Oakland beer bar The Trappist was, in scientific terms, the primordial ooze out of which the East Bay's burgeoning beer scene was born. Among its early customers clamoring for seats in the crowded, shotgun-style space were beer lovers and local entrepreneurs who would soon launch their own enterprises, giving rise to the handcrafted-beer renaissance that Oakland and much of the East Bay now enjoys.
Fraggle (who goes by one name) and wife Rebecca Boyles, eventual co-proprietors of nearby Beer Revolution, were regulars at the bar. So were Adam Lamoreaux and Carey Peterson, already in the midst of launching Linden Street Brewery another half-mile down the road. Morgan Cox, who now makes beer under the name Ale Industries out in Concord, dropped in occasionally.
"They fostered the vision of this craft-beer scene in the East Bay," said Ross Adair. He patronized The Trappist from the start and actually tended bar there for about a year before opening the Commonwealth Cafe and Pub on Telegraph Avenue last May.
And while this would be a conservative sketch of The Trappist's influence, nearly four years later the local beer world has evolved an even more extensive web of relationships. Each young brewery supports its supposed competition, and each beer bar shares customers. What's more, everyone involved embraces the mindset that what benefits the individual benefits the group — and, in turn, benefits the proliferation of good beer, which is of course the ultimate goal.
"Everyone has their own niche going on, and Beer Revolution and Commonwealth have their own people," said The Trappist's Chuck Stilphen. "There's not really a feeling of competition, from my point of view anyways. We're doing better than ever, and as far as I know everyone is doing well, too."
Adair agrees that Oakland's new beer bars are working toward a common goal — "everybody complements each other," he said — but it's the tangible upshots of that collaboration that make the scene unique.
When Adair was trying to open Commonwealth with his wife Ahna and brother-in-law Pete Jeffryes, Trappist owners Stilphen and Aaron Porter offered advice on working with the city and navigating the Building Department — while he was still their employee. When the new bar was up and running, they stopped by frequently for dinner and drinks. Commonwealth also found a fan and frequent patron in Linden Street's Lamoreaux.
Teamwork is just as evident among the new class of breweries. Oakland Brewing Company, which has a space in East Oakland but no brewing equipment of its own, has relied on a network of local breweries to produce its first batches. Twice they've brewed at Concord's Ale Industries, in part because of a relationship that predates either enterprise: Oakland Brewing Company co-owner James Costa once worked as a brewer for Concord's EJ Phair Brewing Company, where he met Morgan Cox, who eventually spun off to form Ale Industries.
Years later, Costa and fellow owner Stephen McDaniel reached out to Cox, brewing on equipment once owned by EJ Phair, to help them produce new beers of their own design. McDaniel and Costa brought their own ingredients and empty kegs to return the finished product to their warehouse, Cox hung around to run the boiler, and a beer was born.
Other East Bay operations frequently provide the same service to smaller brewers lacking equipment. San Leandro's Drakes Brewing, which was established back in 1989 and represents an earlier wave of the microbrew movement, has leased its facilities to both Oakland Brewing Company and High Water Brewing, based nearby in San Leandro. EJ Phair and Heretic Brewing Company share a facility in Pittsburg [corrected 11/3]. And Linden Street Brewery has opened up its space to Hayward's Dying Vines Brewing, which, incidentally, is often on tap at both Commonwealth and Beer Revolution.
Local craft breweries assist each other in more ways than one, said Cox. After brewing, distribution is the big hurdle, as small breweries lack the resources to get their beers on shelves or on taps in all the places customers might ask for them. So they team up. "A lot of times we'll help other breweries get out in Sacramento," Cox said. "And we've had Steve Altimari from Highwater haul our beers out to Stockton. So there's a lot of cooperation going on."
As handcrafted brews continue to grow in popularity across the East Bay — witness new bar and retail openings in Walnut Creek (Øl Beer Cafe and Bottle Shop, founded by The Trappist's Stilphen), Martinez (Creek Monkey Tap House), Pleasanton (Handles Gastropub), and Livermore (Tap 25) — the camaraderie and mutual support is likely to grow apace. Brewers will ramble from spot to spot, or split their time between brewing and pouring (a number of Linden Street's employees, for example, can also be found working at Drakes or Beer Revolution), and the web of connections will spread.
Even if this means more microbrewers on the scene, Cox believes that's only a good thing. "It all boils down to, if they can get customers into their door, eventually they're going to come into your door, too," he said. "Whenever we get new customers, they become customers of everyone. If we can sit there and help out another brewing company, in the long run it helps us."
The benefit from all the new taprooms focused on local and specialty beers will be even more direct, he believes. "That's the number-one reason why the breweries in the East Bay are starting to take off," he said. "Places like that are directly responsible for the growth of companies like us."
And there's plenty of room to grow. "Small brewers are still selling only about 1 percent of the beer sold in the US," said Oakland Brewing Company's McDaniel, who hopes to open a fully operational brewery and tasting room within the next couple years. "I think there's a long, long, long way to go before any one of us is stepping on anybody else's toes."