Calicraft Creativity Bubbles up in Walnut Creek
By Derrick Peterman
Most brewers find their calling in their early 20s after a few years of home brewing. Calicraft’s Blaine Landberg realized he wanted to become a brewer at age 9. “My Uncle Gary and Aunt Lori always brought beer for Christmas, and I thought it was one of the coolest things,” recalls Landberg of his home-brewing relatives. “It made me want to have my own brewery.”
As a freshman at UC Berkeley in 1997, Landberg made his first batch of beer in his dorm room. “I threw honey into it because I knew it would make it strong, and I used Champagne yeast. It turned out too sweet because I didn’t know anything about yeast health.” Landberg almost got kicked out of school for this stunt, but he graduated from Berkeley and became a founding member of beverage start-up Honest Tea, spending ten years there in sales and operations roles. Still, the brewing dream remained, and in 2012, Landberg started his own brewery, Calicraft.
One of his first beers—called Buzzerkeley—was based on that first batch of dorm-room brew. True to that early recipe, a healthy dose of star thistle honey is added to the malt, which is fermented with Champagne yeast, imparting a dry, toasty character and classic tingly carbonation to the brew. Full of subtle floral and spicy notes, it’s a beer for beer geeks interested in new definitions for their beloved beverage, while wine drinkers simply find they are on familiar ground. Buzzerkeley’s defining characteristic is its resistance to definition.
Calicraft quickly stood out from the crowded field of Bay Area breweries as Landberg came up with other Buzzerkeley-type beers: uniquely creative yet somehow familiar brews like their Cali Cöast Kölsch, which employs American hops rather than traditional European hops, adding a citrusy Left Coast twist to this classic German style of brew. Then there’s Calicraft’s Oaktown Brown Ale. Brown Ales are often the ugly stepchildren—present but largely ignored—at craft breweries. But Landberg ferments his on oak and uses generous hop additions to create a rich, complex brown ale worthy of admiration. Also of note are Calicraft’s sour ales, aged for several months in used wine or bourbon barrels and fermented with finicky microbes producing complex flavors over long fermentation times. These barrel-aged beers quickly gained a cult-like following, even though most barrel-aged programs usually require three or more years before hitting their stride.
“I’ve gotten lucky,” concedes Landberg.
This past July, Calicraft opened a taproom in Walnut Creek to serve as a focal point for Landberg’s continuing efforts to redefine beer and his personal commitment to both environmental sustainability and local food. I met up with the cerebrally gregarious and enthusiastic Landberg on an uncharacteristically cool August afternoon to discuss his new taproom. The bar, made of reclaimed redwood trees, and a wall lined with staves from wine and bourbon barrels lend a rustic feel to the industrial space. A local artist’s chalk mural depicting brewing equipment dominates the back wall, at least for the moment: In a few months this mural will be erased to make room for another artist’s vision. Landberg introduces me to all his employees, and then we sit down to learn about his plans for the taproom. Lots of brewers are opening taprooms these days to sell beer, but Landberg has a far more ambitious agenda:
“There are three things driving this taproom,” he declares. “First, we’re pushing the innovation we can do with beer. Second, we want to be a community space with a welcoming feel, though slightly new and a little edgy for Walnut Creek. Third, we want to help people connect to the Calicraft brand.” Perhaps realizing his last point sounds a bit like marketing speak, he elaborates, “On point three, this isn’t mass market. The taproom is about the face-to-face contact and the outlet for people to engage and connect with us personally.”
I’m here just before the opening hour, so it’s no surprise when Landberg excuses himself to check that the taproom is ready. Today is the big release of The Wobblies IPA. Those familiar with U.S. labor history will immediately recognize “Wobblies” as the nickname of the International Workers of the World (IWW) labor union, and may recall the Wheatland Hop Riot of 1913, a hop workers strike in Wheatland, California, organized by a former IWW coordinator. The Wobblies IPA is unusual in that it’s “wet-hopped.” Fragile plants, hops start withering away the moment they are harvested, quickly losing their prized flavors and aromas, and thus, virtually all commercial hops are dried within 24 hours after being picked to preserve them.
For The Wobblies IPA, the hops are picked at a Sacramento-area farm in the early morning and then rushed to the brewery to be thrown into the brew kettle the same day, before the flavors deteriorate. Since the hops aren’t dried, The Wobblies has a citrus character typical of California IPAs, but with a juicier quality that’s coupled with grassiness and a menthol-like freshness. Wet-hopped IPAs can be found in a few breweries in small quantities during the fall hop-harvesting season in the Pacific Northwest, where 95% of American hops are grown. They’re rarely found in California, where a mere 130 acres are devoted to hop farming.
Landberg takes me outside to show me around the taproom grounds. It becomes quickly apparent that a fourth concept drives Calicraft’s taproom: establishing a focal point to showcase the possibilities of local food. “The taproom patio will feature two vertical gardens where we’ll grow herbs to use in different beers,” says Landberg as we step outside. Leading me across the large parking lot to a small field lined with a row of poles, he shows me a few hop plants that have taken root. It takes three years to establish a commercial hop field, yet in just the first year, there are already a few impressive-looking vines. Eventually, this small hop field will produce estate hops for Calicraft beers and serve as a secondary taproom location complete with a solar-powered outdoor beer dispenser. The taproom grounds already feature two veggie gardens maintained by local schools.
On his plans to push brewing innovation, support local artists, and bring locally grown food to the people of Walnut Creek, Landberg reflects, “Basically, what you have going on in Walnut Creek is a transformation as people move in from places like Berkeley, which is one of the reasons I wanted to locate here.” Given Landberg’s Berkeley-cultivated activism coupled with his marketing savvy, Walnut Creek seems like just the place for his ambitious vision to thrive.
Derrick Peterman enjoys running and also exploring the Bay Area’s great beers and breweries. He writes about beer (mostly) and running (sometimes) on the blog “Ramblings of a Beer Runner” at beer-runner.blogspot.com.