Wednesday, January 27, 2021     Volume: 21, Issue: 47

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on October 7th, 2015, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 16, Issue 30 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 16, Issue 30

Hops and crafts: A small and fast-growing craft beer industry is making its mark on the Central Coast and beyond


View a slideshow from local breweries and the 2015 Great American Beer Festival.

Men and women dressed in furry costumes, an autonomous motorized keg offering rides to strangers, and beards galore. A seemingly endless supply of small-batch, or “craft,” beer flowed from thousands of kegs behind rows upon rows of individual booths inside the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver for the 2015 Great American Beer Festival.

Nearly 50,000 people attended this year’s festival, which was the biggest ever with more than 800 breweries competing for awards and praise from tens of thousands of zythophiles roaming the festival grounds. It was a chore to endure the 30-plus-minute wait times for restrooms, the bright lights, the crowds of costumed bodies, occasional piles of vomit, and the random fart smells—no doubt created by the excessive quantities of beer being consumed. But the overall grandiosity of the event and the promise of swigging small-batch brews overshadowed the zanier parts of the festival. 

Byron Moles took over Santa Maria Brewing Company, which was slated to open its tasting room and brewing facility on Oct. 2.

Among the breweries was Buellton’s Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company, which had a big, elaborate end booth this year. They also took home a couple of awards: a gold medal in the Classic Irish-Style Dry Stout for its Stearns Stout beer out of the Santa Barbara taproom and a silver medal in the America-Style Dark Lager category for brewing the Lighter Than I Look beer out of its Arroyo Grande taproom.  

Carpinteria’s Island Brewing Company and Paso Robles’ Firestone Walker Brewing also participated.  

It’s not Fig Mountain’s first time attending the festival, or making award-winning beers. The brewery’s been there at least a few times in the past and took home gold and silver medals last year, as they did the year before. This year, the brewery made Inc. magazine’s list of 5,000 fastest growing private companies in America. Aside from the awards, the company’s success is evidenced by the construction of several taprooms in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, including one in Santa Maria. 

Santa Barbara County is already home to several breweries, including Barrelworks, which is run by nationally known Firestone Walker. But what about Santa Maria? 

Fig Mountain built a taproom in town, and now the county’s largest city will soon be home to Santa Maria Brewing Company. With an established American Viticultural Area, several dozen wineries within driving distance that are attracting thousands of visitors per year, and talk of a downtown revitalization, can Santa Maria squeeze in a few breweries and capitalize on the growing beer tourism economy too?  

A second try

In 1994, Dan Hilker started Santa Maria Brewing Company during a time when craft beer was basically non-existent to the American public. What is considered craft beer? It’s a bit of a loose term that departs from the mass-produced pale lagers such as Budweiser, Heineken, or Coors. 

Santa Maria Brewing Company.

According to the Brewers Association, a 501(c)(6) not-for-profit trade group, a craft brewer is defined as one that is small (producing less than 6 million barrels), independent (less than 25 percent ownership by a person in the alcoholic beverage industry who is not a craft brewer), and traditional (making beers that are “traditional,” unique, and typically not made from flavored malt). 

California has long been considered a leader in the business of craft beer, having more than 570 craft breweries as of 2014 and generating more than $6.5 billion for the state’s economy, according to the California Craft Brewers Association. 

The state’s known for breweries such as Stone Brewing in Escondido, Lagunitas Brewing in Petaluma, Sierra Nevada Brewing in Chico, and Firestone Walker in Paso Robles—all of which export their product from coast to coast. 

So why hasn’t Santa Maria Brewing Company taken off like its counterparts? Hilker wanted to keep SMBC local, but perhaps not local enough. The brewery never went beyond contract brewing out of Bayhawk Ales, a facility down in Irvine. And the taproom—a bar from which breweries are able to sell their product at retail—was based in Nipomo, not Santa Maria. Hilker didn’t respond to several interview requests from the Sun

Now the brewery’s controlled by Byron Moles, who purchased SMBC from Hilker several years ago. Hilker’s still involved in the business as the master brewer and has found renewed energy, according to Moles. 

“Dan gives us a grounding level,” Moles told the Sun. “He keeps us to the same standards as he did 18 years ago.” 

Rooney’s Irish Pub brew master Greg Carroll, left, stands with owner Tim Rooney.

According to Moles, Hilker will join the brewery full time after the first of the year. Because of Hilker, Moles said, the original recipes and quality of some of the brewery’s flagship beers remain the same. 

The new brewing facility is located in an industrial section of the city at 1451 Fairway Drive. It contains a 30-barrel brewing system (31 gallons per barrel) and a tasting room—not a taproom. The difference being that the tasting room can only sell 6-ounce pours rather than full pints or growler fills. 

Being able to hold not much more than a couple dozen people, the small tasting room could possibly live up to the quaint aspect of a craft brewing company that enthusiasts crave. 

“The taproom is our main place for drinking beer and filling growlers,” said Bryan Fortin, SMBC’s director of brewing operations. “It’s not a big place for people to pile into.” 

According to Fortin, SMBC can’t sell full pints from its brewery because of a city rule that limits the pour size to 6 ounces. It’s a “silly rule,” Fortin said, but it doesn’t limit the number of tastings one can have. 

SMBC acquired its temporary occupancy license on Sept. 22, according to Moles, and the tasting room should be ready for business by Oct. 2, just in time for the city’s annual Autumn Arts Grapes and Grains Festival on Oct. 3.

With a brewing facility and a tasting room in Santa Maria, will SMBC get rid of its taproom in Nipomo? No, Moles said. In fact, Moles is looking for a location for a second taproom in the city of Santa Maria.  

Downtown brews

Can, and should, a taproom be a downtown destination? On July 22, a group of residents gathered with Santa Maria Planning Division Manager Peter Gilli to talk about the Downtown Specific Plan. The general feeling in the room was that the city’s downtown needs to be reinvigorated. 

“It needs to be a place that looks good and has lots of things for people to do,” Gilli said.

Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company featured many of its flagship brews, as well as award winners such as Lighter Than I Look dark lager at the recent beer festival in Colorado.

The city is rolling out a new version of the downtown plan that would include a farmers’ market, bike lanes, lots of trees, but little of anything else.

One man in the group, Craig Shafer, lamented the plan, which he said completely overlooked the arts community. 

“It does not make strong recommendations or requirements,” Shafer said, adding that it lacked any sort of arts recommendation like murals, galleries, or a central gathering place for concerts or similar events. 

Santa Maria already enjoys wine tourism, however the city itself has only a few tasting rooms. The majority of tasting rooms, at least a dozen, can be found in the immediate area of Old Town Orcutt and along Foxen Canyon Road outside of the city. 

Rooney’s Irish Pub, also known as Shanty Irish Brewing Company, in Orcutt has been making its own beer on its premises for years.

The city isn’t a beer destination, but it could be. Breweries such as Fig Mountain, Firestone Walker, and Buellton’s Barrelworks already attract enthusiasts far and wide. 

Gina Keough, director of the Visitor and Convention Bureau at the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce, believes that the valley is already known for its wine but acknowledges that popularity of craft beer is growing. She credits social media with the rise of both wine and beer in the region.

“Wineries are pretty much taken care of,” Keough said. “We’re lucky to be on the Central Coast where we have so many breweries and wineries.”  

Santa Maria to the Central Coast

Forty miles away from Santa Maria in San Luis Obispo, construction for a new Fig Mountain brewing facility is already underway on the corner of South Higuera Street and Tank Farm Road. Plus, SLO Brew, which is currently located at 119 Garden St., will be relocated to 736 Higuera St. and is slated to open in December. 

Paso Robles-based BarrelHouse Brewing Company is moving into a new taproom location in the heart of downtown at 1033 Chorro St. 

Each year, beer enthusiasts dress in various costumes for the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colo.

A bit farther south, in Lompoc, the City Council approved a plan for Solvang Brewing Company to expand into a new downtown location that will also include a bottling facility. 

The Central Coast is gaining more clout as a craft beer destination. In addition to taking home one silver, two bronze, and two gold medals at this year’s Great American Beer Festival, Firestone Walker won awards for Best Mid-Size Brewing Company and Mid-Size Brewing Company Brewer of the Year. At the festival this year, the lines were long and thick for those waiting to taste some of Firestone’s brews. 

SLO’s Central Coast Brewing also took home a gold medal in the American-style Pale Ale category for its Monterey St. Pale Ale. 

Elsewhere in Santa Barbara County, Dennis Avila recently began doing wine, beer, and spirits tours with his company, Hwy. 246 Wine and Brew Tours based in Lompoc. And then there is Casey Birthisel and Brian DeBolt, two friends who are attempting to start a hops farm near the Santa Rita Hills. 

Back in Santa Maria, Moles and Fortin prepare for larger things to come. Aside from the new brewery location, Moles is already talking future expansion and even East Coast distribution. With the promise of more details to come, Moles told the Sun that SMBC will be making special beer for a restaurant in New York and for a theme park in Florida. He credits his work in distribution before becoming the brewery’s owner.  

“Years of what I’ve been able to do in the past has gotten me the relationships I have today,” Moles said, adding that he has several accounts eagerly waiting for his beer to arrive. 

Moles also thinks Santa Maria could benefit from craft beer tourism. Lately, there’s been talk of a craft beer bubble, whereby the market becomes saturated with craft breweries.

Beer mergers galore
July 2008, InBev buys Anheuser-Busch for $52 million to form AB InBev (source: Wall Street Journal).
March 2011, Anheuser-Busch (A-B) buys Chicago’s Goose Island Beer Company (source: WBEZ).
January 2015, A-B buys Seattle’s Elysian Brewing Company (source: Seattle Post-Intelligencer).
July 2015, Belgium’s Duvel Moortgat Brewery and Paso Robles’ Firestone Walker Brewing combine U.S. operations (source: USA Today).
September 2015, A-B buys a stake in Saint Archer Brewing Company in San Diego (source: Fortune).
September 2015, A-B acquires Los Angeles’ Golden Road Brewery (source: Los Angeles Times).
September 2015, Heineken International buys a 50 percent stake in Lagunitas Brewing (source: Forbes).

Moles scoffs at this idea. He and many other brewery owners throughout the U.S. think the bubble is a long way off, if it exists at all. 

“Like any industry, there’s going to be a failure rate,” Moles said. “I don’t see it as a bubble, but we’re going to see a lot of people failing and a lot of people succeeding. I don’t see that as a bubble popping, but a ratio like any industry.”

Currently, craft beer accounts for 11 percent of the total beer market at 29.4 million barrels and climbing, according to the Brewers Association. The rest is made up of mass-produced imports and domestics. 

Big beer companies, such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors, are taking notice and tapping into the craft beer craze. These days, it seems there is a craft brewery somewhere in America that’s getting bought out by big beer. 

At the brewery, Moles eagerly scans his smartphone for the latest craft beer merger news. Just three weeks ago, MillerCoors announced that it bought San Diego’s Saint Archer Brewing Company. A few days before that, Lagunitas announced that it created a 50-50 partnership with Heineken International, which has massive reach throughout Europe, South America, and China. 

A-B InBev, a combination of Anheuser-Busch and Europe’s InBev (maker of Stella Artois) is now eyeing a massive $245 billion merger with SABMiller, according to the USA Today

It may seem like selling out, but for Moles it’s a sign that craft beer is becoming more popular in Santa Maria. 

“Between wine and Santa Maria Brewing Company and other breweries, we’re off to a good start,” Moles said. “There’s a lot of room for growth.” 

Staff Writer David Minsky can be reached at


CORRECTION: Figueroa Mountain Brewing is not building a taproom on the corner of South Higuera Street and Tank Farm Road in San Luis Obispo, as previously reported (Oct. 8, 2015).

Weekly Poll
Is the state being forthcoming enough with vaccine information?

No. They need to be transparent about why each county gets the amount it does.
It's not really in their hands; the federal government is the one making state allocations.
Yes. The weekly Facebook press conferences make information accessible and clear.
I have no idea—I don't keep up with the state's announcements!

| Poll Results

My 805 Tix - Tickets to upcoming events