Local brewery fills organic niche, beer drinkers’ bellies
Butte Creek Brewing Co. isn’t your typical Joe-six-pack brewery. For starters, the small operation must assemble a team of workers within moments come bottling day—something Sean McClure heard from a buddy once. So he showed up to the brewery’s front office on a Wednesday morning in July, signed a W-2, and joined other rag-tag walk-ins gathered on the bottling floor.
The 22-year-old Chico State University student was looking for a little extra cash, which is exactly what he got: minimum wage and coupons tradable for beer or other company swag.
Day workers are a common sight for an uncommon brewery employing a skeleton crew. But these workers make do—and then some.
What they do is promote sustainability by crafting organic beers from a hole-in-the-wall facility at the corner of West Second and Cedar streets near downtown Chico. These folks don’t pump it out like Anheuser-Busch, a recent entrant into the organic beer market. They don’t need to—they’ve done it organically for nearly a decade, one batch at a time.
“We have nine full-time employees,” Jacquie Winter said, “and we [each] wear many hats.”
Winter wore the tour guide’s hat that July Wednesday. It wasn’t a stretch from her normal secretarial duties to take the 20-minute walk of the facility. Michael Di Pietro, a UC Davis student who’s a brewmaster intern, explained the brewery’s process.
Butte Creek brews four distinct varieties of beer year round: pale ale, Indian pale ale, porter and pilsner. It also offers several seasonal and specialty beers, such as “Revolution 11,” a beer commemorating the brewery’s 11 years of business.
The organic beer begins the same as any other would. About 1,400 pounds of a barley and wheat mix is vacuumed from a silo in the brewery’s front parking lot to a mill inside, where it’s ground and dumped into a cooker. From there, the grains are soaked in hot water, and enzymes convert the starchy mix into a sugary liquid called “wort,” said Di Pietro, a food science major.
The barley and wheat mix is removed from the cooker. What remains of it resembles hot oatmeal, and smells like it, too. It also has a familiar flavor.
“It tastes like Grape Nuts,” said Di Pietro, who dumped the steaming cereal-like mixture into a large bin and carted it outside to cool off.
About 40,000 to 45,000 pounds of this beer-making byproduct is produced each month. But instead of going to waste, the grain is picked up by a local farmer to feed livestock.
The wort then continues on to a boiler, where hops are introduced; from there it’s sent to a whirlpool to be cleansed of sediment. The liquid goes on to four large stainless steel vats, the 1,200-gallon fermenters that Butte Creek staffers have named after a famous comedy troupe.
“Do you know the name of the Marx Brothers?” Winter asked. “The answer is: Groucho, Zeppo, Harpo and Chico.”
After yeast is added, the next step in the process is the waiting game—about one to three weeks, depending on which beer is brewing. This aging process gives the beer its alcoholic content. The beer makes a final stop in another room, where secondary fermenters continue to cool the liquid before bottling. If the beer is a pilsner, it can stay here for several months for lagering—a cold-storage process unique to crafting that type of beer.
This is where McClure comes into the picture: He was hired to lug cases in the bottling area of the brewery, where clanking bottles and stale-beer stench intermingle with music blaring in the background.
During the filling process, workers dump bottles one case at a time onto a conveyor belt. Bottles then file into a half-century-old machine that spins them like a merry-go-round; spitting brew inside. The bottles are then capped, labeled and shoved into boxes for McClure and other walk-ins to stack for shipment.
The process happens so quickly that it’s a mad dash to keep up. “It’s not as glamorous as it may seem,” Winter said, “but boy, the product is good.”
To say Butte Creek’s operation is not glamorous would be an understatement. Still, its modest facility manages to produce about 6,000 cases and 220 kegs of beer monthly, most of which are shipped to Oakland for national distribution. The beer is sold in about 30 states, including Hawaii.
Originally a locally owned company, Butte Creek was sold to Golden West Brewing in 2005 and is now publicly traded.
Butte Creek beer is certified organic by the United States Department of Agriculture and the California Certified Organic Farmers association. To carry both seals, the beer must contain no less than 95 percent organic ingredients. The malt and yeast used at the Chico brewery is 100 percent organic, although certifiable hops aren’t available in the United States, said Larry Berlin, Butte Creek’s brewmaster.
The thin-framed, bespectacled suds-scientist stirs the fermentation pot by cooking up formulas that provide punch, yet still maintain organic compliance.
Last year, Butte Creek won the gold medal for best German-style pilsner at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colo. And in July, the brewery decided to re-brand its entire line of beers to give them a fresh look. New labels were printed, and the brewery adopted the slogans “organic pioneers” and “the official beer of planet earth.”
The organic trend is hot right now, and major-label beer makers are trying to cash in on the fad, Berlin said.
“We just wanted everyone to know that organic is a great thing, but we’ve been doing it for eight years,” he said. “We’re not like Budweiser, who jumped on the bandwagon last week.”
Butte Creek may not have the manpower of larger companies—but that suits McClure, and other day workers, just fine. He’s already returned to the brewery several times since his initial visit and has been deciding how to redeem his coupons.
“I’m gonna get a case of beer with them,” he said. “I think the pilsner sounds pretty good.”