California Brewery Hopes Its Local Focus Will Bring It Far
In a beer industry overflowing with competition, it can be difficult for a brewer to stand out. But one Southern California-based brewery is hoping that brewing distinct beers grounded in its local roots will eventually bring its beer to faraway places.
"I started thinking: why is someone in Maine going to want to drink a Hangar 24 Pale Ale when there are 300 other breweries in that part of the country that are brewing pale ales?" said Ben Cook, the founder and head brewer of Hangar 24. "Then there is Orange Wheat. You can't copy that."
Orange Wheat, a year-round offering, sources all of its oranges from Southern California's Inland Empire. The beer's success inspired Hangar 24's Local Field Series, a seasonal rotation of brews that rely on ingredients Hangar 24 sources near its home base in Redlands, Calif.
"Sure you can buy oranges anywhere. But the story, the authenticity isn't there," Cook said. "I thought what if we create a whole series of beer that truly represented where we are located — beers that are rooted in our geography."
The Local Field Series wasn't always in Cook's plan. The idea fell into his lap. Or more accurately, fell in a friend's yard.
"My buddy comes up to me and says 'I just bought this house with seven acres and there are apricots all over the place. Can you brew with them?' I said sure why not!" said Cook, laughing.
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The result was a beer named "Polycot," which became one of the breweries most successful offerings. Other examples in the Local Field Series include Palmero, which is made with dates from the Coachella Valley; Warmer, which features fresh spruce from the San Bernardino Mountains; and Vinaceous, which uses crushed Mourvedre grapes from the Temecula Valley wine country.
Getting a Hand from the Neighbors
It's not just local ingredients that are used to make the Local Field Series. Often local residents are used to provide the manpower needed to brew some of the beers.
Take Gourdgeous, a porter brewed with pumpkins grown just a half mile from the brewery, as an example. Volunteers came to the brewery to help seed and cut the more than 1,000 pounds of pumpkins that were used to create the beer.
A similar effort was used to make the most recent batch of Polycot. Volunteers spent two days hand-pitting nearly 6,000 pounds of apricots.
The emphasis on creating local relationships doesn't end with the ingredients and volunteering residents. The brewery was one of two craft brewers chosen last season to sell its beer at nearby Anaheim Stadium, the home of Major League Baseball's Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The deal provided Hangar 24 with some nice publicity but more importantly gave them credibility in a crowded marketplace.
"A lot of people hadn't really heard of us at the time," he said. "People were like 'Are you another one of those breweries opening up everywhere?' But once we said we were one of two craft breweries that got invited to pour at Angel Stadium, they were like 'oh really?' Their whole mindset would change."
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Hangar 24 is named after the hangar at a local airport where Cook, a licensed pilot, and his friends would relax after a day of flying. The group would talk aviation, play music and often drink Cook's home-brewed beer.
Eventually, Cook turned his passion for home brewing into his first real job in the industry, working with Anheuser-Busch in quality control.
"It's not necessarily the type of beer I would drink, but it's some of the highest quality beer in the world," he said. "They spend a disproportionate amount of money on quality and one of the things I learned from them is how to pay attention to detail. They didn't just pay attention to the quality of the beer, they pay attention to the quality of everything."
Wanting to learn more, Cook went to the University of California-Davis, where he graduated from the Master Brewers program. Upon graduation, Cook officially dropped the home brewer title and founded Hangar 24.
Now, nearly five years after its creation, the business is starting to take flight. It's grown to 100 employees and recently increased its distribution reach to the San Francisco Bay area, its largest expansion to date. Cook expects the growth to continue in 2013.
"In the next few months, we hope to have the rest of the state of California filled out and start expanding into Nevada and Arizona within the next 6 months," he said.
To keep up with demand, Hangar 24 is in the process of expanding its facility to increase its annual brewing capacity from its current 35,000 barrels and hopes to reach 100,000 barrels by 2015. As part of the expansion, the brewery is redesigning its tasting room, hoping to turn it into a destination for locals and tourists alike. No matter how large the company grows, Cook said the focus will always be the place in which it was founded.
"We really see ourselves as a community member and we don't just try and sell people something. We say 'Hey come join us in our passion.'" He continued, "I love when I hear one of our customers say 'our' brewery. That means we're doing a good job when I hear that."
By CNBC's Tom Rotunno; Follow him on Twitter @TomRotunno
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