Brian and I started talking about this project sometime in 1990. For the most part, this talk was over a few beers and occasionally under the table. Brian was a stock broker and an avid home brewer, I was back in school to become a programmer. It was almost too obvious: our vocations were as brewers ('hic).
At the beginning of 1996, I returned from Australia and was ready to take my place as the programmer that slew microsoft (after making up for lost time ... at the taps). It was not to be. At about the same time, Brian's company offered him a choice: a healthy severance; or a transfer to purgatory. That left us both with opportunity.
The first thing we had to do was research. Brian had been keeping his finger on the pulse for some time already, but now we had to get serious: really serious. Brian got hold of a few books on the microbrew industry (from a friend). For additional information, whether we wanted it or not, we'd hit as many brew-pubs as we could and ask - while "tasting" ... this seemed only fair. After some investigation, and investment, we hit on a plan.
Our approach was simple. We figured to minimise our risk. We'd jerry-rig a large home brew system, find some cheap warehouse/factory space (probably out in Hunter's Point), get some permits and start cooking. As demand increased, we would let the business pay for its own growth. It was almost too simple, too pure.
This was pure luck. We heard about a place up north that was vacant and we might be able to use. There was a gay dance club for sale in an old rural movie theatre from the forties. To tell the truth, I thought it was too great a deviation from our business plan (so did Keith - our ideas man). Brian, however, suggested we investigate, and pointed out the recent opening of "The Powerhouse Brewery" in Sebastopol. He was right, we hadn't been there yet.
We stopped into the "Powerhouse" and met Bill and Don. We told them our plan and Don politely encouraged us. I got the impression we weren't the first researchers they'd met ('aha'). After a quick tour Don told us of some equipment that was about to go on the market at a very reasonable price: a three and a half bbl system and nine seven bbl grundies (along with the pumps, heat exchanger, mill, hoses, fittings and misc. odds and ends) from San Rafael Brewing. Don had used that equipment when he was San Rafael's brew master and was happy with it's product. We were pretty happy with his product so we called San Rafael Brewing within minutes and made an appointment. Then went back inside the "Powerhouse" to continue our research.
The kind of numbers that get thrown around when you talk to a sales rep. about a brew house are frightening. Just look in the classifieds of the "Celebrator". Yes, most of the systems available are hand crafted works of art. And yes, many are turnkey operations, but we just want to make good soup. The San Rafael Brewing equipment seemed too good to miss. No, it is not turnkey but after about a month of negotiation, it was affordable - we also picked up their grain silo.
Part of our plan was now complete - we had our large Jim-rigged home brew system.
One of the main reasons we wanted a microbrewery as opposed to a brew-pub was the fear of food. The logic is not quite clear but, in order to sell your microbrewed beers on site, you have to have an operational kitchen. With some experience in restaurants, I had vowed never to expose myself to that much risk and hardship again. Besides, Brian eats too much. In addition, your 'brewpub' license allows you to sell only beer and wine. It almost seems that someone decided that brew-pubs would be too successful without these restrictions.
At some point in our research we discovered that the laws of this state had changed slightly. A restriction was imposed to prevent a microbrewery and a bar operating as separate entities but sharing the same the premises. As of January 1, 1996, this restriction was lifted. As long as the two operations are separated by some partition, the liquor laws of California now allow this 'sharing' of the premises.
Upon hearing this we went to the A.B.C. and had it explained. In
a nut shell, the holder of a full liquor license can now, legally, brew
their own ales in an area designated for that purpose. Then that microbrewery
can wholesale those ales to the bar across the room where they are sold
to the public (along with a single malt and a cigar).
Yet again, we considered revising our pure and simple business plan.
Guerneville is a great little town on the Russian River. This is wine country and it's only about 70 miles from Soddom and Gommoroh (S.F) ... close enough for an afternoon drive.
The area was once part of a huge (and ancient) redwood forrest, most of which was cut and milled, i.e. Stumptown. After the deforresting, local industry turned to agriculture and tourism. As it happens, one of the major cash crops here was hops (lookout 45k + 26k). There are still a couple of old drying barns and hop kilns on westside road. Check out Walter's Ranch Hop Kiln.
Another kicker are the roads. Guerneville is on Hwy 116 and only about 20 miles to the Pacific Coast Hwy (1). Both of these roads were made for bikes. Then there are the backroads that honeycomb the area, built when civil engineers respected the twisty (prior to the R.V.). It can be a hoot getting here.
Stumpy says: Motorcycles OK (this shot is pretty big too - 34k).
Remember that old movie theatre? Well we did make it up there to see it that day ... with one eye still open. The area was spectacular, and the building itself was huge (6000 sq.ft with 30 ft ceilings). Still, we weren't sure how the locals would take to the idea of replacing their dance club with a microbrewery. And the bloody place wouldn't stop spinning. It was too much of a deviation from our plan.
Later, however, after our visit to the A.B.C., it seemed like a more appealing option. We went up again, this time determined not to stop at the Powerhouse until the way back to the city. This time we had a good tour of the building. Hidden behind its 'Jungle' decor, everything we could have wanted for our new venture was already there. Happy with the building, we hit the town to see if they would be happy with us.
The local reaction was great: the Guerneville Chamber of Commerce, shop owners, and locals were all pretty happy with the idea. We decided to look seriously at this new option. We told the owner and he offered us a reasonable rent with a fifteen year lease.
It was settled, as long as the building could be properly zoned, this building was ours!
So based on what we were told, we took the building over. Unfortunately, we still had a major surprise in store. Code required the building have a fire sprinkling system installed.
After about 6 months of negotiation with the local fire chief, a compromise was reached: we could operate immediately if we committed to installing a sprinkler system over a five year period. However, fire sprinkling (as we came to find) is also a building department issue. The building department was not willing to compromise.
We went into the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Dept. and asked our questions. We were told that it shouldn't be too much of a problem. We wrote a letter asking for written assurance from their office and received the next best thing; a letter saying it shouldn't be a problem.
We then contacted the county building department, told them what
we had in mind and where we planned to do it. They told us that there had
been no major changes in the code since the previous occupant applied for
their use in 1992. We were over the moon and signed our lease - we should've
From here on it got rough.
It would be difficult to continue in good humour so I won't. It
turned out that we would have to spend at least $20,000 to bring the building
up to code. That would require us to split the building in half with a
fire wall. If we wanted to use the building as planned we'd be out of pocket
closer to $70,000.
Moving was not a difficult decision to make.
The original spot, that old movie theatre, turned out not to be the ideal. Our problems with the building and fire departments could not be resolved (satisfactorily). We had three choices:
None of these alternatives were too attractive. We both wanted to have a brewery but had grown weary of the game. The extent of delays, bureaucracy, and petty politics we encountered were not anticipated, nor (apparently) are they commonplace.
About a mile and a half down the road, east of Guerneville, was
a spot better suited to our needs: with a deck over looking the Russian
River and access (by foot or car) to our own 2 acre beach.
It was a blessing in disguise.
Forget the theatre: this place is easier to maintain; has much better
lighting; plenty of parking; and a great
We took occupancy of the new location on the 3rd of March, 1997.
The new spot was a deli / convenience store: "The Midway Deli". At first we thought there was a good chance the zoning department could be bypassed, which would speed things up and make the move a little more painless. But, as might be expected, a use permit application was required. At this point, Brian got fed up and moved on to greener pastures.
Although that meant starting over with the permit process, the new location is better suited to our needs and turned out to be a cheaper, more stable, alternative (we have since bought the property). We had a few hic-ups but, because the new location is smaller (about 2,200 sq. ft), the hoops were not as high.
The liquor license purchase was fairly painless. There were one or two obstacles but things went as well as can be expected. It amazes me how much running around is involved if you want to purvey the demon drink. Fortunately, the transfer back went well too. We officially vacated the theatre in mid 1997.
We applied for our 'small beer manufacturer' license at the new location in early December, 1996. The A.B.C. then needed the A.T.F. to finalize the change of location and inspect the equipment on site. After which the paper work was sent to Sacramento. We were issued our Brewery license on April 16th 1997.
In compliance with our first variation of the original plan, we applied for our liquor license on the 12th of July, 2002. The license cleared in mid-September of 2002 and we've been sipping single malts with our beers ever since.
Believe it or not, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms have been great. The investigator here in Santa Rosa is a dedicated home brewer. Thank God. The forms are a real trick to answer without a translator.
Unfortunately we were under the impression that the A.T.F. could not review our application until our site has been properly zoned for a micro brewery. It turns out this is not the case.
Fortunately, the brewer's number (which took about 4 1/2 months) is portable. The zoning has to be accepted, the equipment in place, and a couple of forms filed, but other than that it's fairly painless. Getting the number in the first place was a little more detailed.
We were always expecting the need to expand from that 3.5bbl Jim-rigged system we'd picked up. Turns out we expanded before even using it.
Brian of (Moonlight Brewing) stopped in one day and had a good laugh at our brewhouse. It was a valid critique. In between gasps for air, he told us of a 90% complete 7bbl brewhouse that had been started for a brewery that was to open in Cloverdale about five years earlier. Apparently the project fell through and the welder, who had not been paid, had stored it in his garage ever since. Needless to say, this did not leave a lot of space for the family car.
As it turns out five years was the limit of his wife's patience. He had to move it ... fast! In moments we were on the phone arranging to come out and inspect it. Brian was nice enough to come along and inspect it wih us. It looked good (at least Brian wasn't laughing at it).
Fortunately there was more than just money involved on the other side of the negotiating table and we quickly managed to strike a mutually agreeable deal (with the gentle beat of toe tapping in the background). The only inflexible point was that it had to be moved yesterday.
That afternoon it was off to the welders to be completed. The lads at Quality Stainless did a bang up job and the brewhouse has worked like a charm ever since.
Peter (the Tank) Kruger was our original brewer who joined us in June 2001 when we rolled our first keg: "Stumptown Pale Ale". In late 2005, Kruger was offered a real, paying job with Bear Republic. We couldn't compete with that, so Peter (the Scrubber) took over in the brewhouse (we gave him a raise: beer AND nuts).
Our business hours:
Taps Open: 11:00 a.m. - Midnight most days ('til 2.00 a.m. Fri and Sat.)
Kitchen Hours are seasonal but ususally 11:00 a.m. - 9:00 p.m. (Closed on Tuesdays) ... please call first (707) 869-0705.
We decided to throw this page up to let anyone interested know what's going on. It's a little dry right now (but getting wetter). Eventually this site will have details on our beers and events (who knows, maybe a some graphics too).
If you do happen to wade through this page and have some suggestions, hit a dead link, or want to know more, feel free to drop us a line. We are not experts in WEB design or HCI so any criticisms that will improve our site would be appreciated.