At the end of a cul-de-sac in suburban Novato sits a garage with a split personality. Cars aren’t welcome on most days, pushed out by exercise weights, bicycles, carboys, steam and water that trickles down the driveway. The space is the center of Alan Atha’s creative universe, where he either molds athletes or coaxes barley and yeast into Beltane Brewing beer.
Atha is one of many homebrewers in the Bay Area with Nanobrewery aspirations, and he’s working hard to make it a reality with only three years of brewing experience. The short time frame may be cause for skepticism, but his beer has garnered several awards and he’ll be competing this fall in the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) Pro-Am competition.
Opening a brewery is just one of many different career adventures Atha has pursued since he left the U.S. military years ago. He’s worked as a commercial photographer shooting architecture, raced bicycles, and in the last fourteen years turned to training and coaching fellow riders after moving to Marin. “I needed some work and I also needed to get back into shape since I was taking some time off. I went to the local gym and saw what the trainers were doing, and I said there’s my new job.”
His interest in homebrewing developed alongside his work as a trainer when he realized the two activities were both rooted in science, physiology and creativity. “I’ve always been an artist and an athlete, so combining the two made sense. Now beer is my palate.”
He started out brewing with a friend who also had a passion for Belgian beer. That’s how he learned the basics, but before long struck out on his own and started entering beer into local competitions. According to Atha the feedback was helpful, but he didn’t take it too seriously.
“You look at the score sheet and you either take the criticism or you laugh at it, one of the two. In some competitions you get great tips and other times they’re subjective. You have to piece through it in a lot of ways, and at a certain point, as long as your beer doesn’t have any flaws, go with you heart. That’s what I do.”
Atha currently has six recipes he feels are solid enough for commercial production, a Belgian Pale, Triple, Double, Black IPA, and Double IPA. Clearly he doesn’t shy away from making big beers, but he won’t be pushing some boundaries. “I’m trying to be fairly traditional in my methods and then just tweak a little. I’m probably not going to be the guy that goes pumpkin guava.”
One of his recipes recently caught the attention of Christian Kazakoff, brewmaster at Iron Springs Pub and Brewery in Fairfax. Kazakoff hosted and judged a competition between members of the Sonoma Beerocrats. Atha is a member and president of the homebrew club. Winning the competition meant Kazakoff would brew the winning recipe and submit it to the GABF Pro-Am competition on behalf of the winning brewer.
According to GABF rules, qualifying entries must have won awards in competitions sanctioned by the American Homebrewers Association (AHA) and the beer must be produced and served by the host brewery no later then August 19th.
Working on a short timeline the club entered a bunch of beers into the competition. Atha submitted his Belgian Triple he calls Luminesce, brewed with Belgian pilsner and fed with Westmalle yeast. The finished product stood up to Kazakoff’s standards and now Atha is headed to GABF in Denver where he’ll also be celebrating his birthday when awards are dolled out on October 1.
The beer was produced at Iron Springs on July 21. Atha assisted in the process and the beer will be served to the public at the brewery on August 18, one day before the deadline.
Atha believes his success is due in part to practice, but he also knows serendipity has played a role and he still has a lot to learn. “It’s been part luck and I wouldn’t say that I know everything, but at the same time sometimes the more you learn the stupider you get because you have to ask more questions. That’s how I look at it. I learn something new every day, whether it’s in my training or brewing.”
When Atha isn’t making beer or coaching a would be cyclist, he’s been working his way through the licensing process and searching for place to setup a business. Both tasks have proven difficult. “It’s a crazy process and it sucks, but if I do it right it will work.”
At the moment Atha is wavering between two different business concepts, one geared towards a café and another that’s simply production oriented with retail. He would love to open a beer café serving small bites of Trappist cheese and charcuterie, but it might not be financially in the cards.
As for location, he would like to put down roots in Novato near the 101 freeway, so according to Atha, “Everyone going up to Russian River Brewing can easily hit me on the way up or way back.” Unfortunately, two promising locations have slipped through his fingers for one reason or another. The city council has been helpful and he’ll keep trying, but he may have to move onto a different town.
Adversity may keep testing his resolve, but Atha appears capable of dodging punches with determination and a good sense of humor. For the time being he’ll keep brewing away in his garage, tweaking recipes and working towards a brewery, that with a little more of Atha’s Celtic luck, you may visit in the very near future.