Oakland’s Beer Revolution
““The beer community in Oakland is coming up so big and so strong. It’s showing that we can be like Seattle and Portland.”
New Brews End a Long Dry Spell
Pacific Coast Brewing Company’s co-founder Donald Gortemiller remembers well the end of the dark ages of the American brewing industry. It was Sept. 13, 1982, when a bill introduced by State Assemblyman (now Berkeley Mayor) Tom Bates was enacted that legalized brew pubs in California, ending the near-dominance over Americans’ collective palate the
big commercial brewers had since the late 1950s. When Bates introduced Assembly Bill 3610, the five biggest breweries had more than 75 percent of the American beer market, and existing “tied-house” laws that made breweries sell through a middleman kept many small brewers from entering the market. Schlemiel, schlimazel, hasenpfeffer incorporated. This new law allowed breweries to sell directly to customers, as long as they also maintained a restaurant on site.
Where California goes, so goes the rest of the nation, and soon the rest of the states followed with similar laws allowing brewpubs to operate. These small restaurant-breweries were the first wave of the craft beer revolution in the United States and began introducing Americans to beer with taste.
In 1988, Gortemiller opened Pacific Coast Brewing with his college friend and fraternity brother Steve Wolff. They pooled their money from an inheritance of Wolff’s and some cash from stock options of Gortemiller’s that had recently vested from his job working in the lab at Chevron. They opened the brewpub on tree-lined Washington Street, a block from the convention center in Old Oakland. “We were the first run, the original pioneers in this area,” he says. Today, they still are. For more than 20 years, PCB has been the only brewpub in Oakland, although there are others close by, including Berkeley’s Triple Rock, which opened in 1986, and Pyramid Alehouse, which opened in 1997. But for now, it’s still the only one.
But things are changing, and fast. In just the past couple of years, Oakland has seen several bright lights appear on the beer scene — its first production brewery in more than 50 years, a wood-panelled temple to Belgian and quality local craft beer and a guerrilla bottle shop with hundreds of craft beers and more than a dozen handpicked beers on tap. Each of these was started by first-time entrepreneurs working to bring craft beers to what their owners see as a sophisticated, but underserved, population of savvy beer drinkers.
The first on the scene was the brainchild of two friends from Oakland who had toured around Europe on several beer-tasting trips and realized that there was nothing like those Belgian and German beer-centric bars at home. So while keeping their day jobs, Aaron Porter and Chuck Stilphen rented a rough industrial space on Eighth Street and worked it over on nights and weekends, transforming the nondescript space into what is now The Trappist — an ornate, cozy paean to (mostly) Belgian beers with astonishing attention to detail. “We wanted to do things exactly how we wanted to do them,” says Porter. “We said, ‘let’s create a place that we really want to be in, and if it takes awhile to grow, at least we’ll have a place we like to hang out.’ It was a low-key approach; we did it all ourselves and got our friends in the trades to help out. That’s the way it worked for us. I don’t think we would have done it any other way.”
They didn’t have to worry about growth. From the moment they opened their doors in December 2007, The Trappist has been a wild success. “We expected and hoped to have a more mellow opening, to sit and drink a beer and help customers. But it was packed immediately,” he says. The classy, evocative space doesn’t just serve Belgian beers, though they make up nearly three-quarters of the supply. The rest is domestic craft beers picked by Porter and Stilphen.
“The day The Trappist opened was the day Oakland’s beer scene started,” says Linden Street Brewery owner and brewmaster Adam Lamoreaux. “They brought it in at a level of quality that you just didn’t see in Oakland.” He’s being modest, of course, because most people say the same about him.
Linden Street Brewery is in a beautiful brick building built in 1890 alongside the train tracks connecting to the Port of Oakland and above one of Oakland’s natural aquifers (there is an iron manhole in the floor leading down into it). It is the first production brewery in Oakland since Golden West Brewery, makers of Golden Glow Ale, went out of business in 1959 after 85 years in operation. One reason for the half-century interval between breweries may be good old-fashioned red tape. Lamoreaux’s four-year frustrations with the city of Oakland in getting permits and utility hookups have become legend.
But now all that is behind him. Lamoreaux turned out his first barrel in June 2009 and expects to produce 1,000 barrels this year of his two styles, Urban Peoples’ Common Lager, a steam-style beer, and Burning Oak Black Lager, his take on a similar style he discovered in New Zealand 15 years ago. He also has plans for a small taproom adjacent to the brewhouse, a move that will make him Oakland’s second brewpub. He’s a believer in the power of small businesses to transform communities, and while he has spent the last decade working at various breweries learning his craft, including the now-defunct Steelhead in San Francisco’s Wharf (which is now a Hooters) and Anderson Valley Brewing Company, he speaks most ebulliently about how he wants Linden to be part of the great transformation of Oakland from a place that is often misunderstood to an authentic center for art, industry and, of course, beer. Part of that is retelling the history of Oakland’s industrial past. “We’re lucky to be in this incredible old building,” he says. “One of the things about Oakland is the misperceptions. If people think this place is a ghetto, they see this and go, ‘wow.’ This place tells half the story for us.”
The other half of the Oakland-transformation story might just be the owners themselves. Oakland local Rebecca Boyles says she and her husband, Fraggle, “spent every cent we ever earned on beer anyway,” so they decided to open a bottle shop and tasting room on Third Street near Broadway, an industrial area adjacent to Jack London Square. Beer Revolution is more than just a bottle shop; it’s like a delicious curated exhibit of The World of Beer. Hundreds of hand-picked styles available in bottles and more than
a dozen taps without a single Stella Artois or Gordon Biersch Hefeweizen make it a beer lover’s panic room. Where else can
you find an imperial stout on tap next to a barleywine next to a double IPA? I don’t know, but call it delicious. In a particular bit of serendipity, this particular punk rock–vegan couple found the perfect space, with outdoor tables, next to one of the best vegan restaurants in the area, Souley Vegan, which delivers to beer drinkers next door.
Like Linden’s Lamoreaux, Boyles and Fraggle see their business as more than just selling beer. Boyles points to our neighbors to the north as real-life case studies of how beer culture can be economic engines for the city. “The beer community in Oakland is coming up so big and so strong. It’s showing that we can be like Seattle and Portland, with a healthy and safe environment. It’s not like the frat nuts in the ’80s, not ‘how many can I slam before I cause havoc in the streets.’ There’s a huge beer community here, for at least the past 15 years Fraggle and I have been going to local events, and it’s growing every year. This is great for the economy. It will do a lot to bring people to Oakland, which Oakland needs.”
But wait, there’s more. Several more additions to the Oakland beer scene are coming soon, including an expansive tasting room for barrel-aged beer in Jack London Square opened by San Leandro–based Drake’s Brewing Company. Expected to open in early September, the “barrelhouse” at 66 Franklin St. will house more than 100 barrels and more than 20 taps, with a couple taps reserved for other local craft brews. Early plans for the 6,000-square-foot tasting room don’t include a kitchen, but instead focus solely on the beer. “It should have the kind of feel of being in a wine cellar,” says Dow Tunis, sales manager at Drake’s.
Also around the corner is a possible competitor to Linden Street. Steve McDaniel, a former brewer at San Francisco’s 21st Amendment, has partnered with James Costa, a brewmaster at Novato-based Moylan’s, and Bruce “The Beer Chef” Paton to develop a production brewery on 22nd Avenue. They’re calling it Oakland Brewing Company and expect to start kegging by January 2011. McDaniel says that he and his partners had a hard time finding space for the brewery largely because of zoning restrictions — the city considered brewing in the same heavy-manufacturing class as recycling yards and rock quarries. But in mid-2008, Oakland changed brewing to a less restrictive “custom manufacturing” category, which put it in the same league as photo shops or bakeries, McDaniel says. This gave the partners more flexibility to find a space they might one day expand into a brewpub or restaurant. But for now, the plan is just to keg, and possibly bottle. “The beer scene in Oakland as it’s developing now is from the fruits of a lot of people’s labor,” he says. “More people are discovering craft beer and developing an appreciation for it. And brewers are beginning to address the market more completely.”
For serious beer drinkers, these are obviously welcome additions to the neighborhood, but they are also signs that the vibrant Bay Area beer scene has reached Oakland and is being received with raised glasses. The last 20 years has brought astonishing creativity and maturity to the brewing industry, and once again, that industry is located right here. Oakland’s dry spell is finally over.