Richmond's Benoit-Casper Brewing Co. is tucked away in the heart of the city, inside a warehouse that until recently was packed with construction equipment and rang with the sounds of heavy machinery. These days, it's infused with the sweet, bready aromas of steeped barley and the spicy pine odors of hops on the boil.
Established in 2014 as Richmond's first craft brewery, it isn't hard to get to — but you probably won't stumble upon it by accident.
If you make the trip on a Saturday, when the bay door is rolled up and the taproom is open, you're likely to encounter one of the co-founders, Marc Benoit or Chad Casper, sipping a saison or pale ale and chatting with a dedicated local fan.
The folks over at Benoit-Casper are just a couple of years into their professional brewing careers and still hold down day jobs. The brewery is small, and it personifies the dreams of many homebrewers who seek to one day don a work shirt with "brewmaster" stitched across the breast.
It also fits into an interesting industry trend, which is for very small breweries to open with the intention of focusing on a local or a hyper-local market, and trying to sustain that model over the long haul, or plotting a slow-growth trajectory with the expectation of eventually capturing a larger slice of a regional market.
"We made a conscious decision to stay small," Benoit explained recently while seated amid the happy cacophony of his brewery's crowded tap room. "We could have gone with a bigger brewhouse but ... we didn't want to bite off more than we could chew, and make a commitment where we wouldn't be at home to be present in our families."
It's a common refrain among craft brewers, most of whom started brewing at home and are now driving the industry's meteoric growth. In 2014 and 2015, 1,068 "microbreweries" opened in the United States, according to the Brewers Association. (A microbrewery produces less than 15,000 barrels, or 465,000 gallons, of beer per year.)
"A little less than 70 percent [of craft breweries] make less than 1,000 barrels [per year], and most breweries today are opening up with the model of being the very small of the small," said Julia Herz, the craft beer program director at the Brewers Association, a national industry group.
Benoit-Casper currently sells the 500 barrels of beer it produces each year at upward of 60 local bars and restaurants, mostly in the East Bay, and plans to eventually expand to serve a wider Bay Area audience.
The two brewers met online, on a homebrewers' forum. "It's like Tinder for homebrewers," Benoit said, then laughed. The pair soon met in real life to share their beer and talk about brewing, and it quickly became apparent that something interesting was happening.
"[Chad] had a kick-ass pale ale and had the awesome saison, and I had a wicked Double IPA and a kick-ass Belgian triple," Benoit recalled. "We brewed the same styles, but we didn't make the exact same beer. And those four beers are still the [brewery's] core beers today."
They describe their approach as focused on using traditional brewing techniques, and complex fermentation schedules, to expose interesting flavors from a wide variety of local and imported specialty ingredients. "We generally brew true to style and seek originality in each batch of beer we brew," Casper said.
"There's so many dimensions of flavor and profiles that you can bring to a beer just by exercising appropriate fermentation techniques," Benoit said.
They point to their Saison de Casper as an example of this philosophy: Brewed with basic Pilsner malts and some flaked wheat, the magic of this beer comes from the Belgian farmhouse yeast that ferments at a stifling 88 degrees Fahrenheit, where most ales ferment somewhere between 60 and 70 degrees.
"We let the yeast do most of the work in the flavor department. We're not adding anything in here, there's no spices, no adjuncts," Casper said.
The beer is a golden-blond color with a slight cloudiness (none of Benoit-Casper's beers are filtered) and pours with a thick white head that dissipates quickly into a lace that clings nicely to the glass. The aroma is strongly fruit-forward, but also includes subtle clove notes and a surprisingly enticing bubblegum scent. It's a medium-bodied effervescent beer that finishes dry and is lively without being overpowering. The yeasty, fruity, spicy flavors come across as simple and clean and, at 5.5 percent alcohol, it's an easy drinking session beer.
"It's not a sour beer, but it's got a quenching kind of tartness to it," Casper said.
This year is their second time participating in Beer Week, and Benoit-Casper has two collaborations for the event: one with the Half Moon Bay Brewing Co., on a Belgian White Ale; and with Melissa Myers, owner of Oakland's Good Hop Bottle Shop, on a Milk Stout. They will be doing their first bottle release on February 11, as well, a specially brewed Belgian-style Dark Strong Ale. They have partnered with Armistice Brewing Co., another soon-to-open Richmond brewery, on an IPA collaboration, too, and will also host a homebrew competition and brew-off at the brewery on February 19.
The guys say Beer Week is a chance to mingle with other brewers and to introduce a wider audience to their beer. "Coming here on Saturday for me, it's like Disneyland, it's the happiest place on Earth," said Robin Casper, Chad's wife, who along with Marc's wife, Geneen, is a member of the brewery's board of directors. "Especially with the state of the world right now, I come here and I'm happy.
"We could all use some good beer and good company."