Photos © Brian Stechschulte
I recently visited Uncommon Brewers in Santa Cruz, CA, with some fellow beer nerds to find out what they have cooking. What we were expecting and what we actually learned from the informal tour and tasting were drastically different.
The location of the brewery itself is in a weird office complex that must have been designed by a person who specializes in creating rat mazes. The entrance is awkwardly positioned near the train tracks and lacks signage, which we desperately needed to find the place.
After looking around at most of the buildings we almost gave up, but a grain silo sticking up like a lighthouse helped guide our way. Even so, we were still unsure about where to go until brewmaster Alec Stefansky popped his head outside and welcomed us.
Inside we were confronted by a construction war-zone. Boards were stacked all over, tools were strewn about and sheets of plastic protected all the work site goodies. A taproom is in the works! It’s always exciting to see a brewery building a taproom. You can really get to know what kind of people they are simply from the type of wood they use, if they go with an industrial theme, or if it’s all DIY tables and chairs threatening to dump you on the ground.
After tip toeing through the entrance Stefansky took us into the cavernous production area. Short squat tanks with a battle-worn patina lined the walls near stacks of empty cans, a canning line that could fit in a pickup truck, and tall fermenters wrapped in plastic (they’ve been plagued by shoddy equipment and are in the process of returning an entire order of multiple 60bbl tanks, yeesh).
The brewhouse itself was tucked away in the corner like some long-forgotten broom, but man was it beautiful and high tech. Stefansky can monitor temperatures, switch valves and pump out tanks all from his iPad at home. Isn’t technology great?
The sheer volume of the tanks was the biggest surprise since finding Uncommon beers on tap or on shelves in the Bay Area is stupidly hard. Before our tour I was curious about how much beer they were actually selling? I’ve seen them at festivals handing out samples of their infamous Bacon Brown (bacon-infused brown ale), but otherwise haven’t heard a peep. As it turns out their beer has been selling very well and not just in California, but in a few other states around the country.
The author John Heylin peeking through the Lauter Ton.
Following the brief tour we tasted a good portion of their lineup, all of which have some quirky little modification that makes the beers very, yeah okay, “uncommon.” Their Golden State Ale has toasted California Poppy seeds in it. Siamese Twin contains coriander and kaffir lime leaves, and Bacon Brown speaks for itself. I asked Stefansky if the bacon fat reconstitutes in the beer and if its’ chilled to get the floaties out, but with a smirk he very diplomatically stated, “we’ve figured out a way of doing it.” Their Baltic Porter, which incorporates licorice root and star anise, was my favorite. I can’t stress enough how much you need to go out and buy a pack.
After trying Uncommon’s standard selection, Stefansky brought out a few cans of a beer he calls American Special Bitter. It’s a thick and roasty beer with a strong licorice flavor that weighs in at a whopping 14.5% ABV. Now I know what you’re thinking, “Uhh, Uncommon cans with 16oz cans. If I drink one of those it’ll kill me.” You’re right. Multiple cans of this beer at that size could send you straight to the drunk tank. That’s why Stefansky has decided to package the beer in smaller 8oz cans, just like cute little Coke products. He hopes this will minimize how hammered you get drinking just one. Of course, with my size I’ll probably pop them like shots, but it’s the idea that counts! I can’t wait to buy a bunch of those suckers for the beach or backpacking.
In regards to aluminum cans, Uncommon Brewers is dead set on using them. Not only is a pallet of empties easy to move, but they also ship lighter, take up less space (they can be stored on very high shelves without fear of killing anyone in an earthquake), and are more environmentally friendly than bottles. While I have a few reservations about aluminum due to the horrible mining process, it’s true that a large percentage of it used in the United States is recycled. The fuel savings alone make it a no-brainer economically.
Uncommon’s desire for a smaller environmental footprint even extends to their kegs, which are made out of cardboard and contain a plastic bladder. According to Stefansky the fittings can sometimes be a pain for pubs, but real kegs are expensive, take up space, and require cleaning.
After trying what we thought were all the beers, Stefansky gave us a devilish grin and beckoned us into a large cooler where he gave us a new brew he’s working on. Gods honest truth, if he hadn’t told us it was non-alcoholic, I probably wouldn’t have noticed.
Dubbed Scotty K.N.A., in honor of an employee with 22 years of sobriety (way to go Scotty! Bill is proud of you), the beer is fermented for only 24 hours so it falls below the 0.5% ABV needed for a non-alcoholic classification. The flavor reminds me of a table beer I had this summer that was only 3%, very malty, not much bite, the extra sugars not quite overpowering but they let you know they’re there. I guess it never occurred to me that the designated driver might want to drink something better then the typical crappy non-alcoholic beer. Stefansky plans on releasing this beer to the public and I’m eager to see what becomes of this experiment.
We left the brewery pumped up about the beer Uncommon is producing. The hospitality, excellent tasting and exposure to future brews all made for a great time. If you’re going to Santa Cruz, I highly recommend a tasting if arrangements can be made.