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Sonoma County brew master produces beers with attitude

Cynthia Wollman

Friday, January 10, 2003
San Francisco Chronicle
Chronicle Sections

Eschewing advertising and preferring to "let the beer speak for itself," there is an artisan brewer in Sonoma County whose creations have been savored by a loyal group of beer aficionados for the past 10 years.

Brian Hunt, 45, of Moonlight Brewing is a brewers' brewer: a traditionalist and purist. "Brian is one of the legends in the California beer situation. He's one of the earliest graduates from Davis who is still brewing," said Bruce Paton, executive chef at the Cathedral Hill Hotel in San Francisco. Paton has hosted beer dinners since 1995 and featured Moonlight Brewing in the inaugural event. He says Hunt's beers are "top notch, full of flavor and have interesting names."

Intrigued by an article in Scientific American magazine on making mead, Hunt began his foray into fermentation during high school. The Sacramento native then studied biochemistry at UC San Diego for two years before transferring to the viticulture and enology department at UC Davis. He graduated in 1980 with a bachelor's degree in fermentation science. "Fermentation is really applied biochemistry and it didn't have all the pre- med students in the class," Hunt said.

Although he has "the exact same degree as wine folks," Hunt prefers beer brewing.

From his studies in viticulture and enology and experience in the wine crush, he believes the chemistry and cooking involved to extract sugars from barley in beer brewing is more complicated than crushing grapes to ferment wine.

"Winemakers are inherently lazy people," he said. "Winemakers crush one to two months a year and are on vacation the rest of the year."

Upon receiving his fermentation science degree, Hunt worked as a brewing supervisor for Joseph Schlitz Brewing in Milwaukee. At the 130-year-old company, "there was brewing history everywhere." Hunt appreciates his experience at Schlitz, where he gained a clear understanding of brewing concepts. In contrast to the newer facilities at which computers do most of the work and humans just push buttons, at Schlitz "you really had to think about what you were doing." The traditional culture there influenced his purist vision. "I always wanted to know why things were done rather than just doing it."

After Schlitz Brewing closed in 1982, Hunt did stints as brew master and consultant for Berkeley Brewing Company, Anderson Valley Brewing Company in Boonville, and Xcelsior Brewing in Santa Rosa. He also served as brew master for six years during the late 1980s at Willet's Brewing Company in Napa, now renamed Downtown Joe's American Grill and Brewhouse.

At age 35, Hunt "wanted to reap the rewards or trauma" of working for himself. In August of 1992, Moonlight was launched with 200 empty beer kegs and a remodeled 11,000-square-foot barn in Windsor.

To create his own facility, Hunt has gathered equipment from more than three dozen breweries. Vinnie Cilurzo, the brew master at Russian River Brewing Company in Guerneville, describes Hunt's equipment as "old school, almost antique-like," more difficult to use and resulting in beer with more character.

"He's an anachronism -- out of his time. He reminds me of the old brewers," said Chris Stokeld, the owner of Old Vic Pub in Santa Rosa. "In the old days, they didn't pasteurize beer and kill the beer."

Back then, breweries had cellar men who would make sure the beer was stored correctly and knew when and how to tap the keg. Commercial pasteurization saves money and increases shelf life but at the expense of flavor. Stokeld said, "No shortcuts are taken" by Hunt, "the guy with the most integrity."

Staunchly opposed to compromising his standards in order to make a buck, Hunt believes bottling "is cruel for the beer and a logistical nightmare." With increased oxidation, the flavor of the bottled product is rarely as good as draft. "It tears me apart when people plead with me to have bottles, but I can't yet bring myself to do it."

As a compromise, he is working on a 2-gallon container that will not let as much oxygen in as a bottle.

On his brew days, Hunt puts in 12- to 14-hour shifts. A one-man operation, Hunt spends about three days a week delivering kegs as far north as Guerneville and Healdsburg, east to Calistoga and Livermore, and south to San Francisco and Hayward. Working seven days a week, he does everything from accounting to cleaning kegs to checking yeast behavior. Occasionally Hunt enlists the help of his significant other, Cindy Hunt, or his 15- and 19-year- old daughters. "I don't do this to make money. I do this to support my habit."

Regarding his brewing recipes, Hunt refuses to follow stylistic rules. "I don't want to be limited to copying pre-existing beers." His favorite beers are mood dependent and he acknowledges that everyone has different taste and criteria for judging a good beer. For him, the benchmark is, "Do you want another one?"

One of his favorite brew masters is Brooklyn Brewery's Garrett Oliver, who is active in the "slow food" movement, promoting time-tested dishes made from regionally grown ingredients. Oliver's philosophy, to which Hunt strongly subscribes, is to make a "three-pint beer" -- that is, a beer good enough to make the drinker want to drink at least three pints of it.

Hunt finds that some beers are fantastic at first, but after the first few sips, the drinker doesn't want it anymore. "There's more to beer than just that initial taste. It's the whole experience" right down to the atmosphere of the pub and the type of glass in which the beer is served.

Hunt is in the process of moving to a new structure near Graton. It will be the same size as the current facility, but with a more efficient layout.

Cilurzo is impressed by Hunt's business skills -- "You don't see a lot of small brewers of that size stay around that long." Ultimately, Cilurzo attributes Moonlight's longevity to the fact that "it's just good-quality beer. "

In Sonoma, Moonlight's most popular beer is Death and Taxes. "I was trying to prove that dark beers are not always strong," Hunt said. "Dark beers attract me when I'm in a pessimistic frame of mind."

He believes that many beer drinkers have a sense of humor about taxes and, "I'm not sure if you become a beer drinker because you have a sense of humor or if the sense of humor causes you to become a beer drinker."

Another product, Twist of Fate, doesn't really fit in any category. It's a "kitchen sink beer with 12 different malts, six different hops, and incredible complexity." The name comes from the fact that "life isn't really predictable and has no boundaries."

Bombay By Boat is a reminder of the history of India pale ales. When India was a British colony, it took a year to ship beer to India. The British needed to satisfy their troops to keep up morale, so they made a beer that could withstand the journey. The result was a brew with more hops (a natural preservative), more alcohol and a pale color to appeal to drinkers in hot weather.

Cilurzo believes that "boring wine makers and boring brewers will make a boring product. The opposite is true as well." That said, "Brian is one of the most unique brewers I know. His personality is really reflected in his beers" such as "his very dry sense of humor."

Moonlight is an "American farmhouse brewery with its own character. It's very eclectic," chef Paton said. "He puts passion into it."

Or, as Hunt said, "I don't make a chicken dumpling beer."Hunt is reluctant to advertise and believes that if people don't like the beer, marketing is not going to make them like it. "The most basic marketing is making the best beer. The beer should sell itself."


LEARN MORE

For more information, visit www.Moonlightbrewing.com or call (707) 528-2537.

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