The craft brewery many see as the next big thing is about to take the next big step.
Berryessa Brewing is in the final stages of getting its labels approved and will soon begin canning and bottling.
A retail presence on store shelves from Sacramento to San Francisco will give this rural brewery on the outskirts of Winters far more exposure to beer enthusiasts, will lead to more beer, more jobs and, if it all pencils out, larger profits and further growth.
Since the brewery opened in May 2011 and began lining up retail accounts, the number of craft breweries in California has nearly doubled. Beer is big and getting bigger fast – on the West Coast and throughout much of the continent. Despite the competition, Berryessa has flourished, as beer-savvy consumers rave about brewmaster Chris Miller’s talent and range.
In 2012, the brewery opened a taproom at its production facility, a converted fruit packing warehouse on the outskirts of Winters. Scores of devoted fans and newcomers alike have flocked there for what many consider some of the best beer going – unfiltered, full of flavor, impeccably balanced.
But the beer only has been available in Winters and at select restaurants and bars, mostly in Sacramento and, more recently, the Bay Area. In about six weeks, that will change as Berryessa rolls out its first two beers – California Common and Whippersnapper – in 16-ounce cans, followed by its Separation Anxiety IPA in 22-ounce bottles. More styles are sure to follow.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Chris and his team,” said Chris Tucker, beverage director of the popular midtown Sacramento bar and restaurant Hook & Ladder, which was one of Berryessa Brewing’s first wholesale keg accounts. “The guy is wonderfully talented and has a very creative palate. The beers are all very good, to the point where you’d say, ‘Dude, why aren’t you making more of this?’”
Miller, 36, trained as an artist before breaking into the business washing kegs. He then worked his way up to brewing award-winning beer in Seattle. He has always been averse to being ordinary or predictable. To date, he has created 70 beers in a range of styles.
“We definitely don’t mind going for it,” Miller said. “ … We experiment a lot, and we love using seasonal fruit.”
In the past few years, as ambitious new breweries raced to start bottling and line up distribution deals, Miller seemed almost uninterested in riding that wave to prosperity. While his mind raced to create new and exciting beers, he and wife, Lori Nicolini Miller, who oversees the taproom, were reluctant to watch their brewery grow faster than they could manage.
“We could have tripled our capacity last year, but we wanted to take it smooth and grow organically,” Miller said. “We’ve just been waiting because if we don’t have enough beer to can – or if we’re canning beer we could be selling in kegs – it just becomes a complicated thing. Now we’ve got a few more tanks, and we’re seeing where it’s going.”
Berryessa’s relative baby steps with canning and bottling might seem too conservative for a brewery in such high demand. But Miller, who obsesses over the quality of his beer, says it’s more important to get answers to countless questions. How would the beer taste in cans or bottles after a week? A month? Would retailers commit to showcasing their beer exclusively on refrigerated shelves rather than at room temperature, which could hurt freshness, especially with hoppy IPAs? Would bottles and cans in stores in Sacramento, San Francisco and elsewhere cut into the steady crowds at the taproom?
And more than anything, would growth of the brewery mean this husband-and-wife team might see their hands-on, personal touch fade as things get bigger and busier?
“I worry about it every day, but I’m still going to be brewing,” said Miller, who moved with his wife and young son from Washington to open the brewery. “We’ll be as local as possible until the time comes. I could send every drop of beer we make to Washington and it would be gone. But we’re just getting started with this. We just got into the Bay Area, and it’s gobbling up our beer.”
While Berryessa Brewing has a stellar reputation for its beer, it could take a hit if it grows too fast and fails to keep pace with demand or if quality falters. It’s a common scenario with fledgling breweries aiming for quick success.
“They make some fantastic beers that have been very well received,” said Tom McCormick, executive director of the Sacramento-based California Craft Brewers Association. “Taking that to the next level comprises a number of challenges for any brewery. As soon as you put product into a can or bottle, it becomes a very different challenge.”
McCormick noted there will be several new issues and concerns to address, from fill levels and air levels to lining up distribution and managing wholesalers.
Many of Berryessa’s most coveted beers, like one dubbed Fruity Rebels, are made with so much fresh fruit grown in local orchards, and are so labor intensive to make, that it would be cost prohibitive to attempt to brew them year round.
“We have some beers that just beat us down as humans,” Miller said with a shrug. “Fruity Rebels is 300 pounds of fruit that we purée ourselves with a food processor. For Pumpkin Death, we use 650 pounds of smoked pumpkins – and those pumpkins don’t smoke themselves.” Miller and his tiny staff use machetes to hand slice the pumpkins, which smoke all night.
Berryessa may be best known for several of its hoppy IPAs, the most popular style in craft beer. But Miller doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as a hop-centric brewery and continues to push the boundaries. He tends to favor low-alcohol, full-flavored and less-bitter brews known these days as session beers. But Berryessa’s release of Separation Anxiety IPA should generate plenty of excitement, especially among beer geeks. To date, this beer has been available exclusively at the taproom.
At Corti Brothers, beer buyer Todd Fancher welcomes the news about Berryessa’s canning and bottling. Fancher promises to make room for Berryessa’s beer as soon as it’s available. He speaks for many retailers when he sings praises about the beer.
“Berryessa is a brand I have loved and supported since Chris opened,” Fancher said. “I have been flying their flag and waiting for them to start bottling. Now that they are, I’m spreading the word and letting everyone know. I remember the first time I tried Double Tap (a double IPA). I was blown away by how good it was. They are one of our crown jewels.”
Call The Bee’s Blair Anthony Robertson, (916) 321-1099. Follow him on Twitter @Blarob.