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Craft breweries in SLO County: Locally brewed beer takes off

Until five years ago, options for locally brewed beer in San Luis Obispo County were limited. There was Firestone Walker and not much else, aside from a few small breweries.

Today, it’s a changed landscape.

Microbreweries have sprouted up in nearly every town in the county, Firestone continues to grow and expand, and two ambitious young breweries are gaining a foothold with distribution locally and around the state.

A new map printed by the recently formed Central Coast Brewers Consortium points visitors to the various offerings, a company called Hop On Beer Tours will drive beer drinkers around to all those spots, and the second annual Central Coast Craft Beer Week kicks off March 21.

One of Santa Barbara’s fast-growing brands, Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co., is even setting up shop here, opening a taproom and brewery in Arroyo Grande this spring.

“Fresh, local beer is becoming essential to most discerning palates,” said David Walker, who co-founded Firestone Walker with his brother-in-law Adam Firestone. “People are craving more dimension in their glass.”

The region is certainly earning a reputation in some circles for interesting, innovative brewing. But the growth here also mirrors what’s happening nationwide.

The number of craft breweries in the United States has doubled since 2010, according to the national Brewers Association, topping 3,000 by mid-2014 with at least an additional 2,000 in the planning stages.

Production also doubled in that time, hitting 10 million barrels by mid-2014. And with craft beer’s share of the overall beer market increasing as well, indications point to that growth continuing. While overall beer sales dropped 2 percent in 2013, craft beer sales shot up more than 17 percent.

All these breweries are driving significant economic impact as well. The industry contributed $34 billion to the nation’s economy in 2012, according to Brewers Association analysis, as well as 360,000 jobs. California tops the list for statewide impact, at $4.7 billion, more than double the next-highest state.

“Craft breweries are a vibrant and flourishing economic force at the local, state and national level,” noted Bart Watson, staff economist for the Brewers Association. “As consumers continue to demand a wide range of high-quality, full-flavored beers, small and independent craft brewers are meeting this growing demand with innovative offerings, creating high levels of economic value in the process.”

Firestone leading the revolution

California, home to pioneering craft breweries such as

Sierra Nevada

and

Anchor Brewing

, has long been at the forefront of the craft beer industry. The state is now home to 11 of the 50 largest craft breweries in the nation, as well as some of the fastest growing, including

Lagunitas

,

Green Flash

and

Ballast Point

.

Representing San Luis Obispo County on that list is Firestone Walker Brewing Co., which began in borrowed space at Firestone Vineyard almost 20 years ago and by 2013 had grown to become the nation’s 16th-largest craft brewery.

It’s also highly respected. The Paso Robles-based brewery consistently racks up award medals and has been named best midsize brewery three times in recent years by the Great American Beer Festival and an unprecedented four times by the World Beer Cup.

Firestone continues to grow, too, jumping up four spots in the top-50 list over the previous year, with 2014 annual production cresting 200,000 barrels. Building on the success of the brewery’s Taproom restaurants in Paso Robles and Buellton, the company is expanding into the Los Angeles area with a new taproom, experimental brewhouse and educational space slated to open this year in Venice.

Indeed, Firestone Walker has been at the leading edge of many trends driving the craft beer revolution, starting with a move toward the hoppier brews many beer enthusiasts now favor. Firestone was also ahead of the curve on the now-hot trend of aging strong ales in retired bourbon barrels, with brewers stashing experimental projects between the racks back in 2005. The barrel-aging program is no longer stealth and has grown to become one of the largest in the industry with more than 1,500 barrels.

When the brew crew started experimenting with sour beers — brews that are fermented with wild yeasts in wine barrels in the old Belgian farmhouse tradition that’s now gaining attention in the States — they realized these programs needed their own space. So two years ago, Firestone opened a new facility in Buellton called Barrelworks to house those and the barrel-aged brews, a tasting room and blending center.

Just last month, Firestone hopped on another trend making waves in the craft beer world, debuting three of its beers in cans, which are economical, block damaging UV light and are easier than bottles to take on the go.

“The market for canned craft beer is now hitting its stride, and canning technology has come a long way in a short period,” Walker said in debuting the cans. “Also, cans are a perfect fit for life here on the Central Coast.”

New names in the game

Firestone is no longer the only game in town, joined over the past couple of years by two comparatively tiny but ambitious upstarts.

Tap It Brewing splashed into the market with its bright orange tap handles, auto racing sponsorships and a gold medal for best IPA from the Great American Beer Festival in 2012.

The San Luis Obispo-based brewery, founded by a pet food entrepreneur, just celebrated its fifth anniversary and now produces about 5,000 barrels with tap handles and bottle distribution in about 1,500 locations sprinkled around the state and into Arizona and Nevada.

BarrelHouse Brewing Co. opened a couple of miles south of Firestone just two years ago and is already rapidly expanding production as well as its physical presence. The burgeoning company, founded by two friends with capital from their successful contracting business, is putting the finishing touches on a new speakeasy-style taproom in downtown San Luis Obispo and embarking on a substantial expansion of its Paso Robles headquarters.

The half-acre beer garden in Paso Robles — with a flowing waterfall, lush grounds dotted with picnic tables and a bandstand on the back of an vintage flatbed truck — will be joined by a separate amphitheater for larger musical events that Chief Executive Officer Jason Carvalho expects to come from a new partnership.

On the far side of the garden, Carvalho and his team are planning a separate production area for barrel-aged and sour beers complete with its own tasting room, a pool table and shuffleboard, with an experimental hop farm outside.

“This is where we grow our personality and our brand,” Carvalho said. “So it’s really important to provide an environment where people can come and be comfortable.”

The brewery has grown aggressively, doubling production each year, from 1,200 barrels in 2013 to 5,000 planned for 2015. It’s a course Carvalho is hoping to sustain, with the addition of 125-barrel tanks, new distribution partners, and designs on opening at least one new taproom each year.

“It’s nice to be able to introduce a community and build a brand where you can explain the products and educate the public instead of just seeing it in Vons or Costco,” Carvalho explained. “People will come in here and try different beers and learn about the different beers — it’s a different experience.”

Even 26-year-old SLO Brew is aiming to get in on the craft beer action with a return to its brewing roots. In recent years, the Garden Street brewpub’s beer offerings have played second fiddle to its musical ones, something new owner Hamish Marshall plans to change.

“A lot of people forget that SLO Brew won medals back in the early 2000s. They used to distribute across the country,” said Marshall, who bought the brand about four years ago with intentions of reviving it. “They did 30,000 barrels at the peak.”

As the brewpub readies for a move to a smaller location on Higuera Street, Marshall plans to decrease the focus on music and up the focus on beer, with experimental, boutique and guest brews. Accompanying that are plans for a new 10,000-square-foot brewery, tasting room and beer garden slated to open by the end of the year near the San Luis Obispo airport.

With a 35-barrel brewing system in the works, Marshall is aiming to produce up to 2,500 barrels by the end of next year, with tap handles in 30 or so bars and restaurants and bottles in grocery and liquor stores.

“We’re not aiming to go nationwide,” Marshall said. “We want to stay a local icon in the city.”

A new kind of neighborhood bar

Shaping the local beer scene as much as aspiring regional producers are truly tiny microbreweries that aim to serve quality, local brews to the surrounding community and visiting beer aficionados who seek them out.

The national Brewers Association estimates that the majority of Americans live within 10 miles of a craft brewer. That’s almost certainly true in San Luis Obispo County. Over the past half-dozen years, these establishments — often run by family or close friends who started as homebrewers — have taken hold, though a few have been short-lived.

San Luis Obispo has Creekside Brewing Co. and Central Coast Brewing Co., long a gathering place for the homebrew community. Dunbar Brewing opened in Santa Margarita, joined a few years later by Molly Pitcher in Atascadero. Morro Bay is home to the Libertine Pub, with the Cambria Beer Co. (now in the midst of a name change) up the coast.

In South County, craft beer lovers can quaff their thirst at Pismo Brewing Co., ManRock Brewing Co. in Grover Beach, or a Nipomo outpost of the Santa Maria Brewing Co.

One of the newest on the scene is Bang the Drum, which opened a funky taproom and beer garden on Orcutt Street in San Luis Obispo in the fall, featuring, of course, drums, as well as live music and food trucks many afternoons and evenings.

Brewer Jeremy Fleming calls their small-batch operation “extreme homebrewing,” but the young brewery has already gained a loyal following, with taps in a few restaurants and bottles in a few stores. Though they’d like to grow enough to reach the whole county, their biggest problem for the time being is keeping up with demand.

“The plan is just to make more beer,” said Gary DuBois, who runs the brewery with his daughter Noelle and Fleming. “There’s room to grow.”

Others clearly think that, too, with even more local breweries in the works.

Nathan Delaney recently turned to Kickstarter to fund a brewery he’s hoping to build in Los Osos. The avid homebrewer raised $15,000 toward the effort, which he hopes to open sometime this year and host frequent homebrewer competitions.

Dave Johnson and his father, John, are scouting locations for a 10-barrel brewery and small taproom they’re hoping to open in San Luis Obispo sometime this year.

“There are so many great breweries here already, it’s a perfect place to open up another one,” Johnson said of his plans for Bittersweet Brewing Co.

Too much of a good thing?

All this activity begs the question: Can the local beer scene get too crowded? Opinions differ.

Just look at the region’s wineries, Marshall contended: “You need a mass of them to feed off each other.”

Efforts to work together through the Brewers Consortium, produce the beer tasting map, and organize events such as Craft Beer Week and the Seven Sisters Craft Beer and Music Fest benefit them all, most local brewers agree.

“The brewing community here is super collaborative and super supportive of people opening up because it helps everyone,” Johnson noted.

Barrelhouse’s Carvalho isn’t convinced. Sure, he says, there’s room for neighborhood brewpubs that serve the surrounding community. But beer, unlike wine, can be made anywhere, and there are lots of good ones out there already.

“There’s only so much shelf space, only room for so many taps,” he said “We’re going to see a lot of breweries that come late and then go away.”

Walker, however, sees more room for optimism.

“Eighty percent of the beer drunk in the U.S. is light lager,” he noted. “There are still many lost souls out there.”

And Walker — along with the growing ranks of local craft brewers — hopes to convert them all.

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