In 2012, Auburn Alehouse won a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival for its Gold Country Pilsner, an incredible achievement in a very challenging category at what is arguably the most important beer event in the country. The brewery has also won two bronze GABF medals for this beer, in 2010 and ’13.
So, what did owner/brewmaster Brian Ford do for an encore? In 2014, he spent $20,000 on lab equipment, including a dissolved oxygen meter and pH meter, in an effort to dial in his brewing procedures and take his entire lineup of beers to new heights. The focus is on quality and freshness, including a “best by” date stamped on the bottle that lets consumers know time is of the essence if they want to enjoy that same pub-quality freshness at home.
“To get your beer to that next level, you really have to understand where your process is, how your raw materials are affecting your product, how the water is affecting it,” said Ford, seated in the pub during a typically bustling weekday lunch.
The numbers didn’t lie. Sure, the beer was winning awards and Auburn Alehouse was one of the most respected breweries in the Sacramento region, but Ford knew he and his team needed to get better to extend the shelf life of each batch.
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“It was painful. You’re set in your ways. I’ve been brewing for almost 20 years and have had a certain way of doing things. Then you see what the information is telling you and you realize you have to make a change.”
It’s that kind of approach that has put Auburn Alehouse on an admirable trajectory. Open since June 2007, it has enjoyed 20 percent growth each of the past five years, with 2015 production at 3,000 barrels.
A year ago, it enjoyed a major coup by hiring Jennifer Talley, a highly decorated brewmaster who has worked at Salt Lake Brewing, Redhook and Russian River, before moving to the area to be closer to family. Through the years, Talley has been involved in brewing beers that won 20 GABF and World Beer Cup medals. The brewing staff also includes Andrew Nigg and Greg Tuhey.
Ford began home brewing in the 1990s and interned at Rubicon in 1996, working alongside then-brewmaster Scott Cramlet, who last year signed on with startup Twelve Rounds Brewing in East Sacramento. Ford calls Cramlet “one of the most underappreciated brewers in our region. Very sharp guy, very intuitive.”
Ford brewed at Beermann’s in Loomis from 1999 to 2003, producing several popular beers, including Rip Roarin’ Red, an American-style red ale that was a best-seller at Sacramento River Cats games. By 2007, Ford launched his dream project, working alongside his wife, Lisa, who runs the pub-style restaurant.
Emboldened by its steady growth and flourishing reputation, Auburn Alehouse is poised to take a major step – building a 20,000-square-foot production facility from scratch and focusing on long-term goals that will see it dramatically upping its brewing output to 30,000 barrels over the next decade. The facility, which will include a tasting room, is projected to open in 2017.
By then, there could be 50 or more breweries in the greater Sacramento area. Auburn is already rich in terrific beer. Fast-growing Knee Deep, prized for its hoppy beers, relocated to the foothills town from Lincoln in late 2013.
In this increasingly crowded craft beer market, Auburn Alehouse is banking on the idea that its non-trendy, less-than-flashy emphasis on quality will continue to resonate, even as it readies to get more aggressive – and engaging – in spreading its message via social media.
“It’s really important,” Ford said of the brewery’s presence on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. “That’s something we’ve identified that we need to get better at – telling people who we are, where we are and what we are doing.”
That message will likely find a receptive audience. Craft beer consumers are far more knowledgeable than they were just a few years ago, are less likely to be swayed by gimmicks and, more than anything, won’t be fooled by a mediocre product. More and more, if a new brewery’s beer isn’t good, very good or great, it’s going to flounder and eventually fail. With the industry continuing to expand, we’re still in a craft beer honeymoon phase and haven’t seen that kind of shakeout in Sacramento, but Ford knows it’s coming.
“All these people coming into the market, it eventually has to correct itself the way it did in the ’90s,” Ford said. “The difference now is that people understand good beer better than they did then. If you’re making bad beer, you probably won’t sustain.”