If you want to understand the kinds of beers that Moonlight Brewing makes, first you need to know a little bit about owner Brian Hunt’s sense of humor. Small beard styles 2016.
Scattered throughout the tiny Santa Rosa brewery are hints to Hunt’s personality. A sign near the entrance to the brewery reads “sauna and cold plunge,” a reference to the area where Hunt boils the grain in a copper brew kettle and the refrigerated conditioning room, where the beer sits in tanks to settle the yeast. Near the bathroom is a sign that reads, “Please wash hands after touching the animals.”
“Fresh beer is like live music,” reads the back of the taproom’s glassware. “Stale beer is like listening from the parking lot.”
In the 26 years since founding Moonlight, Hunt has remained true to his way of doing things. That means a labor-intensive, small-batch brewing process without computers or shortcuts. He makes the beers that he likes to drink, aware of but unmoved by the styles that move in and out of popularity. An elder statesman of craft brewing who sports a white, Willie Nelson-esque beard, Hunt was following a philosophy of understated beers long before that approach was fashionable.
Now 61, Hunt says he’s aware that he has “a finite number” of beers left to consume in his lifetime. And he says he doesn’t want to waste a single pint on a beer that he doesn’t consider “beautiful.”
Beautiful beer, for Hunt, means drier and more balanced beers, not the showy, hop-heavy style that the West Coast has favored in recent years. The longer he’s been brewing, the more Hunt has leaned into subtlety. He does make an IPA, called Bombay by Boat, but it’s one of the most harmonious examples I’ve ever had, the malt and hops in perfect proportion.
Because Hunt has made a name for himself as a fiercely small, independent and trend-averse brewer, it came as a surprise in 2016 when he sold a 50 percent stake in Moonlight to Petaluma’s Lagunitas — especially when, the following year, Lagunitas sold to global beer giant Heineken.
But two years after the acquisition, Hunt is still doing things his way. He wants people to “recognize that my independence is probably my independent way of thinking,” he says. “I’m not beholden to anybody for what I do. I’m beholden to the customers, the people that drink my beer.”
Hunt grew up in Sacramento and first became interested in fermentation after reading a Scientific American article about mead in 1970. He was only 13 but felt drawn to the subject because it involved his two favorite subjects, biology and chemistry.
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After graduating from UC Davis with a degree in brewing, Hunt headed to Milwaukee to work for Schlitz. At that time, there were 43 brewing companies in the entire country — compared to the 6,300 operating in 2017, according to the Brewers Association — most of them larger operations like Miller, Coors and Anheuser-Busch. “Craft beer” was not a common term.
Upon returning to California, Hunt bounced among brewery jobs, including helping to open Downtown Joe’s in Napa in 1988. It wasn’t until he’d been working for other people for years that he had an opportunity to blaze his own trail.
“I didn’t have any money, and I knew how to make beer, and there were some people who had money but didn’t know how to make beer,” says Hunt. “It seemed like a combination that could work.” He’d been itching to start making the beers that he wanted to drink, so he took on investors and started the brewery.
Moonlight Brewing opened in 1992 as a one-man show in an old tractor barn near the Sonoma County airport — not too far from its current location, which Hunt moved to in 2010. He started with three beers, two of which are still produced: a red ale called Twist of Fate, a black lager called Death & Taxes and Lunatic Lager, which was later replaced by the pilsner Reality Czeck.
Since a bottling line would have required him to hire someone, Hunt initially limited his packaging to kegs only, which he delivered himself. Of the 2,700 barrels of beer Moonlight now produces each year, the majority still goes into kegs and is distributed locally. Only recently did Moonlight begin canning its flagship beer, Death & Taxes.
At first, Hunt kept a day job at Downtown Joe’s, considering Moonlight a creative outlet and a way to get access to fresh beer. Three years in, he left to focus on Moonlight full time. Fast-forward to today, and the staff has grown from one person to 10, and the lineup of three standard beers is now five.
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Hunt and his team do, however, create lots of special and seasonal beers. Working for Tips, a beer made only once a year, is Hunt’s exploration of what people during the Gold Rush might have brewed if they couldn’t source hops. Research led him to discover that old Scandinavian beers had incorporated spruce tips instead of hops, and so he began looking for hop alternatives around Sonoma County, settling eventually on redwood tips, which have a lemony flavor. Working for Tips is lightly spicy and citrus-y; it tastes like beer and yet not at all like beer.
“This is not a gimmicky new thing; this is just something that was done and was forgotten for a while,” says Hunt.
He has never been one to hold his tongue. Hunt believes the volume of new brewery openings is not sustainable, and is wary of breweries that scale up too quickly. There’s nothing wrong with staying small, he insists.
“Part of the mentality is that you don’t leverage yourself and have these bank loans that you promise you can pay once, (and you) buy the equipment to get bigger and bigger, and it becomes a pyramid scheme,” Hunt says. “And when you reach the top, you still have just bigger bank loans. Now what?”
Of course, Hunt has relied on outside investment himself, especially in the Lagunitas purchase. Lagunitas founder Tony Magee is a longtime friend of Hunt’s, and he proposed the move when Hunt asked him for advice about succession planning. Neither of Hunt’s two daughters is interested in running the brewery, and he wanted to provide a road for Moonlight to continue without him.
“I have people who love my beer, and I have employees that are very dedicated, and I want it to continue,” says Hunt. “How else could I do that?”
He makes it clear that the partnership wasn’t designed to blow up production to squeeze “every last dead president” out of the brewery. Hunt was careful not to sell a majority interest so that he can maintain control. All production still happens at Moonlight’s small facility in modest, 20-barrel batches — a system that looks incredibly inefficient relative to Lagunitas’ well-oiled machine.
Hunt jokes: Lagunitas, which brews close to a million barrels a year, probably spills more beer than Moonlight makes.
Already, the partnership has had its benefits. Hunt has been able to replace Moonlight’s tiny storefront tasting room that fit 10 people comfortably with a single tap system, to a more spacious one next door that allows him to pour a dozen beers at once on two draft systems, and can easily fit 60 thirsty craft beer enthusiasts. It’s a great place to sample these beers at their freshest.
The new taproom almost disappeared in October during the Wine Country fires. Located in a business park on Coffey Lane, the space is directly across the street from Coffey Park, the residential development that was leveled in the early days of the fires.
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Hunt fully expected the fire to cross Coffey Lane and approach Moonlight. Miraculously, it didn’t. While volunteering with the relief effort, Hunt was told by a fire captain that his brewery was within 20 minutes of devastation. But 10 minutes later, the wind shifted in another direction, sparing almost everything on the other side of the road.
Driving down Coffey Lane to reach the taproom and seeing how close the fire got, it’s easy to imagine how a close call like that would double your resolve to make beautiful beer.
Lou Bustamante is a Bay Area writer and author of “The Complete Cocktail Manual.” Email: Twitter: @ thevillagedrunk
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