BEER: A love story
County’s breweries are a labor of love, money, high expectations and friendship
By Chris O’Neal 08/20/2015
Below — our feature on Ventura County breweries labor of love, a guide to breweries both open and coming soon, a list and map of spots to grab a pint or a bottle and a closer look at Oxnard’s Casa Agria Specialty Ales.
Grab a pint, pick up a bottle. The world is yours at the bottom of a beer, literally. Hops from New Zealand, malt from Germany, water from California and yeast from a beard in Oregon (thanks to Rogue’s “Beard Beer” — look it up). It’s an international collaboration.
Fortunately, we’re privy to a fast-growing beer culture within Ventura County. The effort to bring us our local favorites is a grand one — and this is its story.
A quick note before we begin: For the sake of brevity, terminology has been simplified such that we will be referring to beer produced in gallons instead of in barrels. A beer barrel (BBL) is equivalent to 31 gallons.
Beer by the Gallon
An empty 13,820-square-foot warehouse seemed the perfect locale for a late-evening beer after a muggy day in Ventura. A rectangular office, the only landmark hidden within the massive, currently empty building off Market Street, looks quaint adjacent to a large hole cut in the cement floor, exposing the dirt below.
No one walking past would be able to guess that this warehouse in a nondescript corner of Ventura would soon become one of its largest breweries.
This is Madewest Brewery, one of half a dozen breweries coming soon to Ventura County. Co-founders Mike Morrison and Seth Gibson, Ventura childhood friends and San Diego college peers, returned from the southern beer-saturated city to Ventura in order to open Madewest, because they, like so many others, saw the potential for this little coastal community to play incubator to the next wave of craft brew.
When Madewest opens by the end of the year or early 2016, it’ll be prepared for the oncoming storm.
With the initial capacity to brew 155,000 gallons a year — 930 gallons twice a day for 83 days of the year — the partners are confident there will be enough to meet demand, and if it isn’t, the warehouse itself has the potential to allow brewing up to 620,000 gallons after expansions.
Barrelhouse 101’s Lumeena Poli Evans serves up a local brew.
By comparison, Escondido’s Stone Brewing Company, one of the largest craft breweries in the nation, which is in the process of opening a production facility in Berlin, Germany, produced the equivalent of about 9 million gallons in 2014.
Gibson believes that the need for expansion will come sooner rather than later.
“Some people will think we’re crazy, I’m sure, but this seems to be the level that puts you into the park of being able to get to that big level of production,” says Gibson.
Across town in Camarillo, Shaun Smith, his brother Ryan and their father Roger are biding time until the opening of their new, much larger location near the Camarillo Ranch. When the Smiths opened Institution Ale Company in 2013, Shaun says, they knew from the beginning that a bigger brewery would be needed.
“We didn’t know if it’d be after two or after one year, but after four or five months we realized that we had really outgrown it already,” says Shaun. “It was a little more popular than we expected.”
At their current location in a Camarillo industrial park, Institution brews between 25,000 and 30,000 gallons a year on a 93-gallon system; Shaun says that when the new location is completely up and running, the max capacity, after expansions, will be between 310,000 and 465,000 gallons per year.
“We built the brewery that we could afford at the time,” said Shaun.
Brothers, Chris and Matt Enegren, co-founders of Enegren Brewing Co. with Joe Nascenzi, share the sentiment. Originally opening with a 93 gallon operation in 2011 and brewing two times once a week while working full-time jobs, the trio brewed roughly 5,500 gallons in their first year — buying new tanks within the first two years of opening to avoid reaching maximum capacity.
Chris Enegren inspects brew equipment at Enegren Brewing Co. The Enegren brothers have increased brewing capacity five-fold to keep up with demand in recent years, having reached their limit once before at a smaller location just two blocks from the current.
By the second half of their third year, having tripled the number of tanks originally installed, the brewery reached max capacity. The new brewery, as luck would have it, was in the midst of construction.
Enegren’s new brewery multiplied their capacity fivefold and combined the tasting room with the brewing room, the tanks visible from the bar. Chris is now a full-time employee having quit his day job to work solely at Enegren; Matt and Joe are part time.
“We initially wanted to go with something kind of small to get out there, but we were kegging and cleaning at night, kind of murdering ourselves. We all realized that we couldn’t live off of that forever,” says Chris. “We kept buying more tanks and expanding until we were just about to fall over. The whole endgame was to have a bigger brewery like this.”
Enegren will celebrate its fourth anniversary this weekend, Sat. Aug 22, with the release of a German-style doppelbock.
Bigger breweries mean bigger investments. Most brewers interviewed for this story have invested over $1 million dollars on expansions alone.
But the Enegren brothers, like the Smiths, like the trio at Madewest and many others like them, are all riding a bubbly wave that shows no signs of slowing down. The craft beer market, while entering maturity nationwide, is steadily climbing in Ventura County.
For the county’s brewers, this can only mean one thing: an era of endless possibilities.
Ventura’s latest brewery is Topa Topa Brewing Co. downtown. While waiting three and a half months after the planned opening date for brewing tanks to arrive (the victim of a port workers union strike that kept the Brazilian-made tanks on the docks), and while the landlords installed a new waterline to connect to the city’s system for the fire sprinklers, Jack Dyer, a co-founder, and crew paved the cement floor with bacteria resistant polyurtherane.
Topa Topa Brewing Co.’s Brewmaster Casey Harris has plenty experience, having come from Escondido’s Stone Brewing Co. At Topa Topa, Harris has developed several beers that have proved popular with locals and visitors alike.
When all was said and done, just three weeks after a soft opening in June, the brewery closed for six days to regroup and brew more beer that proved to be immensely popular.
“It was a reaffirmation of our idea that we thought having a brewery space close to downtown would be a winner,” says Dyer. Co-founder Kyle Thompson and head brewer Casey Harris round out the crew. “People were ready, and we kept hearing the term ‘pent up demand’ for this. It wasn’t as much as panic but more of a ‘now we know.’”
Other Ventura County breweries are taking note, too. Since 2010, the number of craft breweries in Ventura County grew from two — Anacapa Brewing Company (which opened in the year 2000 in Ventura) and Ladyface Ale Companie (opened in 2010 in Agoura Hills, technically Los Angeles County) — to eight. By 2016, that number is expected to top 12.
Oxnard’s Casa Agria Specialty Ales plans to open by the end of the year, but subscriptions to its brew club have already sold out. With 400 memberships made available in May that would allow the proverbial cardholder to receive 10 bottles of the brewery’s specialties, sour ales (more information in “Sours to the People”) plus merchandise, all membership slots sold within four days — most to California residents but a good number to out-of-state fans, too.
The initial cost of a membership began at $300.
On top of a hill, up a winding pass in Ventura County’s farthest reach, near the Rincon, Smoke Mountain Brewery has begun selling subscriptions, too, but unlike Casa Agria, won’t have a public tasting room. Currently, 75 memberships are being offered, allowing three beers quarterly per member.
Back in downtown Ventura, two more breweries are expected to open within the next year: Ventura Coast Brewing Co., which will focus on “West Coast interpretations of English style ales”; and the first of its kind in the county, Sessions Brewing Co., a gluten-reduced, organic operation.
Behind the sellout subscriptions and the ribbon-cutting is the simple fact that beer in America, and the number of breweries opening or operating currently, are finally reaching the saturation point not seen since Prohibition started in 1920.
According to a report by the Brewers Association, craft beer production is up 16 percent thus far in 2015 and the number of breweries has increased by 700 nationwide since the middle of 2014. In a report from the Beer Institute, micro-breweries — not to be confused with the likes of Anheuser-Busch or MillerCoors, which are macro-breweries — sold 379 million gallons of beer in the first half of 2015, a 15 percent increase over 2014.
Surf Brewery’s co-founder Bill Riegler and head brewer Nick Velasquez are well aware of the boom. When the brewery opened in 2011, Surf became the second brewery in Ventura, offering a standard array of brews that instantly became popular with the locals.
In 2012, Surf’s sour and barrel-aging program began. Initially using 40 oak barrels in an industrial building in Moorpark, by the end of September, the program will be moved back to Ventura into a warehouse adjacent the Market Street brewery and expanded to 200 oak barrels.
Surf now produces Flemish-style red ales, barrel-aged porters and other unique brews as part of its Scientific Series, both of which won Gold medals at the Los Angeles International Beer Competition.
Riegler says that while, locally, sours and barrel aging are new for some people their popularity nationwide allows brewers to reach outside the boundaries of the county line and opens up the possibility to experiment with more than the standard fare.
“There’s lots of people into barrel aged beers and sours,” says Riegler. “It’s not difficult to sell the beer, but you may have to ship it out.”
In 2014, Poseidon Brewing Company opened in Ventura’s east end, and two weeks ago celebrated its one year anniversary with an updated version of its killer grapefruit India pale ale; the continued demand for local beer has given Enegren the opportunity to brew rare European-inspired brews like its German-style “altbier,” Valkyrie; and inspired by Camarillo’s former-institution-turned-university, Institution Ale introduced the world to Scary Dairy, a milk stout with vanilla and cocoa nibs (available today in the taproom).
As demand continues to rise, creativity blossoms and brewmasters, like Dr. Frankenstein, hope that their latest inventions are ones that’ll inspire mad science for years to come.
All in the family
In Ventura County, to own a brewery means to belong to a network of friends. After all, most everyone interviewed began the same way: as a home brewer. And in home brewing, brewers often rely on each other — asking for the proverbial cup of sugar, or rather, a bit of hops here and there.
Cyrena Nouzille, co-owner of Ladyface in Agoura Hills, is on the leading edge of the growing beer market in both Los Angeles and Ventura Counties, producing globally-inspired beer with an emphasis on French and Belgian brews, heralded by brewmaster David Griffiths.
Ladyface Ale Companie Brewmaster David Griffiths creates
globally-inspired brews at the brewpub in Agoura Hills.
Ladyface’s most recent annual Brewmaster’s Dinner was themed “American Craft Beer Dinner with Friends” to coincide with American Craft Beer Week. At the last event, Surf Brewery and Enegren were both invited to mingle among LA craft breweries. It’s a theme that runs to the very core of the Ventura County scene and one that is necessary to keep up with demand by raising awareness of the brewers in our own backyard.
Nothing shows the inherent collaboration required of Ventura County breweries more than the relationship in play at Twisted Oak Tavern in Agoura Hills, with its brewery The Lab, and the up-and-coming stars of Casa Agria.
On Tuesdays, the four partners take a day off work to brew on The Lab’s equipment, with owner and head brewer Roger Bott peering over shoulders and getting his hands dirty, too.
“It’s unlike any other business,” says Terre Haff, Casa Agria’s sales director. “Most businesses don’t respond well to competition. I’m certain Nike isn’t calling Reebok and saying, ‘Hey, check out these new shoes.’ ”
“Other people’s success makes the local scene more successful; it makes the industry more successful,” said Ryan Exline, CEO. “It’s awesome to be able to call Roger [at The Lab] or Ryan at Institution.”
To the Future and Beyond
Looking out across the warehouse, through the double doors facing Donlon Street from the empty floor of Madewest Brewery, the Pacific is visible in the far distance. That evening, a plum hue cast on high clouds gave away the warmth of summer. Gibson says that he hopes when the patio is installed, the view isn’t obstructed by new construction across the street anytime soon.
Lucky for the many current and future brewmasters of Ventura, we’re on the cusp of Ventura’s craft beer golden age and the path to success, for now, remains obstruction free.
To the best of our knowledge…
A guide on where to find and consume your favorite beers in Ventura County.
Locations, addresses and contact info for all of the following spots can be found by visiting our online map at http://tinyurl.com/VCRBeer.
We know that no list could possibly include every tap in the county, but here are a few of our favorites.
At Barrelhouse 101, it’s in the name with 101 taps, some of which can be seen on the cover of this issue. The menu is distinguished into separate categories, making it easy to decide. This is truly a beer lover’s paradise.
Santa Cruz Market’s beer fridge is a gem for Midtown residents and a hidden bar in the back hosts beer dinners regularly. Winchester’s Grill & Saloon has a tap selection of 40; Saloon BBQ Co.’s taplist and Paradise Pantry‘s bottle selection of fine craft brews plus Beach House Fish and Tacos are all in downtown; Discovery Ventura and Five Points Liquor in Midtown, Social Tap off Seaward, Two Trees Café in Ventura’s East End often keep a number of very decent beers on shelves and on tap.
Whole Foods and Holden’s Liquor and Gift Shop both have a wide selection of beers, with the added bonus of Bar Rincon at the former with 24 taps. The Kitchen on A is a Guy Fieri-approved restaurant with a focus on craft beer pairings. Between Ventura and Oxnard, Sam’s Saticoy Liquor is a must-stop.
Ojai Beverage Company’s beer selection stretches from the front door to the bar, where 50 taps serve up a plethora of goodies, and at The Deer Lodge in Meiners Oak, beer is paired with local cuisine.
At Darryl’s Couch, rare brews from both the big guys and locals make this bar the perfect locale for a pint or two, and the free pool table doesn’t hurt, either. Around the corner is Village Commons Market — bring a jacket to peruse the well-chosen variety in the beer fridge.
Thousand Oaks/Newbury Park
Wades Wines and its beer bar Malibu Sundowner Tasting Room is a craft beer Mecca for both bottles and taps, with over 100 of the latter. Sundowner Brewery is also on location and brews over a dozen styles.
Bottle & Pint is your neighborhood go-to stop for a great selection, and if you’re hungry afterward, head down the 101 to Draughts for more beer and pizza.
Both Custom Melt and Red Balls Rock and Roll Pizzeria both offer craft beer on tap alongside grilled cheese and pizza menus, respectively, the former focusing on local breweries Enegren and Institution.
Beyond County Lines
Just 15 minutes up the 101 will get you to Carpinteria, where Island Brewing Co. has been for the past 15 years. Check out award winning brews on the beach. Down the road are the recently opened Rincon Brewery and BrewLAB, too.
Sours to the People
Casa Agria Specialty Ales brings the funk to Oxnardby Chris O’Neal
These wine barrels have been used before and the remnants of the wine that once resided within will offer unique nuances to Casa Agria’s wild ales during the aging process.
Eric Drew, co-founder and brewer at Casa Agria Specialty Ales in Oxnard, prefers to call the beer fermenting in the stainless steel tank behind him American wild ale, not a sour. The reason being that sour, to the uninitiated, can have a negative connotation, but Casa Agria is ready to school the uninitiated.
Eighty-four used wine barrels sit waiting to be filled with various beers in the back of the brewery in Oxnard, off Del Norte Boulevard. On the right sits one large, 465-gallon stainless-steel primary fermentation tank and on the left are three 930-gallon oak secondary fermentation tanks known as foeders (foo-ders), special ordered from St. Louis.
It can take anywhere from one week to several years for a beer to reach completion in this sour laboratory. It’s a good thing, then, that the crew got a head start.
In early 2014, Drew and Michael Weyandt were home brewers looking to cook up what, up until recently, was hard to come by in Ventura County: a sour ale. From their homes, the duo created several variations of wild ales and took them to beer enthusiasts statewide — and to their friends in Florida, Chicago and elsewhere nationwide. After receiving feedback from various tastings, the message was clear: Proceed and conquer.
Later that year, Drew and Weyandt combined efforts with Ryan Exline and then Terre Haff; and by January, the brewery was more than a dream, as the four co-founders launched Casa Agria, literally translated to “Sour House.”
So what, exactly, are they brewing?
Every Tuesday, the crew makes the trek over the hill to Twisted Oak Tavern in Agoura Hills, where they meet with owner and brewmaster of The Lab Brewing Company, Roger Bott. On Bott’s equipment, Drew and Weyandt go through the basic steps of brewing a beer — the result of which is known as the wort.
This is beer in its basic form before fermentation.
The crew then siphons the brew out of the tanks and transports it to Oxnard, where the wort is placed into a stainless steel fermentation tank and inoculated (“pitched” in brewing terminology) by various strains of wild yeast and bacteria, depending on the style. The most common families are the yeast brettanomyces and the bacteria lactobacillus, of which there are many different strains.
“With your standard pale ale or cream ale, it’s usually fermented with a single strain of brewer’s yeast and that’s all [the brewers] want,” says Weyandt. “The stuff [bacteria and yeast] that we’re using to create wild ales they’d consider a contaminant.”
Casa Agria’s first bottled beer will be a sour wheat ale called Trigo Agria — literally “sour wheat.” Weyandt says that while there are similar styles on the market, specifically a traditional German-style known as the Berliner Weisse, the Trigo Agria will be unique.
“We’re very careful about calling them particular styles, because we’re going to be a little off-style,” said Weyandt.
Other styles of sour ales include lambic, a spontaneously fermented beer that is left to cool overnight in open containers to be inoculated by wild yeast present in the air, and the Flanders-style red ales that are typically dark and slightly sour.
These particular varieties of sours are more popularly brewed in Belgium, from where Drew and Weyandt take inspiration.
“Ours is going to be a little more Old World style,” said Drew. “It will have some brett quality to it [wine-like notes such as spicy or cherry aromas and flavors], which a traditional style would’ve had just because of the technology they were dealing with back then.”
A traditional sour wheat would have added syrup for flavoring, says Drew. The Trigo Agria will be aged on a mix of blackberries and raspberries, depending on availability. For three months, the beer will be left in used red wine barrels for fermentation.
“Sour brewing is a little more like wine making, wherein the winemakers blend and taste,” said Weyandt. “Sour beer brewers tell people its ready when it’s ready.”
Drew believes that to appreciate the style requires a bit of prior knowledge.
“When we introduce a sour beer to somebody we’re very clear that when they taste it, it’s going to be tart, it’s going to be sour, so it’s not a shock,” said Drew. “You don’t want to put a bad taste in their mouth right off the bat just because it’d be funny to see somebody’s face. You really want to educate people to understand what they’re about to experience.”
Casa Agria Specialty Ales is looking to open by the end of the year at 701 N. Del Norte Blvd., suite 310, in Oxnard, and to begin bottling soon. For more information, visit www.casaagria.com.