If we can agree that this is the beginning of a new and exciting age for craft beer in the Sacramento region, it’s worth looking at where we’ve been. Yesteryear was hardly so dynamic.
In fact, it may be hard to believe these days, when you see people clamoring for Track Seven beer in the middle of an industrial park, when you simply can’t get a table at Rubicon in midtown, or when you walk into unassuming Hot City Pizza in east Sacramento and find an esoteric beer selection that might blow you away, that there was a time when Tom McCormick couldn’t give away craft beer in this town. This is a town where Pangaea Two Brews recently opened a lambic bar and where Capitol Beer and Taproom celebrated its one-year anniversary by featuring several barrel-aged beers – beers few had ever even heard of not so long ago.
McCormick is executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association. He’s been in that position since 2006, when membership topped out at 16. By the end of 2013, there will be about 400 breweries in California. More are on the way.
While we chatted over dinner recently, McCormick told me about his own early days in the early days of the industry. I found his journey so intriguing and instructive that I wanted to chronicle it in this space. McCormick is a 1979 graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara. His degree is in environmental studies. In college, he and his friends didn’t go to the big keg parties. They sought out authentic imports, big beers, beers with plenty of flavor. In 1981, he had his first pale ale from a fledgling brewery called Sierra Nevada.
“It just kind of blows your mind. There was so much flavor,” he said.
After college, McCormick was working for the National Park Service in the summer and at a ski resort in the winter when he landed the job that changed his life. A businessman in Nevada City was thinking of turning an old stone building into a brewery and he hired McCormick to study the feasibility. This turned out to be an all-expenses paid immersion into the world of brewing. He spent six weeks on the road. First stop: He attended the grand opening of Mendocino Brewing Co. (then called Hopland Brewery). He drove all the way through Oregon because there were no craft breweries there. He made all kinds of stops. He visited. He asked questions. He watched breweries. He brewed with them. He knew he had found something special.
“On that trip, I fell in love with the industry and I fell in love with the people,” McCormick said. “All of the people were so gracious.”
The Nevada City brewery never materialized. But taking what he had learned, McCormick figured he would start his own – McCormick Brewing Co. He got labels printed but he never brewed the beer. He still has the business plan he composed on a typewriter.
“I never got close. I never got financing. I got laughed out of banks. They had no idea what I was talking about,” he said with a shrug.
Instead of giving up, McCormick started a distributorship. He got a warehouse in Sacramento and started selling craft beer as far as Placer, Yolo, Nevada and El Dorado counties. Sacramento? He tried and tried. It was a brutal market. The best market back then was at Lake Tahoe – seasonal customers looking for an elevated beer experience.
“Sacramento was very different. People were not familiar with beer that had color – other than pale yellow – or beer that had flavor,” he said. The food co-ops in Davis and Sacramento were early adapters. So was Corti Brothers. The big breakthrough was with Lucky Stores, the grocery chain. It contacted McCormick and wanted a microbrew section in each of its stores.
“It’s hard to imagine now, but it was really an oddity,” McCormick told me. In order to sell, he had to educate. He did tastings with beer clubs. Sometimes he did a tasting every night of the week, putting out specific styles of beers and getting people to appreciate the flavor, the balance, the variety, the quality. He had the distributorship from 1984 to 1994.
He remained in the industry, teaching and consulting, until he took his current job seven years ago. Even then, he didn’t see the current boom coming. What happened?
“It’s that perfect storm of values and mindset,” he said. “It’s not just craft beer. There is a growing trend of local and regional and quality. There is a huge growth in quality food and beverage products across the board.”
So that was then. What about now? Breweries are booming. Who will make it? Who will fold?
“One thing I have seen over and over is brewing companies that get into the business for the wrong reason – because they see it as an opportunity to make money,” McCormick said. “In most industries, that works. It doesn’t work in this one. You have to have good beer. You can have deep pockets and deep experience in startups, but it all goes out the door if you don’t have good beer.”
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.