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Brewery Review
Fun With Organics — Eel River Brewing Expands
I remember Eel River Brewing Company from the Celebrator Beer Train days over a decade ago when we boarded the Skunk Train from Fort Bragg, rolled into the redwoods and had a party in a secluded meadow. Ted Vivatson, then the owner, brewer and sometimes bartender at the brewpub, would pour Ravensbrau Porter and California Blonde with wife and business partner Margaret. Several years ago, they retracted from distribution in the Bay Area of California to concentrate on the Pacific Northwest from their Fortuna brewpub in Humboldt County. It was a great loss to beer drinkers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Since then, Ted and Margaret have divorced, but they remain friends and business partners. Ted raised production in his brewpub’s 15-barrel system to capacity, hired a few assistants and set his sights on expansion. But first, he took his brewery organic.

“I put up a sign that says ‘Organic Section,’ and my product flies out the door.”

Organic certification is a harrowing, time-consuming, frustrating process. One must be able to illustrate that no pesticides or chemicals are used in production, that all ingredients are grown free of chemical fertilizers in ground free of all chemical intrusion for a period of three years, and that no ingredients are genetically altered. Paper trails must be maintained for the frequent inspections. The costs, in red tape, cash and sheer time, are enormous.

So why organic? Why go to the extra expense? Why bother? “Because it’s what people want,” Ted explains. “I’ve gone into a supermarket where there are other organic brands mixed in with the regular beer, and they weren't selling well. I put up a sign that says ‘Organic Section,’ and my product flies out the door. It’s like a religion. The people who want organic beer already buy organic produce; drive hybrid cars; and live, eat and vote green. They know that they are paying for higher-quality products, and they expect higher quality across the board.”

Eel River has been brewing organic beer since 1995 and was certified organic by the USDA’s National Organic Program in 1999. According to Ted, theirs was the first certified organic brewery in the U.S. and the first 100 percent biofuel-powered brewery in the world. The new system brews 40-barrel batches to 100-barrel fermentation tanks, and Ted plans to add 120-barrel fermenters within the next year or so. The state-of-the-art Italian-made bottling system cost more than the rest of the brewery combined, but at a filling rate of 3,200 bottles per hour was well worth the expense. The new digs offer lots of room to expand as needed.

The tiny city of Scotia, a few miles south of the Fortuna brewpub, is the last corporate-owned town in California, owned by the Pacific Lumber Company, once the green movement’s Great Satan. Now the company leases parts of the 600,000 square feet of buildings to local businesses like Ted’s, many of which are embracing the green movement’s ideals. Scotia is beginning to look like the bustling, busy town it once was, but now, instead of the humming of saws and giant sawdust clouds, the air is filled with the sounds of cheerful small businesses and their customers.

Two Siebel Institute graduates, Head Brewer Mike Smith and assistant brewer, chemist and quality controller (and occasional Rolling Boil bass player) Dave Pimsner, have dialed in the new Scotia brewery to the point that the bottles of beer coming off the line are crisp and clean. Dave couldn’t be prouder. “Mike is the greatest,” Dave said. “I’ve never seen a brewer do so much. We have the best rapport I’ve ever had in a brewery. We work together like we’ve known each other for years.” Ted has a lot to do with that rapport. “As long as the beer comes out like this,” Ted said as he sipped from a fresh bottle of organic IPA, “they can just keep doing what they’re doing.”

Look for Eel River products in stores and taverns near you. As always, if you don’t see it, make yourself heard.

Eel River Brewing Co.
1777 Alamar Way
Fortuna, CA 95540



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