Promptly at 4 p.m. on a recent weekday, an employee at Davis-based Sudwerk Brewing pulled the heavy dock door up and open, revealing scores of customers clamoring to get in.
In a section of the 25-year-old brewery that had been used mostly as a loading dock, Sudwerk has built a bar, installed some tables and chairs and decorated the room in what might be called rustic-industrial chic.
It’s a scene that’s surely repeated at craft breweries throughout the nation – fans of good beer coming to the source to connect with the brewers, enjoy a pint or two with friends and spend time in a convivial setting.
But for a time, it seemed Sudwerk, a regional pioneer in small-batch brewing, was going to miss out on this new era of craft-beer consciousness. While its beers were well-respected and made with precision, the brand itself seemed dated, if not overlooked. It had quality, but it was no longer cool. What’s more, it didn’t have an India pale ale, the hottest style category in the industry.
Founded in 1989 by Ron Broward and Dean Unger, two enthusiasts of lagers made according to the rigid standards of the Reinheitsgebot (the German purity law dating to 1566 that limited beer production to three basic ingredients – water, hops and barley), the brewery has recently turned the page on the past, revamped its product line and tweaked its traditional recipes.
It also has begun brewing more esoteric offerings such as lambics and barrel-aged beers and, most of all, launched an all-out effort to recast its image and become a serious player in the craft-beer game.
“They have some great beers. It’s a case of reinvigorating the brand,” said Charles Bamforth, the noted professor of malting and brewing science at the University of California, Davis. “They’ve got the pedigree. They’ve survived. But they actually have real strength in the hierarchy now.”
Bamforth and others believe Sudwerk’s salvation will be its ability to produce lagers in a field crowded with ales. Lagers, technically speaking, are seen as more demanding to brew because they use a yeast that works in colder temperatures, thus requiring costly refrigeration. To the consumer, lagers are known for their clean, crisp flavors, while ales tend to exhibit fruit flavor notes, most famously with the citrus aromas of the West Coast-style IPAs.
In the course of the past three years, Sudwerk quietly went about a major transformation as the founders’ family members sought to sell the brewery (Unger died in 2011; Broward in 2013). Suitors lined up to make offers on equipment. In the midst of it all, Trent Yackzan, the 28-year-old grandson of Unger, took a look at the books, sized up the quality of the beer and made a bold bid to attract investors. Along the way, Yackzan, who grew up in Davis, began immersing himself in the business of running a brewery.
“It really got me fired up to keep his legacy going, to see how passionate he was about the business,” Yackzan said about Unger. “I looked up to him and he was a great grandpa to grow up around. This was a hobby for him. He was architect by trade. But he had a strong business sense, and with the stories he told, I knew he really cared about the brewery.”
Yackzan, along with boyhood pal Ryan Fry, also 28, have become the new face of Sudwerk. Whereas the original marketing campaign focused on “America’s answer to imported beer,” Yackzan said, the new emphasis is on “redefining the American lager.” Both have degrees from California Polytechnic State University; Yackzan in city and regional planning, Fry in finance.
Their mission: to compete on the new and much more competitive craft-beer playing filed.
When Sudwerk launched in 1989, there were only 247 breweries scattered throughout the United States. And while Sudwerk remains the lone brewery in Davis, craft beer is being brewed in industrial parks, warehouses and many other locales throughout California and across the country, with about 400 new breweries launching in each of the past two years. The latest figures show 2,768 craft breweries in 2013, according to the Brewers Association, an industry trade group.
Sudwerk stayed true to its mission during the recent boom years, but it lost a good share of its relevance to breweries that seemed more in touch with current demand. Places such as Russian River Brewing (home of Pliny the Elder), Lagunitas and, closer to home, award-winning Knee Deep in Auburn were making West Coast-style IPAs that attracted plenty of attention and accolades. Not everyone has embraced IPAs, which some see as overpowering, bitter and high in alcohol.
“The challenge is that it’s becoming a pretty crowded space,” said Tom McCormick, executive director of the California Craft Brewers Association. “There are a lot of new breweries that tend to gain attention. It’s hard to stay relevant and exciting as a brand that’s been around for a while. But they have a lot of things in their favor.
“As more and more consumers come into the craft-beer category and enjoy craft beers, there is lots of room to grow as authentic style lagers and light lagers with plenty of flavor,” he added.
Indeed, Yackzan and Fry are already ramping up a campaign to position Sudwerk as an emissary for American craft lagers. And they’re not yielding to the tidal wave of IPAs. The new Sudwerk, for instance, took the brewery’s first recipe for Helles Lager and replaced the German hops with hops from the Pacific Northwest to give the beer those piney and citrus flavors of the best IPAs but, Yackzan and Hutson maintain, with the telltale clean finish of a lager.
The beer is now sold as California Dry Hop Lager. If you think of hops as seasoning or spice for beer, dry hopping entails adding a second batch of hops – and more flavor – later in the brewing process without increasing bitterness.
At the Dock Store, there is a rotating selection of experimental beers and limited releases that show just how far Sudwerk is willing to go with its new vision. Even diehard traditionalists are applauding.
“They’re going in the right direction,” said Michael Chordas, 57, an architect who has been a Sudwerk customer since it opened. “In the beginning, Sudwerk had the tradition of true German lager beer, which is amazing and so drinkable. Now they realize they need to adapt to what beers are popular. It’s exciting what they’re doing. There’s more variety and everything is getting better.”
“I love that Dry Hop Lager,” said Andy Martinez, a high school teacher. “It’s their new flagship beer now.”
Relatively new to Sudwerk, Martinez, 29, is the part of the demographic the brewery hopes to attract – young, discerning beer lovers whose attention may have been diverted to breweries making styles more befitting the current craft beer market.
“I love what they’re doing, including the experimental beers they have at the Dock Store,” Martinez added. “It’s great that you can sit and have a beer and talk to the person who made it.”
Yackzan feels a special urgency to make Sudwerk thrive again. While tradition is one thing. Yackzan sees a need for new ideas and revamped recipes. Head brewer Mike Hutson, 39, a graduate of the highly regarded UC Davis Extension master brewers program, has been encouraged to showcase new styles and flavors.
The brewery continues to release scores of new beers to its new fan base. A beer called 3 Best Friends is a blend of coffee, chocolate and vanilla that was initially tested at the Dock Store on tap. The response prompted the brewery to start selling it in 22-ounce bottles. Last week, Sudwerk featured a Belgian-style pale ale, known as a saison, made with local honey. On Friday, Sudwerk held a party at the Dock Store for the release of its double India pale lager dubbed The Big DIPL.
“We’re letting the brewers be really creative,” Yackzan said. “We’re doing things with lagers that you wouldn’t expect.”