Knee Deep is on top of the Sacramento beer world, and they have a plan to stay on top

Knee Deep employee Cory Harvey prepares to unload equipment at the brewery’s Auburn home.
Knee Deep employee Cory Harvey prepares to unload equipment at the brewery’s Auburn home.

A freight truck sat outside Knee Deep’s brewery last week loaded down with what could be the brewery’s future. With a light rain falling, a used 10-barrel brewhouse sat on the trailer next to four fermenters wrapped in plastic.

Relative to Knee Deep’s seven preexisting 120-barrel fermenters, the new equipment is a drop in the bucket. But as the brewery prepares for its ninth anniversary celebration, the new toys will allow the brewers to experiment with new recipes and make special batches for distributors.

In a quickly evolving beer market, the additional equipment might be what it takes to stay the No. 1 brewer by volume in the Sacramento area. Knee Deep produced 588,353 gallons of beer in 2017 according to data provided by the state of California. While that’s easily the most in the metro area, the production was 31st-most in the state.

The challenge, at the ripe old age of 9, is to remain relevant. Hazy IPAs have been in vogue for a few years. Nearly every brewery in the area offers at least one. Knee Deep is a hop house, primarily known for its West Coast-style IPAs. Owner Jerry Moore says he isn’t worried; Knee Deep makes some of the best beer around.

“Bottom line is, if you have a good product and you’re relatively smart about how you run your business, you should be good, whether it’s beer or anything else,” Moore said. “We definitely have a good product. We’re very comfortable with what we’re putting out. We think it’s great beer.”

When Knee Deep opened nine years ago, it was on the leading edge. Public tastes were just starting to turn toward IPAs, and the vast majority of its lineup features the hoppy, flavorful brews.

Right place, right time.

“When a company does well, there’s always a little bit of luck involved,” Moore said. “It was something, once I was introduced to IPAs, I liked drinking them. There wasn’t a lot of that in the market because everything tasted the same. Along with that, though, a little bit of luck. ...

“I think it’s important from a business standpoint to have an identity. For us, that’s the IPAs. That doesn’t mean that’s all we do. ... But our core is the IPA. It will always be that way.”

But everybody makes an IPA now. More typically, every brewery makes multiple varieties, and often they make multiple derivations of the same variety. It’s not unusual to see IPAs make up half a brewery’s offerings.

The hop-market is crowded in the 30 states Knee Deep distributes to – a logistical challenge in and of itself. At some point, a brewer in North Carolina might start making very good IPAs. Consumers have repeatedly shown a preference for beer brewed in their backyard, but Moore said he sees that as something of a fad. If anything, he expects to see sales pick up as consumers reach for a better beer – a Knee Deep beer.

“Drink local, like every other trend, at some point it’s going to phase out,” he said. “I think we’ll have more opportunity in some of the states we’re not selling into. In the long run, quality will trump out over a local beer that maybe isn’t so good.

“I know my beer is better than some of those local beers. There’s certainly other good breweries out there. I know firsthand our beer is a lot better than some of the other stuff that’s being consumed strictly because it’s local.”

The other trend Knee Deep is trying to buck is new. Literally, many drinkers want new and different brews. They aren’t buying 12-packs at the grocery store. Just in case they are, Knee Deep is rolling out a new lager in a case this summer called Hola Senor. It’ll cost about $14.99 and should compete with Corona for shelf space in the Sacramento area.

If that isn’t enough, Moore is quick to point to his new 10-barrel brewhouse, which makes about 310 gallons at a time, as a way to stay on top of changing tastes. It will let Knee Deep be more nimble, experimenting with recipes and seeing what consumers enjoy. If they knock one stiff, they could scale it into the brewery’s seven 120-barrel fermenters, which make about 3,720 gallons at a time.

The other reason to add the brewhouse is simple. Knee Deep is investing in its Auburn base to make it a destination for visitors. As part of that, the smaller brewhouse will let them offer unique brews available primarily at the brewery.

It’s also the brewery’s way of protecting its home turf. California accounts for about 75 percent of Knee Deep’s sales, Moore estimated. They need unique offerings to stay fresh for consumers.

That’s why workers were busily prepping the space for the new fermenters. Knee Deep is also working 24 hours a day to get its new events space, with two golf simulators, up and running.

Working hard is all Moore knows how to do. He tried retirement about a decade ago. It lasted two years — golf is just too damn frustrating — before he started up Knee Deep. Though he’s well into his 60s, Moore tried to laugh off the suggestion that he might want to retire some day: “Some of the people here might tell you I’m semi-retired already.”

His son, sales and marketing manager Andrew Moore, couldn’t help but laugh at the idea of his dad leaving the game. There’s too much work to do.

“If I had to guess, he’ll probably end up dying in his office,” Andrew Moore said, clearly poking fun at his old man. “Or in the golf simulator.”

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James Patrick has covered the beer scene from Maine to California. (OK, mostly just those two.) He’s worked at newspapers in six states as a sports reporter, sports editor, social media editor and newspaper carrier. He’s as comfortable drinking a High Life as a wild-fermented raspberry sour.