Ready for takeoff
May/June 2014 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Christine Souza
Photos by Melissa Jewel, Richard Green and Gayle Covey
Craft beer soars with locally grown ingredients
Pilot and master brewer Ben Cook is passionate about using local fruits and other natural ingredients to create quality craft beers at his Redlands brewery.
In California and across the country, craft breweries, microbreweries and brewpubs are popping up in urban and rural communities. These small, independent brewers are quenching people's thirst for the more complex flavors found in specialty beers, while bringing renewed attention to one of the world's oldest beverages.
"Suddenly, beer has become popular. It has become interesting … different … special, which beer before never was," said Michael Lewis, professor emeritus of brewing science at the University of California, Davis. "(The craft industry) has advanced beer enormously from the realm of ho-hum and it's OK to drink it while you're mowing the lawn, to a gourmet item—and that is enormous change."
One Southern California business that has taken off is Hangar 24 Craft Brewery in Redlands, which offers a Local Fields Series of limited-availability beers, each featuring at least one locally grown ingredient such as citrus, stonefruit, pumpkins or winegrapes. Owner and master brewer Ben Cook founded the business 13 years ago after friends and fellow aviators suggested that he market his home-brewed beer.
"My buddies and I would bring friends and family to the airport to introduce them to flying. Then we'd get back, put our planes away, grab our lawn chairs and drink my home brew," said Cook, who named his brewery for the hangar where the group gathered. "We would have a good time and enjoy each other's company and talk about our flight."
Community is central at Hangar 24, a gathering spot for beer tastings, special events, live music and simply relaxing with friends.
Located across from the Redlands Municipal Airport, Hangar 24 is a place for good friends and good beer, Cook said.
In addition to the brewery's friendly atmosphere, the quality of its beer is top priority.
"Hangar 24 is known and will continue to be known as a brewery that supports its local community, but it also crafts beers that create sensory experiences through utilizing traditional ingredients, as well as non-traditional ingredients that are grown around us," Cook said. "The American palate is evolving and people are looking for more flavor out of their beer and out of their food."
From farm to tap
One offering in the Local Fields Series is Polycot, a wheat beer made with 8,000 pounds of organic apricots from Orange Cove in Fresno County. Polycot is brewed during the brief time when the fruit is at peak freshness, usually in June. Pureed apricots, Cook said, add a pleasant fruit flavor to the beer and combine with the wheat for a refreshing, tart finish.
"Because it is made with real apricots, it has a nice, subtle apricot mouth-coating sweetness, but it is not a super-sweet beer. It is a nice wheat beer with early apricot nuances," Cook said.
Each summer, fourth-generation farmer Rick Nicholas supplies Hangar 24 with hundreds of pounds of apricots, specifically the Patterson variety.
"The Patterson is an old, old variety. But it is a universal variety: You can grow it to dry, for canning or to pack fresh," Nicholas said. "It is very sturdy. Most of the apricot varieties just melt when they get soft, but this one will hold awhile."
Volunteer Alison Savage pits apricots for Polycot beer.
Hangar 24's initial batch of Polycot was developed after a friend of Cook's, named Paul, asked if ripe apricots on his property could be brewed into beer.
"I said, 'It's fruit, they've got sugar and sugar makes alcohol, so I'm pretty sure we can.' We went to his house the next morning and spent all day hand-harvesting apricots. I wrote a recipe on my way back to the brewery," said Cook, who named the beer Paul-yicot after his friend and later modified it to Polycot ("poly" means many). "We hand-pitted the apricots and brewed the first Polycot beer. It was so wildly popular we had to keep doing it every year."
The hand processing also continues each year. Last summer, about 55 volunteers helped pit apricots for two days for the Polycot beer.
Connected to the community
"The opportunities for community participation that the brewery invites is part of Hangar 24's appeal," Nicholas said. "People don't realize what is involved until they do it hands-on. It gives them an idea of what really goes on to make that product."
One of Hanger 24's volunteers is Alison Savage of Redlands, who often pits apricots or helps with events. She said she enjoys the sense of community that the brewery offers.
Polycot is one of Hangar 24's Local Fields Series of limited-availability beers, each featuring at least one locally grown ingredient.
"Hangar 24 is a fun brewery. I just kind of jump in when they are asking for volunteers," Savage said, adding that she appreciates Hangar 24's support of agriculture through its Local Fields Series and other beers made with locally grown produce.
"I go to farmers markets and other small businesses in Redlands, and (supporting local agriculture) is something that I value," she said. "It is awesome that they put so much focus on it that they created an entire series around it."
The Local Fields Series also includes Gourdgeous, a strong porter brewed with local pumpkins; Vinaceous, an ale brewed with red winegrapes from Temecula; Palmero, brewed with dates from the Coachella Valley; Essence, brewed with grapefruit, navel oranges and blood oranges from Redlands; and Kirschen, a sour wheat ale brewed with local Bing cherries. Fields Series variety Warmer, a strong ale brewed with maple syrup, cinnamon and spruce from the San Bernardino Mountains, has captured gold awards in the specialty beer category at the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival.
Farmer Rick Nicholas and employee Alfonso Ramirez supply hundreds of pounds of the fruit to Hangar 24 every year.
Hangar 24 offers 35 to 40 beer varieties annually, from lagers and ales to porters and stouts. Its flagship beer, which represents the greatest volume among a brewer's brands, is Orange Wheat. Brewed with whole, pureed oranges and available year-round, it is a favorite among customers.
"First and foremost, I think it tastes good. I think people like that we use local oranges. Everyone wants to see the orange groves stick around and if they can support those orange groves by drinking more beer, they are happy to do it," said Cook, who formed a charity to preserve local agriculture and drive a local food movement within the Inland Empire.
"One thing that makes our brewery unique is we use a lot of other non-traditional
ingredients," he added. "It is one of the things that I am most excited about."
Hangar 24 beer is sold in bars, restaurants, grocery stores and big box retailers throughout California, Arizona and Nevada.
Beer expectations and breweries—on the rise
Hangar 24 employee Mitch Riser handles bottles from one of the craft brewery's specialty blends.
There's growing interest in where our food comes from and how it is made—and beer is no exception. Craft breweries, as a result, are opening across the nation.
The Brewers Association defines a craft brewery as one that is small, independently owned and produces a limited amount of beer. It also states that, on average, most Americans live within 10 miles of some type of brewery.
"The expansion has been extraordinary," said Michael Lewis, professor emeritus of brewing science at the University of California, Davis. "At the present rate of growth, by 2050 there will be one brewery for every person in the country."
Craft brewing has existed since the late 1970s and today represents about 6 percent of the total beer market. The latest figures indicate there are about 2,400 craft breweries in the U.S., with another 1,200 planned, Lewis said.