mingle and chat with some of your favorite brewmasters, the Beer Goddess (aka me!) and chef Jen; then sit down for a delicious dinner while the brewmasters head to the stage to talk about their beers. The cost is $69 per person.

On Saturday, Nov. 14, join us for the first Indio California Barbeque State Championship and Festival, at the Lights at Indio Golf Course. The festival, put on the city of Indio and various groups, will include a sanctioned state barbecue championship contest featuring up to 50 of the best pit-masters in the state, all competing for a prize pool of up to $10,000. Of course, great barbecue will also be sold to the public. Additional activities include a local “King of the Desert” BBQ competition, live music, games, craft beer and more. Entry is free and open to the public.

After the festival, head over to Coachella Valley Brewing Co. for a rare event: the “Below Sea Level” Hi Low Beer Release. This Guinness World Records contender is believed to be the first and only beer brewed at the lowest elevation in the country. CVB’s brewmaster Chris Anderson and Brent Schmidman brewed this 13.6 percent alcohol-by-volume imperial blonde stout in Death Valley, Calif. No tickets are required.

On Sunday, Nov. 15, join us in Palm Springs for the Beer Goddess Buzz Crawl, aboard the one and only free Palm Springs Buzz bus. Take a ride around Palm Springs, and savor favorite craft beers at some of the most swanky Palm Springs bars and restaurants. Buzz Crawl pick up will be approximately every 15 minutes at each stop. Stay as long as you want at any location, or make it a night and hit our top favorite craft stops from these participating locations: Workshop, Trio, Bar, Fame Lounge, Matchbox, Gyoro Gyoro, the Hacienda Cantina and Beach Club, the Ace Hotel and the Purple Room.

If you’d rather stay in one place that evening, head over to Eureka Burger in Indian Wells for “Nite of the Barrels 1.” This is an evening of learning, featuring one of the most popular craft beer styles: wine-barrel-aged beers. Taste a variety of California beers with their accompanying wine varietals, and compare the nuances. A variety of cheeses and crackers will be included in the tasting. Make sure to reserve your seat; watch the Coachella Valley Beer Week website for details.

Experience a sushi craft-beer dinner like none other on Monday, Nov. 16, at Palm Springs’ Gyoro Gyoro. Unlike most sushi restaurants, Gyoro Gyoro has a nice selection of not only American craft beers, but Japanese craft beers. More information will be available soon, so watch the website.

On Thursday, Nov. 19, head back to Eureka Burger for “Nite of the Barrels 2.” Bourbon-barrel-aged craft beers have a unique complexity that is full of flavor and perfect for cooler evenings. Come taste these complex beers alongside the very same bourbons that were aged in those barrels. Note the similarities, and see how the beers pick up different flavors and nuances from the bourbons.

On Friday morning, Nov. 20, come hit some balls with your favorite brewmasters from various breweries! You don’t need to be a great golfer to participate in the Brewmasters Shotgun Golf Event; everyone’s welcome. Get paired with a brewery team, and enjoy free pours as you play to win various prizes and awards. Cigars and snacks are also available. It costs $120, and there’s limited availability, so reserve soon!

On Friday evening, Nov. 20, the largest area guest-bartender brewfest will commence. This mini-block party will feature eight Southern California breweries and eight local charities. Watch the website for details.

That same night, head to Indio to check out live music and live ale at the Tack Room Tavern’s Caxton-n-Cask event. Sip local cask ale from our three local breweries while listening to one of our favorite local bands, Caxton. The breweries will be adding special ingredients, using some of the oldest and traditional methods of secondary fermentation, to create these amazing one-time cask ales.

On Saturday, Nov. 21, don’t miss out on the annual Props and Hops Craft Beer Festival at the Palm Springs Air Museum. Last year, we put together a rare in-flight beer-tasting in a vintage World War II airplane—and we’re doing that again this year! Enjoy more than 30 craft breweries, great food and live music, all while taking in the Palm Springs mountain views.

More events are being added, so watch the website for updates, changes and additions. Be a part of the first ever Coachella Valley Beer Week, and find out what makes our valley a great part of the craft beer revolution!

Published in Beer

A little more than three decades ago, Coors Banquet Beer was the best beer that American breweries had to offer.

It was brewed with Rocky Mountain spring water near Golden, Colo., and was only available in the West. President Eisenhower had supplies of it airlifted to the White House via Air Force One. Keith Richards would keep cans onstage; Clint Eastwood and Ray Charles even sang a duet praising the beer. Heck, bootlegging Coors was part of the plot line of Smokey and the Bandit.

Yep, there even were Coors connoisseurs. I’ll give you a moment to let that sink in.

In 1974, a story in TIME magazine, “The Beer That Won The West,” told the tale of one enterprising fella who made weekly runs with a refrigerated truck from Denver to Charlotte, N.C.—making a nice profit along the way. A different fella, named Tom Del Sarto, witnessed this beer bootlegging firsthand, as a promising Coors salesman back in 1978.

More than 35 years later, Del Sarto is still in the beer business, working as the director of sales at Coachella Valley Brewing Co. His beer career actually began in 1975, when he was just 18 years old.

“I actually made a wrong turn looking for my summer job, and they told me that it wasn’t there any more. So, as I was driving back home, I thought, ‘What do I do now?’” he recently told me as I sipped a Lost Abbey Red Poppy Ale.

It was then that Tom saw a Coors distributor sign and stopped—only to discover that his baseball coach was working there. His coach gave him a shot—and that ‘wrong turn’ turned into a 25-year career with the same distributor. Del Sarto began in Redwood City, Calif., in the recycling department. At 20, Tom was promoted to district supervisor, managing a team of five people. By 23, he was the youngest sales manager in the country for Coors. By 29, Tom was the vice president, general manager and partner of Coors West/South Bay Beverage.

Tom learned the business from the bottom up, and worked with the godfather of the business: Bob Franceschini, Bay Area beverage distributor and president of Coors West Regal Beverages. Between Prohibition and 1976, Coors was available in only 11 states, all in the West. It wouldn’t even reach all 50 states until it landed in Indiana in 1991.

Del Sarto’s first big sell was a truck full of Coors Banquet to a liquor store in Millbrae, Calif., in 1978. After lining up the cases along the building and leaving, Tom’s intuition told him to drive back—when he caught the owner restacking the coveted beer in a different truck to resell back East.

Del Sarto said the biggest difference between selling beer in the ’70s and ’80s and selling it today is volume: Today’s craft-beer landscape has brought consumers many, many more choices, meaning distributors carry more beers from more breweries than ever before. To help meet this demand, Del Sarto also consults for two Northern California premium-brand distributors.

“I train distributor management on how to get the most out of suppliers,” he said. “When I have my CVB hat on, I’m the supplier getting the most out of the distributor. So it’s an easy thing to transition, to do both sides.”

Del Sarto handled the agreement for distributor Young’s Market Company to distribute CVB’s Desert Swarm, Kölschella and Monumentous throughout California.

The beer world’s three-tier system requires beer to go through a middle-man—the distributor, or wholesaler. The distributor does on-the-ground sales and marketing for the producer, and sells the beer to retailers, all while making sure breweries are well-represented.

“Brand loyalty is a big thing,” Del Sarto said. “The problem is keeping people from switching to another beer of the week. … It’s all about the consistency of the liquid. I think we’re making better beers than we ever have created. I think the choices are awesome, and people are starting to understand it.”

As of last November, there were more than 3,200 beer brewers in the country. On March 16, the Brewers Association revealed that in 2014, for the first time ever, craft brewers achieved a double-digit (11 percent) share of the marketplace. It’s been a challenge for some distributors and wholesalers to adapt to and accommodate the rapidly growing craft-beer industry.

Because of the massive volume of breweries in the state, California also allows self-distribution with no limits as to production size. Breweries like Russian River and Kern River take advantage of this, as does Escondido’s Stone Brewing Co., which operates a self-distribution network that carries more than 30 craft and specialty brands to Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties. In fact, Stone’s Greg Koch and Arlan Arnsten started the Craft Beer Wholesalers Symposium in 2004—and like the craft-beer industry itself, it continues to grow.

“The generation that is kind of moving this, it’s a pretty big age group,” Del Santo said. “They don’t want to be sold to; they want to make their personal selections. They want to work with their buddies and say, ‘Hey, such and such is on tap over here, and you need to try it.’ That, to me, is much more powerful.”

Just as Del Santo was saying this, Anheuser-Busch’s advertisement criticizing the craft-beer industry came on TV.

“What is the chance of that?!” he said, laughing about the commercial that first aired during the Super Bowl.

There’s a reason Anheuser-Busch is on the defensive: Sales of mass-market beers like Budweiser, Old Milwaukee and Miller Genuine Draft have slumped. For example, Michelob Light sales have fallen from more than 1 million barrels in 2007 to around 350,000 barrels in 2012, according to BeerInsights.com. Budweiser sales have been declining for more than two decades.

On the flip side, Forbes magazine this year announced two craft beers from California breweries—Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA, and North Coast’s Old Rasputin—made its list of the 30 best beers available in Brazil.

What a difference 30 years can make.

As for the future, Del Sarto thinks the next big opportunity for the craft-beer industry is in the Spanish-speaking market. He also predicts that innovative packaging and styles will continue to be hot.

We all have our favorite beers and breweries, but what if someone asked about your favorite distributor? A bewildered stare would likely follow. But think about this: Distributors are the go-between that brings delicious craft beers to the bars and stores that carry them—enabling consumers to easily purchase the savory suds.

In other words, thanks to talented beer-lovers like Del Sarto, the beer-bootlegging era is history.

Published in Beer

It’s time to take a look back at another glorious year for the craft beer industry. The year that was 2014 wasn’t just great for beer; it was a push-the-envelope, challenge-the-palate, variety-exploding year.

In November, there were more than 3,200 breweries in the United States, with more than 2,000 in the planning stages, according to the Brewers Association. The majority of Americans now live within 10 miles of a craft brewer.

So, what were some of the largest and inspiring stories and trends of 2014?

Transporting American Craft-Beer Culture to the Old World

History was made in July 2014, when Green Flash became the first U.S. craft brewery to begin making and selling fresh beer in the European market. The San Diego brewery started selling its signature West Coast IPA, brewed and bottled at traditional abbey brewery St-Feuillien, in Belgium.

Around the same time, Escondido’s Stone Brewing Company announced plans to open a Stone facility in the old world: America’s 10th-largest craft brewer will build and operate a brewery and beer garden in Berlin, Germany, with an expected opening in late 2015. The Brewery’s “Stone Groundbreaking Collaborations” campaign on Indiegogo earlier this year had a stated goal of $1 million; the brewery wound up bringing in more than $2.5 million.

These two breweries make in-your-face, West Coast style IPAs. This speaks volumes about the craft beer drinker’s voice and the recent global domination of American craft beer.

This brings me to the next obvious trend.

India Pale Ales (IPAs) Remain the Most Favored Craft-Beer Style

These hop-laden beers have come full circle: IPAs are up 47 percent by volume and 49 percent by dollar sales, according to the Homebrewers Association. The style was the most-entered category at the Great American Beer Festival in September.

Because of the massive popularity, a new, more “sessionable” version of the IPA is now favored by many. At less than 5 percent alcohol by volume, session beers are easier to sip by the six-pack. Try Stone Go To IPA, Firestone Walker Easy Jack, or—one of the newer Los Angeles beers on the block—Three Weavers Stateside, a 4.5 percent session IPA.

Canning Continues to Get More Craft Beer Into More Places

Tin is in!

Can are cheaper to produce, and require less energy to cool down. Less packaging means packing more beer in less space, which reduces a brewery’s carbon footprint.

According to CraftCans.com, there are now 453 breweries with more than 1,600 craft brewed canned beers now available across the United States.

As a matter of fact, the airlines are getting in on the craft canned trend. In early December, Delta Air Lines began stocking carts with a selection of regional craft beers from breweries like Ballast Point, Lagunitas Brewing and Stone Brewing.

On a local level, La Quinta Brewing started canning in February 2014 with The Can Van. New painted cans that are now making their way into stores.

The Rise of American Wild Ales

Sours are made by introducing bacteria and/or wild yeast strains into the beer. And the results? Think bright, tart, funky and mysterious. Building off classic Belgian and German styles, U.S. breweries are harnessing wild yeast, creating beers with novel dimensions of aroma and flavor.

Coachella Valley Brewing started a sour program when they first opened their brewery, more than a year ago. CVB’s sours will be offered in small allotments for Fault Line Society members, and in the tasting room in 2015, starting with Framboys, a boysenberry raspberry framboise. Keep an eye out for Flame Rouges, an American wild brewed with red flame raisins. Both are aged in port and cabernet wine barrels.

CVB will also be releasing Epineux Poire, an American wild brewed with locally foraged prickly pear cactus fruit. Persnickety, CVB’s persimmon sour, will also make an appearance next year. If the beers don’t sell out to the FLS members, the remainder will go on public sale.

“I think in 2015, you will see more and more of beer-style fusion,” said Coachella Valley Brewing’s Chris Anderson. “Think along the lines of a Belgian IPA. I think farmhouse ales, wild ales and Brett beers (created by a funky wild yeast) will all continue to be hot.”

The Rise of the Farm-to-Table Movement

The convergence of the slow-food movement and the craft-beer revolution has led to fantastic events and exhibits, like the Great American Beer Festival’s Farm to Table Pavilion. The Pavilion provided 28 pairings designed and prepared by small and independent breweries and chefs from around the country. Coachella Valley Brewing was specially selected to pour, and was also chosen to present a special “Farm to Glass” tasting for 200 people.

“I found that our beers were very unique and innovative compared to other breweries, and it inspired me to see more breweries jumping into the concept of farm to glass,” he said, referring to the use of more fresh, local ingredients in beers.

Farmhouse ales have also seen a huge spike in sales. With applications of new-wave hop varietals like Citra, Mosaic, El Dorado and Hallertau Blanc, more people are asking for those less-bitter beers and raising their glass to juicier brews.

Breweries, like CVB, are embracing agriculture and sourcing even more local fruits, vegetables and grains. More people are recognizing the compatibility of craft beer and contemporary cuisine, too, with more beer-and-food pairings. If in the Los Angeles area, stop by Hook and Plow. Locally, don’t miss Workshop Kitchen + Bar, which offers farm-fresh heirlooms, wild arugula, watermelon, champagne grapes and lemon cucumbers in season, along with a nice selection of Southern California craft beer.

Nano Breweries Continue to Open

When it comes to beer, size really doesn’t matter. Nano breweries, often started with a single batch of homebrewed beer, typically produce one batch at a time. They represent craft in the truest sense. Also referred to as pico breweries, nano brewers make beer on a three-barrel system or smaller. There were reportedly more than 300 breweries operating in the United States as of the summer of 2014 that would qualify as nano breweries.

San Diego’s Hess Brewing opened in 2010 and produced about 1.6 barrels of beer per batch. Mike Hess Brewing has since grown to include two locations: the original “nano” in the Miramar area, and a production brewery in North Park, San Diego.

Big Success for Local Breweries

In Rancho Mirage, Babe’s Bar-B-Que and Brewhouse celebrated a massive win this year when the brewery took home a medal at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. The beloved restaurant and brewhouse nabbed its first-ever GABF medal in the “Belgian-Style Blonde Ale or Pale” category for the Belgian Vanilla Blonde Ale. Babe’s is also reportedly celebrating a 110 percent increase in off-site sales from 2013 to 2014.

Over at CVB, Tom Del Sarto, the director of sales, spearheaded distribution deals with Young’s Market Company to sell the brewery’s beers throughout California and now Arizona.

It’s a trend: More and more people are eschewing big, mass-market brands in favor of craft beer. Del Sarto noted the fall of Budweiser’s annual barrel sales from 30 million barrels in 2003, to 16 million in 2014. Meanwhile, the craft-beer industry has gone from selling 5 million barrels in 2003, to 16.1 million barrels this year. As a result, more craft beer is appearing in restaurants and grocery stores alike.

“National chains are giving more autonomy to regional stores as customers are seeking local brands, adding to the major breweries’ decline in volume," said Del Sarto.

La Quinta Brewing, as noted earlier, has also had a big year. Owner Scott Stokes said he’s been pleasantly surprised at the acceptance and support of craft beer in the desert in 2014.

“Just the attendance and success of this year’s Props and Hops Festival, compared to two years ago, illustrates the passion that desert residents have for craft beer,” he said.

He went on to add: “We’re proud to say that after only a year, La Quinta is the second-most-widely distributed craft beer in terms of bars and restaurants within the Coachella Valley, just behind New Belgium (Fat Tire).”

Bring on the next round, 2015!

Published in Beer

Located just 70 miles or so from the Coachella Valley, Temecula is known as Southern California’s wine country; the charming California town and surrounding area produce more than 50 different varietals of wine.

This is a great thing for the craft-beer industry. Brewers for years have been using wine-making techniques, like-barrel aging, to produce amazing beers. And today, the rolling hills and plateaus of the Temecula Valley are not just the home of fantastic wineries; they’re now home to some fantastic breweries, too.

Founded in 2009, Black Market Brewing Co. is the beer-maker that broke ground in wine country with the much-loved Hefeweizen. The Bavarian-style ale is a semi-crisp 5.0 percent alcohol-by-volume unfiltered wheat beer that pours a hazy, California sun yellow, and showcases unique fruit and spice characters like clove, orange peel, banana and sweet bread. Brewed in the spirit of the German purity law, the flagship beer won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival this year. It continues to be Black Market’s biggest-selling beer.

I spoke with Black Market’s lead brewer, Aaron Heyden, and asked him what it’s like to be a brewer in wine country.

“I think it’s good, because there’s already a built-in market for those who want to drink,” he said. “It’s natural that we get spillover from wine country.” In fact, Black Market is working on distribution in another part of California that’s big into wine—the Central Coast.

Aaron is a big fan of IPAs, with fresh hop aroma and flavor—and without the big bitter taste.

“I was always on the quest to make the best IPA,” he said. “It’s kinda hard to make really good IPAs. That’s a great test for a good brewery.”

Black Market currently produces 4,000 barrels annually; the goal is to boost that to about 10,000 annual barrels within the next five years.

Pouring an orange-red, the imperial red ale, called Invasion, is a delicious West Coast-style imperial with a whopping 9.9 percent ABV. Using Centennial and El Dorado hops, this brew gives off loads of flower and fruit flavors, like pear and stone fruit. Columbus hops give Invasion an earthy black pepper character.

Keep an eye out for Black Market’s Holiday 2014, a triple black rye IPA, coming out in December. This is a flavorful holiday version of Cascadian dark-style ale (also called a black IPA). It has a pungent aroma of citrus and resinous hops alongside spicy rye earthiness. The brewery is also working on a collaboration holiday brew withValiant Brewing, with smoked pine leaves and vanilla.

Less than a mile away from Black Market is Ironfire Brewery. This brewery’s goal is to build up its barrel-aging program, so if you love bourbon-barrel-aged beers and sours, this is a place to visit. 

John Maino and Greg Webb met at Ballast Point in San Diego and decided to start their own brewery in Temecula. They are on pace to produce somewhere between 1,600 and 2,000 barrels this year; the brewery will be able to max out at 8,800 barrels annually. The brewery plans on growing, having recently added a 60 barrel fermenters and a bright tank.

“We have bourbon barrels, Jack Daniel’s barrels, rye-whiskey barrels, white-wine barrels, red-wine barrels and cognac barrels. We have 30-year-old rum barrels. We have a very diverse collection of barrels,” said Webb, Ironfire’s vice president.

About a year after opening in 2012, the brewery released Collateral Damage. It is an imperial porter aged for 14 months in Maker’s Mark barrels. The Outcast Dead, aged six months in Tennessee whiskey barrels, is available now in the tasting room on draft and in bottles. Don’t miss the best-seller, the 51/50 IPA.

The brewery self-distributes in Temecula, because the owners want supporters to get to know them personally, and they want to make sure they offer the freshest beer possible.

Refuge Brewery is yet another great brewery in wine country. The folks there specialize in handcrafted small-batch Belgian ales. Back on tap are the Illusion IPA, a 6.5 percent ABV Belgian style IPA, and Mystique, a 9.8 percent ABV Belgian-style dark strong ale. Mystique is a sweetly decadent beer with dark burnt flavors and chocolate undertones. They hope to be bottling more specialty Belgian-style beers by the beginning of next year.

Refuge’s flagship Blood Orange Wit is Southern California sunshine in a glass. The brewery just canned the first full run of it on Nov. 13.

Glenn Wichert, the co-founder and vice president of brewery operations, explained why the brewery uses more than 200 pounds of blood oranges in every beer batch.

“It’s a lot of labor, but it really gives the beer that freshness,” he said. “It’s not always exactly the same, because the oranges are at different stages of ripening, but that’s what’s cool about it.”

Wichert said he loves the fact that wine barrels are at Refuge’s disposal on a consistent basis.

“Our Belgian beers age well in these wine barrels,” he said.

More bold flavors were introduced to wine-country palates when Wiens Brewing opened in November 2012. Weins Brewing Company just celebrated its two year anniversary with the release of several special beers that were all aged in bourbon barrels, and then blended for the year’s release.

Other beers include the Type 3 IPA, a tropical hop bomb with five different hops and four different malts. Another popular brew is the hoppy lager, the Millennium Falconers IPL, brewed with Millennium and Falconers Flight hops, which impart a crisp citrus and tropical flavor.

If the name sounds familiar, that’s because Wiens Family Cellars is known for big red wines like Refugio Cabernet Sauvignon and Chateau Grand Rouge.

While you’re in Temecula, also check out Aftershock Brewing, Bulldog Brewery, Electric Brewing Co. and Garage Brewing Co. If you don’t want to worry about driving, consider hiring the great folks at Brewery Tours of Temecula. Ask for Toby; you won’t be disappointed!

There is an old saying in the wine business: “It takes a lot of great beer to make great wine!” At the end of a long day in the field or in the cellar, many wine-makers turn to beer to quench their thirst. And in the Temecula Valley, there’s now plenty of both delicious beverages.

Below: Founded in 2009, Black Market Brewing Co. is the beer-maker that broke ground in wine country. Photo by Erin Peters.

Published in Beer

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.

Published in Beer