BrewLAB: How California’s 1.5-Barrel Microbrewery Lives Up to Its Name
For just the second time in its three years of operation, BrewLAB was releasing a beer in bottles, and the anticipation was palpable—for about five people. At least, that’s how many folks made it to the Carpinteria, Calif., brewery as it opened one Saturday afternoon in July.
The beer, a Belgian-style Golden Strong Ale aged in bourbon barrels called The False Prophet, was impressive, but few things outside of a pumping surf get this prototypical sleepy beach town waiting in lines. And for BrewLAB, that’s OK. Like Carpinteria itself, the tiny brewery is happy enough to operate at its own pace and by its own rules.
A Brewer’s Brewery
BrewLAB is tucked into a small industrial park on the west end of town, sandwiched between an ice cream shop and a meadery. The exterior is nondescript and required to match the business park’s concrete and glass aesthetic. But the inside of Steve Jarmie and Peter Goldammer’s brewery is a living testament to craft.
Just about everything in the tasting room—from the walk-in cooler skinned with salvaged pallet wood to the bar and light fixtures above it—were built by the founders. On the days the tasting room is open, Jarmie, Goldammer, and brewer Dave Mendoza often begin their shifts by updating the tap list. The 14 beers hang on simple chalkboards against a striking backdrop of reclaimed wood. Art from local artists, including Mendoza and Goldammer, adorns a long white wall that runs the length of the brewery.
All of it serves to make the taproom a casual and inviting place. “A lot of people mistakenly come in and say, ‘It’s all about the beer, huh?’ Obviously it’s about the beer, but that’s a little one dimensional,” says Goldammer, who opened BrewLAB along with Jarmie and former partner Rob Peed in 2014. “It’s not just the beer, it’s also about the place you’re drinking it in. That’s part of the story.” Because of its size, nearly all of the beer brewed here is consumed on site, Goldammer adds. “It’s the only place you’re going to be drinking it, so that’s important.”
After celebrating its third anniversary in September, BrewLAB is eyeing an expansion of its current 1.5-barrel system. Until then, there isn’t enough beer to regularly distribute anywhere besides the tasting room. But with that small size comes a glut of flexibility. With both owners serving as brewers, too, there’s no shortage of opportunity to live up to the brewery’s name.
“One of my favorite compliments or comments is that this is a brewer’s bar,” says Goldammer. “Not that we’re only catering to brewers, but there are certain things brewers can’t do at other breweries—whether they’re a one-quarter partner or not a partner at all. I wouldn’t want to brew the same thing over and over again. That doesn’t excite me at all.”
Those sentiments are echoed by Shaun Crowley, a co-owner and brewmaster at Rincon Brewery, a bustling brewpub in the heart of downtown Carpinteria. It’s a short walk between the breweries, but in many ways they’re worlds apart. “They truly are like a lab,” Crowley remarks. “They’re doing a lot of experimental fermentations and different brews that, even in a production setting, like we are at a brewpub here, we wouldn’t be afforded that kind of luxury.”
Chasing Creativity, Not Trends
Instead of chasing trends to generate hype, BrewLAB experiments with Gruits bittered and flavored with local herbs, Saisons of all stripes and strengths, and esoteric offerings that range from Lambic-style fruited beers to Brett-laced IPAs and hybrid styles. Spending an evening in the tasting room feels simultaneously like a throwback to the iconoclastic early days of craft brewing and like a glimpse into its future.
“We’re not outlandishly trying to be different, this is just how we feel it should be,” says Jarmie. “This is, essentially, [the type of] place we wanted to walk into, and there wasn’t one yet in our area. Therefore, we thought, let’s make it.”
Despite working on a glorified homebrew system, BrewLAB emphasizes consistency through extensive quality control that includes monitoring fermentation temperatures and tasting samples to make sure that everything is according to design. “We are on track for building a lab to analyze our beers on the micro level and monitor our yeast health as well as create a library of local terroir strains for local breweries,” says Goldammer.
Crowley saw how the BrewLAB team operates during a collaboration between the two breweries and Carpinteria’s oldest brewery, Island Brewing. “You have three guys who are incredibly passionate, who have an immense knowledge base and a creativity and willingness to try things,” he says. “They’re the [type of] guys who, even at their size, [are willing to] say, ‘This beer isn’t what we want it to be’ and dump it. I can’t imagine brewing less than 100 barrels a year and dumping batches, but sticking to their guns is what they do.”
Finding a Way Forward
BrewLAB’s original trio invested a lot of personal assets and drew on family and friends while working full-time to get the brewery up and running. A lack of a big-money investors has been an advantage when it came to creative control—but it’s not without a cost. Both owners have endured hardship and even near-homelessness, living in warehouses and cars in order to keep their fledgling business afloat. “The small-business loan thing isn’t really built for businesses like us,” says Jarmie. “You have to have money to get money.”
In 2016, BrewLAB produced under 100 barrels of beer but expects moderate growth in 2017. “Our needs are minimal and our patience for growth is great,” says Goldammer.
Still, they have their eyes on expansion without sacrificing ownership. The owners have raised $10,000 through an Indiegogo campaign, and are in talks with the Small Business Administration to acquire funds for a 10-barrel brewhouse.
“When you create a small-production business with minimal working capital, you are guaranteed to eventually have to tackle the issue of further funding for growth,” says Goldammer. “Our ability to live frugal lives has given us the opportunity to re-invest our small profits back into BrewLAB and keep a steady, slow, and organic growth. We have come a long way in three years, but we still need financial support to get us to a more comfortable level as a business, as well as personally.”
Carpinteria can be an insular place, and protective of its treasures. In BrewLAB, it has a true gem. Perhaps, with slow and deliberate growth, the treasure can be shared more widely.
0.5-barrel pilot system
8 1.5-barrel fermentors
2 3-barrel fermentors
1 1.5-barrel bright tank
Mysteries of Creation: Heavy in the wheat department, this Session IPA is hopped with Nelson Sauvin in the boil and then dry hopped with Galaxy. 4.9% ABV
Blumensauer: This “Berliner-esque” tart wheat ale incorporates local jasmine and orange blossoms. 4.5% ABV
Whatcha Want: Columbus and Chinook hops give this IPA dank notes and firm bitterness. 6.9% ABV
Session in the Rye: This rye session ale is dry hopped with Galaxy and Mosaic hops. 4.5% ABV
Saison de Vieux: Local orange zest and Schinus Molle (false peppercorn) from Gaviota, Calif., add up to a crisp and fruity Saison. 6.0% ABV
Drunken Date: A roasty Stout brewed with lightly toasted fenugreek, whiskey-soaked dates, and locally roasted coffee beans. 6.3% ABV ■