Since the closing of the Ventura Brewery decades ago and Prohibition, long before that, Ventura County beer fanciers have had to wet their collective whistles with something other than a locally brewed concoction.
That long dry spell ended, however, when the Shields Brewing Co. opened for business on Valentine's Day, 1990.
Owner Bob Shields was a brew-your-own enthusiast for years, experimenting in his garage with five-gallon batches.
"Home brewing is just one of those hobbies that consumes you," he said. "I just couldn't get out of the garage."
After a hard day of work in construction, Shields would come home to his makeshift brewery, with a new formula in mind.
"It's creative. You can bend it this way and push it that way and if what you've created isn't any good, give it to somebody that you don't like," he said, chuckling.
Hobbies are fun and relaxing, but Shields had an idea to exploit his suds-making skills and bring it out of the garage, so to speak.
"I always wanted to open a restaurant and marry the two," he said.
He got wind that a few pubs in Northern California were brewing their own beer and selling it on tap--and, best of all, they were making a success of it.
Dropping everything in 1987 and liquidating all assets, Shields concentrated on opening his own California-style "brew pub."
But brewing commercially proved tougher than his garage attempts. It was to be two years before a reluctant city bureaucracy approved his plans to metamorphose Curly's Upholstery in downtown Ventura.
Finally prevailing, Shields spent the next year renovating the industrial site by hand--often working seven days a week.
Now, behind glass walls, patrons are seated in full view of the large stainless steel kettles and serving tanks and can watch the process:
First the "mashing." Fifty-pound sacks of toasted grain--barley malt--are steeped in water for about 1 1/2 hours, converting starch into sugar.
The sweet liquid--"wort" in brewer's lingo--is drawn off the grain and moved to a brew kettle where flavor-enhancing hops are added and the mixture is boiled for another 1 1/2 hours.
Once the "boil" has ended, more hops, vine-grown delicate flowers, are added for aroma. "Hops provide a chemical stabilization," Shields said. "They act as a natural preservative."
The hot wort is then cooled to 80 degrees and pumped into a fermenting tank where German malt yeast is added. Shields said the yeast consumes the sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. The initial fermentation takes about four days at a temperature-controlled 65 degrees. The brew will sit for the next two weeks while the yeast is removed from the tank.
Finally, the brew is cooled to drinking temperature--about 40 degrees--and pumped into a serving tank where it is carbonated and tapped directly to the patron's glass.
"The beer is alive and constantly conditioning and maturing," he said. "We don't filter or pasteurize; it could sit a year and taste even better."
Don't expect a domestic beer taste from Shields' recipes. "Why make Budweiser," he said. "That's already been done.
"My beers are a totally different concept; they compare more with beers from Germany and England."
Shields brews three different kinds of beer: Gold Coast Beer, Channel Islands Ale and Shields Stout.
"Gold Coast, a pale ale, is golden in color. More hops give it more aroma than domestic beers."
Shields calls his Channel Islands Ale "a real ale." "We don't use adjunct grains that are used in others, just the ones it's supposed to have."
Shields Stout is a dark beer that, he said, is not quite as harsh or bitter as those found in Ireland and England.
When deciding what formulations he would brew, Shields said, there was more to consider than just taste.
"I've had to create these beers for what I thought is marketable in Southern California," he said. "They must fit the California lifestyle."
Such as? "A mild climate calls for a milder beer. If you've been on the beach, you want something thirst quenching and something to cool your body down."
Shields brews his recipes in the tradition of stronger tasting Old World-style beers, all the while cognizant that most of his customers have been weaned on milder domestic beers.
"Domestic beers have limited product," he said, referring to the amount of grains and hops. "They don't contain as much as the beers of England and Germany."
Which isn't to say that one way is better than the other. He compares it to the brewing of tea.
"When making a cup of tea, you might pull out the tea bag real quick; some might use two bags and let it sit for long time. That's not good or bad, just different."
For now, Shields' beers are available only on tap, although he would like to bottle his beers for the local retail market.
There is one other way to enjoy the flavor and aroma of Shields' brews. The restaurant side of the business offers beer-steamed dinners including knockwurst, bratwurst, clams and shrimp.
WHERE AND WHEN
Shields' Brewing Co., a brewery-restaurant, is located at the corner of Santa Clara Street and Ventura Avenue, Ventura, and is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Call 643-1807.