Photos (except photo to right) by Paul Kostora

It is soon to be summer, and the sounds of music and cheers accompanied by the clinks and dings of bottles and pint glasses will fill Downtown streets and backyard parties. On any given weekend, beers revelers will most likely find include Coors Light, Budweiser, Miller High Life and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Next time you’re at your favorite watering hole, however, look through the beers on tap or the bottles on display, and a catchy, unique tap handle or a wildly artistic bottle label might grab your attention. More likely than not you’re looking at a craft brew, and you might even see one brewed within less then 10 miles of the barstool you are sitting on.

There does seem to be some debate on a solid definition for what sets a craft brewery apart from a large factory brewery in its production. Breweries are typically considered craft brewers as long as they sell no more than 15,000 barrels of beer a year (one barrel is equal to 31 gallons), but some breweries produce as much as 2 million barrels each year. This has resulted in a debate among those in the industry who are unsure how to classify successful breweries that started as small craft breweries, but grew with their popularity to exceed the typical limits.

Jeff Walker, the managing partner of J.J. Brewsky’s in Camarillo, is a man who is passionate about beer. He tells me he thinks the best way to describe a craft brewery is knowing that the beer was transported to your bar or store within 100 miles of your location.

“You know that it is going to be fresh,” he says.

Walker considers himself an expert on craft breweries and has reason to claim so beyond his work managing J.J. Brewsky’s, which is focused primarily on craft brewing with a preference for craft brews created within 100 miles of his establishment. Walker also holds the status of “Certified Beer Server,” given by the Cicerone Certification Program. It is first certification in a three-level program created to improve the life of beer quality and the education of those who sell it. The program is run by Ray Daniels, president of the Chicago-based Craft Brewers Institute (More information on the Cicerone program can be found on its Web site at www.cicerone.org).

Photo by Paul Kostora“A craft beer is focused on the diversity of the aspects that go into beer, things like the ingredients and creativity,” Walker says.

Around the United States and especially in the Pacific Northwest, small craft brews are popping up all over the place. Some have become household names and earned die-hard fans willing to take the plummet in any weather to grab a growler (a bottle containing a full half-gallon) of their favorite beer. In some areas of the world, the interest in craft brewing is becoming so popular that average people are brewing beer in their own basements.

As the demand grows for craft brews in California, though, you will find only a few based out of Ventura County.

“That is going to change,” says Danny Saldana, the owner of Anacapa Brewing Company, located on Main Street in Downtown Ventura. “It’s on the rise.”

Saldana says the growth of craft brewing on the local level is making people in the area more knowledgeable about beer.

Craft brewing’s emergence as a cultural and artistic pursuit can be compared with another trend already prominent in the public consciousness: wine appreciation. With the emergence of wine, viticulture has undoubtedly left its mark on the California and global culture. It has helped put places beyond Napa, such as the Santa Ynez and the Russian River valleys, on the map. A bit of wine knowledge can go a long way, say to impress a client or a date. Knowing which wine goes well with what food, where it comes from, even knowing a little about the story behind the wine or the vineyard at which it was made can be quite impressive.

Can beer compare?

“It adds a unique experience to Ventura County,” Saldana says of the role of a craft brew in a community. He explains how a local brew house like the Anacapa can add to the reasons why tourists and others would want to come back to Ventura County for years to come, purely because of its local and unique qualities, such as the beer.

Much like how the vineyards of Napa have made their region world renowned, it could be possible beer would do the same thing.

The vast amount of unique and artistic possibilities craft breweries offer mean beer can be anything you want it to be. Along with traditional India pale ales, lagers, stouts and porters, craft breweries are starting to add and create beers you may never have thought you would see.

The possibilities are as endless as the imagination of the brewmasters who create them. Many brewhouses are starting to come up with beers that are, like some wines, created with food in mind. If you visit some of these brew houses you may find a list of beers paired with specific foods on the menu. This adds to the many possibilities that help make craft brews a delight for the growing number of beer scholars and enthusiasts. J.J. Brewsky’s offers a unique list of beers that go with food on its menu.

“I think beer pairs better with food then wine,” Walker says as he talks about the rising trend. “Some people who like wine would agree.”

Whether you like beer with your food or not, the developing concept of modern craft brew is adding to its long and intriguing history, and beer is evolving. In the race to brew the most unique and tastiest of beers, craft breweries are showing us that variety and articulation will keep us on our feet for generations to come.

According to the Brewers Association, one of the leading authorities on the craft brewing industry, 1,420 craft breweries operated in the United States in 2007. Those breweries earned $5.7 million in sales and produced 8 million barrels of beer that year. Those figures represent a 12 percent growth for the industry and 16 percent growth in its sales volume from 2006.

Since 2004, craft breweries’ sales figures have risen 58 percent, Brewers Association Director Paul Gotza says in a press release available on the association’s Web site. The growth correlates with a trend among U.S. consumers to buy local products with a preference in more flavorful foods and beers. More information about the craft brewing industry is available on the Brewers Assciation’s web site at www.beertown.org

Another online resource for those interested in craft brewing is available at www.realbeer.com. Statistics on that site reveal there are 252 craft breweries in California alone, four of which are in Ventura County. Three of those local breweries offer the restaurant type atmosphere of a brew house, a.k.a. a brew pub, were guests can sit and get a bite to eat with their beers.

But as the craft brewery sensation builds, more and more Californians are starting to dream of opening their very own breweries.

A prominent local example is Oxnard’s Hollywood Beach Brewing Co.

In 2005, Leslie Brown, and her husband, Jeff, thought it would be fun to make a beer for a party to give to their friends. With the help of their friend, Chris Hanson, who was knowledgeable about brewing beer, they came up with Red Tide Amber Ale.

In the months following its party debut, Leslie and Jeff found themselves going a little further with beer then they had originally imagined.

“People liked it so much, they made us continue brewing it,” says Leslie, a stay at home mother and now a fast-learning and determined marketer for the beer. Jeff, who takes care of the business-related aspects of the brewery, says even though the beer is becoming popular, he still works full time as a vice president for an environmental management firm. And even with the beer’s promise in becoming a successful product — possibly allowing Leslie and Jeff to become full-time private business owners — they tell me that when push comes to shove, it all comes down to the fun.

“If we weren’t having fun with this then we would stop,” says Jeff as Leslie laughs in agreement.

They do however have dreams of eventually opening a brewery and maybe even a brew house similar to the Anacapa in Ventura. Leslie dreams of having a lively atmosphere were customers can go and see live music and drink good beer.

But starting a micro brew is not as easy as it may seem. Red Tide is brewed at a contract brewery in Chico, called the Butte Creek Brewery and is kept in a warehouse in Oxnard. The dream of having one’s very own brewery is a step-by-step process that starts with creating a beer that people like first, then eventually taking out the pocketbook to buy all the necessary equipment it takes to brew beer, finding a decent location to house the brewery, convincing your friend to become a brew master and to bear with the business, as it will be slow at first, and not cheap. That is not to mention the bottling and distribution process, the marketing and labeling, and then the promotional aspects, which mean giving away a lot of beer for free.

Photo by Paul KostoraFor now you can find Red Tide Amber Ale being sold at about six liquor stores and 10 bars in and around Ventura County, including The Beach Comber Tavern at 206 Ocean Drive in Oxnard (the full list and more information about Hollywood Beach Brewing is available at www.hbbrewing.com).

The Beach Comber Tavern, a lively but small dive bar, is where Red Tide got its start in the public market and is now on tap as one of the bar’s most popular drafts. Much like Leslie and Jeff, the Beach Comber Tavern is run by a husband and wife team.

Heidi and Bill Stok bought the 70-year-old-bar in 2007. Centered in a small beach community, the bar serves a wide variety of people drinking a wide variety of beverages. It also proudly serves a strong sense of community that Heidi claims is the most important part of her business.

And with the saying; “When traveling, respect the locals,” found quoted at the bottom of the label on a Red Tide Amber Ale bottle, perhaps that is why Red Tide has become more than just a party favor for Leslie and Jeff.

“It sells itself,” Heidi says as she tells me about the success of Red Tide in her bar. Heidi continues to tell me that the locality is probably the most important attribute to the beer and its relationship to her business.

“Our business is supported by the local community,” she says. “People like it because it’s local.”

Craft brews and a local mindset seem to be a natural combination. As wine made California a little more famous, perhaps beer can play a role in putting a community on the map as well.

Rogue Brewery in Portland, Ore., has done just that, as has Pike Brewery in Seattle just to name two. Both bring in a solid year-round supply of tourists and beer enthusiasts from around the world, and each has won countless awards for there craft, making the Pacific Northwest a fine place to grab a beer.

“I love beer,” says Charles Sinkel, owner of Pike Brewery. “We are more interested in the taste.”

Here in Ventura County, breweries like the Anacapa and Hollywood Beach may agree, but they still have a long road ahead of them.

In Ventura County the awareness of craft beer is still blooming.

“Some bars won’t even look at us,” says Leslie as she explains the difficulties of convincing some establishments to sell Red Tide. But there has been growing support for Red Tide Amber Ale, and Leslie and Jeff tell me they are working on getting other beers on the market. “It is an exciting line of work.”     

(Housed and sold in Ventura County)

Hollywood Beach Brewing Co.
4531 La Brea St..
Hollywood Beach CA 93035
217-2841
www.hbbrewing.com

OJAI

Ojai Brew Pub
423 E. Ojai Ave.
Ojai CA 93023
646-8837

OXNARD

BJ’s Pizza, Grill, and Brewery
461 W. Esplanade Drive
Oxnard CA 93030
485-1124

VENTURA

Anacapa Brewing
472 E. Main St.
Ventura CA 93001
643-2337
www.anacapabrewing.com

FILLMORE

Sespe River Brewing
805 Pasadena Ave.
Fillmore, CA 93015
Phone 524-5141