For Telegraph Brewery Co.’s owner and head brewer, Brian Thompson, the choice to brew in Santa Barbara was not an obvious one. It was more cumulative.
When he went looking for a place to start his own brewery, he considered Los Angeles, Las Vegas and San Diego, but these cities were large and the water in each — the main ingredient in beer, after all — would require heavy intervention. The Bay Area had great water but was also a big city and it was chock full of other breweries. Bucolic Santa Barbara began to rise to the top.
There were a lot of advantages.
The community is small, and ardently supports its local companies. There is affluence, among residents and visitors alike, that helps develop a gourmand mindset. People in Santa Barbara are willing to try something new, and to pay more for higher quality. In turn, the higher quality that Thompson sought in his beers was supported by a diverse agricultural community. And the water was nearly perfect.
“Yes, we use Santa Barbara tap water,” Thompson said. “We only remove the chlorine. The water is hard but it has a very nice balance between the carbonate content and sulphate content and it’s a very similar chemical profile to the water of the Brabant region of Belgium.”
Telegraph is not a Belgian brewery, but Thompson finds inspiration there.
“Traditionally,” explained Thompson, “the two beer greats in the world were England with the top-fermented ales, the porters, the stouts and the pale ales; and Germany where the Pilsner style dominated. The Pilsner style won over the global beer market.”
In Belgium, however, the beer culture developed a huge diversity of styles. There are lagers, ales, sour beers, barrel-aged beers, full-bodied malty beers brewed by monks, and very light wheat beers. While Germany prudently includes beer among the Lebensmittels, or essentials, for welfare recipients, thus making the brewer a staple in society, in Belgium, the brewer is praised as a cultural and creative leader.
“Belgians love their brewers,” Thompson said.
The Belgian tradition of many smaller breweries with a high level of creativity, each drawing on local ingredients and influences, is driving much of the craft brewing market in the United States today. And that market is growing. According to the Brewers Association, craft breweries, which were not even a statistic in 1985, were responsible for nearly 6 percent of all beer sales in the United States in 2011, and 9 percent of gross sales. The industry grew at a rate of 15 percent in sales and shipped more than 11 million barrels. There are now more than 1,900 craft brewers in the United States.
Thompson caught the craft brewing wave early and has been successful.
In 2003, Thompson appeared at Heartland Brewery’s new Brooklyn brewery to apply for a position as an assistant brewer. He presented his résumé. Degrees in English and Business. Three years in publishing. Three years in a Wall Street brokerage. The brewers at Heartland raised their eyebrows.
“This is blue-collar work,” they said. “There’s no romance in brewing.”
Thompson knew this. He’d been a home brewer for more than six years at that point.
“I cleaned kegs for free for a week just to prove that I wasn’t a white-collar guy who didn’t know what I was getting into.” he said.
When the week was up, the brewer basically said, “OK, we’ll let you do this.”
While Thompson worked at Heartland, he created a business plan for Telegraph. New York was a great place to work and live, but Thompson and his wife had their eyes on the West where they’d both grown up. And Thompson was still enamored of the craft brewing business that was rising from spores in Portland, Seattle and San Francisco.
While at UC Berkeley, Thompson grew to know the venerable older brew, Anchor Steam, and the more recent small breweries such as Sierra Nevada, 20 Tank, Triple Rock, Pyramid and the Jupiter Beer Bar, which has since begun brewing its own beer.
“Berkeley was an easy place to learn to drink good beer,” he said.
“We picked the name Telegraph to capture a sense of California history without being too geographically specific,” said Thompson, noting that it was also meant to capture that period in history when work and the products of work were a more direct and palpable experience. Like the beer he intended to make.
Drawing on the creative yet mature aspect of the Belgian brewers, Telegraph aims for local or at least west-of-the-Rockies ingredients and a higher alcoholic content to give the beers more potency and flavor. But delivered in a dry, smooth beverage that is not overtly sweet.
Telegraph brewed its first batch of California Ale on Jan. 14, 2006. Ten days later, Z’s Tap House & Grill in Goleta started pouring California Ale, soon followed by Bistro Eleven Eleven at the Mar Monte, Peabody’s in Montecito, Bouchon and The Press Room. By the end of the year, the company was shipping its products to 16 local accounts and accounts in San Luis Obispo, Ventura and Santa Monica. Telegraph started winning international beer competition awards as early as September that first year.
After concentrating on building the local beer palate with its more recognizable offerings — ales and porters — for the first three years, the company began experimenting with more demanding, smaller-production run beers.
“In a sense,” Thompson said, “we’re going after wine drinkers as much as we’re going after beer drinkers. We want to bring a complexity and unique flavors to the beers that other breweries are not doing.”
A Little Obscura
At first taste of a Telegraph Obscura, you know you’re not in Kansas anymore. Even with a palette for beer stretched by ales and stouts, this beer is the cousin your family avoided, but who turned out to be compelling and fun when you finally met at your grandmother’s third wedding. The Petit Obscura is one of Telegraph Brewery’s sour ales.
“Every brewery in America is doing a pale ale or an IPA right now.” Thompson said. “We want to offer something different.”
The audience is catching up. According to Thompson, “In the beer nerd community, (they’re saying) give me something that really has some flavor. I didn’t expect that.”
The Obscuras are Telegraph’s cutting-edge brews, a specialty of Telegraph brewer Paul Rey. Along with Telegraph’s stalwarts, the Obscuras, too, win gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival and at the World Beer Cup.
And winning brewing awards is definitely important. People are more willing to try something new if a beer has won an award, and distributors are much more eager to pick up a brewery when they’ve won a couple of gold medals.
“We have a great team of brewers here,” Thompson said.
The team is small. Sharing the brewing with Thompson and Rey are brothers Scott and Peter Baer. All of them see themselves in the industry for a long time to come.
“People do need beer,” Baer shrugged.
» Click here for more information on Telegraph Brewing Co., or call 805.963.5018. Located at 419 N. Salsipuedes St. in Santa Barbara, Telegraph Brewing’s tasting room is open from 4 to 6 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays and from 2 to 6 p.m. Saturdays.
» Click here for a related Noozhawk story on Brian Thompson.
— Noozhawk contributing writer David Petry is a local historian, photographer and author of The Best Last Place: A History of Santa Barbara Cemetery. Click here to read his blog, Authentic Santa Barbara, which focuses on aspects of Santa Barbara history that are disappearing. Follow him on Twitter: @david_petry.