Beer Run

Once-minuscule Knee Deep has grown and prospered quickly

It was just three years ago that a promising upstart brewery called Knee Deep moved from its 900-square-foot digs in Lincoln to a supersize industrial warehouse space in Auburn.

Here was a $1 million transition with all kinds of upside. Craft beer was booming. Sacramento-area beer was growing. And Knee Deep was the beer geek/hophead brewery of the moment with an IPA many insisted was on par with Pliny.

How have things gone since the big move? Let’s not bury the lead. Knee Deep is now the biggest and arguably the best brewery in the Sacramento region.

With output projected to hit 20,000 barrels this year, Knee Deep has increased production by 75 percent from last year and its beer is now sold in 24 states. Wait! What day is it? OK, they just moved into Alabama. Make that 25.

That’s half the country. Throw in two Canadian provinces, Australia and, since two weeks ago, Japan, and you have one major-league growth spurt. The three biggest sellers are all takes on the India pale ale – Hoptologist, Breaking Bud and Simtra. That’s extraordinary only because another Knee Deep staple, Citra, is a wonderful IPA in its own right.

The first time I visited Knee Deep, serious beer geeks were lined up for growler fills on a tiny loading dock in Lincoln. It was homey and quaint. These days, not a week goes by that I don’t get an email or text from someone who’s drinking a Knee Deep brew in a hip bar in the Mission District or Brooklyn.

The secret?

“It’s all about the beer. It’s quality, not quantity,” said owner Jerry Moore as we made our way from the keg storage area to the brewing tanks.

The quality is not in dispute. During a blind tasting of IPAs I oversaw with a panel of serious beer folks in February, their favorite was Breaking Bud – an IPA that places Mosaic hops front and center for big tropical aroma with a softer finish.

Some of its beers are too big and bold and bitter for timid palates. Hop Shortage, a triple IPA, for instance, has an astonishing IBU (international bittering units) tally of 131. For comparison, Pliny the Elder is about 80 IBU and Pliny the Younger is 90.

Though the focus is on hoppy beers that pack a punch, brewmaster Dean Roberts has a broad repertoire, including barrel-aged beers, stouts, a saison and, fresh out this week, a delicious and lively wet hop IPA brewed with locally grown hops. The experimental Aviator series of beers gives Roberts and his team the chance to spread their wings, take chances and make discoveries.

“In the beer world, the ones that are successful all have their core beers. But you never know what will be the next big hit until you try different things. If you do the exact same thing every time, maybe you get stale,” said Moore.

The Auburn facility recently took over the adjacent 10,000 square feet and knocked a hole in the wall, expanding the brewery’s footprint to 28,000 square feet. When he moved to Auburn, Moore said he was hoping to someday have 15 employees. Knee Deep now has 48 (full and part time).

The large tasting room, which is open every day, has an unobstructed view of the work going on in the brewery and is full of beer lovers, many of whom bring their dogs. When I was there, I couldn’t help but notice a cat, too, perched patiently on a bench next to her owner.

“They’re here every day,” said Moore, nodding toward Karl Simon and his feline friend, Kandy.

Then we walked over to the bottling machine, which can fill and cap 80 bottles a minute. This investment alone shows the tremendous upward trajectory of Knee Deep. While it cost $1 million to relocate the brewery, buy new equipment and set up shop in Auburn, this one bottling line and the infrastructure to make it work cost $800,000, according to Moore.

We’ll all be keeping a close eye on Knee Deep as it moves forward. There’s bound to be more growth, more accolades, more territory to conquer in the months to come.

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob