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BREWER PROFILE : Richard Norgrove Jr. (Bear Republic Brewing Company)
By Brent Ainsworth

Brewer/owner Rich Norgrove Jr. in his "fireman" role. Photo courtesy of Bear Republic Brewery

We toss around clichés so loosely when we’re stressed out at work. We have to “march through minefields.” We have to “put out fires.” We have to “rev at the redline.” Use those lines on Richard Norgrove Jr., and he’ll just smile a wise smile. They’ve all been reality to him.

Norgrove is not only the brewer of award-winning ales such as Racer 5 IPA, Red Rocket Ale and Hop Rod Rye at Bear Republic Brewery in the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg, Calif. He’s also marched in the U.S. Army, put out fires as a volunteer firefighter and revved at the redline as a professional racing instructor and stock car driver.

As Bear Republic creeps toward its 10th anniversary in January, Norgrove says there’s one symbolic tie to his background in the military, firefighting, racing and brewing. “One thing that drives the guys around me crazy is that I always say, ‘Experimentation is fine, but you’d better know what you’re doing,’” he said. “You think you’re on the cutting edge, but then somebody else is going bigger, testing the limits. I’ve seen it not work out so well … in the service, on a fire call, behind the wheel in a race and even making big beers. You have to think it through.”

In other words, make your risks calculated risks. Norgrove does just that as an engineer / EMT / firefighter with the Healdsburg Fire Department. Although he is a “volunteer,” Norgrove has enough state certification that he qualifies for full-time shifts at certain busy times of the fire season and earns a nice supplemental income. He credits retired chief Bob Taylor and current chief Randy Collins for their mentoring in the line of duty, such as the Geysers Fire in September 2004 that burned more than 10,000 acres in rural Northern California.

“I remember when somebody in town called to complain about the smoke, and how my pager went off right after that,” Norgrove said. “Then the real call came out. That was it. We were gone. Thankfully, we have a good enough crew [at Bear Republic] that it affords me the opportunity to do something like that.”

For Norgrove, who grew up in nearby Windsor, a military commitment did not come out of the blue. “There has been a Norgrove in every American conflict since the Civil War,” he said proudly. “There are three Richard Norgroves buried at the Presidio, and I am related to all three.”

His father, Bear Republic co-founder Richard Norgrove Sr., fulfilled three tours on a Navy destroyer escort during the Vietnam War, and his brother, Ron Norgrove, served one year in Iraq. Although Richard Jr. stayed stateside, he is a veteran of the Desert Storm and Desert Shield campaigns of the early 1990s. He was a combat engineer and supply officer, spending time in Panama and Honduras, and achieved the rank of sergeant. It was his military past that prompted a local recruiter to nudge Norgrove toward firefighting.

"Experimentation is fine, but you’d better know what you’re doing."

Yet Norgrove knows how to be “at ease,” too. He grew up racing dirt bikes and eventually worked for a mountain bike company that dabbled in motorcycle accessories. Mark Carpenter, a veteran brewer at Anchor Brewing Company, rode his Norton bike to the shop one day and started talking about beer. Norgrove eventually got into homebrewing, honed his skills with guidance from regional brewing pros Grant Johnston and Paddy Giffen, and began thinking about a racing theme for a new brewpub.

After he and his father launched Bear Republic, the younger Norgrove decided to pursue a dream and get involved in stock car racing. At first he sponsored an entry-level car — number Racer 5, of course — in the Bomber class (read: jalopy) at the quarter-mile paved Ukiah Raceway. But when the driver, Cloverdale carpenter Ray Strain, hurt his wrist and couldn’t drive the final few races of the 2001 season, Norgrove strapped on the helmet and had a ball.

The next season, Norgrove bought a 1969 Chevy Chevelle and fixed it up for his own run in the Bomber class. He painted it Racer 1-5 and ended up winning Rookie of the Year honors, taking sixth place out of 28 regular competitors in the final standings. Then, two years ago, Norgrove bought his dream sports car, a 1972 Datsun 240-Z, and raced at the SCCA level. Today he’s working on a new stock car and hopes to compete in the American Stock Car series (similar to the NASCAR minor leagues) for the 2006 season, traveling the western states one weekend a month and promoting Bear Republic along the way. Meantime, he works one weekend a month as a driving instructor at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma.

“My Z is my teaching car now,” he said. “I painted it with a big Racer 5 logo. Eventually, my wife [Tami] will end up racing that one. Her dad was a sprint car racer and crew chief, so she grew up around racing, too.”

Norgrove says he wouldn’t be having so much fun with his hobbies if it weren’t for Tami’s tolerance. “I’ve got to thank my wife, because she doesn’t have a problem with me doing all this,” he said. “ASC is affordable racing, and I’m about to race in the same places where we sell our beer. It’ll be fun to bring the car to the Portland or the California Speedway and get people to come out and support us at the track. And it’ll be the brewer driving the car.”

Brent Ainsworth, a beer lover and resident of Novato, Calif., is the Lifestyles editor at the Marin Independent Journal.


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