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Hopping Happy

The enchanting true tale of 72 bottles of beer on the wall . . . and down the gullet

By Gretchen Giles

YEAH, YEAH, YEAH. Wine may be the thin-stemmed drink of choice in Sonoma County for touristas and highbrows, but humble, proletarian beer is going upscale like a shook can of Coors finally pulled open by a dirty thumb after a hot bumpy ride next to a drooling dog in the back of a rusting Ford pickup.

Witness the proliferation of swanky brew pubs swathing the landscape with their aioli-slathered grub and their gleaming tanks and kettles secreted away in separate, glassed-in rooms, sealed off with the kind of anxious proud security once reserved for nuclear reactors and Cold War computers.

Look longingly through the grocery cases at the tall brown bottles with the fancy labels that demand upwards of $3 each to imbibe. Look sadly down at the tearing cardboard carton you are clutching that holds six watery drinks peevishly demanding to be recognized as the king of beers.

It's time for a coup. Tucked into an industrial strip of Santa Rosa is a place where even vowels are thrown out with the giddy indifference that comes with freedom: B A Brewmaster.

Opened just over a year ago, this enterprise is the very good idea of Jack and Linda Estes. Downsized by PG&E, Jack took his severance pay and his beer-making skills and opened a veritable home-brew palace where happy sudsters come in, choose their recipe, mix up a good-sized batch of at least 72 bottles of 22-oz. beer, and then--and this is the best part--go home. Not only do Jack, Linda, and son Jack Jr. provide the barley, hops, malt, sucrose, water, kettles, paddles, rock 'n' roll, and fridge, but after you've toddled off to finish the laundry or fall in love, they clean it all up. That leaves you nothing more to do than lazily yawn back into their establishment two weeks later with a bunch of friends and a bag of chips to bottle the stuff.

Except for childbirth and taxes, it suddenly feels like fun to be a grownup.

BEING HANDS-ON journalists with a passion for hard-hitting investigative reporting, we of the Independent's editorial staff deemed it absolutely necessary to brew our own beer, choosing the recipe for the very popular Wildfire, similar to the Mendocino Brewing Co.'s Red Tail Ale.

Standing happily in front of a row of copper kettles ominously named for volcanoes, Jack Estes Jr. absent-mindedly pats Vesuvius. "We have definitely taken a big risk," he admits, noting that the start-up costs for this warehouse-sized room of stainless steel, walk-in coolers, and a big-screen TV sailed near the quarter-of-a-million mark. "But we're doing very well. Once people realize that they're drinking good beer, they also realize that they're saving a lot of money by coming in here to do this."

The typical patron staggers away from the Estes brew palace under the weight of six cases of fresh beer brewed for about $130, including the bottles and specialty labels. Averaged wildly, that comes out to a paltry $1.50 a bottle. A drawing of a pouting, splay-kneed blonde in a red dress her mother wouldn't let her out of the house in proves to be the most popular label image of those pasted on a memorial wall. Daringly inserted in the big blank space between her gams are such declarations as "Bionic Bimbo Brew" or "Shock to the Head Red." We prudently choose a tasteful Pyramid scene, to be named Independent Ale.

Hal Nelson is a clean-shaven man in his mid-40s. Lecturing state employees on their retirement privileges when he isn't standing in B A Brewmaster with his two kids bottling beer, Hal is more than mildly happy. "This is the best thing since cars and sliced bread, and you can quote me on that!" he quips exuberantly.

Thinking that Brewmaster is a home-brew outfitters store, Hal--whose favorite store brand is the oft-maligned Budweiser--bravely decided to make a Bud clone at home. His pleasure at having the Esteses help him brew it and then baby it in their own fridges--providing filtration, carbonation, and expert palates to detect a "skunked" batch--is evident.

"We're not here to tell people what kind of beer to drink," smiles Jack Sr. as Hal puts the first sip of his Bud-ish brew to his lips. Turning to Hal, he says, "I'm as serious as a heart attack: This is the lightest beer we've ever made here."

"This is better than Budweiser, and I love Budweiser," Hal returns, just a froth on his lips. For strictly professional reasons, we try his beer, the bottle emblazoned with a bald eagle in deference to our national emblem.

We like Hal's beer very much. We have some more.

PEOPLE THINK that this is such a difficult process," says Linda Estes, settling on a high stool by the bottling table. "It's the simplest thing in the world."

Indeed, it is just cooking, but persnickety cooking, like making jam. While Jack Jr. fires Vesuvius up to 197 degrees, we measure and mix and grind and try valiantly not to spill a lot of stuff on the floor. Adding malts and grains and yeast and hops at just the right time and in just the right amount, Jack Jr. finally assents that we can set the timer and relax.

"We give people a clipboard and assign them a kettle. That way they don't get mixed up," he smiles. "We once had two guys in here who were fooling around, dumping ingredients in each other's kettles, and actually, the beer turned out OK. They're our regulars, they're some of the best customers we have. They come in every two weeks to brew or bottle. Two batches of beer every time.

"I think that they give a lot of it away," he finishes uncertainly.

We hope so.

"I hope so, too," he laughs.

AFTER THE BEER has boiled merrily for half an hour, it's time to say a solemn adieu as it is pumped into its cask for the yeasty, alcoholic miracles of nature to take effect in the silver chill of the Brewmaster walk-ins. We call when a week has elapsed. "Your beer is just fine," Jack Jr. says reassuringly, clearly used to soothing anxious brewers.

After another week of sleepless nights, we assemble a brew crew to bottle, gathering with chips and children to claim our amber gold.

We like it as much as Hal's. We have some more.


B A Brewmaster is located at 3358-C Coffey Lane, in the Pinecreek Business Park, Santa Rosa. Kettles should be reserved ahead. Hours are Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. 573-0592.

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From the May 16-22, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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