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To become a world-class beer town, Chico needs more breweries

Chico home brewer Matt Roach prepares for a long brewing day.

Chico home brewer Matt Roach prepares for a long brewing day.

PHOTO by jason cassidy

Right this very moment thousands of brewers across the country are experimenting with a new recipe. Maybe they’re refining a classic IPA or adding fruit essences to a nice wheat. Some of them might even be ready to take that giant leap and make their beer available to the public. In the first half of 2014, more than 300 breweries opened in the U.S.

The craft beer movement has always been about the sense of adventure, going back to that little warehouse in south Chico where Ken Grossman and Paul Camusi brewed their first batches of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale way back in 1980 (to put that in context, that was the year The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters, and Lipps Inc.’s “Funkytown” was one of the biggest singles in the world), paving the way for the rest. Craft beer has come a long way since then. And over the past five years, things have really exploded. Since 2009, the number of breweries has nearly doubled. According to the Brewers Association, as of July of this year, there were 3,040 breweries in the U.S.

The beer section at a Portland, Ore., Fred Meyer (a chain grocer, not a specialty beer place) takes up an entire back wall, with an intimidating and massive collage of bottles and bombers from craft breweries across the country. Of course, Portland is a different world from Chico—walk down a random city block in “Beervana” and you’ll likely run into two or three breweries along the way. But in this time of huge growth and craft-beer riches, even smaller towns, those with populations similar to Chico’s—Bend, Ore.; Asheville, N.C.—are producing a lot of beer, and a lot of enthusiasm for beer.

Chico has the odd distinction of being essentially the birthplace of craft brewing, but also a town that—with the exception of that one particular pioneering craft beer—has no other options to call its own. Asheville—a town of about 85,000 near Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s new facility in Mills River, N.C.—is home to 20 craft breweries. And up north in Bend, there are 21 facilities making some damn fine beer. While Sierra Nevada more than makes up for it in sheer volume and quality, Chico is still lacking in variety. You could almost say it’s a beer town that’s not exactly a beer town.

But things are moving in that direction. Local stores like Spike’s Bottle Shop and the new BevMo (and even Raley’s and Costco) offer plenty of craft options. And new, popular craft-centric bars and restaurants like The Banshee, Burgers & Brew, The Handle Bar and The Winchester Goose have brought the world of craft beer to Chico and have created an environment for beer culture to flourish. The table would seem set for Chico beer-makers to get their tap handles into local establishments (and beyond) and push Chico into the beer-town conversation.

Jim Eckert is ready. The 56-year-old proprietor of Eckert Malting & Brewing Co. just opened a modest brewing (and malting) facility in south Chico, and is poised to be the first local commercial Sierra Nevada-alternative to hit taplists since Butte Creek Brewing Co., which was sold to Mendocino Brewing Co. almost a decade ago.

“It’s a little intimidating,” Eckert admitted. “There have been several failures, and you have the big dog in town. But I’m different enough that I’m probably flying a little more under the radar.”

Roach stirs his grains into the mash.

PHOTO by jason cassidy

“Different” might be an understatement. Eckert’s beers are made using malted rice instead of barley or wheat. The idea came to Eckert five years ago after his wife, a beer-lover herself, discovered she had celiac disease. He recalled her first experience drinking gluten-free beer.

“She was excited,” said Eckert, who’s dabbled in home-brewing since the mid-1980s while attending college. “But after one swig her smile turned into a frown and she pushed it aside. A week later she said, ‘You’re a home-brewer—brew me a delicious gluten-free beer.’”

And that’s what he set out to do. Gluten-free beer typically calls for substituting sorghum for barley, or using a protein-eating enzyme that eliminates most of the gluten during the brewing process. This usually results in bland beer, or small traces of gluten in the final batch. Eckert says he’s spent the past few years perfecting the rice-malting process, and the results have been positive.

“I’ve been able to fool a lot of beer-drinkers,” he said, adding that early batches weren’t so good. “I think it’s drinkable enough that it could be accepted by many. Quite a few people who aren’t gluten-intolerant have said, ‘I’d drink that.’”

Eckert is currently working on five beers—all of which are a little lighter than a typical barley-malted brew—including a lager, a Belgian-style ale and a black “hop-forward” ale. He says he’d like to open a tasting room in the future. But for now he would be content to get his beer into Chico’s drinking establishments. And, of course, he’ll be focusing on his unique rice-malting process, which, according to Eckert: “To my knowledge, nobody else on Earth does what I do.”

While Eckert is now doing something in Chico that no one, other than Sierra Nevada, does, it’s been a long process—three years—to build his brewery, which points to one of the biggest reasons more home brewers aren’t going pro: time. Building a manufacturing facility takes a lot of time and, especially when the product is an alcoholic beverage, there are a lot of hoops to jump through. Eckert received his Brewer’s Notice from the Alcohol Tax and Trade Bureau in May, and licensing from the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) in June, processes he says were long and tedious. And Chico’s past and current issues with alcohol and binge drinking are likely making it even more difficult to be licensed by ABC.

The disparity between the number of breweries in Chico and the established beer towns of similar size remains glaring. Even much smaller areas have Chico beat, like Hood River, Ore., a town with a population of around 7,300, where you’ll stumble upon four craft breweries.

“I think Asheville, Bend, Portland and even little Hood River have a desire to become associated and affiliated with the craft brewing industry because it’s a good fit for their communities’ ‘personality,’ if you will,” explained Matt Roach, a local home brewer who someday sees himself doing it on a larger scale. “Chico differs a little from those other communities in that we were, and largely still are, considered to be a party town and drinking in general is largely discouraged in our community … unless you’re a wine bar, that is.”

Jim Eckert stands next to the rotating drum grain dryer in his new Eckert Malting & Brewing facility in south Chico.

PHOTO by jason cassidy

Roach operates under the name Great Balance Brewing Co. And although he’s not brewing commercially yet, he has a well-conceived and growing garage operation—and by all accounts, his beer is really good. He’s currently working on beers he’s dubbed Strongth Imperial IPA and an Imperial Chocolate Vanilla Cinnamon Bourbon Porter (he insists it goes well over vanilla Häagen-Dazs), and this spring he’ll again brew his Triple Berry Wheat, which incorporates fresh blackberries, blueberries and raspberries into a 5.5 percent ABV drinkable brew. Roach, who’s been brewing for about four years, says money is the thing keeping him from going commercial (an eight-tap brewpub with great food is his dream), another major factor stifling potential breweries.

And equipment to run a commercial operation isn’t cheap. Brian McGillivray has been a brewer at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. since 2008 (prior to that he cut his teeth at Butte Creek), and says even just keeping their fermenters cool during Chico’s blazing-hot summers can be difficult.

“At Sierra Nevada we have some of the best equipment to do this, and we can run into issues in the middle of the summer,” he said.

Sierra Nevada’s shadow looms large for sure. But McGillivray thinks the brewery should be a source of inspiration rather than intimidation.

“You know what, you’re always going to be compared to Sierra Nevada,” he said. “So you have to make something clean, consistent and completely different than Sierra Nevada.”

Of course, a sense of adventure isn’t limited to just brewers. The desire to take in as many new beers as possible is strong among craft enthusiasts, and is one of the key factors in the industry’s continued growth, growth that would seem to be sustainable in Chico as well.

“My love for craft beer was trying different things,” said McGillivray, who also home brews, and has aspirations to start his own brewery one day.

Roach agrees. And with demand so high, Chico just needs a few more adventurous souls.

“It’s a Gold Rush,” said Roach. “And that thirst, if you will, is hard to quench.”