Beer of the boar

Red Bluff’s Tuscan Brewery gears up for a big year

CHEERS! Phil and Cathy Conklin have run the Tuscan Brewing Co. since taking it over from Cathy’s parents in 2003. Her father, Val Theis, began making beer as a hobby in 1988 while working at a packaging plant in Red Bluff.

CHEERS! Phil and Cathy Conklin have run the Tuscan Brewing Co. since taking it over from Cathy’s parents in 2003. Her father, Val Theis, began making beer as a hobby in 1988 while working at a packaging plant in Red Bluff.

Photo By Tom Angel

Just off a beautiful country road running parallel to Highway 99 a few miles south of Red Bluff is a barn-like structure nestled among walnut orchards and acres of grazing cattle.

Nobody passing by would believe that Tuscan Brewing Company, Tehama County’s only commercial brewery, has operated from that very spot for more than a decade.

The 30-by-40-square-foot workshop area inside the building is crammed from floor to ceiling with a labyrinth of glistening stainless-steel tanks and pipes. On the outside, toward the rear of the building, a crude bottle conveyor system makes its way from under the shade of blue tarps through a wide doorway and continues to the other side. It rattles and whirrs as its glass passengers stumble, spin and rotate through a maze of robotic arms and pulleys.

The bottling system has been pieced together like Frankenstein’s monster. A recently built accumulation table connects to an antiquated, mint-green Coca-Cola bottling machine that fills, caps and labels the bottles before they are hand-packed into cases.

Today is bottling day, and the brewery’s owners, Phil and Cathy Conklin, along with the other members of their family and even a few friends and neighbors, are gathered around the conveyor. Each is in charge of loading and unloading bottles, packing them into cases and untangling any snags along the way. In a matter of a few hours, 1,000 cases of Paradise Pale Ale will be loaded onto pallets for distribution.

Although Tuscan Brewery hasn’t made them rich, the Conklins believe their ales are some of the best around. Locals have been in the know for years. And over the last decade Tuscan’s award-winning ales, which include a pale ale and its popular brown ale, have slowly begun to gain popularity throughout California.

Both varieties are extremely smooth and have a signature sweetness to them. The pale ale and, especially, the brown have been proven to lure those who favor lighter beers over to the dark side.

“The husbands are always tickled because their wife is on the beer train,” Cathy says with a smile.

Now, with its expanded distribution, a new marketing campaign in the works and the unveiling of a new brew next month, the family says 2005 is shaping up to be a banner year for Tuscan Brewery.

FILL ‘ER UP Debbie McCaughey fills a glass with Tuscan Brewery’s new Cancun Ale at the Taste of Tehama Microbrew Festival. The new brew will debut next month in 22-ounce bottles.

Photo By Tom Angel

Val Theis began brewing beer as a hobby in 1988 while working at a packaging plant in Red Bluff.

Using a primitive home brewing system, Theis dabbled with different recipes until he found something he liked. He was soon churning out a five-gallon batch of beer every week and taking samples to friends and co-workers. They were impressed.

He felt so good about his brew that he began construction on a 3,000-square-foot building next to his home, laying the cement and installing all the wiring and plumbing himself. He also expanded his system by bringing larger tanks from the packaging plant and from local dairies and purchasing old brewing equipment from Chico’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.

Brewing was obviously more than a hobby to Theis. He picked the brains of fellow brewers and gathered literature from UC Davis, the only institution in the country that provides a university-level qualification in brewing science and brewery engineering.

By 1992 Theis and his wife Nancy had established the Tuscan Brewery, named after the Tuscan Buttes located east of Red Bluff. They ran the company until their daughter Cathy and her husband Phil took over in 2003. Using a still-modest seven-barrel brewing system, they began bottling 22-ounce bottles of Tuscan Pale Ale and eventually added their Hogsback Brown Ale to the fold.

BOXING OUT Delgadina Munguia prepares to hand-load bottles into cases before they are loaded on pallets for distribution.

Photo By Tom Angel

As in any new business, the first few years were tough. For years Val and Nancy did all the work—brewing the beer, bottling and labeling the bottles by hand and distributing them throughout Red Bluff and Redding in the back of a pickup.

Business slowly picked up through word of mouth and, with the addition of a 1956-model Coca-Cola bottling machine, Tuscan began bottling 12-ounce bottles and packaging and selling six-packs by 2002.

Phil and Cathy took over a couple of years ago and have picked up where her parents left off.

“They’re doing much better than I would have done by myself,” Val said.

It was around that time they acquired the current 20-barrel system from the Western Reserve Brewing Co. in Cleveland, Ohio, which bumped the brewery’s output to about 1,500 cases per month.

The business is still a family affair and operates out of the same workshop Val Theis built more than 15 years ago. The Conklins continue to feed their excess grain to the wild boars that run wild in the area. And, at 73 years old, Theis still mans the forklift, loading cases of beer onto trucks for distribution.

Tuscan gave the public a sample of its new Cancun Ale at the first Taste of Tehama Microbrew Festival in early May.

The festival, co-sponsored by Tuscan, brought out representatives from Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Lost Coast Brewery and Feather River Brewing Co. and around 150 beer enthusiasts who sipped suds and sampled food from local eateries.

Tuscan came with a small five-gallon cylinder of the new Cancun Ale, a lighter Belgian-style white ale that continues the Tuscan tradition of smoothness. Phil said they’ll debut the new brew in 22-ounce bottles next month and try out a wheat beer and a boysenberry ale in the future.

Meanwhile, he plans to build a 30-by-40-square-foot addition to the shop before the end of June that will cover the conveyor system and allow a little more work space. But Phil predicts that they’ll outgrow their spot and will likely find a new location in the next few years. He said they’d also like to eventually open a brewpub in Red Bluff.

Last year the brewery produced 2,000 barrels of beer, a far cry from the 450 barrels the business was putting out in its early years. The family is optimistic that they’ll be able to crank out in the neighborhood of 4,000 barrels next year since picking up distribution in the Bay Area and San Diego.

Tuscan also enlisted The Chico Project, a firm that provides marketing plans for small businesses, to revamp its packaging. Phil and Cathy chose Bay Area artist Carol Benioff to illustrate a more recognizable and uniform logo featuring a smiling boar blowing through a bugle. Tuscan Pale Ale also became Paradise Pale Ale and the Hogsback Brown Ale was renamed Sundown Brown Ale and given the slogan “Celebrate Life!”

Phil said they plan on running with the cartoon boar concept and creating an animated Web site with local artists Russ and Angela Edmonds, of Edmonds Studios, who have both worked for Walt Disney Feature Animation and have opened their own animation production studio in Red Bluff.

They’re hoping by next year to double production to somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 cases per month, which could increase revenue to more than half a million dollars next year. Not bad for a hobby.

But Cathy says it’s been a bumpy road at times as the family has continued to deal with the different aspects of a competitive beer biz.

“It’s really been a long process of learning the hard way,” she said. “But if you can keep your head above water long enough, you can be successful.”