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