New Brewery Calicraft Celebrates The Golden State

Have you seen a bear clutching a barrel? If so, either you’re way too drunk or you’ve spotted bottles from Calicraft Brewing Company, one of the latest players in the Bay Area’s explosion of new breweries.

Calicraft was officially launched in May 2012 by Blaine Landberg, a veteran homebrewer, Walnut Creek family man, and founding employee of Honest Tea. I first met this ambitious but approachable entrepreneur after midnight at a brewers’ conference where, despite the late hour, he exuded enthusiasm, local pride, and love of beer. It’s easy to get caught up in his excitement, particularly when he talks about his commitment to using California ingredients when possible. Even Calicraft t-shirts will be made in-state, not in China.

The fledgling brewery came out of the gate strong with three beers: the refreshing Cali Colsch, the hoppy Oaktown Brown, and Buzzerkeley, a honey-accented Belgian/American mashup that’s already getting plenty of…well, buzz. (Sorry.) I predict Calicraft will have a substantial following by the time it opens its Walnut Creek tasting room.

Landberg took some time away from brewing, beer delivery, and his general daily hustle to answer some questions via email. An edited version of our exchange is below.

You talked about wanting to start a brewery since you were 14. Most 14 year olds are not drinking anything inspiring. How did you get a goal like that at that age?

Living right outside Chico in Willows, CA, the success of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company was a sense of regional pride. As I was growing up I saw that sense of pride as something that I wanted to create…but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just trying to recreate Sierra but start a new movement like Sierra did in the ‘80’s

I come from a family of homebrewers. I remember the moment I realized I wanted to be a brewer, when my uncle brought a beer he made to a family function. It was called Bell and Bear Brew – Hopping Good From Down Under and the label had a kangaroo peeing in a bucket. As a teenager this was hilarious. At our family holiday functions it was always a treat to see who would bring the most interesting craft brewed beer to the party. Though I couldn’t partake, maybe a sip here and there, I loved what it stood for. A symbol for a social gathering, a form of expression, and a sense of family and friends…to me these are the core values and reasons craft beer and craft products in general are so meaningful and why I’ve chosen to pursue them as my life’s work.

When/where did you brew your first batch of beer? What was it?

I brewed my first batch of beer in the kitchen of the dorms in Unit 1 at UC Berkeley. It was an extract brewed pale ale. I added honey to it and called it Buzzerkeley Brewing Virgin Ale. I was only able to brew down there twice before it got out that a 19-year-old was brewing beer, not good. I took a hiatus for about two years and started heavily brewing when I got an apartment with my girlfriend at the time, now my wife. I cobbled together five pots and pans and started brewing extract beer. I made pretty much everything under the sun and I constantly tried to experiment with beers using honey, spices, fruits, and woods. After about two years of fairly consistent extract brewing I started to all-grain brew and that is when my hobby became an obsession.

Do you still homebrew?

I definitely still homebrew. I think that is the foundation of craft brewing. Especially at the stage where I am, it’s important to keep creative and constantly try to improve on concepts and new products. Homebrewing is the best avenue for this.

Since you have beers named in honor of Berkeley and Oakland, can you talk a bit more about your connection to these cities?

I went to school at Berkeley and started brewing in Berkeley. The initial name I thought of for the brewery was Buzzerkeley. I liked that it was a play on Berzerkeley and with the use of honey in some of the beers the play on words was perfect.

While living in Oakland in our little Rockridge apartment I came up with the basics of Oaktown Brown. The idea came to me as I was training for a half marathon and running about Lake Merritt. I would try to daydream about brewing to take my mind off the pain. At that time I was frequenting Barclays, Ben and Nick’s, and Cato’s where I grew a strong appreciation for hoppy beers but also loved a good brown, porter or dark lager. I also felt like there wasn’t a consistent beer on the market that used oak in balance with hops and brown and I loved the double meaning of “Oaktown.”

Can you talk briefly about your other experience in the workforce, including what (if anything) tea taught you about selling beer?

I was one of the first people to join the team at Honest Tea. I started as an intern in 1999, the second year of Honest. I started selling Honest out of the back of my car, similar to what I’m doing now with Calicraft. I purposely chose working for a start-up in the beverage industry because the fundamentals of brand building through distribution and retail are the same. In fact, up until 2008 we mostly worked with Miller and Bud distribution houses in the West. From my car to the end of 2008 we put together a network of over 50 beer distributors in the West and covered all 13 states.

Please describe each of your beers, including any ingredients you’re willing to divulge.

Cali Colsch: We use California-grown base malt from the Klammoth basin by the base of Mt. Shasta. We blend it with some European Pilsner malts to form a base that is clean, smooth, subtly grainy and bright. We then use a blend of American and German hops to bring out noble spicy and fruity characteristics while giving the beer a hint of American hop flavor at the end. The Kolsch yeast we use adds complexity through notes of peach and pear. It finishes bright, playful and clean. Our goal is to not push this beer out of style, but push the beer to the edge of the style, keeping it drinkable and balance.

Oaktown Brown: Redefining traditional brown ale, this is a hoppy, malty, deep and soulful brown ale. We use California-grown organic Cascade hops that give this beer a flavor reminiscent of an IPA. The California grown hops express flavors of orange and marmalade vs. pine and grapefruit from the Pacific Northwest. We then ferment the beer with a blend of three oaks with the foundation of the oaks being American. The beer starts bitter and roasty with subtle smoke. As it warms, layers of chocolate, toffee and caramel begin to shine. The use of oak during fermentation gives this beer structure that lays in your mouth similar to a great cab or zin.

Buzzerkley: Blurring the lines between beer and wine, Buzzerkeley is beverage unto itself. Fermentation with Champagne yeast adds a subtle tartness to the finish. Our combination of pure California starthistle and a blend of Belgian and American malts support the spicy fruity esters of the yeast. The honey sugars are almost completely fermented, drying out the beer similar to a Belgian golden strong or dry champagne. Its best drank cold and in a tight narrow glass.

Where are the beers brewed now and what are your plans to open your own brewery?

Currently we brew our beers in San Jose at Hermitage. We subscribe to the tenant brewer philosophy: much like you would become a tenant at an apartment and make it your home, this is the way we view our relationship with Hermitage. The people at Hermitage have been incredible to work with and are solid partners in business.

In the next 12-24 months we will be building a small 10-15 barrel production system in Walnut Creek. We are currently working with the city to get the area known as the Shadelands rezoned for food production. We will run the brewery much more like an experimental winery with a tasting room than a traditional brewery. You’ll be able to get small batched limited produced beers using local partnerships. A few restaurant or beer-centric bars will get some of the products coming out of Walnut Creek.

In the short term, where can people find your beers?

Bottled beers are available at Berkeley Bowl, Ledgers Liquors in Berkeley, Whole Foods, Jackson’s Liquors in Lafayette and other independent grocery stores. On tap we’ll be rotating at local beer bars and restaurants in the area including Gather and Revival in Berkeley, Handles in Pleasanton, Beer Revolution in Oakland, Tender Greens and ØL in Walnut Creek, and Pete’s Brass Rail and Chow in Danville. If we’re not on draft, ask :)