From ashes to beer

As with many in the area, I left the nauseating environment during the Thomas Fire to seek fresh air and a less apocalyptic climate. I intended to use a pre-planned LA trip as an excuse to escape the smoke and ash for a night or two but ended up staying away for a week. Since I hadn’t been to the Antelope Valley (where I grew up) for almost ten years I decided to spend a night or two with my childhood friend, Brian Avery, founder and head brewer of Bravery Brewing Co. in the Antelope Valley. Over the years he had brought me Bravery bottles when visiting me in Santa Barbara but I had yet to see the actual brewery so I was overdue for a visit.

Trivia and modern art

When I arrived to the Antelope Valley, Brian had trivia night at one of the nearby breweries, Transplants Brewing Co., and since his group was down a member, I jumped aboard their team. They had received first place the past two weeks so the pressure was on. We entered the brewery to a room bustling with about twenty groups of four. The evening poured on with the teams crouching over their beers, working on answers in a hurried hush as a gigantic wall mural towered over the space. The painted scenery included psychedelic creatures kaleidoscoping around the wall with no rhyme, reason, or perspective.

The main beast being a grinning hop toad holding a knife. Some of these surreal beings crawled off the mural and made their way onto the beer labels, forming the main theme of the brewery’s branding. Many of their beers are as creative as their label art, jumping between ingredients and style. Ocarina of Time is a sweet potato ale and their Palmdale Poppies is a golden ale brewed with poppies; the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve being a popular destination in the area. One of their signature brews is CatBirD, which is named after a local test aircraft. This IPA is brewed with hop hash (finely ground hops left on the machinery during hop processing) and hemp CBDs. After a well-fought trivia game our team placed second.

We consoled our close win at Lucky Luke Brewing Co., which is around the corner from Transplants Brewing. Lucky Luke has a cosy tasting room with a slight garage feel and a wall of taps whose handles are made from tools that came from the owner’s great-grandfather, Luke. The brewery has been open for two years and they had a special brew, Brettanoversary, to commemorate the occasion. This sour blonde was aged in red wine barrels with the funky Brettanomyces culture and had a nice tangy snap with the barrels contributing a light strawberry fragrance. Many of the beers were well-made, straightforward examples of their respective styles.

The next day Brian was busy brewing a batch of beer so I used the opportunity to explore the town and see what had changed since my last visit. I visited the renovated Lancaster Blvd and walked down the main street looking at the newly developed book stores and boutique shops, a small farmers market tucked away on one of the streets. The Lancaster Museum of Art & History (MOAH) has been one of the biggest developments in this area and was featuring a selection of works from the LA County-wide art event, Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA. Also along Lancaster Blvd one will find Kinetic Brewing Co., the only brewpub in the area. The small tasting room and restaurant serves about ten of their own brews in addition to some offerings from other craft and European breweries. The Wired, a coffee oatmeal stout, had a well constructed malt character with a rich aroma of dark chocolate and charred wood.

I met up with Brian later at Bravery where there was a festive local scene with families spread throughout the large space. A stage can host live bands, or in this case, function as a centerpiece for the Christmas tree; a naughty child sitting underneath its looming branches, unwrapping the fake gifts. A “Wall of Bravery” on one side features photos of US Armed Forces service members and the other Air Force decor acknowledges the widespread influence on the area from the aerospace industry and nearby Edwards Air Force Base. We grabbed a beer and he gave me a tour of the space, including the warehouse next door that they bought a few years back and where they have moved all production brewing and processing into.

As the night went on we sampled a range of Bravery’s beers. The brewery offers an impressive range of styles like a Blackberry IPA or an English-style old ale aged in port barrels and each one has Brian’s subtly complex style engrained in the flavors. Bravery is certainly worth a visit if you are ever in the area. The four Antelope Valley breweries are all a quick stop off the CA-14 and people heading out to Las Vegas or Mammoth will often stop off and pick up some fresh crowlers on their way through town.

Grain sacks and craft fish

Brian had a trip to Orange County planned the following day and I decided to tag along. He was going to meet with some other brewers and ask them for advice as he works on Bravery’s next stage of expansion. This is happening all over the country. Breweries are experiencing exponential growth and are having to expand to meet demand. A brewery expansion requires more than just adding fermenters or getting a bigger brewing system. Everything from the grain handling equipment to the refrigerant systems need to be engineered to handle the increased throughput of the brewing schedule. The brewery has to find a balance between available capital and floor space with equipment that will be able to handle both current and forecasted production models. Bravery is currently at an awkward production where a grain silo will be too large for their current needs and using individual fifty pound sacks of malt is becoming increasingly more unrealistic, especially looking at their current growth models.

The grain handling system at Chapman Crafted Beer seemed like a possible solution to him and so we first stopped there to meet with their head brewer, Brian Thorson. We arrived at Chapman and grabbed a beer before meeting with their crew to discuss the brewery’s grain system design. A lot of craft breweries use an auger conveyor that moves malted grain using a helical screw. These systems are unable to make hard turns and the path of the conveyor has to be carefully planned. Chapman is using a chain and disk system that allows a lot more freedom in the path design since the loose chain can make hard turns and stiff rises in elevation. The setup seemed like a good fit for the challenges Bravery is facing with their current grain delivery equipment. We chatted about the pros and cons of the system as we sampled come of Chapman’s brews. Each beer was impressive but it was really Chapman’s lagers that shone. From the Yes Chef! helles lager that captured the delicate malt structure of this style to the creative dark lager, Blogger, that masterfully straddled the line between the dunkel and the schwarzbier style, these lagers showcased the talent of Chapman’s brewing crew.

We visited the very popular Bottle Logic Brewing Co. next. The tasting room had a wall full of old electronic devices, mindlessly blinking and enhancing the sci-fi theme of the brewery. We met up with founder and brand manager, Brandon Buckner, who gave us a tour of the brewery and discussed Bottle Logic’s expansion plans. The brewery has a full restaurant and distillery in the works, not to mention a massive development of their barrel aging program. The overwhelming growth they’ve experienced even had their glycol refrigeration systems struggling to meet the demand. We walked by new tanks resting behind the brewery, waiting to be installed, as Brandon pointed out the new glycol units that had just been put online.

After the main meetings were out of the way, we spent the rest of the day visiting other breweries around the area, including the renowned Bruery Terreux tasting room, before finishing the evening at the incredibly successful TAPS Fish House & Brewery. While this brewpub makes a respectful range of beers, the main draw is the food. The restaurant takes inspiration from the dining styles of New Orleans, Chicago, and east coast fish houses and blends it into an experience that is uniquely Californian. Our group spent the rest of the night dining on fish and clinking glasses. After a long beer trek and a week away from Santa Barbara, it was time to head back. The smoke had cleared and despite the horrifying charred hills lining the coast, a smile spread on my face as I drove into town. It was good to be home.

Our area is still reeling from the effects of the Thomas Fire and now, as news of the Montecito mudslide continues to roll in, it is clear that our community will need to continue to support one another for a long time to come. Many of the local breweries and businesses have already held events to benefit those affected by the Thomas Fire and are in the process of developing fundraising events that will help those that have been affected by the mudslides. Keep an eye out for upcoming events at the breweries around town. In the meantime, direct donations can be made to United Way Thomas Fire and Flood Fund (text UWVC to 41444), the Southern California Fires and Mudslides Fund at Direct Relief (directrelief.org/donate), or the Santa Barbara Humane Society through their website (sbhumanesociety.org). A GoFundMe site has also been established to help Village Cheese and Wine Shop feed firemen and rescue workers. Visit gofundme.com/feed-the-firemenfirst-responders to make a donation. It is going to take the efforts of our entire community to get through these tragic events.

Photo by Kara Troffer

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel, January 10, 2018

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