Riding the wave
Chris Miller keeps on brewing as Sacramento (and beyond) grows hip to Berryessa Brewing Co.'s hops
A typical day on a beer-and-bike-tour vacation in Belgium goes like this: You arise in the large-ish city where you're staying, put your bike on the train and travel to a smaller city. From there, you ride your bike many kilometers through orchards, fields and dairy land on meandering country roads, then, finally, you arrive at a small, humble brewery. It will be filled with a local, ruddy-faced and cheery crowd. You are welcomed, probably by the brewer and his family, and poured the freshest, most delicious brews you've ever tasted, made all the sweeter by the journey and the atmosphere.
Here's what it's like to travel by bike to Berryessa Brewing Co. in nearby Winters: You arise in Sacramento, put your bike on the train and travel to Davis. From there, you ride about 16 miles through orchards, fields—well, you get the idea.
The experience is so disorientingly similar—and European in feel, and in a way that few experiences in America are—that on first visit, you might expect brewer Chris Miller, 34, to utter the strange, rounded vowels of Flemish rather than English.
But American he is, through and through—Northwestern, actually, which explains his encyclopedic knowledge of hops. Miller picked up his brewing skills young, starting with a job at a production brewery in Seattle, his hometown. Next stop, a brewpub in the Yakima Valley, an area which pumps out 75 percent of all U.S.-grown hops, due to its unique combination of desert climate and abundant access to irrigation.
Once a year during harvest, brewers from all over the world descend on the area like locusts, which gave him direct access to an unparalleled trove of brewing wisdom. Miller likens this post-harvest rush to a “brewing Olympics.”
His wife, Lori, who is a constant warm presence at their taproom bar, asserts that Miller is “modest” and therefore neglects to mention that the hops brokers and farmers loved him, and would bring in experimental hops for him to brew with.
“Very few people, especially at his age, know hops as well as he does,” she said.
This explains his deft touch with both Belgian beers (e.g., his yeasty, textbook saison), and decidedly American brews, such as his “Trendy the Triple” triple IPA.
He must be doing something right, because in the six months the taproom has been open, Lori says that each weekend has been busier than the last.
On a typical Saturday, the crowd brings a Northwest vibe by sporting fleece on top, flip-flops on the bottom. Beer nerd Pliny the Younger shirts are in effect, as well as a ton of Berryessa logo hoodies. Dogs and kids roam freely, adults play a ringtoss game, pleasantly mellow country tunes emanate from the three-piece band in the corner. Food is provided by a food truck, or perhaps there's a potluck. Strangers and friends chat as more and more customers roll up on bikes and motorcycles. Locals fill growlers and drink a pint for the road.
Miller's low-key demeanor belies his driving ambition. He's clearly a workaholic and recently expanded his production capacity. Berryessa Brewing Co. will also begin bottling soon, notably, the dankly hoppy full-bodied house IPA and Common Sense, his “common” or “steam beer” style. Astonishingly, he currently brews solo, although he is seeking an apprentice.
Clad in galoshes that are de rigueur for brewers, he proudly gestured to his two new steel tanks and gives a taste of a young barley wine, which hides its high alcohol-by-volume content excellently; he'll barrel age it soon for “maybe six months, maybe a year.”
This is typical of his desire to keep things loose and playful, which may be difficult, given the skyrocketing local demand for his beer; distributors are howling at the door. But for now, he's riding the wave.
“I don't want people to get bored, and I don't want to get bored,” Miller said. “I've been brewing since my early 20s, and I'm still having fun. This is like Toys ‘R' Us for me.”