SAN FRANCISCO — At the turn of the century there were 1,600 breweries in America. By 1980 all but 40 had disappeared. But then the tide began to turn, a wave of beer began sweeping across the country, and by the end of 1985 the number of licensed breweries was at 63--and growing. Since then, a new brewery has opened almost every month.
But if you are thinking about Anheuser-Busch or Miller or Coors, think again. As "Buffalo" Bill Owens, one of the first of the new brewers says, "Running a big brewery is like driving a Rolls-Royce; the only thing they have to worry about is if the clock is ticking too loud. I'm driving a Go Kart, and I had to learn everything on my own."
Beer is not like wine. You don't need a vineyard, a big bankroll or lots of time to produce it. College kids have been surreptitiously brewing it in basements for years, and when this became legal in California in 1976 a few of those kids actually made it their business.
Then, in 1983, there was another, more significant change in the liquor laws. Bars were allowed to sell beer "regardless of source"; this meant that for the first time tavernkeepers could brew their own beer. And it meant that some pioneer brewers began thinking of becoming tavernkeepers.
Ask anybody who knows anything about beer, and he will tell you that freshness is its most important quality. Wine matures with age; beer just gets old. Clearly the best place to drink beer is at the source. Enter the brewpub, an institution that made its California debut in Hopland in 1983.
Brewpubs don't bottle, don't pasteurize, don't sell the stuff to go; they just brew up the beer and sell it on the spot. "It's pretty simple," says Owens, whose beer travels a mere 62 feet from the tank in which it is made to the bar where it is dispensed. "It's hard to make a mess of it. You can't poison anybody; the kettle just knows how to boil."
Owens holds forth in a fairly funky brewpub called Buffalo Bill's in the fairly funky town of Hayward. He makes brewing look like child's play; "All it is," he says, "is malted barley, hops, yeast and water." Owens mixes them up in large kettles right there in the pub; the resulting brew spends 18 days turning into smooth beer with a substantial flavor. Drinking it, you can't help thinking that it must be good for you.
Owens, a professional photographer, got tired of sitting by the phone waiting for assignments. He wanted to be in control of his own life; the brewpub offered the perfect answer. "I'm not catering to the public," he says, "I'm catering to myself." But Owens has been so successful at pleasing himself that he now plans to open a second pub in Marin County.
Meanwhile, others are getting into the act at a furious rate. "Brewpubs," says Owens (who holds the trademark on the word), "are growing so fast that I'm like a grandfather in the business--and I'm only 3 years old."
The newest brewpub in the state is the Santa Cruz Brewing Company. "They've only been open three months," says Owens, "and they're already doing three times the volume that I am." Even the owners are surprised at how popular their Front Street Pub has become. "We opened in May," says Gerry Turgeon, "and within 6 days we had increased our production capacity to the projections we had for a year from now."
Turgeon and his father were in the wine business for 15 years. "We became disenchanted with the wine market," he says. "It was time to do something new." When the brewpub laws were passed the Turgeons looked around for a site.
"There had been no beer made in Santa Cruz county since Prohibition," says Turgeon. "There's a strong local awareness here, and the city was very receptive." The citizens were also receptive--the Front Street Pub, attached to the brewery, is now selling almost 1,000 gallons of beer a week.
They are also selling a lot of food calculated to appeal to beer drinkers. There are burgers and fries, steamed mussels and clams, a different pot pie every day. There are also "spiedies"--garlicky, spicey charbroiled pork on skewers--that make you want to drink more of the beer.
The Pub even has a homemade brew for people who don't like beer. "I know it's hard to imagine," says Turgeon, "but they're out there." These people can order root beer, brewed out of dandelion root, sarsparilla, wintergreen, juniper berries and sugar. "And," says Turgeon, "we have plans to start making ginger beer."
You won't find any homemade soft beers at the Mendocino Brewing Company. California's first brewpub just celebrated its third birthday with a barbecue, a keg toss and a special batch of beer. But long before they opened their pub, Norman Franks and Michael Laybourn had been brewing beer.