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Cover Stories

A Tour of Santa Cruz’s Craft Beer Scene

Searching for the soul of Santa Cruz’s suds

It’s official. Santa Cruz has gone beer crazy.

Not long ago, there was just a small handful of brewers in the county. Now there are more than a dozen, with more undoubtedly on the way.

When I realized Santa Cruz’s brewery scene was blowing up, I knew the only way I could do the scene justice as a journalist was to go into the trenches myself and visit every single brewery—in a single weekend. Well, it made sense in my head.

So I got on the phone and called my buddy John MacAvoy and explained this very important mission. I knew John would bring the much-needed high-alcohol-tolerance perspective.

Our goal was to find the Santa Cruz-ness within each brewery. In other words, we looked for the strangest and most unique beers in the county. I’d spoken to enough brewers already to know that they’ve been brewing up some pretty unusual flavors (Bacon Brown Ale, anyone?). With the help of John and Uber, I resolved to get to the heart of what makes our brewery scene tick. Here’s my journal of how it all happened.

 

DAY 1

9:30 a.m. I don’t normally start drinking this early, but I am a professional, and sometimes you have to make sacrifices for the public good. It’s off to Corralitos Brewing Co. first. A few weeks earlier, co-owner Luke Taylor told me that they grow hops on their property, which they use in their My Girl Rye Pale Ale, which he considers their most unique beer. I’m anxious to try it.

10 a.m. Corralitos Brewing Co. is located on the outskirts of Corralitos, a gorgeous piece of property with a phenomenal view. The brewery interior is decorated entirely with wood. This is what all breweries should look like. Taylor greets me in the warehouse, which is also filled with lumber from his parents’ business. I briefly meet his partner Mike Smith, but he is busy doing something. Taylor, like most other men in their 30s, has a bushy beard. He’s friendly and eager to tell me about the brewery, including his plans to open-ferment some beers. There’s what looks like a cow trough in a room next to the brewery. That’s where the open fermentation magic happens.

10:45 a.m. Taylor pours us several beers. My Girl is a phenomenal drink—not strange per se, but distinctive, and it has a nice backstory. How many brewers can claim to grow their own hops? It tastes like a clean pale ale, but smoother and fresher. He also pours us Plan A, a solid sour with just the right amount of tart, and a hint of Chardonnay. John is drinking roughly twice as much as I do, and seems unfazed. Taylor tells us about a beer he wants to can called the Steady Ed, a tribute to Ed Headrick, inventor of Disc Golf. It’ll be a low-alcohol, easy-sipping red ale. You know, the kind of beer you’d want to pound while doing a few rounds on the disc golf course.

12 p.m. We pull up to the Uncommon Brewers warehouse, where head brewer Alec Stefansky is waiting for us with a row of Uncommon beer cans lined up on a stack of pallets, along with three cups. On the way, I picked up Good Times news editor Jake Pierce and his pal Nick. Stefansky grabs two more glasses and starts cracking open cans. We drink seven in total, and they are strong! Three that stuck out were the Japonica Pils (Pilsner, ginger, wasabi), the Flamenco Roja (Flanders red ale, pomegranate, raspberries—aged in Pinot and Syrah barrels), and the Baltic Porter (porter, licorice, star anise). So much flavor. In no time we are buzzing hard, and John starts interviewing Stefansky. Hey, that’s my job!  

AT HIS DISCRETION The author (center) and John MacAvoy (left) with Discretion Brewing Chief Beer Ambassador Dustin Vereker.

AT HIS DISCRETION The author (center) and John MacAvoy (left) with Discretion Brewing Chief Beer Ambassador Dustin Vereker.

12:45 p.m. Most people may know Uncommon Brewers for their outlandish concoctions, like the previously mentioned Bacon Brown Ale, but really, their beers are all balanced quite well. Stefansky, a lively character in his early 40s, tells us about his early rebel years of college home-brewing, and time spent working in restaurants. Funny, his beers seem exactly how a crazy mad chef would approach brewing. “I’m looking for a way for the spices to contribute, not dominate,” Stefansky says. We all nod along.

1 p.m. Stefansky gives us a sneak peek of his soon-to-be tap room over on 415 River St., and it is gigantic at 2,400 square feet. The plan is to open later in the year, with food provided by El Salchichero. (Sausage sandwiches! Pho! Ramen!) Right now, all he has is a big open room with giant wooden tables everywhere. It should be a happening spot when it opens. John and Stefansky are really hitting it off. John is already planning to bring his girlfriend down on opening night, whenever that is. I swear, John makes instant friends with everyone.

1:30 p.m. Santa Cruz Ale Works brewmaster Marc Rosenblum explains they don’t do weird, just dependable and consistent. It’s understandable considering that they began by bottling their product nearly a decade ago, and only opened a tasting room a few years ago. I had a sandwich too—the Holy Smokes. Delicious!

3 p.m. It’s raging at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing. This is one of the oldest breweries in town, open for about 11 years. Inside, the décor is a little artsy—glasses hanging upside down from the ceiling, weird art on the wall. Owner Emily Thomas isn’t there yet. She sends her partner Chad Brill to meet us. We start with a Lavender IPA. I don’t normally like flowers in my drinks, but this one wins me over. Next, he pours us the Madame Grey, which is even better. It’s a milk stout with lactose, Earl Grey tea and honey. What a tasty, unusual beer! This would have been perfect for my 10 a.m. drink.

3:35 p.m. Thomas arrives and gives me the tour, while John hangs back and chats with Brill. She tells me that anyone on staff is free to contribute a recipe idea, and it’ll end up in the tasting room. “If we can think of it and brew it, we can definitely sell it,” she says. Employee Pepe Palacios created their Lavender IPA, as well as a whole series of floral IPAs (hibiscus, jasmine, lavender). One of their most intriguing recipes is the horchata pale ale, made by head brewer Tommy Mills. The beer is a combination of cream ale, rice syrup, cinnamon, and vanilla. Thomas describes it as “very drinkable.” When I tag John to go, he and Chad are best buds.

4:30 p.m. Seabright Brewery is the oldest-standing brewery in town. They opened back in 1988, when people thought Sierra Nevada was a wacky, experimental beer. It has an “established” feel to it. Head brewer Jason Chavez, is an absolute delight, a cross between an old hippie and a goofy surfer dude. The three of us sit in a booth. He starts ordering us drinks, and telling us his entire brewing history. [Editor’s Note: Jason Chavez has since left Seabright Brewery, and the head brewer there is now Cat Wiest.]

5 p.m. A common theme with these brewers is that they started out home-brewing. Chavez has them all beat. He started back in 1985, while still in high school. His mother is German, he explains. Yet, Chavez strikes me as a guy without a roadmap. He’s just tossing ingredients in the pot and seeing what works. When it does, he’s as surprised as anyone. Chavez brews a lot of standard traditional beers for the regulars, but also likes to experiment. My first drink is a prime example: A Cask Ale stout, brewed with chocolate and raspberries. Meanwhile John is drinking the much-less adventurous Sunday Morning Sidewalk, a “hangover beer,” and a clever reference to the brilliant Kris Kristofferson song.  

5:30 p.m. We drink I don’t-know-how-many beers, chatting with Chavez. For brave drinkers, I recommend walking in and just ordering whatever Chavez has recently brewed in the cask, because he’s always tossing in his weirder ingredients there. “A lot of the cask I don’t really think about. Kind of the morning of I just go, ‘oh maybe I’ll do this,’” Chavez explains.

6 p.m. I learn a new term today: “session beer.” It’s where you take a craft beer style, like IPA, and give it Budweiser-level alcohol. Discretion Brewing Chief Beer Ambassador Dustin Vereker talks about session beers at length. He’s a young, wholesome-looking whippersnapper. Their goal, he says, is very different from, say, a dive bar’s. “We don’t want people to get totally trashed. We’re a really family-friendly establishment,” he says. They even have toys and games for kids to play with.

6:15 p.m. Vereker pours us several drinks, including a session English-style mild ale (Song in Your Heart), an Irish-style red ale (Dublin Sunburn), a rye IPA (Uncle Dave’s), and my personal favorite, the Shimmer Pils, a light, refreshing, summer-style German pilsner. There’s nothing strange about Discretion’s beers, but they nail the standard flavors spectacularly. In just three years, they’ve expanded from a 500-barrel-a-year operation to nearly 3,300 barrels a year. The place is busy, and it’s no mystery why.

7 p.m. John and I sit down and enjoy a plate of pork sliders and chicken and waffles, which are insanely delicious. Vereker comes over and hands us three large bottles of Discretion beer.

9 p.m. We’ve been in New Bohemia Brewing Company for a half hour, and it suddenly strikes me that John and I are next-level, totally-out-of-our-minds drunk when I realize we are entertaining ourselves by playing a lively game of “flick the rubber band on the wall so the other person can catch it” and then screaming our asses off when one of us does (or doesn’t). At one point, John dances backward toward the exit door, then proceeds to dance around the building and back inside the front door.

9:15 p.m. New Bohemia has a wonderful atmosphere with two floors. Downstairs is a bar/stage area. Co-founder Dan Satterthwaite is unable to meet us because his child is sick, so he texts me three beers to check out. There’s the Velvet Revolution, a malty pilsner that tasted like a red ale, the Double Agent, a very hoppy, flowery double IPA, and my personal favorite, and the weirdest of the bunch, the Double Duchess, a coffee-infused chocolate porter. Yum! John and I leave without getting kicked out.  

10 p.m. I can’t recall much at this point. Looking at the photos, I see that we got tortas at Los Pericos, and later I held a large pet snake! I vaguely recall lying down on Pierce’s couch, while one of his roommates watched Seven Samurai. Everything else is a blur.

 

DAY 2

10 a.m. The fine folks at Elkhorn Slough Brewing Co., whose tasting room is open as of last weekend, tell us to come to their home in Watsonville for brunch. Michael Enos and Julie Rienhardt are the nicest people, and their egg casserole (using eggs from their chickens) is simply wonderful. As for the beer, they have something truly unique. (See this week’s dining column.)

10:40 a.m. The first glass Rienhardt and Enos pour is called “Mothership,” and everyone should try it. The couple discovered that they had some incredible live yeast right on the apple tree on their property, which they use in the fermenting process of their “wild ale.” The Mothership is made from 100-percent live yeast. It is one of the oddest flavors I’ve ever tasted in a beer. It has the crispness of cider, but without the sweetness. The rest of the beers they serve us have some percentage of this yeast, but with other ingredients. Rienhardt and Enos are a hilarious, eccentric boomer-aged couple. John and I love talking with them. At one point, Enos explains how yeast is really aliens that are taking over the planet, and Julie says that he “agreed to not talk about aliens.”

1 p.m. Scotts Valley’s Steel Bonnet Brewing Company owner Donald Cramb is a soft-spoken man in his 50s. He and his wife are from Scotland, and their accents are subtle. His concept for the brewery is to highlight beers from the British Isles and the American West Coast. Cramb pours us drink after drink and gives an explanation of their heritage. Everything fits within the concept, expect for their Belgian ale, which Cramb says, “goes against everything I stand for.” He put it on the menu for his son.

1:20 p.m. We try English IPAs, American IPAs, pale ales, red ales. I lose track at some point. The most interesting drink of the afternoon is Reiver Red Peat smoked red ale. It has a distinct smoky bite to it, very similar to Laphroaig Scotch Whisky. Both are made with peat-smoked grains. It’s borderline medicinal, but balanced, and that smoky aftertaste is quite pleasant. Before we leave, we check out Cramb’s brewing equipment. His wife is busy brewing. There are large pots of wet grains on the ground. The aroma is intoxicating.

SECRET BEER STASH Former tequila barrels that now house Humble Sea's beer.

SECRET BEER STASH Former tequila barrels that now house Humble Sea’s beer.

2:20 p.m. Humble Sea Brewing Company isn’t in Ben Lomond’s downtown, but on some property on the outskirts of town. I feel like we’re staring at a mad scientist’s lab. This garage, in the country, right next to a gushing river, is packed with brewery equipment, and tubes going every which way. Humble Sea is in its early stages. They sell their beers to a few restaurants in town. Later this year they will be opening their own tasting room and a production brewery on Swift Street, and presumably taking over the world. For now, it’s just humble.

2:40 p.m. Brewer Nick Pavlina gives us the tour and pours us some beers. He opens with Playa Grande, which is a jalapeño IPL. I don’t expect to like it, but it’s surprisingly refreshing, and only mildly spicy. He also pours us a Maritime Medicine (coriander, lemongrass, pilsner), and a barrel-aged Playa Grande, aged in tequila barrels, with intense vanilla and oak flavors. Pavlina admits that the recipe needs toning down a bit. He pours us some Crusty Sea Dog, an absolutely delicious cherry sour beer, and tells us that he wants to try a version of Playa Grande that has mango in it, like mango salsa. “I don’t want to go over the top with the weirdness. I want to avoid the novelty of it and make drinkable beers,” Pavlina explains. Both John and I feel excited to see what will become of Humble Sea in the coming year.

4:05 p.m. I’m immediately struck by the gallery-like ambience of East Cliff Brewing Company. The walls are filled with artwork. Owners James Hrica and Jon Moriconi immediately serve us small-glass flights of beer in muffin tins. Moriconi is wearing a Slow Gherkin shirt, which I immediately point out. There’s a third owner, but he’s not here today. East Cliff Brewery is unlike any other brewery in the area. It’s entirely inspired by traditional English pubs. The beer is made in casks (which is 10-15 degrees warmer) and served from beer engines, which produces a creamier texture. These guys are really committed to recreating the English pub experience—they even serve their beer in English pints (19.2 U.S. ounces) for authenticity. A good starter beer is the E.O.B., a session standard bitter. It’s a very simple, palatable traditional English ale, and has a hint of honey flavor to it.

4:45 p.m. Hrica gives John and me a full tour of their cask ale storage unit, and even shows us how to change a cask, which is fascinating. He tops off the demonstration by showing us how to pump some beer out of a beer engine. What an educational stop!

5:30 p.m. It seems appropriate that John and I finish our beer tour at Shanty Shack Brewing, the brainchild of two young skater-looking guys in their late 20s and early 30s, Nathan Van Zandt and Brandon Padilla, and a recent addition to the local brewery scene. Van Zandt and Padilla have a particular fondness for sours, but hope to master every popular flavor. They don’t have any flagship beers quite yet, but are experienced homebrewers, and even ran a beer delivery operation years earlier for friends and family. All their beers are solid, but I am most interested in a beer they served at Twisted Tasting. They call it Lamb’s Wool. It’s a hot beer, a strong Scottish Ale, with sugar, butter and roasted apples. “It’s like a Christmas drink,” Padilla explains. Man, I hope they bring that one back.

6:30 p.m. John and I linger at Shanty Shack longer than necessary. Van Zandt and Padilla give us a tour. They have big plans, and are still tweaking their recipes and trying to find their identity. Their excitement is intoxicating, and epitomizes the enthusiasm and outside-of-the-box thinking that defines the entire Santa Cruz brewery scene.  

Contributor at Good Times |

Aaron is a hard-working freelance writer with a focus on music, art, food, culture and travel. In addition to Good Times, he's a regular contributor to Sacramento News & Review, VIA Magazine and Playboy. When he's not working, he's either backpacking, arguing about music or working on his book about ska. One thing's for sure—he knows more about ska than you.

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