It's hard to throw a bottle in California without hitting someone who wants to start a new brewery. No one can predict which fledgling breweries will succeed and which will go the way of all those defunct '90s brewpubs, but there are a few whose odds seem much better than most.
The following three breweries are too new to be household names but have gained a devoted local following. Spoiler alert: their beers live up to the buzz. And if you haven't heard the buzz yet, you will.
Pittsburg/Fairfield (northeast of San Francisco)
To a certain breed of homebrewer, Jamil Zainasheff was a rock star brewer before his brewery, Heretic, released its first kegs in mid-2011. His bona fides included hosting a popular radio show on The Brewing Network, co-authoring a book on yeast with White Labs founder Chris White, and winning approximately three bajillion ribbons at homebrew competitions. It's a sad fact that outstanding homebrewers don't always make a smooth transition to commercial brewing, but fingers were crossed all over the world that this one could.
Hate the guy if you must, but Zainasheff and his co-brewer Chris Kennedy have been busting out kegs and bottles that meet those high expectations. The piny red ale Evil Twin begat the chocolately Shallow Grave porter which begat the dank 8% IPA Evil Cousin. Their forays into barrel-aging, like the chardonnay barrel-aged Belgian golden Worry, have also been successful with beer nerds and casual drinkers alike. The only Heretic beer I've ever heard Average Joes diss at the bar—the sessionable, delicious, rye-doused Gramarye—won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival a few months ago. So there.
Heretic's Facebook page is always full of homebrewers clamoring for distribution to their states. They may have a bit of a wait, but Heretic's coming move to a larger brewery will help. In the meantime, you can find their beer all over California, in Idaho, and oddly, in Australia. They're sending a bit of beer to Japan this year to see how that goes.
So what's their secret? "Do it right or don't do it," said Zainasheff, "Dump it if it is wrong." If that's heresy, tie me to a stake.
Sante Adairius Rustic Ales
Capitola (near Santa Cruz)
It's easy for a jaded beer fan to roll her eyes at limited-run beers you can only get at a tiny brewery with a weird name. Hear me out, because Sante Adairius, helmed by a married couple named Tim and Adair (get it?) should be on all California beer-drinking radars.
The taps at the Belgian-heavy brewery rotate frequently, so there's no guarantee any particular beer will ever be available. You do have a decent chance of running into their excellent house saison, Anäis (named after a friend's daughter, not the writer). They've also got an it's-so-crazy-it-works smoked saison, Fumare, inspired by speculation about how farmhouse ales might have tasted back in the days of wood-fired wort heating. And You Me is Berliner Weisse with lactobacillus and brettanomyces, a great interpretation of a style many American breweries bungle. There's also a limited bottling program for Sante Adairius' 16e series (beer judge in-joke) and those offerings change often, too. The one available for our visit was Two Pilots, a smooth, lightly tart Belgian golden aged in both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay oak barrels and fermented with wine yeast.
This may sound a little fancy, but owner Tim Clifford is down-to-earth and the brewery was built on a budget, not a trust fund. "There is nothing automated in our brew house save two pumps for transferring; everything is done by hand." said Clifford, who is also part-owner of the homebrew store Seven Bridges Cooperative. "Any home brewer with a modicum of experience could walk into our brewery and figure out how to use our system."
When they're able to bring beer outside their taproom, their Santa Cruz neighbors will be the first accounts. Then they'll go to a few lucky places in the Bay Area, and then we'll see. Bay folks should note that in mid-January Sante Adairius brewed a collaboration saison at Triple Rock in Berkeley, which is a far cry closer than Capitola. On the other hand, Santa Cruz sure is a nice place to visit, and now you have an additional excuse.
Quick! Name two breweries in California with a huge cult following. Chances are the founders of Societe have worked at one or both of them. Travis Smith formerly brewed for Russian River and The Bruery, and met his business partner Doug Constantiner at the latter. With resumes like that, Smith and Consantiner's start-up Societe was on the tongues of beer groupies long before they ever produced a pint.
The excitement was not misguided. Societe's double IPA The Pupil does hop-happy San Diego proud with a crazy blend of Nelson Sauvin, Citra, and Centennial hops. At 8.9% ABV and bitter, this is not a session beer, but IPA lovers sure could drink too much of it at once. Societe doesn't just do hops, though. Fans of strong Belgians will enjoy The Widow, with its dark, fruity malts and a bit of roast.
They also brew a few other IPAs, some other Belgian styles, and an imperial stout—but don't expect wild experimental one-offs or kitchen-sink beers. "Travis and I got into beer because we like the flavor of beer," said Constantiner. "We're not out to make some crazy Double IPA Tripel with exotic herbs and fruits just to do it, or to make a beer that has never been brewed before."
Societe does not currently bottle, so trying it requires visiting their taphouse, hunting in San Diego bars, or bribing a SoCal friend to mail you one of their awesome stainless steel growlers. They currently only distribute in San Diego county, but hope to get more fermenters and send beer to LA and San Francisco. Bay Area drinkers can sample their wares at the Brewing Network Winter Brews festival in Concord on January 26—hopefully a sign that statewide distribution is on the way at some point.
Choosing just three of the many promising new breweries in California was nearly impossible. What are your favorites of the ones we didn't talk about this time? Let us know in the comments.
About the author: Jen Muehlbauer wrote about beer in Boston and LA before settling down in the promised land of the Bay Area in 2009. She also tends bar, teaches beer classes, is a BJCP-certified beer judge, and occasionally makes a passable batch of homebrew. Follow her on Twitter at @EastBayBeerJen.