Few places are more desolate in Orange County than an industrial park on a Friday night: tall, Erector Set-like structures emptied of their workers, with vast parking lots now barren save for a few stray cars belonging to stragglers doing their darnedest to escape so they can join their co-workers in washing down the week's drudgery with booze. Beer. Lots of it—the cheaper, the better.
But just off the 57 freeway in Placentia, in a drab industrial park near a Jeep dealership and acres of similar complexes, dozens of people walk into a drab building. They didn't get that memo. They're filing into a line stretching away from a barrel, which is being used as a tabletop at the moment by five strangers swirling tulip glasses filled with a mahogany-hued liquid, topped with a touch of white foam. They drop their noses, inhale the aroma, then exhale. A sip, a pause, and then they collectively jot down notes.
“It's got more body than most sours,” says Pat Callard, a nursing professor with strawberry-blond hair and a wide smile. “It's thicker in your mouth. You can tell it's young yet powerful.”
“The oak gives that tart, sharp quality,” adds a man in a baseball jacket. “It tastes a little like sour cherries, like the stem or pits of stone fruit.”
All around them, sneakers shuffle around the concrete floor of the Bruery, a massive former warehouse, as others wait for a taste of this wonder brew: Marrón Acidifié. Projected on a wall is a live webcast of a simultaneous tasting debut party at Tampa-headquartered Cigar City Brewing, which collaborated on the dark sour ale aged in bourbon and wine barrels for more than a year.
Heavy-duty equipment looms over the thirsty crowd of professionals, college students, travelers, homebrewing buddies, guys in fan jerseys heading out to the Angels game but needing a sip, and couples stopping in for a drink before dinner. Two-story steel tanks morph their moving reflections like funhouse mirrors. As in a scene from Donkey Kong, ladders lead to higher platforms. In one corner, cylinder kegs are stacked in precise rows as though they are World War II-era explosives, awaiting deployment in a fight against evil.
Displayed above the line of wood-handled taps are the night's offerings handwritten in a spectrum of colors on mini blackboards, though regulars can rattle off their favorites with ease. Rugbrød, a robust brown ale brewed with three types of rye malt “tastes like really hearty, aromatic rye bread,” says John Stephens, a computer consultant from Aliso Viejo. “You never really taste the alcohol—it's so balanced.”
Sours such as Hottenroth Berliner Weisse are “like nothing you've ever had,” proclaims Adam Martin, a civil engineer from Fullerton, with notes “more complex and appealing than wine.”
Pacing the room in a plaid shirt, jeans and curly brown hair is Patrick Rue, the brewery's 30-year-old founder and CEO. He has been called a “local ambassador” in the craft-beer explosion by Sam Calagione, founder of Delaware powerhouse Dogfish Head Craft Brewery, and a mad genius by his staff. Though built like a stein at 6 feet and 240 pounds, Rue's presence is unassuming, his demeanor gentle. He has starred in a TV pilot for a series on craft brewing, earned gold medals from the World Beer Cup, and watched four-hour lines pop up for his most famous aged imperial stout, Black Tuesday. His reaction? “It's weird,” he says with a boyish grin.
The Bruery—which celebrates its third anniversary this weekend with a local beer festival at the Phoenix Club, the OC old guard's ultimate beer heaven—leads the charge in Southern California of a beer renaissance, one that has seen common folk become weekend brewmasters in their garages, convinced restaurants to offer microcrafted drinks whose fans debate their merits with the obsession of baseball scouts arguing over a high-school ringer, and made consumers see there is more to the drinking life than what the Busches and Coors and Coronas of the world shove down our collective gullet every Friday night.
“That's what I call 'pee water,'” scoffs Richard Callard, a retiree from Diamond Bar wearing a T-shirt from a brewery near San Diego. “It can't even compare.” He adds with fervor, “You won't find a bunch of drunks here. We like to enjoy our beer.”
Still a relatively new kid in the industry, the Bruery has become world-renowned for full-flavor, Belgium-style craft beer meant to be sipped and savored rather than chugged through a beer bong. The batches are brewed with ingredients typically reserved for a dinner feast—lavender, truffle salt, pasilla chiles, even beets—and sold in sleek champagne bottles, never 24-packs at Ralphs. As one Internet fan put it, “Their beer isn't for the masses, but the masses we're not.”
“It's definitely overwhelming,” Rue adds. “People expect a lot from us, and we want to keep up. We want to give people a new experience with beer. We're striving to do something different with different spices, different yeast strains, a lot of different hops, different bacteria to make some beers sour, different types of barrels. Beer, you can play with it. Beer can be for everybody.”
He maneuvers around the bar, grabs a glass and asks, "What would you like?”
* * *
Many craft-brewery stories begin with a homebrewer and a dream. Rue decided to make his own beer because he "needed a hobby” while slogging his way through law school at Chapman University. He learned to appreciate a good brew years before it was legal for him to do so. He remembers his first sip of Deschutes' Mirror Pond Pale and Black Butte Porter (both legendary offerings in the world of microbrews) on a family vacation to Oregon, as well as the taste of Samuel Adams Triple Bock on a ski trip to Colorado. When he began college at Santa Clara University, Rue was already a bona-fide beer geek with a discerning palate. "At parties, they'd always have Keystone or something terrible,” he says, "but whenever I'd purchase beer, it'd always be craft.”
The Brewers Association defines a craft brewer as small, producing less than 6 million barrels per year. They must also be independent and not divisions of corporate brewers such as the popular Blue Moon, produced by Coors—beer aficionados like to call those types of mass-produced beers "Kraft” with a "K.” Also crucial is the requirement to be traditional, using "all malt” bases or "adjuncts to enhance rather than lighten flavor”—a seeming jab at industrial brewers who water down their sludge with corn or rice.
At Santa Clara University, Rue picked up a homebrewing kit at Beer Beer & More Beer in Riverside and attempted an amber-hued ale with Cascade hops for his first batch.
"I was so anxious to drink the beer that I let it ferment for [just] three days,” says Rue, sitting in the Bruery's conference room, where batch numbers and shipping dates are scribbled on white boards. It typically takes one to several weeks for the fermentation process, but “I took a gravity reading, and it was almost done. So I transferred it over to a keg, and it was murky and kind of disgusting-looking. I force-carbonated it with CO2, shaking the keg. I brewed it on a Friday and drank it on a Monday.”
To his delight, it tasted like beer, he says, “but it wasn't very good.”
Rue quickly became obsessed with this new hobby, spending all his spare cash on equipment upgrades, setting them up in the garage of the university-owned house he shared with his wife, Rachel. A mini-brewery soon emerged, with taps, a kegerator and such man-cave finishes as neon signs and posters from Rogue and Deschutes, a couple of his “brewing heroes.” The showstopper was a shiny, three-tier, stainless-steel homebrew system. “It was like my shrine,” he describes. “I would polish it and feel very proud.”
On a chalkboard above the makeshift bar, Rue wrote in bold letters, “The Bruery,” a spin on his name.
The brewing started a few days a week at a time, flipping through schoolbooks on patents, trademarks and copyrights while the wort boiled. A passionate home cook and foodie, Rue daydreamed about past meals and tried to figure out how to get his favorite ingredients into a bottle.
“I almost never did the same thing twice,” he says of beermaking. “I made a Rye IPA (India Pale Ale) that was good. I made a Saison with Thai basil,” which would eventually become the inspiration for the Bruery's Trade Winds. “I made a dessert beer that was essentially a barley wine with almost no hops—a very sweet, alcoholic beer. Most of my inspiration came from eating too much.”
At school, Rue says, he was seen as “kind of the weird guy” who brought half-gallon glass growlers of his homebrews to house parties.
“Law students are already thinking of themselves as making 150 grand a year,” he explains. “They go out to nice restaurants, wear nice clothes, buy nice beer and buy nice wine. The thought of someone making something was kind of foreign to them. They thought I was, like, a hippie or something.”
By his final year of school, Rue knew he wasn't destined for the legal world, so he sat out on applying to law firms. After graduating, he thought about trying to work for his dad, a commercial real-estate developer, but a position wasn't available. In terms of a career with a law degree, “the options were a little limiting,” he says.
Rue kept toying with the idea of starting a brewery, where he could keep his own hours and have no need for a suit and tie. When he'd bring it up, his friends and family were surprisingly encouraging. “I had lunch with my older brother, Casey, a few times, and I'd say, 'I don't think this is practical. I need to make this much a year. I don't know how I can do this,'” he recalls. “He was like, 'You're young. Don't let money get in the way. Just do it.'” So Rue did, tapping into a trust fund and spending the next year figuring out how to make a living making beer.
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He was entering the new venture at an auspicious time. Traditional beer sales have stagnated since the 1990s, despite major ad campaigns for supposed innovations such as "cold-activated” labels (Coors Light) and "vortex bottles” (Miller Lite). Once unstoppable, lapping up local brands or booting them off the shelves, the Big Three—Anheuser-Busch (now Anheuser-Busch InBev), Miller and Coors (now MillerCoors)—now struggle to connect with modern drinkers.
Perhaps it's the recession or that baby boomers, their once-faithful audience, have retired from their glory days of counting down an afternoon, can after can. But many believe people simply want more from this alcoholic staple made with water, barley, hops and yeast. "You wouldn't walk into a restaurant and order 'a plate of food,'” the late, legendary English beer writer Michael Jackson has been quoted as saying. "So why would you do the same with your beer?”
"People are looking differently at their food, realizing the value of organic crops, which came into the culinary world, then the wine world, and now the beer world,” says Steven Armstrong, who writes the Craft Beer Chronicles column for the Los Angeles Times tabloid Brand X. "They're realizing that with industrial beer, there's no human touch. It doesn't taste good, doesn't smell good. And it's not just snobs who believe this. It's normal people. Our standards are rising.”
In 1980, America had all of eight craft breweries. Three decades later, there are around 1,800—and the number grows every month. While still accounting for just 8 percent of beer sales in the United States, craft brewers have seen double-digit growth in their retail dollars during the past two years. Today, at specialty markets and upscale liquor stores, armies of craft-beer bottles line refrigerator shelves, with names that sound like those of crazy pirate-ship dwellers: Cockeyed Cooper, Arrogant Bastard, Old Leghumper, Moose Drool, Ace Joker and Seriously Bad Elf. There are beers for every taste, food and occasion—pale ales, strong ales, bitters, lambics and pilsners. Beers that taste like French toast, and beers that taste like curry.
Orange County and Los Angeles historically trailed other major metro areas in the craft-beer boom, seen as mostly dry land on the California brewery-tour map between San Diego and the Central Coast. But that has changed in the past few years with a new crop of breweries: In addition to the Bruery, there are 23 others in Orange County, including Bootlegger's Brewery in Fullerton, Cismontane Brewing Co. in Rancho Santa Margarita and Noble Ale Works in Anaheim. The high-quality suds being put out are "starting to rival the beer production seen along California Highway 78,” Armstrong says. "It never ceases to amaze me what can be done and what people are doing in our back yard.”
* * *
Rue ordered from Amazon books such as Designing Great Beers by Ray Daniels, studied the science of brew processes and attended craft brewers' conferences around the country. Rachel jumped onboard as the brewery's co-founder and right-hand woman. Each week, Rue met with his dad for a business coaching session, at which they talked about goals and strategies. His dad suggested a mission statement, a single sentence that describes the purpose of the venture. Rue mulled over the assignment on his blog, on which he chronicled the excitement and travails of starting a brewery, from searching for equipment to finding equipment to getting permits from the city.
"I want the Bruery to have an impact on the beer industry as a whole,” he wrote in 2007. "I'd like to be the cause for many to experience a new side of beer—a paradigm shift that makes someone realize that beer is so much more complex, interesting and enjoyable than what they had previously believed.”
During that time, Rue visited breweries across the state—Skyscraper in El Monte, Russian River in Santa Rosa, Lost Abbey in San Marcos—armed with lists of questions. Greg Koch, CEO and co-founder of San Diego-based Stone Brewing Co., remembers when Rue asked if he could come down to meet with him about potential Southern California distribution; he agreed out of courtesy. "When we met with him, he knocked it out of the park,” Koch says. "I've honestly never had a better presentation about a brand and a brewery from anyone else, be they a newbie or veteran. Both his passion and capability were clear. I told Patrick at the beginning that he had a chance to help play a very transformative role in the OC craft-beer scene.”
To help with the actual brewing, Rue hired Tyler King (now the Bruery's head brewer), a buddy from his homebrewing club who was finishing his last year at Cal State Fullerton but already had five years of professional experience as a brewer for BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse. King wanted in from the start. "Not everyone gets to build a brewery from the ground up,” the 26-year-old says.
For the Bruery's first batch, the company decided to host a homebrew competition. "We knew we'd probably screw up, and if we did, we wanted it to be a one-time recipe,” Rue admits. The winner, out of 34 entries, was Levud's, a golden strong ale that Rue calls "dangerously drinkable” for a beer with an 11 percent alcohol content. It was tested on a 10-gallon system, and when it turned out well, the duo went for a 465-gallon batch. It sold out in about four months—impressive back then, though, "today, it would sell within 10 minutes,” Rue says. (Just for kicks, on a week when they had nothing to do, Rue and King signed and numbered every bottle—today, early fans show off the collector's items at tastings.) The Bruery shipped its first case of beer in May 2008.
The year that followed was a whirlwind—meeting with distributors and brewpub owners (the goal was to sell "a little bit of beer in a lot of places”), developing relationships with investors, debuting at beer fests and tastings across the U.S., expanding the staff, opening a public tasting room, and trying to not run out of cash.
And, of course, making beer, sometimes getting to the brewery at 3 in the morning to start the mash. The Bruery made mainstay brews such as Mischief, an ultra-hoppy Belgian-style golden pale ale, and Saison Rue, a farmhouse ale that becomes more complex with age. Then it made wilder ones. Autumn Maple, a popular fall brew, uses yams, maple syrup and pumpkin-pie spices. For Valentine's Day, it released Melange No. Sechs, brewed with cocoa nibs, rose petals and beets to give it a reddish color. "That one was kind of gross,” Rue says. Hottenroth Berliner Weisse, a German-style sour ale, was brewed in memory of Rue's grandparents, Fred and Sarah Hottenroth, and hints at the tastes of ginger ale and sauerkraut. "It reminds me of sitting on their couch at Leisure World,” Rue says. "It's that old, musty, familiar feel.” Anyone on staff can invent a recipe and work with the brewers to make it on a small, 10-gallon pilot system, simply because Rue wants everyone to always be thinking.
Perhaps even more unconventional than what the company makes is what it won't make. No IPAs (India Pale Ales), Rue says, even though the ultra-hoppy style is easily the most popular among craft beers. "I love IPAs. They're successful for a reason, but we don't make one, and we promised never to make one,” he asserts. "I think we came a little too late in the game, and I'm not going to bother with it.”
Also, the way the Bruery makes beer is key. It doesn't filter or pasteurize. It has its own yeast strain and a system that uses direct fire instead of modern steam, so there's more caramelization and evaporation. "We try to not use too many gadgets and scientific methods,” Rue says.
Just two months after opening, a breakthrough happened on a day that would go down in the brewery's history. It was Tuesday, July 1, 2008, which Rue calls "the day from hell.” A pump was leaking, a brewing vessel started to overflow, and eventually, "mash and 170-degree water is flying everywhere,” he recalls. "It's a tidal wave of hot shit, all over my arms, legs, in my boots, and the brewery is a disaster. I'm cussing, running around in frustration and in pain.” A paddle got stuck in a valve, the room was blanketed in grainy goop, and Rue's hands were covered in blisters. When he wrote about the disaster beer on his blog, one commenter wrote, "Clearly, you should call it Black Tuesday.” So it was.
The imperial stout, utilizing 2,500 pounds of grain—more than double any of the brewery's usual recipes—was aged in bourbon barrels for more than a year, raking in a symphony of flavors such as rich caramel, dark chocolate, molasses, toasted malt, sweet Morello cherry syrup, vanilla and burnt wood, along with a whopping 19.5 percent alcohol content that warms the senses. Some beer reviewers got an early taste and penned their reactions—”Absolutely amazing,” "The best I've ever had,” and, simply, "Wow.” The word spun around the Internet about this holy grail of high-alcohol beers, and when it was released, a four-hour line snaked around the block, with fans driving in from Northern California and beyond. The limited-edition brew has been called "monstrous” and "frighteningly smooth” on beer-review sites and was named one of Beer Advocate's Top Five Beers on Planet Earth. "I could sniff this stuff for hours,” one person posted on RateBeer. "This is no shit outfuckingstanding,” wrote a Beer Club 4 Men blogger. Rue has seen bottles go for $300 apiece on eBay. "It's a beast,” he says.
The Bruery's beers have been called "extreme,” a trendy term in brewing circles coined by Samuel Adams founder Jim Koch that means creating new genres. But Rue isn't really into labels. "When people think of 'extreme,' they think of, like, motocross sports,” he says. "I like to think of us as a very elegant brewery, rather than we're making ballsy, hit-you-in-the-face sorts of beers.” Still, he says, "people typically like us because we're willing to do things others aren't.”
Those in the craft-beer scene agree. "What are they doing that's not unique?” asks Koch. "I don't want to get too carried away by superlatives, but the OC craft-beer scene could be characterized by 'B.B.' and 'A.B.,' as in Before the Bruery and After the Bruery began. They have approached craft brewing with both boldness and a unique panache.”
Armstrong believes Rue is bringing a sense of excitement to the beer industry that it needs. "They're all young—Patrick is, like, the oldest guy there, and they have a different vision of beer,” he says. "There's so much energy there, as there should be.”
Jeremy Raub, co-founder of Eagle Rock Brewery in Los Angeles, says the Bruery is "pushing the envelope” with the strengths of beers and exotic ingredients. "A lot of their sour beers are just absolutely world-class,” he says. He adds that craft brewers don't see one another as competition. "We believe a rising tide is gonna lift all boats in the harbor. We want the scene to be better; we want it to grow. The goal is to make better beer for everybody.”
Last year, the team opened the Bruery Provisions in downtown Orange, a specialty market stocked with craft beer from around the world, wine, cheese and other foods. It hosts special events pairing beer with various accompaniments, like cheese, desserts and sandwiches. "With wine, there are a lot of rules on what you should pair it with,” Rue says. "You'd never go to a wine dinner and get, like, a slider or sausage. Beer is more casual. But beer can also be very elegant.”
On the company's third anniversary, having recently finished his 300th batch, Rue has a few projects brewing. Earlier this year, he and Rachel had their first child, Charlotte, and to celebrate, they brewed "Charlotte's Beer,” a bourbon beer to be aged in dark, charred barrels until 2032, when she turns 21. He's working on another collaboration, a Japanese-inspired beer with rice and schimi togarashi (a spice mixture) that's fermented with sake yeast. He's also fiddling with grapes.
"We source them from some wonderful vineyards, typically in the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County,” he says, making final preparations for the party this weekend, which has a brewery list of 18 and counting. "The flavors can be an incredible combination.”
After that, he's not quite sure. He often turns to his customers for ideas, with no shame and no ego. For its second anniversary, the Bruery posted a question on its Facebook page asking fans what they'd like to see in the upcoming year. The suggestions flowed: Belgian Malt Liquor aged in tequila barrels, a pairing of Dirty Beaver Juice Weekend and barbecue.
Best was the commentator who stated, "A cure for cancer, hunger and health care that works. I mean, shoot, look what you've done in just two years.”
This article appeared in print as "The Brue-master: From a Placentia industrial park, Patrick Rue and the Bruery have revolutionized craft beermaking in Southern California.”