Beer trailblazers

Secret Trail set to open Chico’s first new brewery & tap room since Sierra Nevada

Secret Trail Brewing Co. founders (from left) Jesse Fischer, and Charlie and Michelle Barrett.

Secret Trail Brewing Co. founders (from left) Jesse Fischer, and Charlie and Michelle Barrett.

Photo by jason cassidy

Secret Trail Brewing Co.
132 Meyers St., Ste. 120

For a city that likes its beer as much as Chico does, craft brewery options have remained few and far between throughout the years. Some potential brewers may view Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s prominence in town as a nonstarter, but others, such as Charlie and Michelle Barrett, owners of the soon-to-open Secret Trail Brewing Co. (late October is the plan), see the presence of the craft-beer pioneers as a perfect springboard for expanding upon local beer culture.

Charlie, the brewmaster, has immersed himself in the homebrew scene off and on since the early 1990s, acting as a certified beer judge and taking home several brewing competition awards himself. The acquisition of a 15-gallon, all-grain electric home brewing system in 2011, however, reignited his passion and hope to one day open a brewery and taproom of his own. Once he retired from his job as a construction inspector for Yolo County, he and Michelle moved from their home in Elk Grove to Chico to do just that.

“When we told people we were moving to Chico, they laughed at us, thinking we wanted to compete with Sierra Nevada,” Michelle said during a recent interview at the new brewery site. “But no, that’s never been the goal. We want to be here to give options. People come to town to visit Sierra Nevada and then, once they’re here, they think, ‘Where else can we go?’ So now we’ll be close by.”

When Secret Trail Brewing Co. and Cellar Door Cider (coming in 2018) join the block, there will be six alcohol-production facilities in the same vicinity in south Chico.

map illustration by sandy peters

The process hasn’t come without some stressful challenges, though, including a two-year-long hunt for a location, as well as the discovery of a local code that prohibited breweries from operating taprooms that do not also offer food service. Rather than getting discouraged, the Barretts proposed an amendment to the code, which the Chico Planning Commission approved at its Sept. 7 meeting.

“We were too deep into this process and had too much invested, emotionally and monetarily, so we decided, well, someone has to be the one to break the ice and try to change the law,” Charlie said.

The Chico City Council voted 7-0 on Tuesday (Oct. 3) to approve the amendment. The couple believe this change could be the catalyst that eventually turns Chico into a hub for small craft breweries, something akin to beer mecca Bend, Ore., a city with a population comparable to Chico’s that currently is home to more than 20 breweries with accompanying tasting rooms.

“I think it’s great that others will be able to follow behind us to make Chico even more of a beer town than it is now,” Charlie said.

A rendering by architect Chad Finch of what the nearly finished Secret Trail Brewing Co. will look like.

Illustration courtesy of Russell Gallaway Associates Inc.

As for the beer itself, Secret Trail plans to offer two distinct product lines available both for tasting at the taproom and for wholesale distribution. The Landmark Series will be classic styles, such as pilsner, kolsch, American IPA, double IPA and porter; while the Explorer Series will allow for more experimentation with fruit, spices and barrel-aging, including an imperial red ale and a pomegranate wheat. All of this will be brewed on-site via a shiny new 15-barrel stainless steel system.

“I just love the joys and the challenges of brewing,” Charlie said. “It’s tricky. Anyone can make a beer if they get a kit and the right equipment, but I don’t think just anyone can make a good beer. It takes some practice.

“I’m also wanting to get ideas from various places [on beers] that I can brew in small batches on my pilot system to get feedback from the community,” Charlie added. “That’s part of my vision, to have the community buy in on this, so people who want to get involved can get involved by helping with recipe ideas or feedback. Then they have some ownership of the beer where if it does well they can say, ‘Hey, I helped make that.’”

The Barretts say the goal for Secret Trail (in addition to serving delicious beer) is to be as community-oriented and interactive as possible. Plans for brewing competitions, live music, food trucks, brewery tours and more are already underway, and both the taproom and outdoor patio will be family- and dog-friendly. Jesse Fischer, partner and operations manager, is a big believer in what a fun, lively bar can add to a town and is excited to get to work.

“My happy place when I visit other towns is sitting in a pub and talking to locals,” Fischer said. “I feel like pubs can be a great little nucleus for everything going on in the community.”