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Santa Cruz : Catching Up With The Surf City Scene
By Mark Conley

The first rule in the brewer’s survivor guide: Know thy beer-swilling audience. The folks who opened Surf City’s newest beer operation a year ago, the Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery, knew indeed. Hence, their slogan “Think organic, drink organic.” Santa Cruz has always been near the epicenter of this once hippie-dippie, crunchy concept that has suddenly gone ultra-mainstream trendy.

The husband-and-wife tandem of Chad Brill and Emily Thomas, longtime homebrewers, are tapping that niche locally with an eye toward the ever-growing organic market nationally.

“I can’t believe how well it’s selling,” says Brill, the operation’s head brewer. “It’s hard to keep up with demand.”

From their 800-square-foot warehouse space on Santa Cruz’s Westside, with the help of family and friends, the couple produces a combined 15 barrels a week of their five organic offerings: a pale, an amber, an IPA, a brown (Dread Brown) and a stout (Devout Stout). It’s enough to service the demand in Santa Cruz, from thirsty college students who find it on tap around town to discriminating craft-brew drinkers who drop a few 22-ounce bottles into their cart next to the sustainably grown tomatoes and lettuce wraps while shopping at the nearest natural foods store.

“It’s really like a giant homebrewing operation,” says Brill, who had no commercial brewing experience when he and Thomas started. In keeping with their roots, they held a homebrew competition to find their recipe for a sixth beer, an American hefeweizen. The winner, local homebrewer Dave Bossie, will help brew the first batch. It will be on tap by mid-May and in bottles by early summer.

The small size of the operation is good for quality control and sanitation, the latter being one of the biggest challenges with organic beers, since most cleaning products can’t be used for organic certification. From their space, Brill and Thomas also painstakingly hand-bottle and hand-label — one big reason they hope to expand their equipment, and thus their distribution potential, in the near future.

Santa Cruz Mountain beer is already showing up on shelves in Washington, Oregon and Southern California because of a distribution deal with the same company that dispenses other popular organic brands like Otter Creek (Wolaver’s), Butte Creek and Eel River. The plan is for six-packs of the top-selling IPA and amber within the next few months.

As with any good family venture, there are diverse hats to be worn. Brill takes care of the brewing, and Thomas takes care of most business matters. A tasting bar is open three days a week at their cozy, full-service beer factory, conveniently located next to several local wineries and a craft bakery. That’s drummed up a steady flow of inquiries from the growing number of savvy beer drinkers who live in town or are just passing through.

“We sold our house because we needed money to keep the business going,” Brill says with a shrug. “But we’re getting great feedback on our beer.” And in the process, they’re proving that sustainable and swillable can go hand in hand.

A few miles east, in an area Santa Cruzans call Midtown, you’ll find the other end of the craft-brew spectrum: the Central Coast’s granddaddy of the brewpub scene. The Seabright Brewery turns 18 this month, and it’s still turning out some of the tastiest beer this side of Highway 17 from its small 7-barrel system. The offerings of brewer Marc Rosenblum have remained fairly consistent over the span of his four years with Seabright. The most popular brews — the Blur double IPA, oatmeal stout and, most recently, Resolution Red — are now being bottled in 22-ouncers by Coast Range in Gilroy and sold all over the Monterey Bay area.

The loss of longtime area staple Santa Cruz Brewing Company and Front Street Pub in 2002 ended up being a gain for the area’s second-oldest brewpub, Boulder Creek Brewing Company. The 15-year-old establishment was able to double its brewing capacity by purchasing the kettles once used at Front Street, said brewer Brian Weatherman, who’s been with Boulder Creek for three years after assisting at Seabright.

The brewery’s offerings — which include regulars Redwood Ale, an amber; Lompico Gold, an IPA; and a rotation of five different stouts, among others — will be featured at the Boulder Creek Art, Wine and Music Festival over Memorial Day weekend.

The only true downtown Santa Cruz microbrewery opened earlier this year in the form of Coastline Brewery Restaurant. Located in a funky, cool space at 120 Union Street, one block west of the main drag, Coastline serves affordable upper-end pub grub, has an ever-revolving slate of nightly music and is using contract brewer Devil’s Canyon to produce its staples: Big Shark Amber, Santa Cruz Blonde and Halfpipe Lager. There are plans to add a hefeweizen and a raspberry beer to that mix soon and to eventually add a revolving “beer of the month” that will be brewed at another site in Santa Cruz and served at Coastline, according to owner James Leung.

Mark Conley is a homebrewer, good-beer drinker and sports editor living in Santa Cruz, Calif. Contact him at conleymj@earthlink.net.


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